Hermopolis Magna or simply Hermopolis is the site of ancient Khmun, and is located near the modern Egyptian town of El Ashmunein located near modern el-Ashmunein, on the west bank of the Nile, north-west the town of Mallawiin in El Minya Governorate in Middle Egypt, was a town known as Khmunw in Pharaonic times. During the Old Kingdom the town was of great importance as a cult centre of Thoth, god of wisdom, healing and writing. In the Graeco-Roman Period the city was capital of the 15th Upper Egyptian nome, when it was called Hermopolis Magna – the Greek god Hermes was associated with the Egyptian Thoth, who dominates the site in the guise of two famous colossal baboon statues.

Khmun, in the ancient Egyptian language means ‘town of eight’, named after the Ogdoad. These were eight primeval deities (four frog-gods and four snake-goddeses) who were associated with the Hermopolitan creation myth and who symbolised different aspects of chaos before they eventually brought the primeval mound into being. There are no remains of the earliest development of the city and the only surviving elements of the site now comprise of crumbling mounds of mudbrick ruins and destroyed stone temples. The once great Temple of Thoth at el-Ashmunein was visited by several early explorers and in the early 19th century some of the columns of the hypostyle hall were still standing. During the 1930s a German expedition directed by Gunter Roeder excavated the pylon of a temple built by Rameses II, finding over one thousand re-used talatat blocks brought from the dismantled Aten temples at el-Amarna. During 1980 to 1990, several seasons of excavations were directed by Jeffrey Spencer and Donald Bailey of the British Museum. The excavators found remains of temples from the New Kingdom and later, including many artefacts and a major processional street from Hermopolis known as the ‘Dromos of Hermes’. The town site also revealed mudbrick houses dating to the Third Intermediate Period as well as Roman monuments.

Most visitors will arrive first at the site of the old archaeological mission house, which has now been turned into an open-air museum containing blocks, statues and stelae from excavations at el-Ashmunein. At the entrance to the museum are two huge reconstructed baboon statues, their bodies over 4.5m high, representing the god Thoth. These are only two of several baboon colossi which were erected at the site during the reign of Amenhotep III (Dynasty XVIII).

The largest remains of the Temple of Thoth date to the reign of Necatnebo I (Dynasty XXX), who rebuilt parts of the structure and enclosed the temple precinct within huge mudbrick walls, 15m deep. Nectanebo’s gateway is on the southern side of the temple enclosure, followed by the pylon of Rameses II and a processional way. A structure in front of the Ramesside pylon contained oblelisks, royal statues, stelae and sphinxes of Nectanebo. Alexander the Great extended the Late Period temple by constructing a magnificent portico, or pronaos, consisting of two rows of six limestone columns and much colourful decoration, which was decorated by Phillip Arrhidaeus and Ptolemy I (Soter I). Only the foundations of the columns remain today since the portico was demolished in 1826 and the stone re-used in the building of a sugar factory.

The oldest feature to be found at el-Ashmunein is a Middle Kingdom cemetery which was also excavated in the 1980s by the British Museum team. Enclosed by a massive mudbrick wall, the tombs consist of small vaulted chambers, originally with a superstructure. Over time new graves were superimposed over older ones to the top of the enclosure. Many pottery jars were found at the site, offerings for the deceased typical of the period, but the graves were poorly preserved. The later cemetery associated with Hermopolis can be seen at Tuna el-Gebel. 

 

 

Akhetaten was the capital city of the Dynasty XVIII king, Akhenaten, called by some ‘the heretic king’. Akhenaten, formerly Amenhotep IV, built his city in a bay of cliffs on the east bank of the Nile as a centre for the worship of his ‘new’ religion, Atenism. The ancient city has become a pilgrimage for those of us who have been captivated by this unique period of Egyptian history. The vast site is now only accessible by ferry to el-Till, the modern village built on the narrow strip of cultivation along the river bank towards the northern end of Akhetaten. The archaeology of the city is defined by low excavated or reconstructed walls and in some cases only bare outlines of the structures can be made out on the sand-covered plain, since most of the stonework was removed in ancient times and any remaining mudbrick is badly decayed. Only one generation after Akhenaten’s death, there were few physical remains of his superb innovative structures, for a short moment in history one of the greatest cities of ancient Egypt.

Texts tell us that the king, with his queen Nefertiti, was directed to the new site in the Hermopolitan nome by his god and in a foundation ceremony in year 5, day 13 of the 8th month of his reign, proclaimed that a new city be dedicated to the worship of the Aten. The city was to be called Akhetaten, ‘Horizon of the Aten’. The dedication ceremony is recorded on three boundary stelae (known as stelae X, M and K) carved into the limestone cliffs at the northern and southern extremities of the new city. A further eleven stelae were subsequently cut on both banks of the river to define the boundaries with greater precision – a unique form of delimiting a town not found elsewhere in Egypt. The most northerly stela (stela A) can be seen at Tuna el-Gebel on the west bank. The most accessible boundary stela at Akhetaten is stela U, cut into the cliff near the entrance to the royal wadi. The stela measures 7.6m high and remains of carved statues of the royal family can still be seen at the base.

El-Amarna Royal Tomb

There are two groups of rock-cut tombs at el-Amarna situated at the north and the south ends of the cliffs encircling the city of Akhetaten. These are the tombs of favoured officials of the court of Akhenaten, containing many scenes depicting the royal family in the distinctive style of Amarna art. Between the north and south tombs lies the entrance to the Royal Wadi (Wadi Abu Hasa el-Bahri) in which the king’s own tomb was constructed.


The entrance to the Royal Wadi is often said to take the form of the hieroglyphic symbol of the horizon, the akhet in the centre of which the sun rises each morning. It was perhaps this natural shape which determined Akhenaten to site his new city here on the wide sandy plain on the east bank of the Nile. Until recently the wadi has been a fairly inaccessible place with a narrow boulder-strewn track leading to the Royal Tomb. Akhenaten’s tomb lies in a small side valley off the main wadi – which used to entail a tough walk of 6km each way from the mouth of the wadi. However, since 2004 there is a new tarmac road going all the way up to the Royal Tomb, making access for visitors much easier. There is a generator to provide lighting in the tomb, which is currently undergoing restoration. Although much of the decoration once carved into the plaster over poor quality limestone walls is now destroyed, the tomb itself is a very evocative place.

El-Amarna South Tombs

 

In the larger group of officials’ tombs to the south of the Royal Wadi, out of a total of nineteen tombs, six are generally open to visitors and stretch along a wide expanse of the cliff. To my great disappointment, on the day I visited the South Tombs, photography was not allowed, but I hope to rectify this on my next visit. The tombs are around 5.5km to the south of the North Tombs, opposite the modern village of Hagg Qandil. The tombs described below run from south to north.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tomb of Ay

Ay was a military man in the court of Akhenaten before he reigned briefly as king and successor to Tutankhamun. We know he was actually buried in his royal tomb at the head of the Western Valley in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes, but his Amarna tomb reflects his earlier powerful position in the city. His titles include ‘God’s father’, ‘Fan-bearer on the Right Hand of the King’ and ‘Overseer of all the Horses of the Lord of the Two Lands’, as well as ‘Royal Scribe’ and ‘Chief of Archers’. He was obviously a favoured counsellor of Akhenaten and possibly himself a member of the royal family, either as Nefertiti’s father or a relative of Queen Tiye. In the entrance to the tomb on the left-hand wall Ay is depicted with his wife Tiye in a very beautiful carving below the royal family worshipping the Aten. On the right-hand side, Ay and his wife adore the Aten with a relief of the ‘Hymn to the Aten’ above, now partially destroyed.

El-Amarna North Tombs



Situated to the northern end of the cliffs surrounding the Amarna plain, the North Tombs are just over 3km from the el-Till ferry landing. From the privately run resthouse at the base of the cliff, a long flight of modern steps ascends to the six decorated tombs open to visitors, which are divided into two groups. The view from the top of the steps gives the visitor a panorama of the northern end of Akhetaten and shows what a vast area the ancient city covered.

 

Tuna el-Gebel was the necropolis of Khmun (Hermopolis Magna). It is located in Al Minya Governorate in Middle Egypt on the edge of the Western Desert, a large site functioned as the necropolis for the ancient town of Khnum or Hermopolis. The cemetery was located 11km from the city, in an area which is perhaps better known as the north-western boundary of Akhenaten’s city of Akhetaten and is marked by a boundary stela.

Akhenaten’s boundary stela


When visiting Tuna el-Gebel, Akhenaten’s boundary stela is the first monument to be reached, on the right hand side of the road and also the earliest monument at the site. A steep flight of stone steps leads to a tiny rock shrine cut into the escarpment and the large boundary stela which is cut into the face of the cliff. The shrine, found by a Jesuit traveller, Claud Sicard in 1714 contains the first of the Akhetaten boundary stela to be identified, with rock-cut sculptures of Akhenaten and his family and an accompanying text dated to year 6 of his reign. At the top of the stela the king and queen offer to the Aten in a typical Amarna pose, while the text below records Akhenaten’s oath not to extend the limits of his city. The royal statues on the left are now headless and support tall offering tables depicting the couple’s three eldest daughters. The stela, now much eroded is protected by large smoked glass doors. A gafir holds the key to open the doors (if he can be found!) for visitors with permission to view the stela.

Tomb of Petosiris


Near to the modern entrance to the catacombs is the tomb of Petosiris. This tomb is constructed to look like a temple (it looks rather like Dendera). The outside is decorated in typical Late Period style, whilst the outer court is decorated in a Greek style. The tomb was constructed around the time of the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, and seems to have been decorated like this to curry favour with the new rulers of Egypt. The family tomb of Petosiris, a high priest of Thoth who probably lived around 300 BC. This temple-tomb is unique, built in pure Egyptian style with a pronaos (pillared entrance hall) at ground level and a cult chapel behind, with the burial chambers cut into the rock below ground. The inlaid wooden coffin of Petosiris can be seen in Cairo Museum. The pillared portico contains scenes of industries (jewellers, metalworkers, incense-makers and woodworkers) and agriculture. On the rear wall at either side of the entrance to the cult chapel Petosiris and his wife are seen with their relatives, with scenes of butchers and offering-bringers below.

The cult chapel contains four square pillars with the burial shaft in the centre. The wall decoration here is in Egyptian hieroglyphs, but the figures wear Greek-style clothing in a rare blend of the two distinct periods. The eastern and western halves of the chapel are dedicated to the father and brother of Petosiris respectively and show traditional funerary scenes and Egyptian deities. The extremely well-preserved and elegant reliefs are heavily influenced by both Egyptian Old Kingdom and conventional Greek style art. One of the most important texts in the chapel includes a description of works in the temples of Hermopolis. The tomb appears to have been recently cleaned and has modern lighting installed, which shows the superb reliefs at their best. Most of the original paint is still in place and the colours are soft and airy with a great deal of pale blue. This is one of the most beautiful Egyptian tombs you can ever visit.

Tomb of Isadora

Behind the tomb of Petosiris is the tomb of Isadora, which dates to the 2nd century AD, with it’s sparse decoration and Greek texts in memory of the lady buried here. A tragic legend is connected to Isadora – a wealthy and beautiful young girl lived in Hermopolis during the time when the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (AD 138–161) ruled over Egyptus She fell in love with a young soldier from Antinopolis (current Sheikh ‘Ibada), and they wanted to get married. However, her father refused, so the young couple decided to elope. Unfortunately, Isadora drowned while crossing the Nile. Her body was mummified, and her father built an elaborate tomb for her, featuring an elegy inscribed in Greek. At some time after her death, a cult developed around her tomb. Isadora's mummified remains are still present, encased in glass, in her mausoleum—a prominent building at Tuna el-Gebel.

Excavations have continued at Tuna el-Gebel, most recently (in the late 1990s) by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization. Remains of a church and Roman mudbrick walls have been uncovered in a town located at Nazlet Tuna to the north of the site which is mentioned in administrative papyri and where thousands of artifacts lie scattered on the ground. 

 

Beni Hassan is a small village,The tombs at Beni Hassan are on the east bank of the Nile, about 20km south of el-Minya where an important group of rock-cut tombs are carved into the high limestone cliffs on the east bank of the Nile. The tombs date mostly to Dynasties XI and XII, although there are a few smaller and less elaborate ones belonging to Dynasty VI when provincial rulers had begun to establish their independent power along the Nile Valley. The tombs are reached via a long steep flight of stone steps up the hillside, from where there is a magnificent view up and down the river valley.

The most important of the tombs belonged to provincial rulers of the 16th Upper Egyptian nome. Of 39 tombs on the upper part of the cliff, only 12 were decorated and four are currently open to visitors along with another undecorated tomb (BH18). These offer a rare chance to see the distinctive style of mortuary art characteristic of the early Middle Kingdom with their colourfully painted scenes of daily life, recreation and military activities. The location of the cemetery on the east bank of the Nile is somewhat unusual – the west being the domain of Osiris. The necropolis was recorded by several early explorers and between 1890 and 1894 was surveyed by Percy Newerry on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund. John Garstang excavated some of the Dynasty VI to Dynasty XII tombs during 1902 to 1904 and Nina de Garis Davis copied wall-scenes in 1931. In the early 1980s some of the Dynasty XII tombs were cleaned of their grime by the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation, restoring the wall paintings to their original bright colours.
 

Tomb of Baqet III

The tomb of Baqet III is the earliest of the tombs which are open. Baqet was provincial governor of Menat-Khufu (modern el-Minya) during the later years of Dynasty XI. A large rectangular cult chapel lies behind the plain tomb façade with two slender lotus columns separating the front part of the chapel from the rear.

The north wall of the tomb has many painted scenes depicting Baqet and his life in the provincial community, including the desert hunt with many types of animals. Industrial scenes of weaving and spinning, goldsmiths and sculptors are mingled with scenes of country living – hunting and fishing in the marshes, catching birds and gathering papyrus. Battle scenes are shown on the east wall, along with wrestlers which seem to be a feature of the decoration in tombs from this period. The south wall depicts more traditional funerary scenes, with the deceased’s statue being dragged on a sledge to the tomb, accompanied by offering-bringers, but also includes recreational scenes of sports and playing senet. There is also a small L-shaped statue chamber in the eastern side of the south wall.

Tomb of Khety


Khety, also a Dynasty XI governor, was the son of Baqet. The architecture of his tomb is similar to that of his father’s, but with six slender closed lotus pillars in the rear portion. The east and north walls of the tomb are decorated with scenes of fowling and the papyrus harvest, hunting in the desert and local industries below. Khety and his wife are shown presiding over the activities and watch women dancing and playing games. Clappers and dancers and musicians are shown before Khety’s statue being dragged on a sledge.

On the east wall there are long scenes of men practicing unarmed combat or wrestling. The movements can be seen easily because the bodies are painted in contrasting shades. Towards the left-hand side, battle scenes show a fortress under siege, with piles of slain bodies towards the right-hand side. The south wall contains agricultural scenes including wine-making, ploughing and processions of colourful cattle. The funeral rites are also depicted, with the traditional boats as well as offering-bringers and butchers on the west

Tomb of Amenemhet

The tomb of Amenemhet, who was called Ameni, dates to Dynasty XII and is a little more elaborate than the earlier tombs. We can be more precise than this, as the tomb-owner’s biographical text is dated to year 43, month 2 of the season of inundation, day 15 of the reign of Senwosret I. Amenemhet was the last holder of the hereditary title ‘Great Overlord of the Province of the Oryx’ at a time when the government of Egypt was once more becoming more centralised. The architecture of Amenemhet’s tomb differs from the earlier style by having a courtyard and a portico with two columns before the entrance to the tomb-chapel.

 

Tomb of Khnumhotep II

 

Khnumhotep II was a successor of Amenemhet and occupied one of the latest of the Middle Kingdom tombs built at Beni Hasan. Although he was a provincial governor, technically his power would have been less than that of his predecessor as the Middle Kingdom government of Egypt became stronger. His titles include ‘Hereditary Chief’, ‘King’s Acquaintance’ and ‘One who is Beloved of his God’.



Khnumhotep’s tomb follows the architectural style of Amenemhet’s, with four polygonal columns in the tomb-chapel behind the impressive façade and portico. The same themes are continued in the wall decoration too, but the scenes are more colourful and lively and make this perhaps the most interesting and distinctive of the Beni Hasan tombs. On the north wall is a famous scene depicting a caravan of asiatics in their striped robes bringing gazelles and other items to trade. Two especially beautiful scenes dominate the east wall – portrayals of Khnumhotep with his family, fowling and snaring birds in the marshes in a papyrus skiff.

Khnumhotep’s well-preserved autobiographical text can be seen running along the base of the walls, painted to simulate granite. A statue chamber behind an elaborate doorway on the east side of the tomb-chapel still contains the lower part of a statue of the deceased.