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Monday, 18 July 2022

These are a Few of My Favourite Things!

The blog post for this week is written by Jeanne Whitehurst, who has completed her Certificate of Egyptology from the University of Manchester. She moved to Egypt over ten years ago, just before the revolution. Initially, she lived in Luxor, overlooking Karnak Temple, but now she lives in Aswan overlooking the First Cataract. She was extremely fortunate to have worked with Ted Brock on the sarcophagus of Merenptah (KV 8) as a volunteer.

The Middle Kingdom (c. 2030–1650 BC), which encompasses the Eleventh and Twelfth Dynasties, involved many changes including the ideology of kingship, the organization of society, religious practices, afterlife beliefs, and relations with neighbouring peoples. We can see evidence of this through architecture, sculpture, relief decoration, stelae, jewellery, personal possessions, and literature. Many Middle Kingdom monuments are poorly preserved because Egyptian temples dedicated to deities were often replaced by succeeding kings, which has led to almost no Middle Kingdom temples left standing. Numerous Middle Kingdom pyramids were constructed with mud-brick cores that eroded after their limestone casing was removed. This is regrettable as it was an era of beautiful artwork made with great skill and delicacy.

One of the treasures can be found in the Open Air Museum at Karnak Temple, The White Chapel, built during the reign of the pharaoh Senwosret I (fig. 1). This ruler was the second pharaoh of the Twelfth Dynasty, who was the first king of The Middle Kingdom to begin a large building project. During the Eighteenth Dynasty, it was dismantled and used as foundations in the Third Pylon of the temple. The chapel is constructed of limestone and is approximately 6.8m (22ft) x 6.5m (21ft) around its raised base and 3.8m (12ft) high. The orientation was from north to south when it was originally part of the temple complex with a stepped ramp on these two sides. There are four interior pillars which hold up the roof, surrounded by twelve exterior pillars making four rows of four columns. Originally, it may have been used as a festival kiosk for Senwosret I’s Sed-festival. However, it was later converted to a barque shrine during the reign of Amenemhat III or Amenemhat IV, with an altar of red granite placed in the centre. It was used for this purpose until it was dismantled during the Eighteenth Dynasty!

Fig. 1: The White Chapel

The chapel is beautifully decorated in raised relief depicting the Sed-festival. The hieroglyphs are beautifully carved with intricate detail, especially those of feathers, crowns, baskets, birds, and snakes (fig. 2). For example, there are three different types of snakes, the horned viper and two cobras; the spitting cobra, with its zigzag pattern under its head and drawn in a strike position, and the Egyptian Cobra, which is shown in a variety of defence postures. The lower registers around the outside of the chapel are inscribed in sunk relief. It shows different personifications of the Nile, but more importantly all the nomes of Egypt at that time. The nomes of Upper Egypt are written on the West side whilst those of Lower Egypt are on the opposite Eastern side. I know there are a myriad of favourites in Karnak Temple, but this is a haven of tranquillity, an ideal place to study and contemplate in beautiful surroundings.

Fig. 2: Detail of the White Chapel

In contrast, Buhen was a massive fortress located on the west bank of the Nile in Lower Nubia (ancient Wawat, now Northern Sudan), 156 miles south of Aswan. The fortress was constructed during the reigns of Senwosret I and Senwosret III during the Twelfth Dynasty and both pharaohs were later worshipped as deified rulers at a temple on the site. The fortress was built south of a sprawling Old Kingdom settlement from which copper ore was mined and then transported north to Egypt. The fortress was occupied throughout the Middle Kingdom until the New Kingdom and isolated communities continued to reside here until the waters of Lake Nasser submerged the site in 1964 (fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Buhen in the 1960s

The Egyptians built fifteen fortifications along the banks of the Nile in Lower Nubia (fig. 4). All these fortresses had four main purposes, to secure control over Lower and Upper Nubia, to control the commercial routes from Kush, support for pharaonic armies in campaigns against Kush, and to stop raids by the Kushites. The fort covered an area of 13,000 square metres, extending more than 150 metres in length, and was defended by a 10-metre-high enclosure wall made of brick and stone with a surrounding moat. It ran all around connecting the northern and southern spur walls fitted with towers at regular intervals. A towering gateway on the western side gave access to the waterfront’s two quays. There were bastions all around apart from the eastern side, with loopholes inserted for archers to defend the fortress. The entrance was protected by enormous wooden doors.

Fig. 4: Location of the fortresses

Inside the walls was a citadel—whose interior was set out on a grid system with the buildings being separated by streets—there was a two-storied garrison, a commandant’s palace, storage magazines, and a temple to Horus of Buhen (fig. 5). It is thought around 1,000 soldiers were housed there. Apart from the plans of the site, which I love, the reason it is a favourite is because the Nubian Museum contains some old photographs taken during the excavation of the site. These stirred my imagination, wishing I could be there to see it. Sadly, it is now under the waters of Lake Nasser with just a model of the site on view.

Fig. 5: The relocated temple of Buhen

I love the jewellery of the Middle Kingdom as it is of the highest quality, both sides just as beautifully made. The decoration may be birds, plants with animals, quite often lions and bulls, royal titulary, and the hieroglyphs for protection, joy, and life (fig. 6). They used a variety of techniques, including openwork and granulation, the latter being a type of decoration in which minute grains or tiny balls of gold are applied to a surface in geometric or linear patterns or massed to fill in parts of the decoration. This technique was known in Western Asia and Egypt. It had perhaps been brought from Asia into Egypt as the tomb of Khnumhotep II (BH3) at Beni Hasan depicts “Hyksos” bringing tools for metal production.

Fig. 6: Pectoral of Sithathor

During the late Middle Kingdom, princesses were buried with sumptuous finery near the pyramids of the pharaohs. Sadly, the number of finds is limited as many tombs were plundered. Although there were other grave goods, I would like to concentrate on the jewellery of Princess Khnumet as I think the standard of workmanship is outstanding. Khnumet’s tomb was found by Jacques de Morgan in the pyramid complex built by her father, Amenemhat II at Dahshur, about 30km (about 19 miles) south of Cairo. Although the pyramid was in a deplorable state, around the west enclosure wall de Morgan found three underground galleries. The first gallery excavated belonged to the king’s daughters, Khnumet and Ita, both bodies were inside three containers but in a poor state. However, around Khnumet’s neck was a beautiful broad collar, which has gold falcon-headed terminals, with inlaid lapis lazuli to replicate the markings of the falcon, including the eyes and mouth (fig. 7). The collar itself is made of 103 pieces of gold in the shape of an ankh (life), djed (stability), and was (dominion).

Fig. 7: Collar of Khnumet

Perhaps, the most exquisite jewellery are the two golden crowns, one is a circlet that has nearly 200 small flowers with a carnelian centre and five turquoise-inlaid petals, each connected by gold wires to smaller gold flowers (fig. 8). On each side are five clusters of lotus blossoms, the hieroglyphic sign for life. The other crown is of heavier gold and inlaid with the same gemstones. In the middle between rosettes and flowering plants stretches a vulture made of gold leaf with black obsidian eyes. Vultures are an insignia of a queen, but there is no evidence that Khnumet ever reached this rank.

Fig. 8: Floral crown of Khnumet

Among all the treasures of the Middle Kingdom, wooden tomb models must be many people’s favourite. The difference in craftsmanship might seem obvious but even the simplest of these models demands a high degree of workmanship. Choosing a favourite is difficult as they all have a charm, but I have decided on the Meketre models found in his tomb on the West Bank of Luxor (TT 280), high up in the cliffs. He was chief steward under Mentuhotep II and served until the early years of the Twelfth Dynasty. These remarkably well-preserved models with their quality of carving and painting, their colours, the linen garments on some of the figures, the design of boats with their original rigging, all help us to take a glimpse into everyday life in the Middle Kingdom. The raising and slaughtering of livestock, making bread and beer, storing grain, noble houses, cattle census, and even scribes recording their inventory, providing everything for the afterlife, which also tells us about the Egyptian belief that these models could help magically supply eternal sustenance (fig. 9). Unfortunately, there is no Egyptian word that defines these types of burial goods.

Fig. 9: Model boat of Meketre

The story of the find is almost as fascinating as the models themselves. All accessible rooms of the tomb had been robbed in antiquity, but in 1920 Herbert Winlock wanted to obtain an accurate floor plan for his map on the Eleventh Dynasty necropolis at Thebes, so he set the workmen to clean out the debris. It was during this cleaning operation that the small hidden chamber was discovered. There were twenty-four almost perfectly preserved models found there (fig. 10). They would be eventually divided between The Egyptian Museum in Cairo and The Metropolitan Museum in New York. I have been very fortunate to visit both museums, in the Met, gallery 105, and the Cairo Museum, room 27 on the upper floor. In Cairo, I have gazed at these objects marvelling at the detail. The fishermen dragging their nets with fish already in them, while the rowers are at each corner, Meketre under his shelter, while a man at the front is using his plumbline to test the depth of the water and the man at the stern is guiding the boat. Now I need to revisit them, as Sam Powell, who is researching tomb models for her PhD has given us far more insight into these models.

Fig. 10: Offering bearer of Meketre

Thank you, Sam and Ken, for making the Middle Kingdom come alive in such an informative way. I can’t wait for the next Zoom course at the Swansea Egypt Centre!


  1. Love and have seen all these things. Great commentary.

  2. I love Sithathor's necklace,in particular.
    The colours and details are superb.There must be so many civilisations that are decimated by following kingdoms Excellent piece of writing

  3. Thank you so much Jeanne for this fascinating article