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Death on the Nile
By A. R. Williams
Princess Idut didn't live to adulthood. The limestone reliefs that line her mortuary chapel show her only as a child. Finely modeled scenes celebrating the abundance of the Nile River Valley surround her—fish and waterfowl, a crocodile snapping at a newborn hippo, cows with their calves, gaggles of geese—all normal decoration for a royal Egyptian burial. But something isn't right.
"Idut has replaced someone else," says Naguib Kanawati, professor of Egyptology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. "Look here," he continues, pointing to a rough patch by Idut's knee in a boating scene. "A foot has been erased, chiseled out and sanded over. And a man's kilt too." I can just make out the hint of a strapping male, standing tall, hovering behind the demure girl.
Princess Idut died around 2330 b.c. She was interred beneath her mortuary chapel, which stands near the pyramid tombs of her grandfather King Unas, and her father, King Teti, at the place now known as Saqqara. Site of Egypt's first monumental stone tombs, Saqqara was one of the most revered royal cemeteries of ancient Egypt—roughly equivalent to Arlington National Cemetery in the United States today.
When Idut's tomb was discovered in the mid-1920s, no one paid much attention to the altered reliefs. But recently Kanawati took a closer look and found traces of unexpected intrigue. "I've reread the hieroglyphs and identified the tomb's original owner," he says. "It was Ihy, a vizier, or prime minister, of King Unas." Like most wealthy, well-positioned Egyptians of his time, Ihy had spent years preparing his final resting place. So how did Princess Idut end up with it?
Kanawati's answer involves a tantalizing new theory about a palace coup and the mysterious circumstances surrounding King Teti's accession. "We don't know where Teti came from. We just know he married a daughter of Unas and became king when his father-in-law died. I think he came to the throne by force and Ihy opposed him, unsuccessfully." As an enduring punishment, Teti gave Ihy's tomb to a daughter.
This dynastic succession that once seemed so simple is one of many episodes acquiring a new spin at Saqqara, where burials span the entire 3,000 years and 31 dynasties of the ancient Egyptian civilization. Focusing on periods when the site was most heavily used by the rich and powerful, archaeologists are discovering evidence for the kind of cloak-and-dagger dramas that would make headlines today—conspiracies, assassinations, acts of revenge, scheming queens, ambitious politicians, and religious extremes.
West of the emerald alfalfa fields and dusty green palm groves that flank the Nile, Saqqara rests atop a rocky escarpment the color of ripe wheat. Here the wind-rippled desert sand begins its sweep toward Libya. And here on the sunset bank of the Nile, the ancient Egyptians believed, was as close as mortal remains could get to the great beyond. In their view of the world, when the sun slipped beneath the desert horizon each evening, it traveled through the underworld ruled by Osiris, the god of the afterlife, until being reborn in the morning on the opposite side of the great river.
Saqqara was part of an immense burial ground that stretched for 45 miles (72 kilometers) along the Nile. "The cemeteries start at Abu Rawash in the north and continue on through Giza, Abusir, Saqqara, Dahshur, and Maidum," explains Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities and a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, running down the modern names of sites for me in a quick tutorial. This area just south of the Nile Delta has great strategic value because the river narrows here to form a natural gateway.
To control river traffic, and with it the rest of the country, kings of the very first dynasties fortified both riverbanks. They soon began to build palaces above the fertile floodplain—the beginning of Memphis, Egypt's early capital—and staked out their gravesites in the neighboring desert, where relatives and officials would surround them in death as they had in life.
Early tombs were cut into the bedrock and capped with a low mud-brick building known as a mastaba. Some survive as dark smudges in the ever encroaching sand, almost in the shadow of the 4,630-year-old tomb that elevated their form and changed the shape of
royal burials: the Step Pyramid.
Rising skyward in six sand-dusted tiers, this tomb of King Djoser is the centerpiece of Saqqara. "This is the world's very first pyramid," says Hawass. "Imhotep, the architect, imitated the mud-brick prototype, but he stacked the mastabas on top of each other. And he built in stone." This monumental experiment inspired the construction of a hundred royal pyramid tombs along the Nile, almost two dozen of which have been discovered at Saqqara itself.
A pair of rival queens buried at Saqqara have captured Hawass's attention
recently. Both were married to King Teti, and each surely schemed against the other. Their names were Iput and Khuit. Hawass's work in the area around their tombs has uncovered hints that Teti's reign very likely ended the way it began—in upheaval.
Hawass guides me down a slope of scree and into his excavation site just northeast of Teti's own pyramid. Walking briskly through the stone courtyards and passages of side-by-side mortuary complexes, we stop between two rough hills of umber blocks and rubble. Stripped of their white limestone casing by workers building later tombs, these pyramids were buried by more than 20 feet (6 meters) of sand and forgotten. But Hawass is restoring both to their proper place in history.
"Iput's pyramid was found in the 1890s," he says, nodding to the mound on our left. "Everyone assumed she was the main wife of Teti because her son Pepi became king. But look what I found under a big pile of sand—Khuit's pyramid!" I follow his gaze to our right. "Khuit's was built first, so she must have come before Iput."
Glancing around to get my bearings, I realize we're traversing the bottom of a huge bowl that is still being dug out. Several feet above the top of Khuit's pyramid, young men in dark pants and sweatshirts swing their hoes and fill woven baskets with sand, rocks, and coarse red potsherds. Other workers hoist the bulging baskets to their shoulders and stagger off in a steady line to a spoil heap.
Hawass marches across a narrow ledge between a wall and a tomb shaft that plunges into darkness. I scurry across without looking into the abyss, and a quick turn brings us into the ruins of a mortuary chapel. The reliefs on the walls show lines of servants presenting the tomb owner with baskets of produce, jars of beer, legs of beef, loaves of bread. Some of the reliefs still have traces of paint.
"I found this burial complex too. It belongs to Tetiankh-Kem, Tetiankh the Black," says Hawass, reading the hieroglyphs on a sculpted door as easily as if they were yesterday's newspaper—which to him they are. "He was Khuit's son and King Teti's heir. We x-rayed his mummy and discovered that he died around age 25."
By now I'm lost: Teti's oldest son died young. Pepi, the son of second wife Iput, inherited the throne instead. Right? Maybe.
Or maybe not. The plot turns sinister here.
"This is a dark period," Hawass concedes when we meet in his book-filled office the next day. The ancient king lists are inconclusive. Some skip straight from Teti to Pepi I. But two insert a ruler—the mysterious Userkare—between father and son.
Adding his recent discoveries to the fragments of written evidence, Hawass constructs a plausible chain of events. "I think Khuit's son Tetiankh-Kem was killed with his father, King Teti. Maybe Userkare was even involved in the conspiracy, but he ruled only until Queen Iput managed to get her son Pepi on the throne."
More evidence that a conspiracy brought down Teti has come to light in the tombs of his officials, which hug the streets of a small neighborhood of the dead beside the pyramid of the king.
As a bitter winter wind whips across the desert one morning, Naguib Kanawati and I take shelter in another mortuary chapel that was prepared by one person and used by someone else. "The original name was chiseled off and another was substituted—Seshemnefer," Kanawati says, directing me to a line of hieroglyphs in the depression left by the erasure. "He was a very minor official, and he says the tomb was assigned to him by the king."
"Now, look above the doorway." I see nothing, blinded by the sun streaming in. Kanawati takes off his wide gray scarf and blocks as much of the light as he can. Immediately, hieroglyphs pop out across the stone. "It's the name of the original owner of the tomb—Hezi, vizier of King Teti. Whoever was in charge of changing the reliefs probably missed this one." Just as I did. I feel like I'm visiting a crime scene with a first-rate detective.
Outside there's more. A series of gouges scars the two pillars of a portico and the boating scenes that flank the door. I had dismissed the damage as vandalism. Wrong again.
"Hezi was depicted in those places, but he was chiseled out very meticulously," says Kanawati. "The figures in these tombs are not just art. They're functional. The deceased lives through them. So to punish someone in the afterlife, you have to mutilate every figure."
A man in Hezi's position likely understood that after death his ka, or life force, could return to this world through the figures in his tomb. He hoped relatives and priests would bring fresh offerings to sustain his ka, but in case they forgot or slacked off, he had his tomb filled with scenes that the ka could use. Provided with this magic in stone—food and drink, the support of servants, the company of singers and dancers, and opportunities to fish and hunt—the ka could continue to experience all the pleasures of the here and now. By destroying Hezi's tomb figures, someone permanently severed his access to the world of the living. What had the vizier done to be punished so severely?
Plotted against King Teti, Kanawati believes. The surviving heir, Pepi I, would then have taken everlasting revenge, altering and reassigning Hezi's tomb. "I can't say for sure that Teti was assassinated, but something catastrophic happened," Kanawati says. "The more we look, the more evidence we find that there was a huge conspiracy. Many people were punished."
Hezi was most likely one of the ringleaders. So were Teti's chief physician and the overseer of the armory, who received the same punishment. The official in charge of the palace guard seems to have played a lesser role. Only his nose and feet were chiseled from the reliefs in his chapel.
Kanawati takes me from tomb to tomb, showing me the evidence he has collected and building his case. "For me," he says with a satisfied smile, "it's like Agatha Christie."
Excavations near Pepi I's pyramid in the southern section of Saqqara have provided enough intrigue for at least another chapter in his family's saga—and new characters for me to keep straight. Audran Labrousse, director of the French Archaeological Mission, has uncovered seven new pyramids here. Three belong to wives of Pepi I, including Ankhesenpepi II, the most important woman of her time.
"She was one of two sisters from Abydos who married Pepi I," Labrousse begins over strong coffee in the French excavation house, which overlooks the Nile Valley from a cliff at the desert's edge. "Her name means 'she lives for Pepi.' Her sister's son Merenre became king when Pepi I died, but he ruled for only a few years. Then Ankhesenpepi's own son, Pepi II, came to the throne. He was about six, we think, so his mother became regent. She had real power, and you can see it in her tomb."
To get to her pyramid, we bounce into the desert in a Peugeot station wagon, pulling up between the pyramids of Pepi I and Merenre, both now hummocks of tumbled stones. Workers enlarging an already huge arena of tombs and temples load sand into rusty carts that roll on tracks to the dumps. We follow the faint scratch of a path to the bottom of the excavation and approach a jagged stone wall that holds back a heap of rock and sand. "This was a pyramid," says Labrousse, striding toward an opening at the base. "You'll have to trust me."
Skirting slabs of red granite that were once a portcullis, we climb down a ladder and crouch through a low sloping corridor. "She was not a king, but she was so close," Labrousse says, stepping into Ankhesenpepi's burial chamber. Taking a flashlight from the woven excavation basket he uses as a briefcase, he shows me the sarcophagus, placed to the west near the dying sun. Then he traces the hieroglyphs that rain down the stone walls, column after incised column painted green, color of rebirth.
"This queen is the first female to be buried with a text like this," he explains, amazement coloring his voice. "Before her, the sacred incantations known as Pyramid Texts were for kings only. The deceased ruler had to pass through death to become immortal, and he did it with the help of these texts. He called out the words to make his body function again in the afterlife." Or, in this case, she did.
Ankhesenpepi must have been a remarkable woman. Royal wives before her had existed quietly in the background. Suddenly she stepped forward and claimed the strongest of the kings' magic spells. And that's not all.
Exiting the pyramid, Labrousse leads me through the ruins of her mortuary temple to an inscribed block of white limestone. "We once thought Merenre was Pepi II's half brother, but we threw out that theory when we found this," he says. "It clearly states that Ankhesenpepi was the wife of Pepi I, and the wife of Merenre, and the mother of Pepi II."
The genealogy is too complicated. I shake my head, unable to work it out. Labrousse tries again. "The widow of a king was no one. After the death of Pepi I, Ankhesenpepi would have gone back to the harem, but we think she managed to seduce her nephew Merenre. And fortunately, she had a son, Pepi II."
Now it makes sense. This woman was an early Cleopatra—alluring, savvy, ruthless.
Labrousse is trying to reconstruct the plan of her mortuary temple. So far he has a 17-ton (15-metric ton) red granite lintel, part of a limestone obelisk, and scattered stones from the walls. "She's buried near Pepi I, but her tomb is turned toward Merenre's. So where was the door?" he wonders. "The queen's whole situation is complicated for us—imagine how it must have been for her."
Including his mother's regency, Pepi II may have reigned for more than 90 years—longer than any other king in Egyptian history. By the time he died in about 2175 b.c., the central government was close to collapse, and within the next two decades governors had seized control of their individual provinces. A lingering drought probably aggravated the political turmoil. Without rain there was no water for irrigation, crops failed, and hunger racked the entire population. The era known today as the Old Kingdom came to an end.
Subsequent kings reunified the country and moved the capital several times, but Memphis continued as a vital urban and religious center. "It was sort of like New York City, which was once the capital of the United States," says David Silverman, a professor of Egyptology at the University of Pennsylvania, where I visit him during a day of classes. "The capital moved, but somehow New York has always remained important."
Tied to the city, activity at Saqqara ebbed and flowed with the politics. Kings were buried elsewhere now, but the old royal burials still had the power to attract the faithful. Silverman has been studying the tombs of two Middle Kingdom priests of the cult of King Teti, long departed but still worshiped as a god.
From a file he extracts an inked cutaway view of the two mortuary complexes, which sit across the street from Teti's pyramid. But there's a twist. After plunging straight down, the tomb shafts sneak under the street, putting the burials beneath Teti's own sacred space. The priests, it seems, were cozying up to the big man in the great beyond.
Other kings were not nearly so beloved. Officials of New Kingdom maverick Akhenaten may even have deliberately tried to keep their distance in the afterlife, and with good reason. Several years into his reign, in about 1348 b.c., Akhenaten banned worship of the traditional gods and formed a new religion around Aten, the sun disk. He also founded a new capital, Akhetaten (modern Amarna), in the desert far to the south of Saqqara. "He behaved like a maniac," says Maarten Raven, curator of the Egyptian collection in the Netherlands' National Museum of Antiquities. "It was a shock to his contemporaries."
Raven has recently uncovered the tomb of one contemporary, a high priest at the temple of Aten in Memphis. Edging into the desert south of the Step Pyramid, the complex includes a burial shaft set in a courtyard once forested with papyrus-shaped columns. Four barrel-vaulted mud-brick chapels mark the corners of the courtyard, and limestone reliefs decorate its walls.
The owner of the tomb was named Meryneith, or at least that's how he started out. In what seems to have been a continuing scramble for political survival, Meryneith changed his name twice—first to Meryre, then back to Meryneith. His tomb, built in three stages over the course of his career, holds the proof.
In the oldest section, carved before Akhenaten's revolution, doorjambs to a chapel were inscribed with the official's original name. "Meryneith means 'beloved of the goddess Neith,'" Raven explains, tracing his index finger above the bracket of two hunting bows, tips crossed at each end, that symbolizes the deity.
The sign was altered, however, in the second building phase. A circle, the symbol of the sun, was carved over the bodies of the bows, and plaster was smoothed over their tips. "We can see here that he changed his name to Meryre, 'beloved of the sun,'" Raven says. "It looks as if Meryneith felt it would further his career to drop the reference to the old goddess and take a new name that was politically correct."
We move to a fragment of a wall relief that once depicted the tomb owner and his wife. All that remains of Meryneith is an arm, painted ruddy brown, but the hieroglyphs are clear—two bows, tips crossed, cleanly cut into the stone. "This was done during the third stage of decoration," Raven concludes. "Meryneith reverted to his old identity as a polytheist as soon as Akhenaten was dead."
Was Meryneith attempting another career move, distancing himself from the heretic king who was reviled in death? If so, he probably blew it. He never finished his tomb—maybe he couldn't escape his old connections and was booted out of this prime burial site.
The tomb next door was built by a man named Horemheb, who maneuvered successfully through the politics of Akhenaten's time. He ultimately became king, prepared a royal burial, and gave this gravesite to one of his wives. If Horemheb knew Meryneith, "What did he think of him—that he was a man without backbone?" muses Raven. "On the other hand, Horemheb was very quiet about what he did during the Akhenaten period."
Clues about the relationship between these two men may still lie hidden under the space that separates their mortuary complexes. Raven plans to dig there next spring.
Sorting through what he finds won't be easy, though. As with the rest of Saqqara this area is riddled with the burials of unknown officials and commoners from other eras, and looters have tunneled between the tomb shafts. "It's like Swiss cheese underground," says Raven. "That makes a very complex puzzle—but if it were straightforward it would be boring, wouldn't it?"
The long parade of Egyptian kings ended with Alexander the Great's conquest of 332 b.c. Foreign ways eroded the civilization that had risen to greatness along the Nile, but the monuments in the desert endured, and daily life continued much as it had for millennia.
Late one afternoon I climb the weathered stump of a mud-brick palace built in Memphis during the last years of native rule. From the top I look over the modern village of Mit Rahina, where wash hangs from the windows of two-story red-brick houses and children run laughing down streets of dirt. Farmers on donkeys start home from the surrounding fields, and herders walk their cattle in from distant pastures. Along the western horizon I see what the ancient Egyptians did—the pyramids of Abusir, Saqqara, Dahshur. Finally, just beside the Step Pyramid, the sun slips away to join Osiris for the night.