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Abydos: Egyptian Afterlife
APRIL 2005
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Egyptian Afterlife @ National Geographic Magazine
By John Galvin Photographs by Kenneth Garrett
New evidence shows that human sacrifice helped populate the royal city of the dead.

King Aha, "The Fighter," was not killed while unifying the Nile's two warring kingdoms, nor while building the capital of Memphis. No, one legend has it that the first ruler of a united Egypt was killed in a hunting accident after a reign of 62 years, unceremoniously trampled to death by a rampaging hippopotamus. News of his demise brought a separate, special terror to his staff. For many, the honor of serving the king in life would lead to the more dubious distinction of serving the king in death.
 
On the day of Aha's burial a solemn procession made its way through the sacred precincts of Abydos, royal necropolis of Egypt's first kings. Led by priests in flowing white gowns, the funeral retinue included the royal family, vizier, treasurer, administrators, trade and tax officers, and Aha's successor, Djer. Just beyond the town's gates the procession stopped at a monumental structure with imposing brick walls surrounding an open plaza. Inside the walls the priests waded through a cloud of incense to a small chapel, where they performed cryptic rites to seal Aha's immortality.
 
Outside, situated around the enclosure's walls, were six open graves. In a final act of devotion, or coercion, six people were poisoned and buried along with wine and food to take into the afterlife. One was a child of just four or five, perhaps the king's beloved son or daughter, who was expensively furnished with ivory bracelets and tiny lapis beads.
 
The procession then walked westward into the setting sun, crossing sand dunes and moving up a dry riverbed to a remote cemetery at the base of a high desert plateau. Here Aha's three-chambered tomb was stockpiled with provisions for a lavish life in eternity. There were large cuts of ox meat, freshly killed waterbirds, loaves of bread, cheese, dried figs, jars of beer, and dozens of wine vessels, each bearing Aha's official seal. Beside his tomb more than 30 graves were laid out in three neat rows. As the ceremony climaxed, several lions were slain and placed in a separate burial pit. As Aha's body was lowered into a brick-lined burial chamber, a select group of loyal courtiers and servants also took poison and joined their king in the next world.
 
Is this how a pharaoh's funeral in 2900 b.c. actually unfolded? It's a plausible scenario, experts say. Archaeologists have been sifting through the dry sands of Abydos for more than a century. Now they have found compelling evidence that ancient Egyptians indeed engaged in human sacrifice, shedding new—and not always welcome—light on one of the ancient world's great civilizations.
 
"Yellah! Yellah! Yellah!" barks Ibrahim Mohammed Ali, the Egyptian crew boss, spurring his workers to move it, move it, move it. "You are big fat water buffalo! You are dung!" The mostly teenage boys hauling buckets of sand giggle nervously but pick up the pace while keeping an eye on their still ranting foreman. "You chatter worse than a bunch of women!" Standing tall in a loose, flowing galabia and white head wrap, Ibrahim looks somehow wizardly, maybe capable of vaporizing slackers with a cast from the long, intimidating stick-wand he keeps clutched behind his back. Ibrahim's 125-person crew is working with a team of archaeologists to uncover part of the immense royal burial center at Abydos, located 260 miles (420 kilometers) up the Nile from Cairo. As a line of workers use hoe-like tureyas to scrape away the sand, the so-named bucket boys haul away clanking pails of dirt and pour it like water into the laps of sifters. Excavators are on the ground with trowels in hand, surveyors are plotting the coordinates of artifacts, a photographer is documenting each new find, and illustrators are pencil-drawing an ancient coffin and an infant skeleton.
 
Kneeling on one knee in the center of this swarm is Matthew Adams, associate director of a multiyear project sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Yale University, and New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. Adams is brushing sand away to reveal a smooth, ancient mud floor. "If this is from the time of Aha," he says in a raspy voice dried out from months in the desert, "then it's the oldest funerary enclosure ever found in Egypt. We're talking about the beginning of Egyptian history. Not one trowel has been laid here before now."

Abydos is the source of many of Egypt's most ancient artifacts. In 1988 Günter Dreyer, a German archaeologist, unearthed small bone and ivory tags intricately inscribed with one of the world's earliest forms of writing—crude hieroglyphs developed at about the same time as Mesopotamian cuneiform. In 1991 Adams's mentor and the project's director, David O'Connor, uncovered an eerie fleet of wooden boats buried in enormous brick-lined graves.
 
Now O'Connor and Adams are digging down into the beginning of Egypt's 1st dynasty, a pivotal period when kings laid down the roots of religion, government, and architecture that would last for the next 3,000 years. Unlike the colossal pyramids of later pharaohs, the more modest burial complexes of the Abydos kings consisted of two separate structures—a tomb and a ceremonial enclosure. The large, walled enclosures where mortuary rituals were performed were situated on the edge of town, while the underground tombs were located more than a mile away on the threshold of the desolate Western Desert, a place known to ancient Egyptians as the land of the dead.
 
All of the 1st-dynasty tombs and most of the enclosures excavated so far are accompanied by subsidiary graves—hundreds in some cases—containing the remains of elite officials and courtiers. Egyptologists have long speculated that these graves might hold victims of sacrifice but also acknowledged that they could simply be graves reserved for the king's staff, ready to use as each person died naturally.
 
The question of whether ancient Egyptians practiced human sacrifice has intrigued archaeologists since the late 1800s. Frenchman Émile Amélineau and his English rival Sir Flinders Petrie excavated all the 1st-dynasty desert tombs by 1902. Each had been heavily looted in antiquity, and no royal remains were found except a single bejeweled arm. Still, there was much yet to discover. In Aha's tomb were the remains of dozens of wine vessels, tools, some jewelry, and signs of food. Beside the tomb Petrie discovered 35 subsidiary graves, which he called the Great Cemetery of the Domestics. While he didn't dwell on it in his published papers, he hinted at human sacrifice. Later, in the 1980s, German archaeologists uncovered the remains of at least seven young lions.
 
The only funerary enclosure standing during Petrie's time was the massive 4,600-year-old Shunet el-Zebib, built by the 2nd-dynasty king Khasekhemwy. The towering shuneh (storehouse), with its three-story walls enclosing nearly two acres of space, still dominates the landscape. Two of Petrie's associates discovered another 2nd-dynasty enclosure, built by King Peribsen, and Petrie returned in the 1920s and found hundreds of subsidiary graves. The graves surrounded three 1st-dynasty enclosures, but curi-ously, Petrie located only one of them. These discoveries led archaeologists to speculate that they had found only half the puzzle of Abydos, and that for each tomb they had uncovered out in the desert, there should be a corresponding enclosure still hidden on the city's edge.

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