Death in the City

There is one part of many towns and cities from ancient Egypt that survives much better than the rest: the cemetery. This is largely down to its location, because, while the houses for the living needed to be near the Nile and its canals, with the flooding that it brings, houses for the dead needed to be placed well above the rising waters of the Nile, either on the desert edge of Upper Egypt or the ‘turtlebacks’ of the Delta.

Houses of Eternity

As we have seen, houses for the living were made from sturdy yet essentially disposable materials. Mudbrick was the building material of choice for the vast majority of structures, with some additional wooden or stone elements. However, while cheap, easily made and easily replaceable building materials were used for the houses of the living, houses for the dead – which were designed for eternity – were ideally constructed from the most durable materials possible and, moreover, materials that displayed the wealth and status of the tombowner. Although, for many, a tomb-superstructure made from mudbrick might be expected to last a considerable time in an Egyptian desert cemetery, for the very richest members of the elite, this wealth and status meant stone.

Exactly how stone was deployed depended on the fashions of the period and the geographical location of the tomb. In the Memphite cemeteries of the Old Kingdom, squat, rectangular superstructures now referred to as mastabas were constructed (at least as far as their external faces and internal rooms were concerned) from locally quarried limestone blocks. In New Kingdom Thebes or central Egyptian sites such as Beni Hasan in the Middle Kingdom, the local cliff-faces provided the ideal locations for rock-cut tombs. Moreover, the latter, constructed high above the cultivation, were often capable of being seen from great distances, making them an obvious and permanent part of a landscape that, because of the actions of the Nile, might have a very changeable and dynamic floodplain settlement.

Houses for the Ka

The cemetery was a very important part of the town that it served, indeed it was clearly considered to be an integral element of the physical space inhabited by the community of that town. This is due to the specific beliefs regarding the afterlife held by the Egyptians. Among the variety of possible (and not mutually exclusive) afterlives believed available to a non-royal Egyptian, the concept of the ka was the longest-lasting and most influential factor in the development of the cemetery as an active part of the town. The ka-spirit was separated from the body by death, but rather than journeying to ‘another place’, was limited to its tomb. It also continued to require several important things that it had needed in life – a place to dwell (the preserved body within the tomb), together with food and drink. This meant that the tomb was regarded in the same way as an ordinary house – a place where a person dwelt – and the tomb was often referred to as the ‘House (pr) of the Ka’.

This equivalence of house and tomb extended to architectural details, such as porticoed entrances, derived from ‘real’ houses. It also involved the creation of physical space, within the tomb, that could be used by the living. Larger private tombs could have multiple rooms forming cool, comfortable interiors in marked contrast to the hot sun-baked exteriors of the Egyptian summer – much like houses themselves. The burial chamber itself would be inaccessible to the living – perhaps a little like the private rooms at the rear of a normal house – while more accessible, decorated parts of the tomb could include (at least in Old Kingdom mastaba tombs) an inner court.

The connection between the living and the dead in ancient Egypt was most obviously expressed in the regular provision of food for the deceased, especially offerings of bread and beer. British Museum, London.

The columned halls of elite provincial tombs of the Middle Kingdom, like this example from Beni Hasan, seem to be based on the architecture of contemporary elite residences for the living. Kenneth Garrett/National Geographic Creative.

The necessity for access to the tomb by the living was driven in part by the ka’s need for food, which, ideally, would come in the form of offerings supplied by the tombowner’s descendants, priests who were paid from endowments to the tomb or pious visitors – collectively, individuals who were part of the same community as the tombowner. The bond between the living and the dead, expressed by food offerings from the former to the latter – and the possible reciprocal protection of the living from evil spirits by the deceased – was one of the reasons that the dead and the living together made up a single, active community. Tombs, and the cemeteries that contained them, were therefore not marginal structures with little regular relevance to the living, but part of the town.

Towns for the Dead

This relationship meant that ancient Egyptian cemeteries were places of regular activity. Cemeteries could be referred to by the term niwt (which, as we have seen, is a common word for ‘town’), for example on an inscription from the ‘town’ of tombs around the pyramid of Khufu at Giza on which the tombowner states ‘I have made this tomb in this town (niwt) of my Lord [i.e. the king].’ Cemeteries could also mirror the social stratification of the parts of towns inhabited by the living. Beni Hasan is a good example again, for here the large tombs of the local elite – nomarchs and governors – formed a terrace cut into the face of the cliffs of the eastern mountain, while the sloping ground beneath this elite cemetery contained shaft-tombs in which were buried, not the poorest inhabitants of this nome, but a well-to-do town-dwelling population who had what one might think of as ‘professional’ occupations. It is tempting to think of the cemetery at Beni Hasan, which served the nearby local nome capital of Menat-Khufu, as reflecting the dichotomy of a few large mansions and many small houses, and this seems to be typical of the few well-preserved Middle Kingdom towns we know of, such as Kahun or Wah-Sut at Abydos.

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