Although it is tempting to think of Amarna as being the outstanding example of an ancient city in Middle Egypt it was, of course, a very short-lived phenomenon compared with other major settlement sites in the region that had existed long before, and continued to exist long after, Amarna had been built, occupied and abandoned. Of these, the largest and most important was the city known in the Graeco-Roman Period as Hermopolis Magna and in the dynastic period as Wenu or, from the Middle Kingdom, Khmunu, perhaps referring to two separate but adjacent settlements that merged into one as they grew. Exactly when the city was first settled is not easy to say, since most of the pre-New Kingdom occupation levels are now well below ground water.
The site is impressive not only because of the size of its surviving town-mound (1.5 km, or 1 mile, from north to south; 1 km, or ⅔ mile, from east to west), but also because of the chronological spread of those remains, from a cemetery of the First Intermediate Period to remains of the late Roman Period. The town-mound has been sporadically excavated, both unofficially and officially, but the two most extensive sets of archaeological excavations were led by German Egyptologist Günther Roeder for Hildesheim Museum, between 1929 and 1939, and British Egyptologist Jeffrey Spencer for the British Museum, from 1980 to 1990.
The remains of the ancient city are almost 5 km (3 miles) from the Nile, in the middle of a wide tract of agricultural land, and connected to the Nile by canals. During the Amarna Period this rich fertile area (and Hermopolis itself) was included within the wider environs of the city of Akhetaten, as demonstrated by the presence of Amarna boundary stelae in the desert cliffs to the west of Hermopolis. By the Third Intermediate Period, the city was dominated by its sacred enclosure (bounded by a massive mudbrick wall), which contained a series of temples. The most important of these was the temple of Thoth himself, which was adapted and added to from at least as early as the Middle Kingdom (a stone gateway of Amenemhat II still survives) until the Ptolemaic Period, with especially important work done during the New Kingdom. During the Ramesside Period these additions were facilitated by using the talatat-blocks that became available through the demolition of the nearby Amarna temples.
Cemeteries at Hermopolis Magna
The earliest burial grounds that served the city were on the town-mound itself, as suggested by the First Intermediate Period cemetery excavated by the British Museum team. For the elite of Hermopolis and its nome, large rock-cut tombs were created in the distant east bank sites of Sheikh Said and el-Bersha, in the period from the Old to Middle Kingdoms. In the New Kingdom, the preferred burial ground switched to the closer western desert-edge site of Tuna el-Gebel; the best-known tombs from this cemetery are those belonging to the local elite of the Late Period, with their impressive superstructures built to mimic houses or temples. Other ‘residents’ of Hermopolis to be buried at Tihna el-Gebel are the thousands of examples of mummified baboons and ibises, sacred to Thoth, interred in vast underground catacombs.
Plan of Hermopolis Magna, showing known major structures erected up to the end of the New Kingdom. Steven Snape.
The temple built by Seti II made extensive use of talatat blocks of the Amarna Period for the construction of its pylon. Steven Snape.
Petosiris Builds Temples for Thoth
One of the best-known examples of the way in which local leaders could initiate building work in their cities comes from the Tihna el-Gebel temple-tomb of Petosiris, High Priest of Thoth. Petosiris lived at the end of the Persian 31st Dynasty and the autobiography from his tomb outlines some of the major urban building projects he initiated, especially temples inside the sacred enclosure of the city, presumably beyond the control and/or interest of the Persian rulers of Egypt:
I stretched the cord and released the line to found the temple of Ra in the park….
I built the house of the goddesses inside the house of Khenu….
I built the house of Nehmetaway and the house of Hathor….
I made an enclosure wall around the park to prevent it being trampled by the rabble…. I made a solid work of the wall of the temple of Khenu.
Petosiris showed particular concern for the temple of Heket, which had suffered from regular flooding:
The water had carried it off every year until its foundation plan was no longer visible. It was only known by name as the ‘House of Heket’ since there was no brick or stone there…. I summoned the temple scribe of this goddess and gave him silver beyond counting to make a monument there from that day. I built a great rampart around it so that the water could not carry it off.
The superstructure of the tomb of the high priest Petosiris at the desert cemetery of Tihna el-Gebel is an early example of an architectural form, the columned pronaos, that would soon become standard in temples of the Ptolemaic Period. Einsamer Schütze.
Ten km (6 miles) to the south of el-Minya is the site of Zawiyet el-Maitin (sometimes called Zawiyet el-Sultan). It clearly had some significance as early as the Old Kingdom because it contains one of the small ‘dummy’ pyramids attributed to king Sneferu of the 4th Dynasty. The site has not been systematically investigated, but a survey carried out from 1999 to 2001 by Nadine Moeller indicated that this is potentially an important multi-period town site.
The town of Akoris (modern Tihna el-Gebel) lies 10 km (6 miles) to the north of el-Minya on the east bank of the Nile. Although it contains tombs of the Middle Kingdom, its substantial settlement remains date from the Third Intermediate Period and, especially, the Graeco-Roman Period.
Although its temples have been much denuded of their stone – not least by early excavators at the site – the enormous blocks that remain (here from the temple of Ramesses II) clearly indicate the continuing importance of Herakleopolis Magna in the New Kingdom and later. Steven Snape.
In the Third Intermediate Period, the northern extent of Theban control, at least for some
time, seems to have been marked by the site of el-Hibeh, 35 km (22 miles) south of the modern city of Beni Suef, which has been excavated since 2001 by Carol Redmount for UC Berkeley. The site was effectively a fortified settlement that took advantage of a strategic location, although its military function was supplemented by other structures including a temple of Shoshenq I in the 22nd Dynasty.
Close to the entrance to the Faiyum and on the Bahr Yussef waterway, Herakleopolis Magna occupied an important strategic position and, as such, it became one of the largest and most significant cities in the stretch of Middle Egypt between Memphis and Hermopolis Magna. Its ancient name was (Hwt-)Nen-Neswt and its greatest time of political prominence came in the First Intermediate Period when it provided the origin, and perhaps base, of the ‘kings’ of the 9th and 10th Dynasties.
Although the site is mainly represented by a very large (c. 700 m (2,297 ft) north to south by c. 800 m (2,625 ft) east to west) ruin-field next to the modern village of Ihnasya el-Medina, neither its full extent (which presumably included Kom el-Aqarib, a nearby mound with a Ramesside temple) nor basic ground plan are well understood owing to it never having been the subject of large-scale and systematic excavation. The most substantial fieldwork carried out there was by Swiss Egyptologist Éduoard Naville in 1891–92 and a Spanish team sporadically from the 1960s. The cemetery of Herakleopolis Magna was probably the nearby desert site of Sedment el-Gebel. The most striking remnants of the ancient city to be seen on the tell are an impressive granite gateway, probably dating to the Ptolemaic Period, and the remains of the Ramesside temple to the local ram deity Herishef, excavated by Petrie in 1904.
The location of the Middle Kingdom administrative capital of Itj-Tawy (more fully Amenemhat-Itj-Tawy, ‘Amenemhat seizes the Two Lands’) is a mystery. It is likely, on circumstantial evidence, that it is to be found somewhere in the cultivated fields to the east of the pyramids of Amenemhat I and Senwosret I at Lisht. Since the hieroglyphic determinative sign for Itj-Tawy is a fortified enclosure rather than a town, it appears that the site was not very large in size and probably only consisted of a relatively small number of administrative staff, who worked for the royal court at this strategic location close to the traditional boundary of a newly unified Upper and Lower Egypt.