Meydum To Mons Porphyrites (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)


Meydum is the name of a modern village 75km south of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile where the valley is closest to the Fayum (29°24′ N, 31°09′ E). The Arabic name of the village is taken from the Greek name "Moithymis," which reproduced the ancient Egyptian name "Mery-Item" (Beloved of Atum), the name of this town as early as the 18th Dynasty. From the 5th Dynasty until the 12th Dynasty the town was called "Djed Seneferu" (Seneferu is steadfast), originally the name of the residential quarter of the priests and staff of Seneferu’s pyramid.

The necropolis, in which the earliest of Seneferu’s four pyramids was built, lies 3km west of the village of Meydum. The pyramid resembles a square tower with its base engulfed in sand. Among early explorers who visited it were F.L.Norden (1737), J.S.Perring (1839) and Richard Lepsius (1843), who assigned number LXV to the pyramid. The entrance to the pyramid was found in 1890 by Gaston Maspero when he was Director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service. A year later, Flinders Petrie carried out a clearance of the interior, surveyed the building and undertook considerable excavations in its vicinity. Further explorations were conducted in 1909-10 by Petrie, G.A.Wainwright and Mackay; in 1911-12 by Wainwright; in 1926 by Ludwig Borchardt; and in 1929-30 by Alan Rowe. In 1983 the Egyptian Antiquities Organization under Ali El Khouli removed the sand and debris from the north-west corner of the pyramid.

Seneferu, the first king of the 4th Dynasty, enlarged his pyramid at Meydum twice, and on the second occasion he also altered its shape. In its first form, it had seven steps. In the second form, the steps were increased to eight, and finally it was transformed into a true pyramid. A theory that the nucleus might enshrine an even earlier superstructure was disproved when a tunnel bored by Wainwright from the base of the east face revealed only compact masonry at the center.

The change from a stepped to a true pyramid is unlikely to have occurred if a change had not also taken place in beliefs about the king’s afterlife and how to achieve it. This also coincided with the change in the location of the mortuary temple from the north side of the pyramid, where it faced the circumpolar stars, to the east, where it faced the rising sun.

The present form of the pyramid is chiefly a result of the method employed in bonding the eight-stepped pyramid with the pyramid of seven steps. As the former rose to the level of each successive step of the latter, courses of blocks were laid across the two steps to bond them together, but the bonding was not very strong and, in later times, the removal of large parts of the two outermost coverings must have presented few difficulties. A theory that the monument disintegrated because the foundation blocks of the backing stones and the outer casing of the true pyramid were laid in places on sand was disproved when the northwest corner of the pyramid was cleared of sand and debris and no trace of movement was found.

The stones in the two stepped forms of the pyramid and those in the true pyramid were laid in different ways: in the stepped forms the courses inclined inward, but in the true pyramid they were flat. The change of method demonstrates that the transformation to the true pyramid took place at about the same time as the building of Seneferu’s Northern Stone Pyramid at Dahshur, where the stones were laid in flat courses. Seneferu’s Bent Pyramid at Dahshur, however, has inwardly tilted courses from the base to the level where its incline changes to 43°21′, and consequently it must belong to an earlier stage than either the true pyramid at Meydum or the Northern Stone Pyramid at Dahshur.

In its final form, the Meydum pyramid rose to a height of about 94.5m, and each side measured about 144m at the base. Its angle of incline has been variously calculated as 51°52′ and 52°40′. At every stage in its evolution, the entrance was located in the center of the north face, and finally about 18.5m above ground level. The entrance corridor is 1.55m high and 82cm wide, with an angle of about 28°. This corridor ends in a vertical shaft 4.4m high, which rises through rock to emerge in the northeastern corner of the floor of the corbel-vaulted tomb chamber.

A small mortuary temple, 2.7m high and 9.18m wide, is built of Tura limestone and stands against the center of the east face of the pyramid, but is not bonded to it. Visitors in the 18th Dynasty left graffiti expressing their admiration for Seneferu’s monument. In the court, backing onto the pyramid, are two large uninscribed stelae in limestone with curved tops, and between them lies a low altar for offerings of food and drink.

Meydum preserves the earliest example of what was to become the standard Old Kingdom pyramid complex. It consisted of five essential elements: the main pyramid, a mortuary temple, a subsidiary pyramid, and a causeway linking the enclosed area of the complex with a temple in the valley on the western fringe of cultivation.

Mudbrick tombs were built in the vicinity of the Meydum pyramid, and at least four of them belonged to Seneferu’s sons. The superstructures (mastabas) of the largest ones were excavated in 1871-2 by Auguste Mariette. In 1892 Petrie tried unsuccessfully to locate their tomb chambers. Accompanied by Wainwright and Mackay, he resumed the search in 1909, only to find that ancient robbers had already been there. Most of the mastaba owners were identified by Mariette from inscriptions on lintels and on the symbolic entrances, but the owner of the second largest one (M 17) still remains anonymous. Because of its proximity to the pyramid and its size, some scholars have suggested that its owner was the heir to the throne but died prematurely. A male skeleton was found in the tomb, completely bandaged in gauze after each bone had been defleshed and wrapped separately. His granite sarcophagus shows a remarkable degree of technical perfection.

Many of the large mastabas had two separate burials for a husband and wife. Each had its own symbolic entrance on the east side of the superstructure, with the husband’s to the south and the wife’s to the north. Three outstanding works of art were found by Mariette in two of the twin mastabas. In the wife’s chapel of the twin mastaba (M 16) belonging to Neferma’at, the "Eldest Son of the King," and his wife Itet, was a wall painting of a line of geese. Another mastaba chapel (M 6) of Prince Rahotep, "Priest of Heliopolis" and "Army General," contained the painted limestone statues of the prince and his wife Nofret, which must rank among the most lifelike sculptures from ancient Egypt. All three works are among the best known treasures in the Cairo Museum.

Minshat Abu Omar

Until recently, many scholars believed that the Nile Delta in late prehistoric times was a broad swampy region and the existence of settlements there would have been impossible. Many of these misconceptions were based not only on the absence of archaeological finds in the Delta, but also on a misinterpretation of the geology. It is now known that settlements in the Delta were possible at all times, especially on levees and gezira formations (sandy islands).

The site of Minshat Abu Omar is situated on a gezira in the northeastern Delta (30°54′ N, 32°01′ E), circa 150km northeast of Cairo, in a region where the now defunct Pelusiac branch of the Nile was previously flowing. The height of the site is only about 2.5m above the surrounding cultivated land. It extends from the edge of the modern village of Minshat Abu Omar about 550m north-northeast. The site was identified in 1966 as part of a survey attempting to locate the place of origin of Predynastic finds being sold in Europe and the USA by an Egyptian art dealer. Excavations began in 1978 and continued yearly until 1991; there were also additional seasons of survey and documentation. Although other ancient sites have been located in the Delta in recent years, Minshat Abu Omar remains the only Predynastic and Early Dynastic site in the Delta that has been extensively excavated, and it provides the best data base for comparison with the material culture of Upper Egypt.


Located in the southern part of the site, the cemetery was almost completely excavated. It dates to the Predynastic/Early Dynastic and the Late and Graeco-Roman periods. Four hundred and twenty graves of the Predynastic/ Early Dynastic periods were excavated as well as 2,630 graves of the later periods. A final, six-volume publication of the Predynastic/ Early Dynastic cemetery is now being prepared.

Predynastic/Early Dynastic cemetery

The excavated early graves can be divided into two broad, chronologically consecutive groups:

1 late Predynastic graves dating to (the relative phases of) Werner Kaiser’s Nagada IIc-d and Flinders Petrie’s Sequence Dates 33-78, circa 3,300-3,100 BC (MAO I and II).

2 Early Dynastic graves: (a) of the so-called "Dynasty 0," circa 3,100-3,000 BC (MAO III); and (b) of the 1st Dynasty, circa 3,000-2,850 BC (MAO IV).

The late Predynastic graves (1) consist mainly of pits in which the body was placed in a more or less tightly contracted position on the right side, oriented north-south, with the head to the north facing west. The pits are mostly oval in shape, circa 1-1.5m in length and 1.5-2.0m deep. Only in rare cases can any elaboration of the pit be noted. Generally, only a few grave goods were included in the burial and consist of small-sized ball- and cone-shaped pots. In a few cases more valuable offerings were found, such as wavy-handled pots (Petrie’s W-class), painted vessels, small stone jars, palettes, disc-shaped carnelian beads, ivory spoons and, rarely, a bracelet or harpoon of copper. Of particular interest is a small group of imported pots, which, according to an analysis of form and fabric, were manufactured in Palestine. These also occur in the later group (2a) of graves.

The Dynasty 0 graves (2a) dating to Narmer’s reign show an abrupt change in burial tradition. The grave pits are generally rectangular, and are larger and deeper than the earlier ones. Often the walls of the pits (dug in loose fine sand) were reinforced with a kind of mud plastering. Matting was used as roofing and under the burial. The most important change, however, took place in the orientation of the burials. The dead were placed in a contracted position on the left side, with the head to the northeast to east, facing southeast or east. Remains of coffins made of wood, reed and mud were also found in this grave group. Besides a dramatic increase in the number of pots, which are concentrated in a small side chamber, grave goods include a great number of extremely well made stone vessels, some of which are composite ones made of two different kinds of stone, as well as delicate cosmetic artifacts such as spoons and palettes. Copper axes, harpoons and saws occur more frequently than in the earlier graves, as well as jewelry in different materials. Some of these burials were robbed, another new feature. Especially in the larger graves, robber pits could be clearly observed in the sand before they were excavated.

"Elite" burial of the 1st Dynasty at Minshat Abu Omar with two chambers; the larger chamber had been robbed (Tomb 1590)

Figure 75 "Elite" burial of the 1st Dynasty at Minshat Abu Omar with two chambers; the larger chamber had been robbed (Tomb 1590)

Graves dating to the 1st Dynasty (2b) have many features similar to those of Dynasty 0 (2a), including the position and orientation of the body, and the number and variety of grave goods. Two ivory boxes are unique finds in this grave group. The largest burials in this group are the so-called tombs of the "elite," represented by eight chamber tombs built of mud or mudbrick. These tombs consist of two or three underground rooms of unequal size, the largest of which was used as the burial chamber. All of the chambers had been covered with a roof of reed or papyrus mats placed on top of wooden beams. The roof was fastened down with mud and fragments of mudbrick. It was impossible to reconstruct superstructures as no original surface was preserved at the site. The largest of these tombs, with three rooms, had outside dimensions of 4.90×3.25m. It is interesting to note that the main (central) chamber in which the body had been placed was completely robbed, whereas the side chambers were intact. This pattern was repeatedly observed, indicating that the grave robbing probably took place shortly after the burial, when the location of the main chamber containing the most valuable artifacts (probably of copper or gold) was still known to the robbers. Despite having been robbed, four of these chamber tombs represent the richest graves excavated at Minshat Abu Omar, with as many as 125 grave goods. In grave 2275 is the unique occurrence of niches in the tomb interior along the northern side. Although badly preserved, the niches retained evidence that they were originally lined with wood and then covered with plaster painted red and white.

Late period and Graeco-Roman cemetery

The majority of graves at Minshat Abu Omar, which sometimes occur in a density of up to 120 burials per 10m square, belong to the Graeco-Roman period. Since most of these burials did not contain any grave goods, their dating remains imprecise. Based on their ceramics, some certainly date to the 26th Dynasty, but others are as late as the Coptic period. Generally, these graves are fairly poor, consisting only of a simple pit. In some cases the burial pit was lined with fired or mudbrick, and in rare cases ceramic, wooden or limestone coffins were provided. The most elaborate burials consist of underground chambers, which contained up to twenty-seven burials. Children were often buried in amphorae. Remains of mummies as well as fragments of stucco mummy masks were found. Grave goods consist of amulets and other jewelry (including a gold brooch and earrings), glass bottles and some pots.


Only test excavations were conducted in the ancient settlement, located in the northern part of Minshat Abu Omar and known today as Tell Saba Banat. According to the evidence of coins, the settlement dates mostly to the Graeco-Roman period (with a few finds of the Late period occurring in the lower levels). Sondages have shown that the Predynastic/Early Dynastic settlement was not located in the same area.

In 1987 and 1989 testing by augering on a grid system up to 8m below the present surface was conducted with the intent of locating the earlier settlement. The Predynastic/Early Dynastic settlement was found circa 500m southeast of the cemetery at approximately 4-6m below the present surface and 3-4m below the ground water. Another settlement, probably Neolithic, was located somewhat deeper in the deposits, but has not been further investigated.

Mons Porphyrites

Mons Porphyrites is the only known source of imperial porphyry, a gem-like igneous rock, purple in color, which was prized for sculpture, monolithic columns and other architectural elements in Roman and Byzantine times. The rock was imported in quantity to Rome and Constantinople, but it has a broad distribution and small fragments have been found as far away as Britain. The quarries are located in the Gebel Dokhan, in the heart of the Red Sea mountains of Egypt (27°15′ N, 33°15′ E). The complex comprises a quarry field, a fortified settlement with a temple of the god Serapis, and smaller settlements believed to be those quarry workers. The area is of very difficult access and consequently has been little visited.

Mons Porphyrites, settlements and quarries

Figure 76 Mons Porphyrites, settlements and quarries

The archaeology of Mons Porphyrites has been the subject of a number of short contributions, but the first important work was conducted by a German expedition in the 1960s. The team spent five days on the site and of produced a plan of the main fortified settlement in Wadi Abu Ma’amel and a related fort at Badia, the first stage on the route to the Nile. They also made a detailed plan and description of the temple of Serapis, and sketch plans of the workers’ villages, which was a remarkable achievement in the time available. More recently, an American expedition concentrated on collecting ceramic evidence, which confirmed a first—fourth centuries AD dating. Since 1994 the site has been the subject of detailed examination by a British team working under the aegis of the Egypt Exploration Society.

Mons Porphyrites is a key site in both the study of Roman quarries and in our understanding of Roman Egypt for the following reasons. First, the preservation is excellent, for, apart from some modern extraction, the remote location has ensured little interference since antiquity. It presents an almost pristine Roman landscape, which led earlier explorers to characterize it as perhaps the most remarkable manifestation of Roman activity to be seen anywhere in the world. Second, the rock is important to historians of art and architecture, as it was used for columns as well as decorative elements such as sculpture, baths or basins. Finally, study of inscriptions on potsherds (ostraca) from Mons Claudianus, 50km to the south, indicates that Mons Porphyrites was the administrative center for military activities and extractive industries in this part of the Eastern Desert. This is also supported by the longer period of operation at Mons Porphyrites, suggested by archaeological evidence on the surface as well as by the textual evidence. The site is clearly the key to understanding Roman operations in this area.

There are two main areas of settlement: a fort in Wadi Abu Ma’amel and another on the south side of the Gebel Dokhan, known as Badia, clearly part of the same system. There are two main wells, both in Wadi Abu Ma’amel. These seem to have been the main sources of water, apart from periodic rock pools which would have acted as reservoirs, retaining water for a short period after flash floods. All food would have had to be imported from the Nile Valley, supplemented by fish from the Red Sea. However, the terrain is so difficult that the workers seem to have been housed in a number of remote villages, which would have to have been supplied with water and food. The villages are approached by footpaths, many of which are still remarkably well preserved.

The quarries are on the tops of mountains, three of which were fancifully named by the German explorer Georg Schweinfurth in the nineteenth century: Lykabettos, Lepsius and Rammius. The northwest quarries seem to have been discovered later, but they may have been a focus of activity as early as the first century AD, while the latest quarrying in the fourth or possibly fifth century seems to have been concentrated on Lykabettos. The slipways down which the partly finished stones would have traveled to the wadi bed are often marked by cairns. Presumably, rollers or sledges would have been used as far as the great loading ramp at the entrance to the Wadi Umm Sidri, where the produce would have been transferred to carts for its 150km journey to the Nile. Little is known about the types of animal used in traction, but it may be reasonably assumed to be donkeys. There is no animal enclosure at the fort in Wadi Abu Ma’amel, but they exist at Badia and at the halfway station of Umm Sidri.

The most outstanding recent discovery by the British team has been an important inscription found in a small temple high in the mountains and probably unseen by anyone since Roman times. It is a dedication to the gods Pan and Serapis, dominated by an engraving showing the god Pan-Min. The inscription mentions the discovery of the site on July 23, AD 18 by Caius Cominius Leugas. He seems to have been the Roman equivalent of a field geologist, for there is also a list of the rocks he found: porphyry, black porphyry, multi-colored stones and the mysterious "knekites." The use of the apparent oxymoron "black porphyry" at this early date is particularly interesting.

Excavations of the rubbish heaps outside the gates of the Badia and Abu Ma’amel forts have also produced new evidence. At Badia the excavated sequence demonstrates that the animal lines were a secondary feature added after the first half of the second century. During the fourth or fifth century there is evidence of industrial activity with dumps of ash, small fragments of charcoal and mudbrick. The excavated area at Abu Ma’amel produced a useful assemblage of artifacts from the second century, filling a notable gap in the ceramic sequence of the Eastern Desert. The rich collection of small finds, both organic and inorganic, suggests a surprisingly sophisticated way of life within the fort.

Next post:

Previous post: