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The Pyramid of Hawara, Egypt

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Many pyramids were built over the thousands of years of Ancient Egypt. The most familiar of these are the Pyramids of Giza, because they include the two biggest and best preserved, and are very close to Cairo. But many other pyramids were built over the history of the country. The Pyramid of Hawara is in fairly bad condition now, but it was once the tomb of a great king, and there is a lot to say about it.

Egypt's Middle Kingdom

When we think of Ancient Egypt, we may imagine those pyramids at Giza. Or we may picture Tutankhamen, the young king whose tomb full of golden treasures was uncovered in the early 20th Century. The origins of these two images of Egypt are more than a thousand years apart. The Giza pyramids were built in the period 2550 - 2475 BC, in the Old Kingdom; whereas Tutankhamen lived around 1330 BC, in the New Kingdom. The names of Old and New Kingdom pharaohs may be familiar: Djoser, Khufu, Seti, Ramesses, Tuthmose.

In between these two extremes, there is another period of Egyptian history which is much less remarkable. The pharaoh names Mentuhotep, Senwosret and Amenemhat will not be familiar to most people. This period, around 2000 - 1500 BC, is known as the Middle Kingdom. Egypt expanded during this time to control the dominion of much of the upper Nile, well into what is now Sudan. Yet for the most part life went on as normal, because the essential feature of Ancient Egypt was that it was a stable society based on intensive agriculture that worked well.

Amenemhat III

Probably the greatest pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom was Amenemhat1 III, whose birth name was Nimaatre2. He ruled Egypt from 1842 to 1794 BC, a period of 48 years, although it is thought he ruled jointly with his father for the first few years.

He was the sixth in a line of eight pharaohs known as the 12th Dynasty who passed their control from father to son – and, in the latter case, sister – for the best part of 180 years. All of them (except the last) bore either the name Amenemhat or Senwosret. When the seventh pharaoh, Amenemhat IV, died without an heir, his sister, Sobeknefru, became pharaoh and ruled for at least three years.

Most of the expansion of Egypt took place during this dynasty, so that by the time of Amenemhat III there was no more conquering to be done – Egypt was at peace and top dog of all the nations in the vicinity. Instead of warfare, Amenemhat concentrated on improvements to agriculture and mining.

There are a number of statues of Amenemhat III. Like any other successful pharaoh, he had many temples built with statues of himself. These show a serious-looking man with big ears. This may have been a style of the day, as his father and grandfather are also shown in statues with a scowl and big ears. Or perhaps the family really did have big ears.

Red Land, Black Land

The modern country of Egypt is a big one, with an area of about one million square kilometres, which is the equivalent of the US states of Texas and California combined, or four times the size of the United Kingdom. Of this land, only a small amount, about 5%, is agricultural, the rest being desert. The agricultural areas include the valley of the Nile River (known as Upper Egypt) and the delta of the Nile, where the river spreads out into a triangle before reaching the sea. The delta is known as Lower Egypt.

The ancient Egyptians called the agricultural land the 'Black Land' or kemet, because of the rich black soil; while the desert was known as the 'Red Land' or deshret. Because the Sun sets in the west, the western desert was considered to be the place where souls would go for their final sleep. Ancient Egyptian cemeteries were all built at the western edge of the Nile Valley where it meets the desert. All of the pyramids built during the history of Egypt, with one exception, are on the western side of the river3.

The Nile river has two sources, one in Central Africa and one in Ethiopia. Every year, there would be massive storms in Ethiopia and the Nile would flood, so that the whole of the Nile Valley would be underwater. The floods not only brought water but also life-giving silt, which fed the lands with nutrients, giving Egypt some of the most productive agricultural land in the world. The problem with the floods was that they only came once a year. Any way of harnessing the river could offer a great advantage to the country, if managed well.

The Fayoum

Along the west bank of the Nile, about 100km south of Cairo, there is a place where the bank is not so steep. Since before records began, when the Nile flooded the river would overflow the banks at this point and flood the low-lying land to the west, forming a great lake. The lake had no outlet, and the water in it would keep the land alive until the following year when more water would arrive from the Nile. It became good agricultural land and is known as the Fayoum. You can see it on maps of Egypt as a green heart-shaped area to the west of the Nile. It has an area of about 1,300 sq km.

Sometime in its history, the channel where the water overflowed was dug out to form a proper canal. Legend has it that this was done by the Biblical Joseph when he was co-ruler of Egypt. The canal is still known as Bahr Yussef, Joseph's Canal.

During the reign of Senwosret II (1900 - 1880 BC), the grandfather of Amenemhat III, a major project was started to improve the irrigation of the Fayoum. It may in fact have been at this time that the canal was built – whether it was built or just improved at this time is hard to tell now. Whatever the case, a dam was built in such a way that when the Nile flooded the lake would grow to an enormous size. Then when the Nile stopped flooding the lake would drain back through the canal, feeding the Nile and improving the flow of water to Lower Egypt. The project took a number of years and was completed during the reign of Amenemhat III. This was surely a cause for celebration. At last, the Nile was controlled, at least along the last 300km of its journey to the sea. The Fayoum was now prime agricultural land.

The level of the lake, known as Lake Moeris, was 85 metres higher than it is today. In the centre of the Fayoum was the city of Shedyet, known to the Greeks as Crocodilopolis because it was the centre of worship of the crocodile god Sobek. The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that the priests there kept a sacred crocodile which was hand-fed.

Unfortunately, over the years the canal silted up and the lake, known today as Birket Qaroun, is now much smaller than it was. Water no longer flows back into the Nile from the lake. As a result, the water now has a bitter taste.

Amenemhat was obviously very proud of the Fayoum. He had two enormous seated statues of himself constructed on two giant pedestals at Biahmu, about four miles north of Shedyet, standing on either side of the main road. It is estimated that these would have each been 35 feet tall, although only small parts of them remain. When the lake was in flood, these would be completely surrounded by water and would appear to hover on the lake.

The Black Pyramid

The capital of Egypt at the time was known as Ijt-tawy. It was situated roughly on the site of the modern town of Lisht. Amenemhat chose to build his pyramid nearby at the cemetery of Dahshur. Every pharaoh started work on their pyramid soon after taking up the sceptre, as they knew that when they died no further work would be done on it. It was therefore essential to get it completed before they needed it. Amenemhat's pyramid, known as the Black Pyramid, was built of brick with stone outer-facing sides, as was the custom of the time.

Unfortunately for us, over the subsequent millennia people stole the stone facing of the brick pyramids for use in building work. Without the stone to protect them, the brick cores have been badly eroded, and in some cases have completely disappeared. The Black Pyramid today is an impressive ruin, but it bears little resemblance to a pyramid. The only surviving part of the outer stonework is the pyramidion, the single top stone which formed the apex of the pyramid. This is engraved with hieroglyphs. It is in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

The Black Pyramid's problems apparently started before it was even completed; the internal structure appears to have been unsound. The pyramid had an extremely elaborate series of passages and rooms inside, and Amenemhat buried two of his wives there, but chose not to be buried there himself. Instead, he started work on another pyramid, and chose an unusual location for it.

The Pyramid of Hawara

Amenemhat's second pyramid was built at Hawara, just north of the entrance to the Fayoum from the Nile Valley. It is situated 2km north of the modern town of Hauwaret el Maqta.

The pyramid was built on desert land, like other pyramids, but it is not on the edge of the desert. It is surrounded by agricultural land, being on a spit of desert projecting south-west and dividing the Fayoum from the Nile. Whereas the souls of other dead Pharaohs could look out on the Sun setting over the western desert, Amenemhat's soul would have a view of fine agricultural land – a fitting tribute to a king who did so much to develop the agriculture of the region.

The pyramid had a 105 by 105 metre base, making it about the same size as the smallest of the three pyramids at Giza. It is estimated that it would have been 58m high originally, although time and the action of sand-blasting have worn it down to only about two-thirds of that now. As before, the pyramid was built of brick with a stone outer casing. Although the stone casing was later stripped off it, the brick core is in fact the best preserved of any of the brick pyramids. The bricks used were described by the British archaeologist Sir William Flinders Petrie (1852 - 1942) as twice as big in each dimension as a standard English brick, and weighing about 40 or 50 pounds. Internal passages were lined with stone.

Traps and Labyrinths

When Asterix and Obelix (two popular cartoon characters) go to Egypt, they get trapped inside a pyramid and can't find their way out. According to legend, pyramids had labyrinths inside them. In fact, the insides of pyramids are usually very simple with rarely more than three or four rooms and a few connecting passages. However, slabs of rock which line the walls, floor or ceiling can in fact conceal other passages. You can never be sure you've found them all.

The pyramid of Hawara has the most complex system of doors and sliding blocks of any pyramid, not to trap intruders inside but to keep them out. Amenemhat was obviously intent on ensuring his body would survive along with his soul until the time of resurrection, and not be plundered by grave robbers. These state-of-the-art anti-theft devices are best described by following the route of the funeral carrying the king's mummy from the pyramid entrance to its final resting place:

  • The entrance, which would have been covered over and hidden after the king's burial, was on the south side, whereas most pyramids had the entrance on the north side. This may sound trivial but it was enough to completely fox the modern archaeologists looking for a way into the pyramid.

  • The entrance passageway descended into the ground below the pyramid; the sloping part had steps to make the going easier, an unusual feature. At the bottom of the steps, the passage continued horizontally, then reached a dead end. The ceiling, which looked like a single slab, was in fact a giant block weighing 22 tonnes. Sliding this to one side revealed that the passage continued at a higher level. It's not known how the funeral party moved this block. There's a groove in it which suggests a rope was looped around it, but that doesn't seem enough to move a 22-tonne block!

  • The new passage now branched. One branch going north was a dead end completely filled with blocks of stone, as if to protect the way. The other branch going east had a simple wooden door. It appears that this was intended to fool the grave robbers into wasting time hacking their way through the stone.

  • The eastern passage continued, rising gradually, with two more of the sliding blocks in the ceiling to deter intruders, with a change of direction after each.

  • The passage now reached a chamber, called the Well Chamber because it had two fake wells in it and no other apparent features. At the bottom of the wells were two dead end passages. The north end of this chamber was filled with giant blocks of stone, apparently hiding something, but in fact there just to deceive. In the floor of the chamber was a trench which was filled with masonry after the funeral, and hidden. This trench led to a continuation of the passage.

  • Finally, the centre of the pyramid was reached. The central chamber was carved out of a single piece of sandstone weighing 110 tonnes, with four walls and the floor continuous, with no breaks or openings. The ceiling of the central chamber was formed by three giant sandstone slabs lying side by side, each weighing about 45 tonnes. There was an empty space above one of these roof slabs, and the slab was left raised into this space during construction, supported on two pillars of stone. When the king's mummy had been brought in and placed in the sarcophagus4, two plugs were removed. Sand poured out through two holes and the two pillars, which were held up by the sand, descended slowly, lowering the final roof slab into place and sealing the pharaoh in his tomb.

One unusual feature of the central chamber is that there was a second sarcophagus. This was added after the pyramid was built but before the king was buried, by fencing off the space between the main sarcophagus and the side wall with two flat panels of stone, and putting a lid on it. It appears to have been made for Amenemhat's daughter Ptahnefru, although her body was moved to another tomb a few miles away before the final sealing of the chamber.

Tomb Raiders and Archaeologists

It is clear that, despite these impediments, grave robbers succeeded in penetrating the tomb. We don't know what treasures were buried with the king, but they were stolen long ago. Desecration of a royal tomb was punishable by death, but the rewards were great if you got away with it. If the Middle Kingdom pharaohs had as much treasure in their tombs as New Kingdom pharaohs, then a successful grave robber would be one of the richest men in the world.

The robbers didn't bother to move the first sliding block; they just tunnelled around it. They spent some time hacking their way through the blocks in the blind passage, no doubt to their great frustration when they discovered nothing at the end. The thieves didn't have to slide back the second and third sliding blocks, as the funeral party had neglected to put them in place. They discovered the route through the floor of the Well Chamber and came to the central chamber of the pyramid, where they hacked their way through the solid stone, removed the treasure and burned the body of the king.

In modern times, Flinders Petrie was the first and only archaeologist to gain access to the pyramid. In 1888, he spent a few months studying it, meticulously measuring and noting down everything. His results were published in book form as Kahun, Gurob and Hawara (1890). This is available in electronic form at André Dollinger's Pharaonic Egypt site.

Flinders Petrie searched for the entrance for a number of weeks, but was unable to find it. So he took the extreme measure of tunnelling to the centre from the north side. His team of labourers did most of the rough work, but he was responsible for the tricky task of lining the tunnel with wood sheets as they progressed.

The pyramid was built with dry sand between the bricks instead of mortar. Dry sand can flow like a liquid. As soon as a brick was removed, all the sand from above would start to flow downward to fill the hole. In his time in the tunnel, there was a constant hiss of sand flowing, and there were occasional roof collapses. The tunnel did its job but has not survived.

Flinders Petrie found the central chamber and then followed all the passages outwards to find the entrance. He found that many of the lowest passages were flooded - a disadvantage of siting the pyramid right next to agricultural land. In addition, an irrigation canal was built in the 19th century which runs within 30m of the pyramid. This has seriously raised the water table - the level of water in the ground. When the pyramid was opened again in the 1990s, it was discovered that the entrance tunnel had flooded completely, so nobody has entered the pyramid since.

The Labyrinth

In ancient times, pyramids did not stand alone. Each one was accompanied by a temple, called the mortuary temple. It is presumed that the funeral rites were carried out here, and that perhaps ceremonies of remembrance were carried out in subsequent years. Amenemhat's mortuary temple was supposedly the greatest ever built. It was so complex it had a special name – 'The Labyrinth'. The Greek historian Herodotus had rather a lot to say about it in about 450 BC:

They caused to be made a labyrinth, situated a little above the lake of Moiris and nearly opposite to that which is called the City of Crocodiles. This I saw myself, and I found it greater than words can say. For if one should put together and reckon up all the buildings and all the great works produced by Hellenes [Greeks], they would prove to be inferior in labour and expense to this labyrinth, though it is true that both the temple at Ephesos and that at Samos are works worthy of note. The pyramids also were greater than words can say, and each one of them is equal to many works of the Hellenes, great as they may be; but the labyrinth surpasses even the pyramids.
It has twelve courts covered in, with gates facing one another, six upon the North side and six upon the South, joining on one to another, and the same wall surrounds them all outside; and there are in it two kinds of chambers, the one kind below the ground and the other above upon these, three thousand in number, of each kind fifteen hundred. The upper set of chambers we ourselves saw, going through them, and we tell of them having looked upon them with our own eyes; but the chambers under ground we heard about only; for the Egyptians who had charge of them were not willing on any account to show them, saying that here were the sepulchres of the kings who had first built this labyrinth and of the sacred crocodiles. Accordingly we speak of the chambers below by what we received from hearsay, while those above we saw ourselves and found them to be works of more than human greatness. For the passages through the chambers, and the goings this way and that way through the courts, which were admirably adorned, afforded endless matter for marvel, as we went through from a court to the chambers beyond it, and from the chambers to colonnades, and from the colonnades to other rooms, and then from the chambers again to other courts. Over the whole of these is a roof made of stone like the walls; and the walls are covered with figures carved upon them, each court being surrounded with pillars of white stone fitted together most perfectly; and at the end of the labyrinth, by the corner of it, there is a pyramid of forty fathoms, upon which large figures are carved, and to this there is a way made under ground.
— Greek historian Herodotus, c 450 BC.

Unfortunately, nothing of the Labyrinth has survived to modern times, other than a few of the foundations.

1The name is also written as Amenemhet, Amenemkhat, or even the Greek version: Ammenemes.2Most Egyptian pharaohs were given five names, the most important being the throne name by which the ruler is normally known and the birth name.3The one exception was a small pyramid at Zawiyet Sultan, whose purpose is unknown, but it appears not to have been a tomb.4A stone coffin.

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