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Asasif Tombs of the 25th and 26th Dynasties; a Case Study in the Construction of Identity

Ms. Jean Li, winner of the Marie Buttery Memorial Prize competition, is a PhD candidate in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley. She received her MA from Berkeley, and her BA from the University of Toronto.


Ms. Li’s began her lecture by noting the time periods covered by these Dynasties. The 25th Dynasty, from approximately 747-671BC, was known as the Kushite Dynasty during which Egypt was a colonial power of Kush; Dynasty 26, from 672-525BC, the Saite Dynasty, saw native Egyptian rulers once again on the throne.  Ms. Li’s hypotheses, which she discussed in her paper, is that the rapidly changing political and social situation in Egypt during these two dynasties is reflected in the ways elite members of the society defined their personal identity in the decoration of  their tombs. Tombs display more readily than any other surviving device, the owner’s identity and vision of self.


Ms. Li examined three tombs at the Asasif, discussing the tomb plans, and the reliefs and sculptural decoration programs in each. She concentrated particularly on the pictorial images in her search for expressions of identity as these images reached the broadest intended audience at the time the tombs were constructed. 


Ms. Li noted that she selected tombs for her investigation of the construction and expression of personal identity for several reasons. The most practical reason is that tombs are the most common extant evidence of the Late Period with relatively good archaeological context and have undergone the most intensive analysis and publication.  Secondly, tombs, tomb markers, tomb decorations, grave goods and accompanying rituals were targeted for a variety of audiences - the tomb owner, his family and the general public – thus providing a broad message for a reasonably wide audience.  Lastly, tombs can be viewed as a microcosm of the norms and traditions of the society to which the tomb owner belonged.


Located on the west bank of the Nile, in the area between the cultivation and the Middle and New Kingdom mortuary temples of Mentuhotep, Thutmosis III and Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri, the Asasif came into use as a necropolis during the early Middle Kingdom, but its period of greatest popularity occurred during Dynasties 25 and 26.  During this period high officials and elites of the dynasty erected what are now referred to as temple or palace tombs.  These tombs are monumental in size with mud brick superstructures and carved architectural substructures cut directly into the bedrock.   The majority of these large Asasif tombs oriented their entrances to the causeways leading to the Deir el Bahri temples and when possible had stairs or ramps connecting them directly to these causeways.


The monumental Asasif tombs display a complex blending of royal and private, religious and secular architecture and decoration. They reflect great variety in size and layout, yet adhere to a standard, idealized plan.  Typically they are comprised of five elements:  a superstructure, staircases and antechambers, an excavated open or sunken court, subterranean cult rooms, and finally the rock cut, subterranean burial complex.  Vertically the tombs consisted of three levels (superstructure, substructure & burial chambers).  The tomb complexes were generally surrounded by a palace façade enclosure wall accessed by an arched, single-wall, mud brick entrance pylon.  The superstructure was composed of three successive courts, the middle of which led to the substructure.   There is evidence that some tombs also had gardens or trees planted in front of the entrance pylon and/or in the open court. 


The substructure was reached via a series of staircases and antechambers.  The sunken court was a deep, square or rectangular room cut into the bedrock but open to the sky.  It had great symbolic significance as it is believed to have been associated with the grave of Osiris at Abydos.  The courts were constructed with pillars quite like the layout of the Osirion.  The sunken court functioned as an offering chamber in which the tomb owner was remembered, and its attached side rooms were sometimes used as burial chambers for family members.  On the west wall there was usually a stylized door or niche that served as the focus for cult activities and entrance to the succeeding, more private underground cult chambers. 

The private areas of the tomb usually consisted of one or more pillared halls with side rooms and/or galleries, which led to yet another series of rooms.  Most commonly the room which follows the pillared hall is a square room with four columns beyond which is an offering chamber.  This offering chamber was situated directly in front of the inner sanctuary.


The burials were reached through a series of transverse corridors leading to a series of shafts.  Shafts which led to a burial were usually placed in one corner or against a wall.  At the bottom of each shaft would be found the rock cut burial chamber, that of the tomb owner being the deepest shaft and largest chamber.  The sarcophagus of the deceased was placed directly in the center of the chamber,


Ms. Li investigated three of these monumental “temple” tombs:

  • The tomb of Harwa (TT37).  Harwa was the Great Steward of the God’s Wife of Amun, Amenirdis I, and the first man to command great power and wealth during the Kushite Dynasty,

  • The tomb of Mentuemhat (TT34).  Mentuemhat was probably the most important historical figure in Thebes during the transitional period between Dynasty 25 and Dynasty 26.  He was the Fourth Prophet of Amun and the Mayor of Thebes under both the Kushite then Saite rulers.

  • The tomb of Ankh-Hor (TT414).  Ankh-Hor was the Great Steward of the God’s Wife of Amun, Nitocris, under the reign of Psamtek II, as well as governor of Oxyrhynchus and the Bahariya Oasis, during the Saite Dynasty.


Harwa (TT37)


Harwa held his esteemed office as Great Stewart to the God’s Wife of Amun for 40 years, surviving Amenirdis and probably dying during the reign of Taharqa. Since 1997, his tomb has been under excavation and restoration by the Italian Archaeological Mission at Luxor.  He was the first of the Theban elite to build a temple- or palace-type tomb – the type which became characteristic for high official of Dynasties 25 & 26.  His tomb marked a significant change from the much smaller Third Intermediate Period and early Dynasty 25 tombs which consisted only of an entrance pylon, courts and shrines, and a subterranean burial chamber.


Harwa’s tomb seems to have been built without the superstructure which became typical of Dynasty 25 & 26 Asasif tombs.  Though without a superstructure, the tomb had a sunken, open court which led down to the subterranean complex.  This complex consisted of a pillared hall and transverse corridors leading to the sanctuary where shafts to the burial apartments were cut in one corner against a wall.  The relief program in this tomb has been suggested by Dr. Edna Russmann to be a precursor to those which followed, for example in the tomb of Mentuemhat, and bridged the gap between the smaller, axial tombs of the Third Intermediate Period and early Dynasty 25, and the monumental temple/palace tombs of late Dynasty 25 and Dynasty 26.


The decoration of the open court of Harwa’s tomb is in raised relief and details scenes of daily life, such as agricultural activities – men assisting in the birth of a calf, grain harvesting, waterfowl in cages, boating activities in the papyrus marshes and herding cattle.   Recent excavation has also revealed depictions of a sculptural workshop which is in the midst of producing a large, striding statue of Amenirdis I.  There are also  large, striding figures of Harwa observing and supervising various activities.  In one relief, a small figure standing slightly below Harwa is identified as “son of his brother…” , or Hawra’s nephew.  Offering bearers and rows of rams and donkeys are also present.  These low reliefs are very finely carved and the figures and inscriptions reflect an Old Kingdom style.


Clearly the open court functioned as an offering court.  This function is reinforced by spells from the Book of the Dead inscribed on some of the pillars.  Additionally the decoration in this court points to the various identities Harwa assumed.  His societal identity as the Great Steward of the God’s Wife of Amun is reflected as he carries out his responsibilities, supervising the production of Amenirdis’ statue, overseeing harvests and animal husbandry, etc.


On the thickness of the entrance to the first pillared hall, the god Anubis is pictured leading Harwa into the tomb.  Excavation within the pillared hall has revealed many fragments of a scene with offering bearers carved in delicate sunk relief.  The half pillars near the entrance are decorated with men and women and on either side of the entrance are three images of Hawra stanced to greet visitors.  Excavation in the pillared hall has also revealed that the northern pillars were decorated with scenes from the 12 Hours of the Day, and the southern pillars with scenes from the 12 Hours of the Night. Fragmentary remains indicate that the walls of the hall were inscribed with Pyramid Texts, a throw back to Old Kingdom decoration.  A fragment of an offering table was found in the southwest part of the hall.


The passage which connects the two pillared halls is inscribed with texts detailing the renewal of Harwa’s youth prior to entering the netherworld.


The second pillared hall is square and has four pillars and well preserved texts on the chamber walls.  Other decoration includes scenes related to the purification of the mummy and vignettes of Harwa kneeling in front of a solar barque carrying the gods Ma’at, Hu, Sia and the sun disk.  Beneath this particular scene are hymns to the sun.  Access to the burial apartments is located in the northwest corner of the second pillared hall.  A shaft leads to a corridor that leads to decorated rooms with vaulted ceilings.  The actual burial chamber is thought to be the room which is also accessed by a second shaft.


The sanctuary is located just beyond the second pillared hall.  On the north wall of the sanctuary and in direct line of sight through both halls is an engaged image of Osiris, carved about 40 centimeter above the level of the floor and smaller than life size.  The image is surrounded by carved rectangular “doorways” each slightly smaller than the next, creating the illusion of passing through multiple chambers to finally reach the image of the god.  Ms. Li commented that it is most interesting that Osiris is the focus in this room which heretofore would have featured the tomb owner himself.  Instead, a seated statue of Harwa was located along the north wall of the chamber.


Thus, the Osiris hall replaced the sanctuary which would have been dedicated to the tomb owner. Veneration of Osiris had always been an important aspect of tombs, especially during the Third Intermediate Period, but the tomb owner typically remained the primary focus of the cult sanctuary prior to the tomb of Harwa.  Was Harwa being self-effacing by deferring to Osiris or intentionally displaying his piety? 


The monumental size of Harwar’s tomb, its complexity and detailed and finely worked decoration all point to the power held by Harwa during his life.  His tomb ably transitions from displaying the public, social persona of the tomb owner in the public portions of the tomb to the more pious man giving prominence to his god in the private parts of the tomb.


Mentuemhat (TT34)


Mentuemhat was probably the most important historical figure in Thebes during the transition period between the end of the Kushite dynasty and the beginning of Dynasty 26 ruled by kings located at Sais in the delta. He was the Fourth Profit of Amun, but more importantly the Mayor of Thebes.  He served under the Kushite kings, then enjoyed a period of almost complete autonomy before negotiations resulted in the acceptance of Saite rule.  His tomb is among the largest and most lavishly decorated of the tombs at the Asasif.  Though not completely excavated, it is one of the best studied.  Almost all of Mentuemhat’s tomb was decorated in either raised or sunk relief, but much of it has been plundered and is now scattered throughout the world in private and museum collections.


The tomb is oriented east-west with a large mud brick pylon forming the eastern entrance to the tomb’s superstructure.  Access to the substructure, however, is on the north side of the tomb (a feature which first appears in this tomb); the sloping northern entrance being aligned to the causeways of the Deir el Bahri mortuary temples.   Entry to the substructure is through a north-oriented vestibule from which one must make a 90 degree turn into an east-west oriented pillared hall. A short passage from this hall leads into the first of two open air courts, which is lined with side chambers.  At the west end of this court, a corridor leads into a second open air court, then to another hall, both of which are oriented north-south.  Another 90 degree turn through a passage way ends in an eight-pillared hall. The route to the burial compartments is comprised of a series of convoluted descending stairways and passages most of which are either only partially excavated or not excavated at all.


The vestibule decoration depicts scenes from daily life and the doorway on the south wall is flanked by large, richly detailed, mirror images of Mentuemhat paying homage to Psamtek I, thus immediately exhibiting the tomb owner’s loyalty to Psamtek I to tomb visitors.   Henceforth other Asasif tombs adopted the use of scenes of the tomb owner venerating the ruling king.


The first sunken court is a large, rectangular, open-air space with multiple side chapels along each side. The long, north and south walls are carved with colossal pairs of bound papyrus stalks on raised, undecorated bases, which fill the spaces between the chapel entrance ways.  Their large scale is without precedence in Egyptian architecture. The chapels are decorated and dedicated to the cult of the tomb owner, but it is postulated that they were ultimately used for the burial of family members.


The east wall is dominated by two pairs of rock cut niche statues of Mentuemhat and his third wife, Wedjarenes, and Mentuemhat and his mother.  These statue pairs face the substructure of the tomb vice outward to greet visitors as would have been the case in the New Kingdom. 


Above the door on the east wall is a lentil depicting seated, back-to-back, mummiform images of Psamtek I.  One wears the white crown of Upper Egypt and the other the red crown or Lower Egypt; one faces an image of Osiris (on the left) and the other an image of Ra-Harakhty (on the right).  Behind these images of the king and gods is a large cartouche containing the king’s name and a unification symbol.  Mentuemhat and his son stand in attendance on the right jamb.  This lentil and the images in the vestibule are the earliest attestations of royal depictions in Late Period Theban tombs, and of the apotheosis of the king – a motif that appeared in neither the New Kingdom or early in Dynasty 25. By depicting Psamtek I in his tomb, Mentuemhat ingratiated himself to the new power and at the same time made a statement about his own role in facilitating the Saite consolidation of power in Thebes. 


The west portico of the north wall of this first court depicts Wedjarenes as a member of the Kushite royal family.  She appears in a delicate low relief scene of the pilgrimage of her body by boat to Abydos.  The mummiform figure is typically Egyptian and wears a long wig.  Her Kushite identity is, however, displayed on the south side of the west wall where she stands behind Mentuemhat with the round head, close cropped hair, and thick, columnar neck characteristic of depictions of the Kushite kings.  The inscription above her gives her title as “sole noblewoman of the king” which indicates her relationship to the royal family.


The second open-air court has porticos along the north and south walls each supported by a double row of pillars.  The walls were decorated with scenes of offering bearers and small-scale depictions of swamp (fishing, boating, fowling) and agricultural related activities.  Wadjarenes featured prominently throughout both the first and second courts, but most particularly in the first court.  Most often she appears as an Egyptian vice a Kushite woman which would indicate that Psamtek I’s new 26th Dynasty likely maintained a policy of tolerance.  Her depiction as an Egyptian in the 26th Dynasty portions of the tomb presumes, however, that it was politically disadvantageous to advertise her close ties to the prior dynasty.


Mentuemhat’s tomb displays his multitude of nuanced identities.   He is most certainly the primary focus of the tomb.  He also emphasizes his intimate ties to the royal family of Dynasty 25, of whom his wife is paramount.  He is clearly a savvy politician, skillfully balancing his relationships with the rulers of both dynasties.  He portrays himself in his roles as father, priest and loyal subject, such that he creates an inescapable impression of a power player in his time.


Anhk-Hor (TT414)


Like Harwa, Ankh-Hor was the Great Steward of the God’s Wife of Amun in the reign of Psamtek II.  Additionally he held positions as the governor of Oxyrhynchus and the Bahariya Oasis.  His tomb is smaller than those of Harwa and Mentuemhat, but it is considered a classic example of the ideal Dynasty 26 monumental tomb.  Ankh-Hor’s east-west oriented superstructure was an irregular rectangle, in order, apparently, to avoid encroaching on the space of his nearest neighbors.  It consisted of a first pylon facing east, and three open-air courts.  Tree pits in front of the pylon suggest that a garden fronted the tomb.  Two planting beds in the first court also point to plantings of trees and flowers.  From the first court, a stairway led to a second court.  In the western part of the third court there is an indication of a cult room, which is unusual as such rooms were usually underground.


The underground complex of the tomb is also unusual as it has a bent axis.  One descends south from the second court via a stairway into the vestibule before turning west into a pillared room then proceeds north through a door in the east wall, to an excavated open court, thence west down a corridor and through a large 8-pillared hall to finally reach the cult complex.  


The vestibule at the foot of the stairway leads to the underground complex, and in Ankh-Hor’s tomb apparently functioned as a front cult chamber devoted to the God’s Wives of Amun.  This redefinition of the function of the vestibule as leading to a cult chamber in which the tomb owner is not the focus is a change from prior tombs.


The sunken court is an irregular rectangle in the center of which were two raised planting beds.  Pillars lined the north and east walls of the court forming galleries.  The pillars were decorated with sunk relief featuring offering bearers.  On the sides of the pillars which face the open court are vignettes of Ankh-Hor venerating various gods, offering libations & praise, and provisioning for the afterlife, along with spells from the Books of the Dead.  The reliefs on the walls of the sunken court indicate the function of the court as an offering hall. The doorway leading to from the first court into this sunken court is topped with a winged sun disk under which is the name of God’s Wife of Amun Nitocris in a serekh facing an image of Ra-Harakhty.  A second serekh is blank and was probably intended for the name of Psamtek II.  This second serekh faces an image of Osiris seated on a throne.  This elevation of the God’s Wife of Amun to kingly power or its equivalent is significant.  Perhaps this decoration expresses Ankh-Hor’s identity as Nitoctis’ man first and foremost.


The south wall of the court is decorated with scenes of Ankh-Hor with his parents, with offering tables, being presented with lotuses by his son, and representations of other family members including the mortuary priest, who is identified as his uncle.  The west wall is decorated with offering bearers carrying food, flowers and young animals and Ankh-Hor receiving these offerings.  Beside the door leading to the 8-pillared hall is Osiris with the Goddess of the West.  A niche to the west of this door functioned as an offering niche and an offering plate was found in situ near the east end of the court.


The remaining halls and chambers of the tomb appear not to have been decorated.  Perhaps Ankh-Hor died before the planned decoration could be executed.  The decoration that does exist, however, serves to demonstrate his multiple identities – a man dedicated to the duties of his office, a beloved and respected son and perhaps the head of his family as his uncle served as his mortuary priest.  His personal piety is reflected in his veneration of various gods and his status as a chief officer of royal presence in Thebes is clear.  The veneration of the God’s Wife of Amun over that of the kings, may also speak to the political situation in Egypt at this time.



Ms. Li summarized her conclusions as follows.  The Asasif tombs embody the various identities of their owners in many layers that range from the overtly obvious to the very subtle. The areas of the sunken courts in particular, were forums in which multiple and nuanced identities of the tomb owners were displayed.  Changes in identities from Dynasty 25 to Dynasty 26 were subtle, and most were anchored in political and social aspects.  In addition, some identities were more overtly displayed and easily accessed, while others were subtly indicated, demonstrating that some identities may have been more fluid and less stable than others in the tomb context

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