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Deir el-Bersha

Deir el-Bersha, named after the modern village nearby, is a necropolis and quarry site on the east bank of the Nile, in the remote cliffs at the mouth of the Wadi Deir el-Nakhla. The site is important not only for its 39 rock-cut tombs, many similar in style to the later tombs at Beni Hasan, but also for its extensive galleries of limestone quarries. Unfortunately the quarrying and earlier earthquakes as well as more recent vandalism have greatly damaged the tombs which are now in a lamentable state of preservation.

The most important tombs at Deir el-Bersha belong to Dynasty XI and XII governors of the 15th Upper Egyptian Nome who lived in Hermopolis (el-Ashmunein) across the river. They were visited by many early travellers and excavated by Percy Newberry for the Egypt Exploration Fund during 1891-1893, by Georges Daressy in 1897 and Ahmed Kamal from 1900. George Reisner began excavations in 1915 for the Boston-Harvard Expedition. Since the 1980s a Dutch-American expedition has excavated at Deir el-Bersha.

Middle Kingdom painted Coffin of the Steward, Sopi, from Deir el-Bersha. (Musee du Louvre)

The decorated tombs in the cliffs of Deir el-Bersha date from the Old Kingdom, First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom, when it was the principal cemetery of Hermopolis. Early excavations at the site brought to light a number of high-status burials, some of them substantially intact. The most famous and most impressive of the Middle Kingdom tombs was constructed for Djehutihotep, a governor who ruled during the Dynasty XII reigns of Amenemhet II and Senwosret II and III. Djehutihotep’s main title was ‘Great Overlord of the Hare Province’. His tomb-chapel has a portico with two palm-columns, a rectangular inner hall and a deep cult chamber with a statue niche up a short flight of steps. The tomb has long been famous for a unique painted scene on the left-hand wall of the inner hall, depicting the transportation of a colossal statue of the deceased from the alabaster quarries at Hatnub to his mortuary chapel. The scene shows how the statue, measuring 6.5m high and estimated to weigh about 60 tonnes, was dragged on a wooden sledge by 172 men pulling with ropes, while another man pours something (presumably water) from a jar to lubricate the ground in front of the sledge. The lifting of the weight was done using wooden levers. The tomb also contains other interesting scenes of daily life in the Middle Kingdom.

In one of five subsidiary shaft-graves in the forecourt of Djehutihotep’s tomb-chapel was the tomb of Gua, who held the title of ‘Chief of Physicians’, and was probably Djehutihotep’s personal doctor. A quantity of rich burial equipment was found here, including two beautifully decorated cedarwood coffins, Gua’s canopic jars and several wooden models, now in the British Museum.

Among other interesting and important tombs is that of the governor Djehutinakht, discovered by H Lyman Story, registrar of the Boston Museum in 1915. Djehutinakht was ‘Heredetery Prince and Controller of the Two Thrones’, a governor of Dynasty XI. His wife shared the tomb and also confusingly shared the same name. Djehutinakht’s tomb had been anciently plundered but many artefacts were found during its clearance, including the owner’s elaborate and beautifully detailed outer coffin, an unparalleled masterpiece of Middle Kingdom art, and parts of his desecrated mummy, the linen-wrapped head of which was found watching the excavators from on top of the coffin. Among the treasures left behind were several coffins, mummy-masks and funerary equipment, as well as jewellery, superb wooden models, vessels and statuettes.

Model Brewery from Deir el-Bersha, Dynasty XI or XII (Ashmoleum Museum Oxford)

The limestone quarries and their associated settlements in and around the Wadi Deir el-Nakhla were in use from the New Kingdom through to the Roman Period and into the Coptic era. The Mission to Deir el-Bersha of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, directed by Professor Harco Willems have been working in the quarry areas since 2002 where they have revealed many interesting features, inscriptions, drawings and grafitto as well as a badly damaged stela of Amenhotep III. They point out that the removal of Amun’s name from the defaced stela may indicate that the quarries were in use during the Amarna Period.

Recent excavation reports on the Deir el-Bersha quarries can be found on the Leuven excavation website Pharaonic Tombs and Stone Quarries in Deir al-Barsha.

How to get there

Deir el-Bersha is almost opposite the town of Mallawi on the eastern side of the Nile. The archaeological area at the entrance to the Wadi Deir el-Nakhla is remote and difficult to access and the tombs are believed to be presently closed due to their damaged and dangerous condition.

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