The region of el-Faiyum thrived during the Middle Kingdom when the fertile area around Birket Qarun began to be developed as a pleasure-ground in which kings and high officials pursued their sports of hunting, fishing and fowling. It became so popular that the Dynasty XII kings Senwosret II and Amenemhet III chose to site pyramids here as their final resting places, at the far reaches of the existing pyramid fields to the north. Senwosret II’s pyramid complex is situated at el-Lahun (sometimes called Illahun) and Amenemhet III’s complex is at Hawara on the southern edge of the oasis, just off the Beni Suef to Cairo desert road.
Senwosret II chose el-Lahun for the site of his pyramid complex, named, ‘Senwosret Shines’. Although still an impressive size, the pyramid is now in a ruinous condition and a natural outcrop of yellow limestone spokes around which the structure was built can be seen protruding from the rubble of the mudbrick fill in some places. This was the first large mudbrick pyramid and was once covered by a white limestone casing, which according to an inscription read by Petrie, was removed during Dynasty XIX.
The structure was first seriously investigated by Petrie in 1889-90, who discovered an entrance, not on the northern side as would have been usual, but through a vertical shaft several metres east of the southern side and beneath the floor of an unknown princess’s tomb (no. 10). The original entrance was a larger shaft, further to the south and through which the sarcophagus must have been taken. This ‘construction shaft’ and sloping corridor was built in such a way as to resemble the entrance to a burial chamber, probably in order to deceive robbers. The corridor continued north ascending towards an antechamber and here turned west towards the King’s granite-lined burial chamber inside the pyramid. Although the burial chamber had been thoroughly robbed during ancient times the red granite sarcophagus of Senwosret II was found with an inscribed alabaster offering table bearing the King’s cartouches. Petrie also recovered a gold uraeus, probably from a statue of the King as well as fragments of leg bones from a side-chamber. Another departure from the usual pyramid construction was a sand-filled trench, dug into the subsoil around the structure and which would have acted as drainage to prevent the pyramid from being flooded.
On the northeast corner of Senwosret’s pyramid, was a smaller pyramid, belonging to a queen, with eight large mudbrick mastabas lined up to the west of it which are thought to be cenotaphs rather than genuine tombs. Smaller subsidiary tombs belonging to princesses were found on the south-eastern side of the King’s pyramid. In later seasons Petrie began to explore the princess’s tombs and in 1914 his assistant Guy Brunton discovered the famous ‘el-Lahun treasure’ while excavating the tomb of Princess Sit-Hathor-Iunet. A spectacular hoard of Middle Kingdom jewellery and cosmetic vessels was found in a deep layer of silt, their ornate wooden caskets long-since decayed. These objects, certainly one of the greatest treasure hoards found in Egypt are now exhibited in the Cairo Museum and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Senwosret’s complex, which included a mortuary temple, now destroyed, was surrounded by an enclosure wall, encased in limestone and with niches similar to the enclosure of Djoser’s Step Pyramid at Saqqara. Rows of trees were planted along the outer perimeter, perhaps an echo of the trees surrounding the ‘mound of creation’ of Osirian mythology.
North of the pyramid, Petrie discovered the ruins of another structure thought to be a heb-sed chapel. The distant site of Senwosret’s Valley Temple has been located, but little is known of its plan, and the causeway leading to it has never been excavated.
North-west of the Valley Temple is the King’s pyramid town, established to maintain Senwosret’s mortuary cult, consisting of blocks of workers’ houses and larger villas for the officials. This town, known by the modern name of Kahun, was at the time of discovery the only extant example of a complete pyramid town, and when Petrie excavated it in 1889 it was found with much of its ancient furnishings in place. The town has been the source of a great deal of valuable information about the domestic lives of its inhabitants. One of Petrie’s most important discoveries was an enormous quantity of papyri, consisting of contemporary documents relating to wills, medical texts, astronomical texts and the only known veterinary papyrus as well as various letters, accounts and administration documents. Many of these ‘Kahun texts’ come from the temple archive and include religious documents from the period. They are now preserved in Cairo, University College London and Berlin. The town site has now been covered over with sand.
The Egyptian Ministry of Culture announced in April 2009 that a necropolis dating to the Middle and New Kingdoms and to Dynasty XXII, has recently been found at Illahun, to the south-east of the Pyramids. So far excavations have revealed a variety of tomb designs, some with wooden coffins and linen-wrapped mummies, as well as several mummy masks. More detail on Zahi Hawass’s website.
How to get there
To reach Lahun Pyramid you will probably have to take whichever route your police escort decides. Usually this means travelling from Medinet el-Faiyum to the village of el-Lahun. After leaving the village at a T-junction, the track takes you along an ancient embankment for several kilometres to the edge of the desert. This huge stone earthwork is said to have been built by Amenemhet I as the southern embankment for the enlargement of Lake Moeris during Dynasty XII.
Hawara As the oasis of el-Faiyum became more important during Dynasty XII, a number of religious monuments were built there and the next pharaoh to construct his pyramid in the region was Amenemhet III. This was not the king’s first choice of burial site – he had previously built a pyramid at Dahshur, to the north, during the early part of his long reign, but due to structural stresses which became apparent during the construction, Amenemhet opted to begin a second pyramid at Hawara, near the site of his grandfather’s monument at el-Lahun. It was to be the last major pyramid complex in Egypt.
The King’s second pyramid was built with a core of mudbricks and a white limestone casing, which was removed in Roman times. The pyramid was entered directly through the casing on the south side with a stairway and corridor descending into the substructure, which today is flooded by groundwater. A series of corridors and blind passages wound around the inside of the pyramid, before finally coming to the burial chamber at a higher level to the west of the pyramid’s centre. This was reached via a concealed entrance in the ceiling of one of the passages and was blocked by a massive quartzite slab. Because of his experience with the Dahshur pyramid, Amenemhet’s architects took extra care in reinforcing and protecting the burial chamber, by constructing a series of triangular lintels which supported a high gabled roof of large limestone blocks beneath another vault of mudbricks. The chamber itself was a single piece of quartzite, weighing over 100 tonnes, into which was carved a trough which held the sarcophagus and canopic chests. The sealing block of the chamber was an enormous slab of quartzite which was ingeniously lowered into place by means of slowly releasing the sand which had supported the stone slab into side galleries. The King’s burial chamber was sufficiently protected to withstand the enormous weight of the brickwork and stone above it, but it would seem that the complicated precautionary measures taken to deter robbers was ultimately unsuccessful.
When Petrie investigated the sarcophagus in Amenemhet’s burial chamber he discovered remains of a burned inner coffin, presumably damaged by ancient grave-robbers. A second wooden coffin was found in an antechamber, along with a carved alabaster offering-table bearing the names of a Princess Neferu-ptah, thought to be a daughter of the King and it was assumed that the princess had been buried with her father. However, in 1956 the remains of an almost destroyed small pyramid 2km south-east of the King’s pyramid was investigated, and the tomb of Neferu-ptah was found. Her red granite sarcophagus and other objects inscribed with her name were found in the burial chamber, but up to date archaeologists are still puzzling about the real location of Neferu-ptah’s burial.
Within the enclosure, immediately to the south of Amenemhet’s pyramid, Petrie excavated the King’s mortuary temple – an extensive and very complicated structure, which is now so ruined that it is difficult to reconstruct a plan. This is probably the structure which classical authors referred to as ‘the Labyrinth’ which so impressed early travellers. This unique building, covering an area of 2.8 hectares, was described by Herodotus as having been constructed from a single rock and to contain three thousand rooms connected by winding passages and courts. He may have exaggerated as other writers disagreed about the number of chambers and courts. Strabo called the complex ‘a palace composed of as many smaller palaces as were formerly nomes’, that is, forty two. Petrie discovered remains of two statues of the gods Sobek and Hathor in the structure and a statue of Amenemhet III nearby in the irrigation canal. Unfortunately the ‘Labyrinth’ today is little more than a bed of rubble, its stone quarried away since Roman times. It extends across the modern canal to the south of the pyramid.
The pyramid complex was enclosed by a perimeter wall with a causeway leading from the south-eastern corner to the valley temple, neither of which have been fully investigated.In a cemetery north of the pyramid complex, Petrie also found 146 mummy-portraits dating to the Roman Period. One of these can be seen in the small museum at Kom Ushim and more Faiyum Portraits are in Cairo Museum.
How to get there
As with the pyramid at Lahun you will be taken to Hawara Pyramid by a police escort, usually from Medinet el-Faiyum. The road winds through a pretty cultivated valley before reaching the village of Demu on the edge of the desert.