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by Eleanor KORMYSHEVA, Dr. Sc. (History), member of the International Association of Egyptologists, and of the French and British Egyptological Societies; Institute of Oriental Studies, RAS
The author of the present article had a lucky break: in 1995 the Supreme Council of the Archeology of Egypt issued her a license for carrying our excavation works-in Egypt, mind you. Dr. Kormysheva and her team have spent five field seasons there and recovered a whole slew of material. She has told us about some of her finds...
The Russians have always shown much interest in Egypt. In this outgoing twentieth century too. In 1962/1963 a Russian archeological party under Academician Boris Piotrovsky (then the director of the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad) worked in Egypt within the framework of the UNESCO program to save historic monuments in an area that was to be inundated by the Nile due to the construction of the Aswan high dam. This expedition collected a wealth of material still being studied by Egyptologists. Now Russian archeologists are again back in Egypt, a cradle of human civilization: in 1995 the Institute of Oriental Studies (Russian Academy of Sciences) was granted permission for archeological diggings in Giza (El Gizeh).
Well and good, but what about the funds? There was no seat on the gravy train for us. It would be a great pity to forfeit the hard-won concession for lack of money. And so we had to look out for sponsors. After quite a bit of search and disappointment we chanced upon the right people. Though not conversant with archeology and its problems, they understood our predicaments. And, what was most important, they were awake to nonmaterial, intellectual values and concerned about the future of Russian science. Indeed, man lives not by bread alone. In short, we got aid and assistance from the Moscow Interbank Currency Exchange founded in 1992 and becoming one of the leading institutions on the Russian financial market. This stock exchange is helping out more than seventy organizations involved in fields other than science. Still and all, its board of directors gave us the money, and we rushed to make our dream come true.
Looking for the site of our work, we never thought we would land in Giza (El Gizeh), the coveted place for digs. But clearing all the formalities, we found ourselves there after all, on a plateau next to the Cheops pyramid erected in the latter half of the third millennium B.C., the second largest in Egypt. The grandiose tombs of Giza are the only of the seven wonders of the ancient world to survive to our days. The other six are gone, wrecked by the ravaging time and human vandalism.
But the Great Pyramids where Egyptian pharaohs were laid to rest are not minions of fortune either.
Sacked and ravaged still in hoary antiquity, they lost there magnificent decorative facing of starch-white limestone in the Middle Ages; and gone were the sheets of gold crowning their proud caps. All that was pillaged and taken away. The precious solar metal vanished without a trace in the dust of centuries, while the stone of the tombs was utilized for the building of the famous mosques in Cairo.
The once desolate Giza plateau, now within Cairo's city limits, has been attracting voyagers, tourists and adventure-seekers for nearly five thousand years. Even in this day and age the Great Pyramids are awe-inspiring in sheer look. The years of Pharaoh Chephren's rule (Chephren [Kha-f-Ra] succeeded to Pharaoh Cheops and ruled at the end of the 27th and at the beginning of the 26th century B.C.) went down in history as the time of great calamities, for the erection of stone giants was a heavy burden on the common people. Next to the Cheops pyramid is the majestic Sphinx, couchant, with Pharaoh's Chephren's visage. An obscure master cut this monument out of a solid stone. The world's largest statue (twenty meters tall and fifty-seven long) was buried in sand time and again. From the inscription incised on the stele between the paws of the Sphinx we learn that such things happened to it in antiquity as well. The pharaoh to be, Tuthmosis IV, while hunting in the desert, lay down for a bit of rest at its side; and he had a prophetic dream: he would become a pharaoh if he dug out the Sphinx buried by the shifting sands. A rich reward, for the Sphinx rewarded generously. During the first year of his rule Tuthmosis IV had the stele built to commemorate the happening.
It was all-important for any family in ancient Egypt to have a safe sanctum for the dead-an impregnable one and off limits to strangers. Even petty officials in the hierarchic apparatus of power, once they had become incumbents, would first think about their sepulchres. So what about the pharaohs! Their kith and kin as well as the top clerks appointed for the purpose were duty bound to celebrate the cult of defunct pharaohs. Such priests officiated at memorial services for their deceased ruler and did everything for his bliss in the other world, not forgetting about his tomb in this world either. Nobles and high-born Egyptians of any note were eager to have their mortal remains repose at their sovereign's side in the hope to be together with him in the after life too, among the immortal gods.
And in this way a giant necropolis spread around the pyramids-segregated according to the pecking order, it displayed a variety of tomb structures, and kept giving host to the mortal clay.
Aerial pictures show clear images of rectangles aligned in straight rows. These are the mastabs, tombs of the nobility; the word is derived from Arabic and means a mud bench before an abode. They were built from stone blocks brought in from other parts, each tomb rising as a trapezoid structure with truncated walls. The rock "homes of eternal rest" were cut from a single stone block; imagine what time and effort-and skills for that matter-it took to shape it into a mastab, a monument of superb craftsmanship.
Our first object was the tomb of Chaphraankh, the caretaker and custodian of the Great Pyramid of Chephren, in Giza's eastern cemetery. The very name can be rendered as "Long Live Pharaoh Chephren!" The caretaker's office was a hereditary one. As to Chaphraankh, he must have been of royal descent. We found his tomb well-nigh buried in sand. And so we had to turn to and dig up for a few weeks to get to the entrance. A hole in the ceiling was a sure sign of break-in and plunder. The sand seeped in from the hole and filled all of the vault, from floor to ceiling. Some spadework for us again!
Here's what we managed to find out. In 200 or 300 years after Chaphraankh and his family had found their rest in the sepulchre, a group of men penetrated it in search of a burial place for their folks, for the Giza necropolis had been packed full by that time. The men destroyed the northern wall of Chaphraankh's recess and carved out new tombs in the rock. Our party could get as far as that only after the second field season.
How come that act of sacrilege? Who dared desecrate the tomb and disturb the eternal sleep of the high priest of the Great Pyramid of Chephren and of his kin? Only next of kin still in the land of the living could enter the tomb for performing memorial rites. "Thou shalt not wreck the tombs" was the commandment made by the king of Nennesut (a city which the Hellenes called Heracleopolis) to his son. But a few centuries later Ipuser, a high-placed Egyptian noble, lamented, "What the pyramid has concealed now stands empty... The owners of the tombs have been tossed out onto hilltops".
Chaphraankh's relatives must have foreseen freak accidents like that. To keep the mummy safe they placed it into a painted wooden sarcophagus which was then immured in a stone niche supplied with special grips. The sepulchral chapel lay 11 meters deep within a chamber carved out in rock. Two rows of huge stones sealed it tight above. We spent all of the field season of 1998 to get to the remains of the host. And here we were in for yet another surprise.
It was the structure of the burial couch, in sheer contrast to the tombs of that period (Chaphraankh lived in the latter half of the third millennium B.C.) well-known to all Egyptologists.
Embossed images told the tale of Chaphraankh's earthly span. That was a must-according to the notions of those times, the dead were to relive their life in the next world. Here's Chaphraankh showing his guests in at the tomb's entrance; here's he a slim youth; and last, shown in the image of a corpulent man (sometimes Egyptians used such figures to depict clerks at the height of their career).
Descending into the burial chapel, we kind of traveled back in time, into the ages long past when Chaphraankh's kith and kin, seeing him off into the nether world, supplied the late- lamented with everything he might need there, and not forgetting about their own resting- places either, which they chose well in advance. At any rate, they were always present in raised images. To the ancient Egyptians the word and the image were endowed with magic powers. Embossed on stone, raised pictures and inscriptions came alive by the magic of the uttered word and performed proper functions. Mortuary gifts that were listed by the scribe Chaphra-userkau, son of the tomb's host, were sent to the other world in due course: the fish, thrashed grain and domestic fowl in cages (imaged on six long registers of the eastern wall) became quite a real thing to Chaphraankh residing in the land of the dead. One can see scenes like that in other Egyptian tombs, but the immense number of cattle, sheep, donkeys and the like dispatched to Chaphraankh staggers imagination: there were 835 bulls, 220 cows, 760 donkeys, 2235 goats and 974 rams. All that listed in detail, with the figures inscribed in Egyptian numerals near the images of the sacrificial animals. Travelers who visited the Chaphraankh tomb in the nineteenth century certainly saw fragments of the embossed work and dubbed the burial place a Tomb of Numerals. Today scientists have regained access to this tomb thanks to our efforts.
The eastern wall of the tomb, which is the longest, shows the dead man's brother, Iteti, bidding farewell to the late-lamented on his last journey; he, Iteti, would cater to his brother's needs in the underworld. Departing thither, Chaphraankh takes along his watchdog, which is like a present-day sheepdog. Together with his dog, Chaphraankh oversees the progress of work at his household and on his estate in the other world: harvesting, fishing, cattle- and poultry-farming, and so forth. The fish, fowl and cattle were sacrificed for the dead man's nourishment. And so were slaves whom he had punished for careless work in the field. His relatives saw to it that thousands of head of cattle and what could be used for victuals went west. The magic incantations pronounced during memorial services
made all that a real thing in the nether world.
The upper register of the eastern wall of the vault is filled with the images of boats symbolizing the man's journey to his long home. And on the southern wall we see Chaphraankh among his family: with his wife (likewise interred at his side) and daughter. From the inscriptions above their heads we learn that the name of Chaph-raankh's wife was Cherenka, and that she was a priestess of two goddesses: of Chatchor, the mistress of the sycamore and of the holy town of Dendera in Egypt's south; and of Neit, a trail-blazing deity. We see Cherenka hugging her husband. Next by their daughter Uretka, sitting on the floor with her legs crossed. All the necessary victuals and provisions brought in by serfs (scenes on the eastern wall) have been put on the sacrificial table before the tomb's master.
The acme of the ancient Egyptian burial cult is epitomized by the western wall of the chapel: this wall is carved out in the form of false doors imitating the facades of walled-up palaces. Such doors represent the visible boundary separating the two worlds, of the living and of the dead; they are a gate from this world to the next one. There, beyond the wall, is the abode of the dead; but on this side one can converse with their souls that return to the tomb to take the mortuary gifts. A statue, the material image of the tomb's master, stood guard in such places as a rule. The ancient Egyptians thought man to consist of seven substances, one of them, a sibling; this twin accompanied man all through his life, from birth to his death hour. Another substance is the soul pictured as a bird with a human face-it leaves the mortal frame at the moment of death. And there is also an incorporeal shadow, or ghost. All these substances, divorced by death, join together in the lower
world to make up a whole again. Chaphraankh's statue, carved from a single piece of rock, rises in a niche of the southern wall. The craftsmanship is superb, amazing; inanimate stone comes alive and shows the human body to advantage, in all its beauty. The plunderers tried to take out the statue, they made a hole in the trunk with a brace, but failed to detach the monument from the rock.
Next to the western wall are three wells taking us down into burial chambers. The first, 12 meters deep, belonged to Chaphraankh himself, and the other two-each three meters deep- to his widow, and to a married couple, Chermer and his spouse, Ishepet. Most likely they were related to Chaphraankh, and a place had been reserved for them during the construction of the tomb. The burglars, as we thought, had plundered this "charnel house" more than once, and so we had no hope of recovering the mummy. Still, we had to stick to the job at hand.
What we saw beat all our expectations. We unearthed underground premises and recovered excellent material on the construction of burial chambers; we found plenty of earthenware- it could help us date the time of the burial; we hit upon fragments of the sacrificial table and remains of the wood of the sarcophagus; and last but not least, we retrieved pieces of the skull from which the facial features of the deceased might be reconstructed. There were other articles, too, which could tell us a good deal about that distant age.
The sepulchre used to be lavish in its decor: the embossed work, statue and false doors were painted out in bright colors, and so Chaphraankh, standing in the niche, could feast his stone eyes on the beauties of earthly living. But once a group of strangers, looking for the resting place for their relative, disturbed the peace of Chaphraankh and his spouse, Cherenka. The thiefs entered the tomb from the hole they had cut for the purpose. The diggings in this part of the tomb confirmed our suspicions. Clearing this site from sand and stone debris, we uncovered the ramp leading downstairs, to the burial chamber. In the far northern corner of the tomb we detected a well and a chamber, the last abode of a man whose name we would never learn.
In all the vaults the deceased had their belongings at their side. It took us two field seasons to wash clean and restore all these items. And then we could only gaze and marvel. Here before us is an exquisite vessel with the maker's mark on it-such receptacles were used for keeping valuable oil for the burial cult. Made in the Palestine, this one must have been given to Chaphraankh as a gift. Nearby there stood a bowl made at the age of the legendary Chephren, a great pharaoh and the owner of Egypt's second largest pyramid. Chaphraankh was in his service-or rather, in the service of his cult; and that is why he, the caretaker of
the royal pyramid, asked to have utensils of that time placed at his side in the tomb. The two things, the oil vessel and the bowl, are of great interest to Egyptologists. Yet another thousand bits of ceramics, packed up with much care and in custody at Giza, are awaiting their turn on the restoration list. Black taint is yet to be removed from the magnificent embossments, the handiwork of Egyptian stone carvers, and from the sketches and inscriptions wrought by wise and learned scribes.
Ground was broken for Chaphraankh's "house of eternal rest" still in his lifetime; it was a time-consuming and laborious job of work, for all of the tomb was cut out in rock. Since that clerk held a high position, he could afford a spacious vault-the burial chamber alone is 21 sq. meters large.
Exploring the underground premises and the space behind the western wall, we detected passageways and trap doors, a sign that other sepulchres were added to the tomb. Clearing the entrance for topographic survey, we came upon a well underneath the caretaker's tomb. The builders made use of every inch of this rocky flat land.
Digging farther north, we stumbled upon ever new burial sites. In our last season alone we uncovered more than ten tombs inter-linked by many passages. Picking in one of them, we recovered a large fragment of a mummy, apart from utensils and cult statuettes. Now the ball is with the anthropologists-they may tell us who in particular was buried there.
Most amazing of all was a sepulchral chapel we discovered northwest of Chaphraankh's. Built of raw brick, it was an exact copy of the royal caretaker's chapel. Traces of three layers of paint survived on it. As our excavations were drawing to a close, we were in for yet another surprise: the eastern wall near the entrance to this structure happened to be the burial place of three other persons, committed to the vault in the latter half of the third millennium B.C. We found that by the style of inscriptions, drawings and clothing, from the chemical analysis of the material, and lots of other indications. In fact, dating the age of burials is quite a problem.
We cannot tell yet the names of the people buried here, the servants of the great pharaohs. Someday we may learn perhaps. Still and all, the artifacts are there-the handiwork materialized in stone as well as the pictures and letters, all that furnishing an insight into the life, religion and culture of ancient Egyptians. And calling us back to Giza to keep up our work there.
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