Burial place of the first Pharaohs

The story is now taken up by a third site, Abydos. (The pronunciation appears to be uncertain: some people call it Abbey-dos, others call it Abide-os). Unlike Naqada and Hierakonpolis, both of which shrank to become small villages in the later periods, Abydos became one of the most important towns of the Middle and New Kingdoms, becoming the centre of the worship of the god Osiris, whose temple is a major tourist attraction today. However it is even more important as being the burial site of the Pharaohs of the first two dynasties, and indeed of the shadowy dynasty 0 which is used to represent the period immediately before the first dynasty.

The facade of the Temple of Seti I (1290 – 1279 BC) which is the main tourist attraction at Abydos today. However the main importance lies in the burial sites of the earlier pharaohs which are not accessible to tourists.

The early dynastic cemetery at Abydos was only discovered in the 1890s.  The later Egyptians had lost all memory of its importance, indeed one of the ruined tombs was dug out in the Middle Kingdom and made into a small temple. It was decided that this must be the birthplace of Osiris, and the highlight of the annual Osiris festival was a grand procession from the temple to this new/old shrine a mile away.

The site was originally excavated, – though perhaps pillaged is perhaps the better word – by the French archaeologist Émile Amélineau, a Coptic scholar turned into something close to a grave robber.  But in 1896 Petrie came along, took over his concession and re-excavated the site, excavating the spoil heaps that Amélineau has left behind him and succeeded in identifying the tombs of virtually all the pharaohs of the First Dynasty and also the last two pharaohs of the Second Dynasty.

Overall plan of Abydos with the Temple of Seti I bottom centre. Towards the right is the Long Gully reaching up towards the high dessert, which was used as a processional way. The tombs of the early pharaohs are near the top of this long gully.

The whole area is known to modern Arabs as Umm el Qa’ab, or the Mother of Pots as there are so many pot sherds to be found over the whole area.  Since the 1970s the German Archaeologist Institute under Gunter Dreyer has been making yet further discoveries, while the Pennsylvania Museum under David O’Connor has been making equally important discoveries at a nearby site.


The early cemetery at Abydos. The graves of the pre-dynastic rulers are at the top. The latest and largest grave, that of Kharkhemwy, the last pharaoh of the second dynasty is at the bottom. The graves of the pharaohs of the first dynasty are in the middle.

The German team has been excavating a site which they have called Cemetery U.  This consists of a mass of elite graves, the earliest being of the Naqada I and Naqada II periods.  It reached its climax in what has been known as Grave Uq which is the largest and richest grave of all, and must surely be the burial place of some proto-pharaoh – perhaps the pharaoh known as King Scorpion.  This grave was a large pit sunk deep into the ground and containing no less than twelve rooms.  The largest was the burial chamber but the king was surrounded by store chambers filled with goods showing the wealth of the tributes paid to him in his lifetime, and adequate supplies for his life in the after world.  Nearly 400 wine jars were recovered, some of them coming from Palestine or the Canaanite area.  It has been estimated that they would have held over 4000 litres of wine.

Even more important were the markings that accompanied this treasure which represent the earliest stages of the Hieroglyphic language.  There has long been a great debate about the origins of hieroglyphs: did they emerge in imitation of the Sumerian script from Mesopotamia, or were they independent?  How far indeed was Egyptian civilisation dependent on Sumerian civilisation?  There was indeed a certain amount of trade, although almost all is from Sumer to Egypt with little or nothing flowing in the opposite direction.  It has been assumed therefore that although there is evidence for some influence, it not enough for an ‘invasion’.  However these markings, some on the pots themselves and others on little ivory tags, appear to be essentially accounting devices and there is some dispute as to how far they represent names and how far they represent places.  They are 150 years earlier than the earliest known conventional hieroglyphs, but they appear to represent the origins of hieroglyphic writing.  It is tempting to follow the usual argument that the great size of this grave represents a major step towards civilisation: it is certainly a major step forward towards inequality.

The next stage consists of three large grave-pits which are thought to represent the grave pits of the pharaohs of Dynasty 0, indeed one of them is thought to be the grave of King Narmer, the owner of the famous Narmer palette.  But the big breakthrough in size and complexity is with what can only be called a grave complex, which appears to be the grave of King Aha, the second pharaoh of the First Dynasty.  He had three large grave-pits, one for the grave, two for storage, but adjacent there was a double row containing 34 ancillary pits, each containing the body of a young man in a wooden coffin. These are the graves of his retainers who accompanied their lord and master to the next world:  whether they went willingly or unwillingly, we will never know. It is I suppose some sort of breakthrough, some sort of sign of a more hierarchical structure when the king is able to decree that on his death his servants should accompany him to the next world.

The subsequent burials continued this habit, many of them made in huge burial pits containing not only the magazines for food and drink, but also rows and rows of subsidiary rooms containing burials,  mostly of young men.  The later grave complexes had steps leading down into them for easy access, but the earlier ones could only be entered through the roof, so it is assumed that the ancillary burials must all have been put in at the same time, and must therefore represent an early form of sati or suttee, where the retainers were put to death to accompany their master into the next world and then were sealed in with him when the roof was then sealed over the pit. In one case, the tomb of King Djer, 318 attendants were burial with the king.

However the habit gradually dies out through the First Dynasty, and was down to a mere dozen ‘ancillary’ graves by the end of it. One cannot help thinking that this was fortunate.  If the leading retainers, the rising young men of the next generation are required to accompany their master to the next world, then the next generation in this world loses its brightest and best, which does not bode well for the future.

A similar custom is seen in the early stages of the empires of Ur and China, but in both cases it appears to have died out: is it perhaps an aberration of early empires?  True, the later pyramids are surrounded by masses of lesser burials, but these all appear to have been inserted at a later date as an honorary status of those retainers who had lived a full life and died naturally.  But in these graves of the First Dynasty, the retainers were roofed in with their master.

The latest and largest grave at Abydos is this grave of Khasekhemwy, the last pharaoh of the Second Dynasty, and thus over a hundred years later than those of the First Dynasty. Here we see it as excavated by the German archaeologist Gunter Dreyer.

Burials continued to be made at Abydos until the end of the first dynasty.  Burials were then removed to Memphis, a new capital in Upper Egypt in the north.  It is only the last two kings of the Second Dynasty who returned to be buried at Abydos.  But the Third Dynasty moved back again to Memphis with the erection of the first true pyramid – the Stepped Pyramid by Zoser.







Shunet-el-Zebib, the huge enclosure built for King Khasekhemwy at the end of the Second Dynasty.

There is one other remarkable feature of these early cemeteries at Abydos. Out in the desert, a mile away from the cemeteries there is a walled enclosure known to the modern Arabs as Shunet el Zebib, which covers an area of two and half acres, or one hectare, and the walls are still standing up to eleven metres high.  The walls have a series of external pilasters, or indentations, which are typical of palace architecture, suggesting that it may have been some sort of imitation palace.  The interior appeared to be empty apart from a small mortuary chapel, but it could be dated by inscriptions to King Khasekhemwy, the last pharaoh of the second dynasty.

It remained a great mystery until David O’Connor, the leader of the American expedition from Penn Museum, began surveying and excavating the surrounding area and discovered half a dozen or more similar enclosures lying adjacent, while between two of the enclosures, a row of 15 ships had been buried.  He excavated them and was able to allocate each of them to a pharaoh and it appeared that each pharaoh erected one of these enclosures which was then promptly demolished to make way for the enclosure of his successor, and thus it is only the enclosure of the last pharaoh that has survived.  Their function remains uncertain, but it has been suggested that they were built as a palace enclosure where the body could lie in state until his tomb was finally ready to receive it.  An almost identical structure was erected at Hierakonpolis by the same pharaoh: the two are presumably linked. But the meaning of these enclosures can perhaps best be seen when we come to consider the Step Pyramid which is accompanied by a similar enclosure adjacent to the pyramid.

But it is to Memphis and the building of the Step Pyramid where we must now turn our attention.


May 2012, revised August 2012