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Tombs of the Nobles

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The Qurna Excavations: Separating the Living from the Dead in Egypt

Built atop the 3,000-year-old Tombs of the Nobles, Qurna, a village located on the West Bank of the Nile, is one of the most important archaeological sites in Egypt, but it is also one of the most controversial. For nearly a century, the Egyptian government had wanted the citizens of Qurna out. Not only were they living on top of and within ancient tombs, they were also secretly looting priceless treasures, and making it impossible for excavations to take place. In 2006, the villagers were given their marching orders.


Overview of the Qurna Eviction

The significant problem posed by Qurna, in which a settlement had been built on top of an extremely important archaeological site, was first realized in the early 1900s. It is known from travelers’ accounts that the village of Qurna (aka. Kurna, Gourna) was already in existence since at least the 1800s. However, by the early-20 th century, it became apparent that not only were people living on top of pharaonic tombs, and in some cases inside them, but some villagers were looting tombs, which they could access beneath their homes, and selling off important artifacts. As soon as the Egyptian government became aware of what was taking the place, the started a plan to evict the villagers from their settlement.

Foundation tablet bearing the cartouche of the birth name and epithet “Amenhotep, the God, the Ruler of Thebes”. 18th Dynasty. From Temple of Amenhotep II at Kurna (Qurnah, Qurna, Gourna, Gurna), Egypt. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London. With thanks to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

The Egyptian government had planned to relocate the villagers of Qurna to a new settlement known as New Qurna. The man responsible for designing and building New Qurna was a famous Egyptian architect by the name of Hassan Fathy. The work began in 1946, and was completed six years later. Fathy’s philosophy behind this new village was as follows: “with the aid of local materials and techniques, sustainable human development and social cohesion can be met with vernacular architecture”.

A Question of Excavations

Proponents of the relocation provide several reasons as to why this was necessary. One of these, for example, is that the mud-brick houses of the villagers are an obstacle to the archaeological work that could potentially be carried out there. As an example, there are about 100 tombs, collectively known as the ‘Tombs of the Nobles’, which are sunk deep into the hillside located in this area of the Nile. Due to the houses of the villagers, however, it was not possible for archaeologists to excavate them.

Aerial view of the Tombs of the Nobles. The buildings belong to Sheikh Abd el-Qurna. Lower left corner: Ramesseum. (Raimond Spekking/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, European Egyptologists were excavating in that area, as it was already known to be full of tombs belonging to ancient Egyptian nobles. These Egyptologists needed workmen for their excavations, which naturally attracted locals to settle in the area. Some of the discoveries made thanks to the labor of these workmen include the tombs of Nakht (a scribe of the granaries during the reign of Thutmose IV), Rekhmire (a vizier serving under Thutmose III, and Amenhotep II), and Menna (a scribe in the service of Thutmose IV). The unearthing of these tombs also resulted in the arrival of tourists to the site. As a consequence of this, the villagers of Qurna were presented with another source of income.

Ancient Egyptian women and men wearing kohl, from the tomb of Nakht in Thebes. ( Public Domain )

Fighting to Stay in Qurna

Apart from serving as tour guides, the people of Qurna also began to make fake artifacts/forgeries to sell to tourists seeking to take home pieces of ancient Egypt with them as souvenirs. These objects bear such a strong resemblance to the real thing that it is often difficult to distinguish the real from the fake. The villagers of Qurna have also often been accused of looting the tombs in order to sell the artifacts on the black market. This unsavory reputation was first given to the villagers by European tourists during the 18th century (for the sole reason that they looked poor and forbidding) and has survived to this day. Thus, another argument in favor of relocating the villagers of Qurna is that it would help protect the tombs from further looting.

Sources: ancient-origins.net, images attributed in the captions respectively.



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Tombs of the Nobles

The riverscape of Aswan is dominated by the sand-covered hills of the West Bank which is strewn with rock-cut tombs of high-status officials of the Old and Middle Kingdom. At the crest of the hill is the domed tomb of a Muslim prophet which gives the hill its local name, Qubbet el-Hawa or ‘Dome of the Winds’.

The ticket office is to the northern end of the tomb area and a steep climb up several flights of stone steps leads to the upper level of the cemetery where there are around 6 or 7 tombs open to visitors. The guide will usually begin at the southern end of the upper level where the most interesting tombs can be seen. These ancient tombs are roughly cut from the natural rock, and though they are not as well preserved as some of those to be visited in the Luxor or Cairo areas they are well worth seeing. Tombs of this period are usually fairly inaccessible in most places south of Cairo and these show fine examples of hieroglyphic texts detailing the careers of their owners as well as scenes of daily life in the earlier periods. Many of the tombs are linked together as family members added their own chambers.



Tombs 25/26: Sabni and Mekhu –
The owners of these tombs were father and son, both Overseers of Upper Egypt in Dynasty VI during the reign of Pepy II. Reliefs on the walls of Mekhu’s tomb record his murder while on an expedition in Nubia and the revenge taken by Sabni, his son. He seems to have been buried with much ceremony. The tombs were roughly constructed in Old Kingdom style, with small obelisks at the entrance doorway and an offering table of Mekhu still in situ.

Tomb 31: Sarenput II –
The next major tomb in the sequence is that of Sarenput II, Overseer of the Priests of Khnum and Commander of the Garrison at Elephantine, dated to the reign of Dynasty XII king, Amenemhet II. This is one of the best-preserved tombs at Aswan. It consists of a large chamber with six perfectly symmetrical undecorated pillars and a gallery flanked by six niches each once containing mummiform statues of the deceased prince. The four pillars of a second chamber were decorated with images of Sarenput. Beyond this, a chapel cut deep into the rock is plastered and painted in vivid colors and depicts his wife, a Priestess of Hathor and other family members. In the niche at the back of the chapel, Sarenput is named as ‘Hereditary Lord’. This biographical text is very colourful with well-depicted hieroglyphs and shows the cartouche of ‘Nebkaure’ – Amenemhet II as well as an unusual glyph of an elephant. The style of painting and the hieroglyphs are distinctly similar to the Old Kingdom tombs, leading some Egyptologists to suggest that the same artists decorated them and that the length of the 1st Intermediate Period was therefore very short.

Tomb 31: Khunes –
This is a Dynasty VI tomb, its owner Khunes was a Lector Priest and Chancellor. A side chamber to the left of the entrance was re-used as a Coptic cell and another chamber on an upper level was a serdab. The tomb contains scenes of the deceased and his family in daily life.

Tomb 31: Harkhuf –
Harkhuf was an Overseer of Foreign Troops during the reigns of Pepy I, Merenre and Pepy II in Dynasty VI. This tomb is famous for Harkhuf’s biographical text and a copy of a letter from Pepy II requesting that Harkhuf should hurry to bring the young king a dancing pigmy from an expedition into Africa.

Tomb 35: Pepynakht (also called Heqa-ib)-
The owner of this tomb was another Overseer of Foreign Troops during the reign of Pepy II of Dynasty VI. The tomb has a columned façade, biographical texts and good reliefs showing hunting and bull-fighting scenes. Heqa-ib was the deified official whose cult chapel stood on Elephantine Island.

Tomb 36: Sarenput I-
The last major tomb on the upper level dates from Dynasty XII and the reign of Senwosret I. Sarenput I was a Governor of Elephantine and Overseer of the Priests of Satis. A columned court has scenes on the rear walls of the deceased hunting and fishing with his dogs and his sandal-bearer. In a hall with four columns, there are scenes of daily life, a boating scene and a biographical text with finely painted hieroglyphs. A chamber at the rear of the tomb has a ‘false door’.

Note the causeways which run down the hillside from the different cemetery levels. These would have been the original ‘paths’ to the tombs and coffins and burial goods would have been dragged up these steep inclines from the river. At night the whole cemetery area is floodlit and can be seen from all over Aswan.

The tombs are mostly quite deep in the hillside and therefore very dark. Photography is not usually allowed.

How to get there

To get to the Tombs of the Nobles, there is a ferry which leaves from the northern end of the Corniche. Alternatively, you can hire a felucca which will wait and bring you back. You could also combine a visit to the tombs with a longer felucca trip.