It was nineteenth-century archeologists who coined the term Middle Egypt for the stretch of river between Cairo and the Qena Bend – a handy label for a region that’s subtly distinct from Upper Egypt, further south. (In this guide, we’ve drawn the “border” just beyond Sohag, assigning the temples of Abydos and Dendara to the Upper Egypt account as access to them is easiest from Luxor.) Owing little to tourism, Middle Egypt’s towns are solidly provincial, with social conservatism providing common ground for the Muslim majority and Coptic minority (about twenty percent of the local population, roughly double the national average). The Islamist insurgency of the 1990s and Salafist provocations since the 2011 revolution have strained relations, but peaceful coexistence still prevails almost everywhere.
Most tourists rate Middle Egypt a low priority, as towns like Minya and Sohag lack the romance of Aswan or the stupendous monuments of Luxor, for all that the local antiquities have fascinated scholars. The rock tombs of Beni Hassan and the necropolis of Tuna al-Gabel are well-preserved relics of Middle Kingdom artistry and Ptolemaic cult-worship, while the desolate remains at Tell el-Amarna stand as an evocative reminder of the “heretic” Pharaoh Akhenaten.
The main attractions around Minya are the rock tombs of Beni Hassan, roughly midway between Minya and Mallawi and containing the finest surviving murals from the Middle Kingdom. Nearer to Mallawi on the west bank are the ruins of Hermopolis and its partially subterranean necropolis, Tuna al-Gabel, while the rock-cut temples of Tihna el-Jebel and the Coptic Monastery of the Virgin (Deir al-Adhra) lie across the river to the north of Minya, whose bridge provides easy access to the east bank.
Across the Nile to the northeast of Minya, farming is constrained by the cliffs of the Eastern Desert, where fallen rocks as big as houses mark the start of a path to the Frazer Tombs. Named after their excavator, Gary Frazer, these V and VI Dynasty rock-cut tombs are reached by sunken passageways. The two that are open to visitors once belonged to two dignitaries both named Nika-Ankh. The first contains damaged statues of Nika-Ankh, his wife, their children and grandson, interspersed by hieroglyphs. The effigies in the second tomb are better preserved; note the finely carved pleats on the kilt of Nika-Ankh’s statue.
Further north, a cleavage in the massif harbours the village of TIHNA EL-JEBEL which sits next to the mud-brick ruins of the pharaonic town of Dehenet (Forehead), known to the Greeks as Acoris. A long stairway once flanked by altars and statues leads to a craggy massif with two unfinished rock-cut temples dedicated to Amun and Suchos (the Greek name for the crocodile-god Sobek). In the penultimate chamber of the first temple are two niches that once held mummified crocodiles: if you carefully circumvent a deep shaft right outside, you can see a remaining croc in a chamber beyond the second temple. Further round the cliff-face, a chapel to the goddess Hathor is carved so high up it seems unbelievable that it was ever used for offerings.
Beyond Tihna el-Jebel the road hugs the base of the cliffs, where men cut limestone boulders into kerb-stones. A flight of 166 steps ascends to the cliff-top village of GABEL ET-TEIR (Bird Mountain), nowadays also accessible by road. The mountain is so-named after a legend that all the birds in Egypt gathered there during its monastery’s annual feast day.
The Monastery of the Virgin (Deir al-Adhra) was once known as the Monastery of the Pulley, after a hoist that was formerly the only means of access before steps were cut into the cliff. A simple nineteenth-century edifice encloses a rock-hewn church, reputedly founded in 328 by Helena, mother of the Byzantine emperor Constantine. Its sanctity derives from a tiny cave where the Holy Family is believed to have hidden for three days and which now contains an icon of the Virgin credited with miraculous powers. Similar tales surround a baptismal font carved into one of the church’s Greco-Roman columns.
Usually only visited by local villagers, the church receives nearly two million pilgrims during the week-long Feast of the Assumption, forty days after the Coptic Easter. Minibuses run here directly from Minya during the festival.
The east bank road to Beni Hassan runs past the predominantly Coptic village of AL-SAWADAH where a sign in English welcomes visitors to the Church of Aba Hur (Deir Abu Hor) – you can’t miss the modern church that stands in front of a tunnel leading to its subterranean rock-hewn namesake. A blacksmith’s son who was born in 310 AD, Aba Hur became a hermit at the age of 20 and took up residence in a disused Ptolemaic temple; his faith under torture converted the Roman governor of Pelusium to Christianity.
Every year on July 6 over one hundred thousand Coptic pilgrims attend the Moulid of Aba Hur, camping out in the cemetery beyond Al-Sawadah.
This vast cemetery, called Zawiyet el-Sultan (after the next village) or Zawiyet el-Mayyiteen (Corner of the Dead), resembles a field of giant egg-boxes. Thousands of domed mausolea are grouped in confessional enclaves, the Coptic ones topped by a forest of crosses. The Muslim section harbours the tomb of Hoda Shaarawi (1879–1947), an early twentieth-century feminist who led demonstrations against British rule and was the first Egyptian woman to publicly remove her veil (in Cairo’s Ramses station), inspiring others to do likewise.
Beyond Zawiyet el-Sultan the road passes Kom al-Ahmar (Red Mound), the site of ancient Hebenu, capital of the Oryx nome, or province. The name Hebenu comes from the Ancient Egyptian word hbn, meaning to kill with a knife, and refers to the revenge of the god Horus on his father’s murderer, Seth. The site’s most interesting feature is a small ruined III Dynasty pyramid whose symbolic tomb was never used as such, unlike another tomb dating from the New Kingdom, containing the defaced funerary statue of a local nomarch, Nefer-Skheru.
The barren cliffs on the east bank to the south of Minya harbour the famous rock tombs of Beni Hassan, named after an Arab tribe that once settled hereabouts. The vivid murals in this necropolis shed light on the Middle Kingdom (c.2050–1650 BC), a period when provincial dignitaries showed their greater independence by having grand burials locally, rather than at Saqqara.
Though most of its 39 tombs are unfinished, the four shown to visitors evince a stylistic evolution during the XI–XII Dynasties. Their variously shaped chambers represent a transitional stage between the lateral mastaba tombs of the Old Kingdom and the deep shafts in the Valley of the Kings, gradually acquiring vestibules and sunken corridors to heighten the impact of the funerary effigies at the back. The actual mummies were secreted at the bottom of shafts, accompanied by funerary texts derived from the royal burials of the Old Kingdom.
Pharaonic iconography and contemporary reportage are blended in the murals, whose innovative wrestling scenes presaged the battle vistas of the New Kingdom. Though battered and faded in parts, their details reward careful study.
Tomb of Kheti (#17)
Of the many chambers hewn into the cliff-side, the first you’ll come to is the Tomb of Kheti, which retains two of its papyrus-bud columns, painted in places – the colours are quite fresh. As in most tombs of Ancient Egyptian dignitaries, its images are arranged in “registers” (rows) whose height above floor level reflects their spatial relationship. Thus, Nile scenes go below those involving the Valley, above which come desert vistas, the highest ones most distant.
In the murals, hippopotamuses watch the papyrus harvest, as desert creatures are hunted above registers of weavers, dancers, artists and senet players (senet was a bit like draughts or checkers) observed by Kheti and his wife, to whom minions bring offerings of gazelles and birds.
The rear (east) wall features a compendium of wrestling positions, thought to emphasize efforts to defend Egypt against invaders from the east; a now-vanished scene of warriors storming a fortress once explicitly made the point. Don’t miss the man standing on his head and in other yoga positions, between the scenes of wine-making and herding cattle. Ploughing is another task overseen by Kheti in his role as nomarch, attended by his dwarf and fan-bearers. Notice Kheti’s boats, and bulls locking horns, in the corner.
Tomb of Baqet III (#15)
Kheti inherited the governorship of the Oryx nome from his father, buried in the Tomb of Baqet III. Its imagery is similar to that in Kheti’s tomb, with some scenes better preserved, others not. While the mural of papyrus-gathering in the marshes is quite faded, the desert hunt is rich in details: notice the copulating gazelles near the left-hand corner. Ball players, women spinning and fullers beating cloth appear below. Nearly two hundred wrestling positions are shown on the rear wall, with a lovely pair of birds above the funerary niche. The south wall is covered with episodes from the life of this XI Dynasty nomarch. In the second register from the top, his underlings count cattle and beat tax defaulters with sticks.
Tomb of Khnumhotep (#3)
Columned porticos and a niche for statues (which replaced the Old Kingdom serdab or secret chamber) are hallmarks of the XII Dynasty tombs, 150m north. The Tomb of Khnumhotep is framed by proto-Doric columns and hieroglyphs praising this nomarch, who was also governor of the Eastern Desert. His funeral cortege appears inside the entrance. Servants weigh grain and scribes record its storage in granaries, while beneath the desert hunt, Semitic Amu tribesmen from Syria in striped tunics pay their respects, their alien costumes, flocks and tribute all minutely detailed – the governor is shown accepting eye paint.
In the niche, images of Khnumhotep’s children are visible on the walls but only the plinth of his statue remains. Elsewhere are vivid scenes of Khnumhotep netting birds, hunting with a throwing stick and spearing fish from a punt in the marshes. After the usual offerings, he inspects boat-building timber from a litter and then sails to Abydos. Higher and lower registers portray bare-breasted laundrywomen, weavers and other artisans. The hieroglyphic text beneath these scenes has yielded clues about the political relationship between the nomarchs and pharaohs of the XII Dynasty.
Tomb of Amenemhet (#2)
The Tomb of Amenemhet belongs to Khnumhotep’s predecessor, whose campaign honours are listed beside the door near a text relating the death of Senusret I. Proto-Doric columns uphold a vaulted ceiling painted with checkered reed-mat patterns. A mural of armourers, leatherworkers (at the top) and weavers precedes the customary hunting scene, beneath which Amenemhet collects tribute from his estates. Note the scribes berating defaulters on the second register from the bottom. Below the wrestling and siege tableaux, boats escort him towards Abydos. The niche contains mutilated effigies of Amenemhet, his mother and his wife Heptet, who sits at her own table to receive offerings. Fish are netted and spit-roasted above a painted false door flanked by scenes of music making, cattle fording and baking.
According to one ancient tradition, Creation began on a primordial mound near the city that the Ancient Greeks called Hermopolis Magna, whose pulverized ruins spread beyond the village of ASHMUNEIN. Turning right off the main street you’ll come to an outdoor museum (daily 8am–5pm; free) of antique stone-carvings, fronted by two giant sandstone baboons that once sported erect phalluses (hacked off by early Christians) and upheld the ceiling of the Temple of Thoth. Built by Ramses II using masonry from Tell el-Amarna, the temple stood within an enclosure covering 640 square metres, the spiritual heart of the city of the moon-god.
Hermopolis was a cult centre from early Dynastic times, venerated as the site of the primeval mound where the sun-god emerged from a cosmic egg. Like Heliopolis (which made similar claims) its priesthood evolved an elaborate cosmogony, known as the Hermopolitan Ogdoad. Though Ancient Egyptians called the city Khmunu, history remembers it as Hermopolis Magna; its Ptolemaic title reflects the Greek association of Thoth with their own god Hermes. However, there’s little to see except 24 slender columns further south, which were re-erected by archeologists who mistook the ruins for a Greek agora. The columns previously supported a fifth-century Coptic basilica, but originally belonged to a Ptolemaic temple.
From Ashmunein, a tarmac road continues to the village of TUNA AL-GABEL, which takes its name from the ancient necropolis 5km further on into the desert, famous for its extensive catacombs, where thousands of sacred baboons and ibises were buried in ancient times. The name “Tuna” may derive from the Ancient Egyptian ta-wnt (the hare) or ta-hnt (a place where many ibis birds gather).
Along the way, notice the boundary stele on a distant cliff, marking the edge of the agricultural land that was claimed by Tell el-Amarna, across the river.
For millennia, the necropolis at Tuna al-Gabel was a cult-centre where pilgrims gave homage to Thoth by paying the priests to embalm ibises – over two million were sacrificed, mostly bred for the chop.
Today, it’s awash with sand, wind-rippled drifts casting its angular mausolea into high relief, but obscuring other features. Past the resthouse at the entrance (which sells drinks and has toilets), a path to the right leads to the catacombs, which some believe stretch as far as Hermopolis. The accessible portion consists of rough-hewn corridors with blocked-off side passages, where the mummified baboons, which were sacred to Thoth, and ibises were stacked (a few bandages remain). A shrine near the ladder contains a baboon fetish and a pathetic-looking baboon mummy. You can also see the limestone sarcophagus of a high priest of mummification.
Tomb of Petosiris
Further along the main track from the necropolis are several mausolea excavated by Gustav Lefebvre in 1920. The finest is the Tomb of Petosiris, High Priest of Thoth (whose coffin is in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo), dating from 350 BC. Its vestibule walls depict traditional activities such as brick-making, sewing and reaping, milking, husbandry and wine-making – with all the figures wearing Greek costume. Inside the tomb are colourful scenes from the Book of Gates and the Book of the Dead. The most vivid scene (on the right-hand wall near the back) shows nine baboons, twelve women and a dozen cobras, each set representing a temporal cycle. Notice the Nubians at the bottom of the opposite wall.
In the desert off to the right you’ll spot some columns from the Temple of Thoth that once dominated the site. More impressive, however, is the ancient well that used to supply the necropolis and its sacred aviary with fresh water, drawn up from 70m below the desert by a huge waterwheel which still exists, though it no longer works. A spiral staircase gives access to the well-head.
The town of MALLAWI has gone to the dogs ever since Minya supplanted it as the regional capital in the 1960s. Many streets are still unpaved, and hovels are more prevalent than villas. Known to Egyptians as the birthplace of President Sadat’s assassin, Khalid al-Islambouli (whose mother remains proud of his deed), it bore the brunt of the state’s counter-insurgency campaign in the 1990s.
The police want foreigners to pass through as quickly as possible, but will tolerate a visit to the small museum on Sharia Banque Misr, exhibiting artefacts from Hermopolis and Tuna al-Gabel, and maybe a quick look at the derelict Hindu-Gothic-style feudal palace a few blocks away.
In Egyptian mythology, Thoth was the divine scribe and reckoner of time, the inventor of writing and the patron god of scribes. His cult probably originated in the Delta, but achieved the greatest following in Middle Egypt; later, by association with Khonsu, he acquired the attributes of the moon-god and mastery over science and knowledge. Though usually depicted with a man’s body and the head of an ibis (his sacred bird), Thoth also assumed the form of a great white baboon, invariably endowed with an outsize penis. Baboons habitually shriek just before dawn, and the Egyptians believed that a pair of them uttered the first greetings to the sun from the sand dunes at the edge of the world.
Thoth’s role is rather more complex in relation to the Hermopolitan cosmogony, which ordained that the chaos preceding the world’s creation had four characteristics, each identified with a pair of gods and goddesses: primordial water (Nun/Nanuet), infinite space (Heh/Hehet), darkness (Kek/Keket) and invisibility (Amun/Amunet). From this chaos arose the primeval mound and the cosmic egg from which the sun-god hatched and proceeded to organize the world. While stressing the role of this Hermopolitan Ogdoad (company of eight), Thoth’s devotees credited him with laying the cosmic egg in the guise of the “Great Cackler”, so it’s difficult to know who got star billing in this creation myth. By the New Kingdom it had generally succumbed to the version espoused at Heliopolis, but Thoth’s cult continued into Ptolemaic times.
The city of Beni Suef, 120km from Cairo, is a transport hub from which you can reach the Red Sea, the Fayoum or the Pyramid of Maidum (though it’s easier to reach all these places from Cairo). By heading north from the train station, crossing the canal bridge, carrying on for 200m and then turning right, you’ll find a depot for minibuses to El-Wasta, from where a service taxi can get you within range of the Pyramid of Maidum. Hourly buses to Minya and the Fayoum, and one daily to Za’farana on the Red Sea – running past the turn-off for St Anthony’s Monastery – leave from the bus station on Sharia Bur Said, 400m south of (and on the other side of the canal from) the train station.
TELL EL-AMARNA is the commonly used name for the site where Pharaoh Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti founded a city dedicated to a revolutionary idea of God, which later rulers assailed as heretical. During their brief reign, Egyptian art cast off its preoccupation with death and the afterlife to revel in human concerns; bellicose imperialism gave way to pacifistic retrenchment; and the old gods were toppled from their pedestals. The interplay between personalities, beliefs and art anticipates the Renaissance – and for sheer drama their story beats Shakespeare.
The remains of Akhenaten’s city lie on the east bank of the Nile, spread across a desert plain girdled by an arc of cliffs. Away from the palm groves beside the Nile, the site is utterly desolate, a tawny expanse of low mounds and narrow trenches littered with potshards.
Because the city was created from scratch and deserted after Tutankhamun moved the court back to Thebes, its era of glory lasted only twelve years, and many buildings were never completed. Everything of value found during excavations has been removed to museums, leaving only the faintest outlines of the city and the desecrated tombs of Akhenaten and his courtiers to see – yet the site strikes some visitors as a place of mystery whose enchantment grows the more you know about it.One theory is that the site was chosen for its symbolism. The arc of cliffs on the eastern horizon has a cleft exactly where the sun rises each morning, having been reborn after a night battling through the underworld (so the Ancient Egyptians believed). By siting his tomb in line with the rising sun, at the epicentre of imaginary rays radiating to boundary stelae which intersected with the city’s palaces and temples, Akhenaten identified himself with the deity Aten, and his capital as a divine creation embodying sacred geometery.
Running south from the modern village of El-Till, a tarmac track follows the course of the old Royal Road that formed ancient Akhetaten’s main axis, known locally as Sikket es-Sultan, the Road of the Sultan. The track passes scores of mounds of sand and debris, partially excavated (and subsequently recovered by sand) since the 1920s, and more recently by the Armana Project, whose website features reconstructions of the city’s principal buildings. Many of these were made of talatat, small stone blocks whose length was three times their width (hence their Arabic name, “thirds”). These could be quarried faster than the large blocks hitherto used for temples and palaces, enabling Akenaten’s architects to build complexes that would have otherwise taken decades.
Great Aten Temple
The Great Aten Temple was a brick-walled enclosure 300m deep by 800m wide, bisected by a stone Long Temple with mud-brick pylons. Its northern wall incorporated the Hall of Foreign Tribute where emissaries proffered treasure (as depicted in tombs), while the southern wall was flanked by a field of 720 mud-brick offerings tables.
Unlike traditional temples, which got darker as one approached the sanctuary, Aten’s was roofless, exposing worshippers to the god’s rays during the searing heat of summer – an act of sadism on Akenaten’s part, critics maintain. The temple was destroyed after his death on Horemheb’s orders; Ramses II quarried its foundations for his temples at Hermopolis, across the Nile. Today, replicas of a complete and a partial lotus-bundle column (erected by the Amarna Project) tower incongruously above excavation trenches and foundation walls.
Foreign Office Archives
South of the Great Aten Temple (and hard to distinguish beneath shifting sands) are the remnants of the Foreign Office Archives, where the Amarna Letters were discovered. Written in the Akkadian script used for diplomatic correspondence with Asiatic states, these clay tablets have revealed much about the period. Over 360 letters have been found, but more were undoubtedly lost, leaving an incomplete puzzle for scholars to piece together and argue over.
Beyond the Archives come three excavated rectangles that were once the Royal Residence. Their private apartments were separated from the stately reception halls that ran through the centre of the huge palace compound. Across the Royal Road stood an even larger State Palace, with a dock for the royal barge.
Both palaces were connected by a covered “flyover” spanning the road (part of one pylon remains), into which was set the Window of Appearances, whence Nefertiti and Akhenaten showered favoured courtiers with gold collars and other rewards. Its orientation in line with the rising sun ensured that they appeared with the sun directly behind them, bathed in the glow of its rays – an effect frequently depicted in Amarna art.
Sanctuary of Aten and beyond
To the south of their residence lay the Sanctuary of Aten, probably used for private worship by the royal family, and the home of the High Priest, Panehsi. Beyond spread the city’s residential quarters: the richest homes beside the road, the poorest hovels backing onto desert.
Also in this quarter was the workshop of the sculptor Tuthmosis, where the famous limestone bust of Nefertiti was found in 1912 by Ludwig Borchardt. He deliberately mis-described it as a plaster-cast, so as to take advantage of an agreement that all such finds would be given to Berlin’s Ägyptisches Museum. Egypt has long campaigned for its return, and Germany now acknowledges that it has no “moral claim” – but the iconic bust still remains in Berlin.
The best-preserved outline of an Amarna building is Nefertiti’s Northern Palace or summer residence, secluded 1500m north of El-Till. Low walls and hollows delineate rooms and courtyards grouped around a garden which once contained a pool that cooled the palace by evaporation. Like all Amarna residences, it was divided into public and private quarters, with north-facing doors to catch the prevailing wind. Rooms were plastered and painted, lit by oil lamps hung from pegs or set in niches, and warmed by braziers over winter. Fitted toilets and bathrooms also featured in the homes of the well-to-do. A magnificent painted floor depicting wildfowl and fish was found here, now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Unlike traditional marsh scenes, Amarna tableaux rarely feature hunting, suggesting that Akhenaten abjured the sport of kings.
Some visitors are content to see just the Northern Tombs, 4km from El-Till. Bring a torch to spotlight uneven floors and to study the reliefs and paintings (now less clear than the copies made by Norman de Garis Davies in the 1900s). Tombs #1 and #2 lack electric lighting and are only shown to visitors who insist. Photography is not allowed in any of the tombs.
Tomb of Huya (#1)
As Steward to Queen Tiy and Superintendent of the Royal Harem, Huya is shown praying at the entrance, with the text of the Hymn to Aten alongside. In the following banqueting scene, involving Tiy, the royal couple and two princesses, it may be significant that the dowager queen is merely drinking (which was acceptable by Theban standards of decorum), whereas the Amarna brood tuck in with gusto (an act never hitherto portrayed of royalty). Across the way they imbibe wine, sans princesses, and then make a royal procession to the Hall of Tribute, where emissaries from Kush and Syria await Akhenaten and Nefertiti.
On the rear wall, Akhenaten decorates Huya from the Window of Appearances (notice the sculptor’s studio, lower down), who displays his awards on the other side of the portal, the lintel of which portrays three generations of the royal family, including Amenhotep III. Along the east wall, Akhenaten leads Tiy to the temple built for his parents. Huya’s mummy was stashed in a burial shaft below the transverse hall, beyond which is a shrine painted with offerings, containing an unfinished statue of Huya.
Tomb of Mery-Re II (#2)
The last resting place of Mery-Re II, Overseer of the Two Treasuries, is similar in shape to Huya’s tomb, but was constructed late in Akhenaten’s reign, since his cartouches have been replaced by Smenkhkare’s, and Nefertiti’s by Meritaten’s. Beyond the entrance (whose adoration scene and Hymn to Aten are largely destroyed), the inner walls portray Nefertiti straining a drink for the king, who is seated beneath a sunshade (to the left); and Mery-Re receiving a golden crown, followed by a warm welcome from his household. The rear wall bears an unfinished scene of Mery-Re being rewarded by Smenkhkare and Meritaten, drawn in black ink.
Tomb of Ahmose (#3)
This battered tomb is one of the four that visitors usually see. The entrance walls show Ahmose, Akhenaten’s fan-bearer, praying to Aten, with a now-illegible inscription enjoining the deity to ensure “that there is sand on the shore, that fishes in the stream have scales, and cattle have hair. Let him sojourn here until the swan turns black and the raven white”. Inside, you can just discern Ahmose carrying an axe and a fan, his official regalia. On the left-hand wall are bas-reliefs of shield-bearers and pikemen, followed by an outsized horse and chariot outlined in red pigment (presumably intended to represent Akhenaten leading his army into battle, which never happened). In the transverse hall are two false doors, a deep vertical shaft, and a defaced, life-size statue of Ahmose in a niche.
Tomb of Mery-Re I (#4)
High Priest Mery-Re I (father of Mery-Re II) rated a superior tomb, with a coloured cornice around its entrance and false columns of painted flowers at the rear of the vestibule. Reliefs of Mery-Re and his wife, Tenro, at prayer flank the portal into the main chamber, which retains two of its original papyrus-bud columns. Proceeding clockwise round the room, you see Mery-Re’s investiture with a golden collar, the royal family leaving the palace, and Akhenaten in a chariot (his face and the Aten symbol have been chiselled out, as usual). Scenes of offerings and Aten-worship flank the left side of a doorway into the unfinished rear chamber, which lacks any decoration. More interesting is the eastern wall, depicting Akhenaten and the Great Temple (which has helped archeologists visualize the city’s appearance). Notice the sensitive relief of blind beggars awaiting alms, low down in the corner.
Tombs of Pentu (#5) and Panehsi (#6)
The third tomb in this cluster belongs to Pentu, the royal physician. Its papyrus-bundle columns retain traces of paint with chariots visible on the right-hand wall, but there’s little else to see. It’s better to head 300m south along the cliff path to the isolated tomb of Panehsi, overseer of the royal herds and granaries. Unlike most of the others, its decorative facade has remained intact, but the interior has been modified by Copts who used it as a chapel. To the left of the entrance, the royal family prays above their servants. The painted, apse-like recess in the main chamber is probably a Coptic addition – notice the angel’s wings.
It’s an easy ten-minute drive to the subterranean Royal Tomb, in a desolate ravine 5.5km from the plain. A custodian will ride with you to unlock the tomb. Dug into the bed of the wadi, this tomb was the first from the XVIII Dynasty to run directly from a corridor to a burial chamber. Its burial scene and text were virtually obliterated by Amun’s priests, and no mummies were ever found there, but in a chamber off the first descending passage, fragmentary bas-reliefs (now clumsily “restored”) depict the funerary rites of one of the royal daughters (either Meketaten or Ankesbaten), and a granite sarcophagus bearing Tiy’s cartouche was found, suggesting this might have been a family vault. No one knows whether Akhenaten and Nefertiti were interred in the main burial chamber beyond a deep pit (and perhaps dragged out to rot a few years later) or in the Valley of the Kings. Some believe that the mysterious mummy found in tomb KV55 is Akhenaten’s, or that Nefertiti’s has been discovered in tomb KV35.
From El-Hagg Qandil beyond the ancient Workmen’s Village, a spur road runs between palm groves to the Southern Tombs, scattered over seven low hills in two clusters: #7–15 and #16–25. Amarna notables buried here include Tutu, the foreign minister, and Ramose, Steward of Amenhotep III, but the ones to see are Ay and Mahu.
Tomb of Ay (#25)
Ay’s Tomb was never finished, since he built himself a new one at Thebes after the court returned there under Tutankhamun, but such carvings as were executed show the Amarna style at its apogee and the ceiling of its central aisle is painted with a fetching checkerboard pattern.
Both sides of the tomb’s vestibule are decorated. On the left, the king and queen, three princesses, Nefertiti’s sister Mutnedjmet and her dwarfs lead the court in the worship of Aten. Across the way is a superb relief of Ay and his wife Tey rendering homage and the most complete text of the Hymn to Aten; every fold of their skirts and braid in their hair are meticulously depicted. The really intriguing scenes, however, are in the main chamber. On the left side of the entrance wall, Ay and Tey are showered with decorations from the Window of Appearances, acclaimed by fan-bearers, scribes and guards. Palace life is depicted in ink or sunk-relief: a concubine has her hair done, while girls play the harp, dance, cook and sweep. The depth of bowing by courtiers is the most servile ever found in Egyptian art. Along the rear wall are a ruined door-shaped stele and a stairway leading to an unfinished burial shaft.
Ay and Tey are mysterious figures, honoured as “Divine Father and Mother”, but never directly identified as being royal. Some reckon Ay was a son of Yuya and Thuya, Akhenaten’s maternal grandparents; others that Tey was Nefertiti’s wet-nurse, or that both conceived Tutankhamun. Certainly, Ay was vizier to Amenhotep III, Akhenaten and Tutankhamun, and reigned briefly himself (c.1327–23 BC). He was ultimately buried in the Western Valley of the Theban Necropolis.
Tomb of Mahu (#9)
Ten minutes’ walk away, the Tomb of Mahu, Akhenaten’s chief of police and frontier security, opens with a rough-cut transverse hall featuring a scene of Mahu standing before the vizier with two intruders, whom he accuses of being “agitated by some foreign power”, as minions heat irons in a brazier for their torture (to the left as you enter). Further in are two more chambers at different levels, linked by a winding stairway. Mind your head on the low ceiling.
Akhetaten’s periphery was defined by boundary stelae carved high up on the cliffs, erected over successive years; their inscriptions and family portraits have enabled archeologists to deduce many events during Akhenaten’s reign. The most accessible stele is on the clifftop above the Northern Tombs.
Fine alabaster for the temples and public buildings was dragged from the Hatnub Quarries, 10km southeast of the city. These had been used since the Old Kingdom, when they were established by the IV Dynasty pharaoh Khufu (as an inscription in Zone P attests). On the way up the wadi are the remains of workmen’s huts and pottery from diverse periods. The quarries can only be reached by 4WD.
Few figures from ancient history have inspired as much conjecture as Akhenaten and Nefertiti, as scholars dispute even fundamental aspects of their story – let alone the interpretation of the events. The tale begins with Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who flouted convention by making Tiy, his Nubian concubine, Great Wife, despite her lack of royal blood. Queen Tiy remained formidable long after Amenhotep entered his dotage and their eldest son ascended the throne as Amenhotep IV. Some believe this event followed his father’s death, others that mother and son ruled jointly for twelve years. To square the former theory with the period of his reign (c.1352–1336 BC) and his demise around the age of 30 would mean accepting that Amenhotep IV embarked on his religious reformation between the ages of 9 and 13, though a marriage at 13 is quite likely.
The origins of Amenhotep IV’s wife, Nefertiti, are obscure. Her name – meaning “A Beautiful Woman Has Come” – suits the romantic legend that she was a Mesopotamian princess originally betrothed to Amenhotep III. However, others identify her as Amenhotep III’s child by a secondary wife, or as the daughter of his vizier Ay, whose wife, Tey, was almost certainly Nefertiti’s wet nurse. The pharaonic custom of sister–brother and father–daughter marriages allows plenty of scope for speculation, but the fair-skinned bust of Nefertiti in the Berlin Museum suggests that she wasn’t Tiy’s child, at any rate. (Amid all the fuss about Cleopatra being black, nobody seems to have noticed that Queen Tiy – and therefore her son, Amenhotep IV – were indubitably so.)
Early in his reign, Amenhotep IV began to espouse the worship of Aten, whose ascendancy threatened the priesthoods of other cults. The bureaucracy was equally alarmed by his decree that the spoken language should be used in official documents, contrary to all tradition. To escape their influence and realize his vision of a city dedicated to Aten, the pharaoh founded a new capital upon an empty plain beside the Nile, halfway between Memphis and Thebes, which he named Akhetaten, the “Horizon of the Aten”.
It was here that the royal couple settled in the fifth year of their reign and took Aten’s name in honour of their faith. He discarded Amenhotep IV for Akhenaten (Servant of the Aten) and vowed never to leave the city, while she took a forename meaning “Beautiful are the Beauties of the Aten”, styling herself Nefernefruaten-Nefertiti. Her status surpassed that of any previous Great Wife, approaching that of Akhenaten himself. Bas-reliefs and stelae show her participating in state festivals, and her own cartouche was coupled with Aten’s – an unprecedented association.
There’s no sign that their happiness was marred by his decision to take a second wife, Kiya, nor of the degenerative condition that supposedly afflicted Akhenaten in later life. However, the great ceremony held at Akhetaten in their twelfth regnal year marked a turning point.
Whether or not this was Akhenaten’s true coronation following his father’s death, he subsequently launched a purge against the old cults. From Kom Ombo in the south to Bubastis in the Delta, temples were closed and statues disfigured, causing public unrest. Although this was quelled by Akhenaten’s chief of police, Mahu, his foreign minister apparently ignored pleas from foreign vassals menaced by the Hittites and Habiru, and the army was less than zealous in defending Egypt’s frontiers. Akhenaten was consequently blamed for squandering the territorial gains of his forefathers.
What happened in the last years of Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s reign is subject to various interpretations. The consensus is that Nefertiti and Akhenaten became estranged, and he took as co-regent Smenkhkare, a mysterious youth married to their eldest daughter, Meritaten. While Nefertiti withdrew to her Northern Palace, Akhenaten and his regent lived together at the other end of the city; the poses struck by them in mural scenes of the period have prompted suggestions of a homosexual relationship. Whatever the truth of this, it’s known that Smenkhkare ruled alone for some time after the death of Akhenaten (c.1336 BC), before dying himself (see Tomb of Ramses IX (#6)). Nefertiti’s fate is less certain, but it’s generally believed that she also died around the same time. To date, none of their mummies have been found (or, rather, definitely identified).
The genealogy of Smenkhkare’s successor – the boy-king known to posterity as Tutankhamun – is obscure. Some hold that his parents were Amenhotep III and his half-sister Sitamun; others favour Ay and Tey, or Akhenaten and Kiya, or even (based on DNA analysis) that he was of Hyksos or Jewish descent. About the only certainty is that he was originally raised to worship Aten, and named Tutankhaten.
By renouncing this name for one honouring Amun, he heralded a return to Thebes and the old gods, fronting a Theban counter-revolution executed by Vizier Ay and General Horemheb. Some think this was relatively benign while Tut and his successor Ay ruled Egypt, blaming Horemheb and Seti I for a later, ruthless extirpation of Atenism.
Seti plundered the abandoned city of Akhetaten for masonry to build new temples, ordered its site cursed by priests to deter reoccupation, and excised the cartouches of every ruler tainted with the “Amarna heresy” from their monuments and the List of Kings. So thorough was this cover-up that Akhenaten and Nefertiti remained unknown to history until the nineteenth century. Since then, they have inspired much scholarly and mystical conjecture, novels such as Naguib Mahfouz’s Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth, and an opera by Philip Glass.
Many herald Aten-worship as a breakthrough in human spirituality and cultural evolution: the world’s first monotheistic religion. Aten was originally just an aspect of the sun-god (the “Globe” or “Disc” of the midday sun), ranking low in the Theban pantheon until Amenhotep III privately adopted it as a personal deity. Then Akhenaten publicly exalted Aten above other gods, subsuming all their attributes into this newly omnipotent being. Invocations to Maat (representing truth) were retained, but otherwise the whole cast of underworld and celestial deities was jettisoned. Morbid Osirian rites were also replaced by paeans to life in the joyous warmth of Aten’s rays (which are usually shown ending in a hand clasping an ankh), as in the famous Hymn to Aten.
Similarities between the Hymn and The Song of Solomon (supposedly written five hundred years later) have encouraged speculation about the influence of Atenism on early Jewish monotheism. Sigmund Freud argued that Moses was an Egyptian nobleman and the biblical Exodus a “pious fiction”, while Ahmed Osman advances the theory that Akhenaten’s deity derived from tales of the Jewish God related to him by his maternal grandfather Yuya, the Joseph of the Old Testament.
Equally intriguing is the artwork of the Amarna period and the questions it raises about Akhenaten. Amarna art focused on nature and human life rather than the netherworld and resurrection. Royal portraiture, previously impersonally formalized, was suffused by naturalism (a process which began late in the reign of Amenhotep III). While marshes and wildlife remained a popular subject, these scenes no longer implicitly associated birds and fish with the forces of chaos. The roofless Aten temples made new demands on sculptors and painters, who mixed sunk- and bas-relief carving to highlight features with shifting shadows and illumination.
Most striking is the rendering of human figures, especially Akhenaten’s, whose attenuated cranium, curvaceous spine and belly, and matronly pelvis and buttocks prompted speculation that the pharaoh may have suffered from Marfan’s syndrome – a rare genetic disorder that leads to feelings of alienation and a slight oddness in physical appearance – or was possibly a hermaphrodite: theories only disproved by DNA testing of royal mummies in 2009. Some argue that the Amarna style reflected Akhenaten’s physiognomy, others that such distortions were simply a device that could be eschewed, as in the exquisite bust of Nefertiti. Advocates of the “Akhenaten was sick” theory point out that this was the only time when vomiting was ever represented in Egyptian art; however, Amarna art also uniquely depicted royalty eating, yet nobody asserts that other pharaohs never ate.