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In the Shadow of Djoser’s Pyramid

Research of Polish Archaeologists in Saqqara


Karol Jan Myśliwiec

The book presents the discoveries made by the Polish archaeological mission in Saqqara, the central part of the largest ancient Egyptian royal necropolis. The area adjacent to the Pyramid of King Djoser on the monument’s west side, so far neglected by archaeologists, turned out to be an important burial place of the Egyptian nobility from two periods of Pharaonic history: the Old Kingdom (the late third millennium BC) and the Ptolemaic Period (the late first millennium BC). The earlier, lower cemetery yielded rock-hewn tombs with splendid wall decoration in relief and painting. The book also describes methods of conservation applied to the discovered artefacts and episodes from the mission’s life.

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Chapter 4. The vizier’s revenge

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Chapter 4. The vizier’s revenge

Abstract: The discovery of Vizier Merefnebef’s mastaba. Joy and horror in the chapel. A difficult challenge for the Polish restorers.

Keywords: false doors, offering tables, slaughterhouse, processions.

Autumn 1997. After ten months break, we once again stood in front of the embankment of mud bricks that filled the eastern section of the trench, in a courtyard surrounded from three sides by a low stone wall. We now knew that there would be a structure from the times of the Old Kingdom beyond the brick curtain. But what exactly would it be? From subsequent layers of the deposit, we carefully removed each brick, piece by piece, making sure that not even the smallest detail be missed. Every lump of earth could contain an item of diagnostic value. From time to time, new human skeletons would appear along with the remains of reed-woven coffins. These had to be scrupulously recorded in situ (i.e. in their original spot), and then handed over to the anthropologist for further studies. Each clay vessel sherd was kept as it might turn out to be enormously significant for the dating of the archaeological layer we were exploring.

When I touched the first brick lying so loosely there could be no doubt that there was an empty space on the other side, a sand storm instantly broke out, so intense as I had never experienced in Egypt before and never have since. It hit us with such a mass of sand that we immediately had to cover our eyes and ears so that we would be able to open them again later. The wind tore two huge tents, which had been set up right next to the trench, out of their foundations and carried them far off into the distance. In the wink of an eye, all our measuring equipment and professional photographic cameras were covered in a thick layer of sand. It later took us a week to clean them. At the same time, as our car was driving to the village for wicker baskets to carry the earth from the trenches, it took part in a serious accident involving a collision with a coach full of tourists. For a few days, we had no means of transport of our own. It was hard to decide what to save first.

If anyone still has doubts as to the revenge exacted by invisible forces, I hasten to explain that at precisely that same moment two different groups of people appeared at the trench simultaneously, and, as if not knowing what was going on, asked to be shown around the area where we were working. One consisted of our archaeologist colleagues from the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology, and the second was made up of employees from the Polish embassy in Cairo. I was so disoriented by the whole situation that ←119 | 120→I was incapable of refusing. Throughout my entire life I had never consumed as much sand as during that one morning.

Greatly dispirited, and not knowing what was awaiting us, we returned the next morning to our trench. It was perfectly calm, not a gust of wind blowing, the air so crystal clear that the great pyramids of Giza almost 30 km away were as visible as if they were standing right next to us. Timidly, I approached the brick that I had managed to remove before the storm broke out, I moved it aside and looked through the hole that had appeared beneath. I could not believe my own eyes. At a distance of no more than a metre from me, I could see two human heads of almost natural size, carved into the surface of the rock and covered with well-preserved polychromy:1 a man with a woman behind him, holding him by the shoulder with her hand, both looking in my direction. The subtle modelling of the relief and crispness of the colours enabled me to discern the faint smiles and expression of dignity and calmness on their faces.

However, the joy resulting from the discovery did not last long. When we widened our window slightly, it turned out that some parts of the bas reliefs had bulges and were cracked. They could fall away at the slightest touch of a finger. It would not be possible to uncover further fragments of the walls without the presence of a restorer.

We finally found out what we were unearthing: the tomb of a nobleman from the Old Kingdom (Fig. 41–42). This was indicated both by the style of the relief and by the hieroglyphic inscriptions accompanying the depicted people. The bas relief presenting the natural-sized man and woman adorned the lateral wall of a very narrow entrance to a tomb chapel, hewn into rock. Even though the place was still buried under brick rubble up to the height of the torsos of the depicted people, it was already clearly visible that there was an identical representation on the parallel wall, located at a distance of as little as sixty centimetres.2 There was of course no talk of attempting to enter the chapel through the small hole between the ceiling and the surface of the backfill; even someone very slim would barely have fit. I suspended work to inform the local antiquity inspectorate about the discovery.

I had not even managed to return to the dig when our Egyptian inspector, barely wheezing from excitement, caught up with me, “Doctor, we’ve discovered Fifi’s tomb.” My first thought was that it had to be some stupid joke cooked up by my colleagues, who – of course – knew that 10 years earlier I had come up with such a nickname for myself during the excavations in Tell Atrib. When crowds of children had day in and day out gathered in ←120 | 121→ ←121 | 122→front of my window, asking for various things, calling to me in Arabic, “Ya doctor Karol…” (“Doctor Karol…”), I had decided to chasten them a bit and told them that I was not “Doctor Karol” but “Habilitated Doctor Fifi.” I had even come up with my own etymology of the word, similar to an existing Arabic name. In Arabic, fi means “there is,” so Fifi could mean “there is doubly.” The Egyptian children did not let themselves be dismissed so easily, and they also learnt this term quickly. They only began to falter, when, in the course of creating levels of difficulty, I told them to refer to me as “Professor Re-habilitated, Doctor Fifi.” And that is how it remained. As a person who does not believe in coincidences, I was not at all surprised that after many years my first Egyptian doctoral student at the University of Warsaw was a ←122 | 123→man called… Afifi. This was simply fate. And that is what was also meant to occur in Saqqara.

Still, our inspector was not joking at all. As his curiosity was too intense to let him await my return, he had squeezed in through a small opening below the ceiling of the doorway and read the name of the tomb owner, written on the wall with hieroglyphs. In accordance with the convention adopted within Egyptology, today we read it as ‘Fefi,’ adding the missing vowel ‘e’ wherever a few consonants meet. This is one of the major difficulties in reading hieroglyphs. As the ancient Egyptians did not mark vowels, we only know an approximate version of the phonetics of Egyptian words. The greatest Egyptological minds continue to work on its reconstruction.

We were soon to find that Fefi was not the only name of the owner of this tomb.3 However, for the moment we were fascinated by the social position he had held. Just above the entrance to the tomb chapel, we uncovered an architrave carved into the rock, which formed the roof of the monumental tomb façade. The inscription on the architrave listed the nobleman’s most important titles.4 The titulature began with a word translated today by Egyptologists as ‘vizier,’ signifying the highest dignitary in Egypt’s administrative hierarchy. This more or less corresponded to the present-day function of Prime Minister of the Cabinet. What a surprise! We had discovered the tomb of the first person in the kingdom aside from the pharaoh himself. But which ruler had he served? For a long time, this question remained one of the many mysteries surrounding the tomb adjacent to the precinct of the oldest pyramid in the world.

Yet we had to immediately forfeit any further uncovering of the tomb façade. This was because its rich decorations (Figs. 4142 and 176177) were carved into exceptionally fragile rock, which would break up into tiny pieces at the slightest change in climatic conditions. To our dismay, we found that the ancient sculptors must have had even graver problems with the rock. Large stretches of the wall’s front surface disintegrated while they worked on it, forcing the artists to fill the cavities with gypsum mortar of a colour similar to that of the rock.5 Sculpting in such a diverse surface must have been quite an ordeal. Be as it may, the excavations by the façade walls had to be done very slowly, with both an archaeologist and restorer present. Centimetre by centimetre, one had to immediately react to the smallest crack or loosening of the bas relief. However, we had no time for this as the ←123 | 124→discovery of the tomb occurred in the last week of the excavation campaign. If there are any rules at all in archaeology, it is without a doubt the fact that the most important discoveries are always made during the excavation’s last days, when the archaeologists literally have no time to do anything at all. We soon reached the understanding that one restorer in our team in Saqqara would not be enough. At the time of the discovery of the vizier’s tomb, we were joined by Ewa Parandowska, who conducted the initial conservation of the bas reliefs and paintings in the chapel’s interior; however, the unveiling of the façade would require the permanent presence of at least one other person. We had to postpone this to the following year, while – in the meantime – we left the layer of brick, sand and stone rubble untouched, adjacent to the façade. Provisionally, we encased it from the exterior with a thick stone wall so that it would not collapse accidentally.

We first had to remove the rubble at the entrance to the chapel, which was the place of the cult of the deceased. In antiquity, it had been visited by priests responsible ex officio for religious rituals, but also by the family of the deceased. As we were soon to discover, the latter group had only come here to argue. Even in those times, the death of the head of the family entailed certain economic implications, which could turn even the closest of relatives into the most vehement of enemies. But we were to find this out only sometime later.

In the meantime, a group of police officers of various ranks, the security forces and other important people with not-too-clearly defined functions had gathered, alarmed by the Egyptian Antiquities Service. The chief of police, dressed in a snow-white suit, could no longer take the pressure. As soon as a slightly larger opening was formed in the upper part of the narrow entrance to the chapel, his sense of duty led him to squeeze inside and check if by any chance there was any gold treasure lying around. The corporal testimony of his prosperity grazed the delicate polychromy. We froze, closing our eyes in terror. Of course, our protests would not have amounted to much. Fortunately, the damage turned out to be much lighter than could have been expected.

The chapel’s interior was stunning6 (Figs. 4359). The polychromy on the fragile reliefs had been preserved here in much better shape than in any other tomb from the Old Kingdom period in Saqqara. One could almost imagine the artist had just left the wall. Were we capable of conserving these works of art in their current state and recording them in such a way that the scholarly publication on the tomb would do justice to the original? It went without saying that the publication should be in one of the world languages, preferably English, as a discovery of this scope belonged among other such examples of world cultural heritage. This is the kind of book any academic library would be glad to have. These issues were constantly on our minds for the next few years, until finally the tomb conservation demonstrated permanent stability, and the two-volume monograph was scattered across the world.

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For the time being, however, we remained in silent stupor at the sight of the masterpieces of art from over 4000 years ago. One could see right away that aside from the iconographic schemes that were copied onto the walls of many tombs from the third millennium BC, the wall decoration in the vizier’s cult chapel contained many unique motifs, indicating his exceptionality and that of the times in which he came to live.

In accordance with tradition, the western wall of the tomb chapel contained elements guaranteeing the deceased existence in the afterworld (Fig. 43).7 Similarly like the Christians today, the ancient Egyptians believed in life after death. In contrast to their earthly episode, this existence was to last all eternity. During one’s lifetime, everything was done to ensure this came to pass. Primarily, one’s own tomb was prepared, i.e. accommodation for all eternity. A guarantee of eternal life was provided by such things as the survival of the deceased’s name and representations in his tomb. Therefore, the cult chapels and burial chambers of the wealthiest Egyptians received rich decorations fulfilling this condition. The more inscriptions with elements of the tomb owner’s biography and representations there were, the better this was for his eternal existence. In addition, there were many scenes from his ‘daily life.’ Let us nonetheless not be deceived that this was a faithful depiction of his life on Earth, but rather a vision of his existence in the afterworld. Even though the value of these scenes is primarily symbolic, they were most often naturalistic, sometimes idealised or stylised reflections of authentic episodes, especially those that were repeated cyclically and as a result gained the rank of iconographic topoi. The higher a depicted person was placed in the social hierarchy during his lifetime, the more he was subordinated to the iconographic patterns proper to his position. The plebs, including craftsmen and the entire service staff of the court, were represented in a way that was more realistic, frequently directly caricatural. Aside from the fineness in execution, Egyptian artists demonstrated a huge sense of humour. Subtle mockery, even at the expense of the tomb owner, was common practice.

←125 | 126→ ←127 | 128→

The main element on the western wall in every cult chapel were the ‘false doors,’ in the shape of a multistage, rectangular niche, richly decorated with inscriptions and representations of the deceased (Figs. 43, 83, 100, 108–109, 135138, 150152, 155 and 191; Il. 29).8 In front of these doors, there was an offering table, on which everything the deceased would need in the Afterlife was placed. This primarily included food, which came from the estate lands dedicated to maintaining the tomb owner’s cult. The ‘false doors’ were thus a place where the dead person was believed to come in contact with the realm of the living. Huge significance was attached to these rituals. To such an extent that, as a principle, scenes illustrating the meal of the tomb owner were placed next to the ‘false doors’ (Figs. 100101 and 193), as were registers in which the size, quality and quantity of individual dishes were provided with mathematical precision. On the western wall in Fefi’s tomb, two groups of ‘culinary’ scenes were depicted, separated by the entrance to the chapel. In each of them, we can see the nobleman seated at a table supported by a high cylindrical base, with a table top on which lays – or rather stands – a row of tall hunks of bread.9 These last items are at times so stylised that they are more reminiscent of reeds than half loaves ←128 | 129→of bread. The deceased reaches out for the bread with one hand. There are ritual vessels under the table, and in front of it – some kind of still life – seemingly chaotic, in some scenes a pile of victuals that should be located on the sacrificial table10: meat – very frequently large beef haunches – and birds, fruit – including figs and grapes filling any gaps formed among the other offerings, vegetables – including onions and lettuce, various baked goods, vessels containing drinks – especially beer and wine, etc. (Figs. 4445 and 101104). If anyone were to have any doubts about the quantity and quality of the offerings made, it is enough to glance upwards, to the level of the upper register: above the scene, there is a list of the offerings in the shape of ←129 | 130→a large rectangle divided into several dozen windows, in which the name of each item, its shape and the number of units due the deceased are recorded (Figs. 9394 and 175).11 Some ‘lists of offerings’ are enormous, such as, e.g., in the scene of the offering table depicted on the northern wall of the vizier’s tomb.12 Here the statistics of the offerings cover almost half the wall. The contents of the ‘list’ and its diachronic development have been the subject of research of many an Egyptologist. Its content and form cannot only say a lot about the deceased but also contribute to specifying the tomb’s dating, which in some cases is very difficult.

The two ‘lists of offerings’ carved into the walls (the western and the northern ones) in Vizier Fefi’s chapel differ not only in terms of their size but also their form. The smaller one (on the western wall) stands out due to the exceptionally rich colouring of the hieroglyphic signs (Fig. 175), while the larger one (the northern wall) is almost completely monochromatic – most of the signs are a celadon colour, which in connection to the show-white background of the ‘list’ is very similar to the form of the Pyramid Texts.13 We shall soon see that in the vizier’s tomb this is not the only element similar to the decorations found in the interior of the royal pyramids from this period. How extensive and widespread the fascination with this innovation (the Pyramid Texts) must have been at the time among the courtiers that some even went so far as to imitate them in the decorations of their own tombs!

Supplying the deceased with food was also the subject of two other types of scenes repeated in almost all the courtiers’ tombs. Primarily, these were the processions of the offering bearers (Figs. 4344, 106 and 153154), which sometimes look as if they have no end. They carry various offerings in the direction of the table, not only those that were included in the ‘list of offerings. ‘In most cases, the sons of the deceased marched at the head of such processions, bearing enormous cattle haunches in their arms. Behind them, other noblemen advanced, frequently priests of the posthumous cults, bearing either birds, trays and vessels containing various victuals or armfuls of flowers, usually lotuses. At times, they also led live animals by leashes, among which we can frequently see gazelles. In the vizier’s tomb, the longest procession of this type contains three rows of figures, located right behind the entrance to the tomb, before the ‘false doors’ in the northern part of the western wall.14 The perfectly preserved polychromy of this scene presents all the colour nuances of the depicted figures and items.

←130 | 131→

The representation of a slaughterhouse is a second topos frequently encountered in the decoration of tomb walls (Figs. 100101 and 106107). A few episodes of the important ritual involving the slaughtering and quartering of an ox became an iconographic scheme repeated in different variants, such as cutting its belly with a knife, the taking out of the animal’s entrails or its haunch being hacked off.15 Occasionally, if there was not enough space on the wall for the entire cycle, at least one episode which took on a symbolic significance was ‘squeezed in’ among other scenes. The bloody naturalism of these compositions is emphasised by short hieroglyphic inscriptions accompanying the butchers and their assistants. “Slaughter valiantly, my friend, I am tired,” one of them would say to his companion. Ritual slaughter – as we would refer to it today – is thus depicted and described in a technical manner, without any of the official or propaganda-based swank typical for other elements of the décor in the noblemen’s tombs. Similarly as in the representations of people carrying offerings, the scenes of slaughter belonged among the repertoire of those motifs that could fill every fragment of the surface left to the artist on the chapel wall after the most important topoi had been deployed. For instance, there could be three offering bearers or one hundred; thus, they could be incorporated accordingly to the size of the space made available. The artist could similarly make use of the episodes depicting the butcher’s work.

A special type of procession showed a sequence of human figures symbolising the lands (in Egyptological jargon referred to as domains) from which the victuals necessary for the cult of the deceased nobleman were derived. These personifications took the form of marching women, robed in long dresses with suspenders and bearing baskets or other containers on their heads with various produce of the land, undoubtedly specific for each of the domains. However, it is not the figures themselves that are important for an Egyptologist, but rather the inscriptions that accompany them. They provide the name of each of the land properties represented here symbolically, and almost each of these names contains the name of a king. At times, the names of the domains forming one procession bear the names of as many as a few rulers. From the point of view of chronology, this is invaluable information as it enables determining the terminus post quem, i.e. the date after which the tomb came into existence, and thus – the period during which its owner was alive. Fifteen domains were depicted on the eastern wall of the cult chapel in Vizier Fefi’s tomb.16 Their names consist of simple sentences such ←131 | 132→as: “It is good what Ptah does for Unas,” “The lady [of the city of] Pe wants Izezi to live,” “Sakhmet wants Teti to live,” “Maat makes Teti live,” etc. The names of three rulers appear repeatedly within these inscriptions: Izezi (Fifth Dynasty), Unas (the last ruler of the Fifth Dynasty) and Teti (the first ruler of the Sixth Dynasty). The last two are predominant. Thus, it is doubtless that the tomb owner was alive at the beginning of the Sixth Dynasty, most probably during Teti’s time in power.

The scenes showing the supply of produce of the land, especially food, to the deceased take up more than half the decorated surface in the vizier’s cult chapel: the entire western and northern walls and half of the eastern one.17 The last of these is like the tomb owner’s showcase. It is located directly opposite the entrance, hewn into the western wall. Anyone entering the chapel first saw the scene carved into the middle of the eastern wall. Fefi was also very much aware of this, placing especially important information here. The symmetrically composed scene shows him twice in the company of his mother, who bore the name Tjezet.18 The future vizier’s parent is portrayed twice as a figure kneeling at her son’s feet, once with youthful facial features and the other with mature ones. Why did Fefi not present his wife here even once? It would soon come to pass that he had had four of them and all of them had been artists.

The dominant role of the mother among the women depicted in the tomb of the Egyptian dignitary is thought-provoking. In order to establish one’s origins, an Egyptian most often referred to his mother rather than his father, unless the latter was the king. Despite this, in the tombs of the courtiers, who during their lifetimes could influence the content of the representations in their ‘houses of eternity,’ in principle the most important woman was the wife, especially as the mother of his children, and primarily that of his oldest son and heir. It was only with this last mentioned person that the wife sometimes had to compete for the favour of the man of the house, as we will see later in another tomb. Things are somewhat different in Vizier Fefi’s tomb: his mother plays first fiddle. Perhaps, this is the root of the family issues the consequences of which we will read about in the next chapter.

In the meantime, let us enjoy the beauty of the reliefs and paintings in the part of the vizier’s chapel where the courtiers’ favourite forms of entertainment are presented: hunting and banquets (Figs. 44 and 4654). These scenes stand out due to the beauty of the composition, wealth of details and fineness of the colours. Right next to the propagandist scene, presenting the tomb owner with his mother, the artist depicted a fowling in a papyrus ←132 | 133→thicket.19 Fefi, wearing a short apron, is standing in a boat woven from reeds or papyrus stems. There are two female figures, much smaller in size, standing between his legs, each one touching his calves with one hand. In accordance with the conventions of Egyptian painting, the man’s body is an intense red colour, almost light brown, while the delicate body of the woman is marked with yellow paint. Each of the women is described as ‘his beloved wife,’ and they differ only in their names. This already sheds some more light on the internal relations and the balance of power within the vizier’s family.

Fefi is holding a boomerang in one hand and three birds he had hunted down in the other, most probably Egyptian geese (Fig. 44). He is accompanied by courtiers, among whom – thanks to the inscriptions – we can identify the oldest son of the tomb owner, Manefer. His descendant’s name is preceded by his title: ‘Inspector of the Great House,’ which shows that already during his father’s lifetime he had begun his move up the career ladder at the pharaoh’s court. The background of the entire scene consists of papyrus thickets, which reveal the luxuriance of Egyptian fauna. In a symmetrical arrangement, a picture was composed that from the scientific point of view could be considered an encyclopaedia of Egyptian zoology, if the artist did not have to place all the birds and predators onto frail papyrus stems, which – of course – could never have born such weight (Figs. 4647). The central motif of the composition consists of two nests with chicks, with two well-known predators sneaking up to them (along the papyrus stems!): an ichneumon on the left side, the incarnation of a snake-catcher, ready to pounce on the Egyptian goslings, and on the right – a genet, almost touching the frightened kingfisher offspring with his mouth (Fig. 46). Above this last nest, the chicks’ parents are desperately flapping their wings, attempting – to no avail – to alert all the observing birds to the ongoing tragedy. But the heron and other water birds prefer to play the role of spectators, with dignity flaunting their silhouettes and plumage. Above the scene filled with tragic tension, the Danaus chrysippus majestically spreads its wings, a butterfly whose image in Fefi’s tomb is the only representation of a butterfly from the Old Kingdom with such well-preserved polychromy (Fig. 48).20 Few Egyptologists today remember the name of the owner of this tomb, but all know that this is the ‘tomb with the butterfly.’ It is thus the butterfly that has become the Prime Minister’s calling card.

Similar representations of Egyptian nature are repeated in the Saqqara necropolis in the mastabas of the highest dignitaries from the period of ←133 | 134→the late Fifth and the Sixth Dynasties; however, in none of them has the polychromy been preserved to this day. In these terms, Fefi’s cult chapel is unique, even though the papyrus thickets accompanying the hunting and fishing scenes in a few other tombs are iconographically richer. A classical representation of rushes, the largest and most diverse in its content and finest stylistically, is found in the tomb of a dignitary named Ti, who lived towards the end of the Fifth Dynasty.21 His tomb is situated just a few hundred metres north of Fefi’s mastaba. It is not difficult to imagine what this masterpiece of Egyptian bas reliefs looked like in the period when its polychromy was still intact. One element of the virtuosity characterising the artist who had decorated the tomb we discovered is the ability to shade the colours in such a way as to render the three-dimensionality of the depicted object. The colour palette employed by Egyptian painters towards the end of the third millennium BC has thus turned out to have been much more abundant then we had so far imagined.

←134 | 135→ ←135 | 136→ ←136 | 137→

The representation of a banquet in which the tomb owner had participated, taking up the larger part of the southern wall in Fefi’s chapel, is just as rich in details (Figs. 5154).22 Unfortunately, we will never discover the name of the lady accompanying him in this scene as the part of the wall containing the relevant hieroglyphic inscription had crumbled away already in antiquity. It cannot be excluded that this was his mother as a woman is represented here who equalled her companion in height, and thus was much larger than the images of his wives on the walls of this same chapel. Only in the narrow and short doorway leading to the chapel is one of Fefi’s spouses portrayed as a figure of the same height (Figs. 5556). The lady accompanying the tomb owner in the banquet scene is wearing garments for a special occasion: a long dress with the texture of a fishnet consisting of thousands ←137 | 138→of faience beads strung onto intersecting threads. In later times, 1500 years into the future, i.e. during the so-called Third Intermediate Period, mummies were clothed in a similar robe, with various religious motifs woven into the thick beaded net, especially representations of deities linked to the Netherworld.

The feasting couple is savouring the performance of the musicians and female dancers (Figs. 5253). The latter are clad only in a short apron at the hip, while presenting either acrobatic figures that involve hoisting one leg as high as if they were dancing the cancan or a serene gambol with arms raised above the head. The dancers’ hair is worn in a long ponytail falling down onto their backs, ending in a pompon. While Fefi’s eyes are fixed on these arousing figures, the gaze of the Egyptologist rests primarily on the harpists crouching in front of the dancers. This is not due to the graceful movement of their fingers as they caress the strings with an exceptional sense of musical matter, but rather as a result of the inscriptions accompanying each of them. The harpist quartet consists of ladies bearing different names: Seshseshet, Nebet, Iret and Metjut (Fig. 53). Every one of them is described as the tomb owner’s spouse. They each even bear the title of ‘his beloved wife.’ The quartet composed of the wives-harpists is one of the most important pieces of information that can be surmised from the decoration of the tomb chapel. These same ladies are depicted together once again in two other places on the walls of its interior. If Fefi had as many as four wives, as everything seems to indicate, his house must have been similar to a harem, and – thus – been a miniature of the pharaoh’s court. We will be able to note on more than one occasion that this fun-loving nobleman had a tendency towards usurping the prerogatives due a ruler.

←138 | 139→ ←139 | 140→

In the meantime, following some slow and toilsome exploration, we had managed to unearth the chapel façade (Il. 5; Figs. 4142 and 176177).23 This was also to surprise an Egyptologist with the originality of its decorations. It has the shape of a cuboid hollow stretching the entire width of the chapel. Under the thick ceiling hewn into the rock, with its front performing simultaneously the function of an architrave with an inscription carved into a deep sunken relief, a long wall runs bearing carefully thought-through, rich and diverse decoration. There are two adjacent shorter lateral walls, ←140 | 141→adorned by a deep sunken relief of enormous propagandist significance (Figs. 176–185).24 The preserved polychromy fragments show that the original décor must have been fascinating primarily due to its exquisite colour scheme. The façade ceiling, similarly as that of the entire chapel, was painted red (Fig. 41), imitating by such means granite, a material imported from Aswan in the southern antipodes of Egypt and in principle reserved for royal buildings.

The long back wall of the façade is divided into three horizontal strips, of which the top two are filled with hieroglyphic inscriptions of special significance. As in the case of most Egyptian texts, we read them from the right side to the left. The upper strip, stretching the entire length of the façade above the entrance to the chapel, is a type of inner architrave. In the four horizontal lines, the sunk relief technique was used to carve a so-called ideal biography, which is a type of text repeated in a few variants on the lintel of many Old Kingdom tombs.25 It contains the most important information and instructions for those visiting the tomb. This is something like a guide to the cult of the deceased. Immediately following the standard offering formulas, addressed to Anubis and Osiris, the main gods of the Netherworld, a panegyric begins listing the many virtues of the tomb owner: “… after he has become exceedingly old, in peace, in peace by the great god [as] one who caused peace, one who lived in a state of reverence, one who spoke that which is good and thought of his burial, honoured one by Osiris, [and] who is in the king’s heart in his every place ….” We find out later in the text on which holy days the deceased should be venerated: “… on the Opening of the Year Festival, on the Festival of Thoth, on the Beginning of the Year Festival, on the Wag Festival, on the Great Festival, on the [Festival of] Burning, on the Beginning of the Month and the Beginning of Half Month Festival, on the Sadj Festival, on every Festival, every day, in eternity.” For an Egyptologist, it is surprising to note the omission of a few holidays present in similar inscriptions from other tombs, such as the days dedicated to the gods Sokar and Min. This probably means no more than the fact that space was lacking to include a full register of all the holidays, which was not hugely detrimental to the deceased as he was to receive offerings “every day.”

The third line contains a warning addressed to the people visiting Fefi’s tomb: “… As for all people who will enter this tomb in a state of impurity after they have eaten the abominations which the glorious spirit who has gone to the necropolis abominates, without removing their impurity, as they ←141 | 142→[should] purify themselves for the temple of god, their impediment which is very evil will be caused by the great god because of this ….”

The last line once again brings us to musings on the virtues of the deceased: “… Moreover, I am initiated in the secrets of every god. Moreover, I know all the things through which the glorious spirit who has gone to the necropolis becomes glorious as honoured one of the great gods and by the king. Moreover, I know all the things through which he ascends to the great god ….”

However, the most important information for us has been included in the endings of each of the four lines. They all end with the name of the owner of the tomb. To the surprise of those reading, it turns out that the vizier has as many as three names: his ‘great name’ Merefnebef (“[He] is loved by his lord”), his ‘beautiful name’ (sobriquet) Fefi and Unas-ankh (“Unas is living”). Admittedly, this last one appears in the vizier’s tomb most rarely out of the three names, but its meaning for the dating of this structure is especially important. This is because it contains the name of the last ruler of the Fifth Dynasty and in a context suggesting that he had recently passed away. This is yet another indication allowing for the claim that the vizier with such a basilophoric name (containing the king’s name) had lived during the reign of the next ruler, Teti, i.e. at the beginning of the reign of the Sixth Dynasty, all the more so as he had performed administrative functions in the pyramid of this last ruler.

We learn of the links with Teti’s pyramid from the ‘calling card’ that closes the inscribed architrave on the northern side, just after the above-cited text.26 We can see there the vizier in the company of his oldest son, Manefer, and his wife standing behind him. The inscription accompanying Fefi lists some of his titles, including “under-supervisor of the god’s servants of the Meret temple of king Teti,” “attendant of the pyramid of Teti,” “director of the ah-palace.” Therefore, even if we were to assume that the future vizier was born during Unas’s reign, the prime of his life fell during the beginning period of the Sixth Dynasty.

Below the inner architrave, on both sides of the entrance to the chapel, there is a long text with its form contrasting in every way to the above-described ‘ideal biography’ (Fig. 41).27 It is written down not horizontally but vertically, in 51 columns, and not using a sunken relief but slightly ←142 | 143→convex. It is especially striking to note the contrast in the colour scheme: all the hieroglyphic signs in the above-described architrave were covered with a type of greenish-blue paste, preserved here and there on the surface of the relief, standing out from the snow-white background of the inscription. Once again, we can note here the influence of the stern stylistics of the Pyramid Texts, already observed on one of the two ‘lists of offerings’ in the chapel interior. Each of the convex hieroglyphs in the vertical inscription stands out due to the richness of its colours rendering with exceptional naturalism even the slightest details of the depicted humans and animals, as well as those of the various objects. How enchanted any Egyptian must have been who gazed at this kaleidoscope of colours in their original intensity if today we stand in silent admiration in front of its faded remains, whipped by winds, sands and rain over the course of many centuries!

The interpretation of this long text under the architrave is fraught with philological and semantic difficulties. Most generally, it can be referred to as an appeal to the living or a type of testament characterising such things as the tomb owner’s approach to his own family. What is best remembered is primarily the fragment informing that no one, not even the children or siblings of the deceased, has the right to place his or her tomb within Merefnebef’s ‘house of eternity.’ In general, this reflects on the character of the tomb owner and his approach to his own progeniture, who probably came from the wombs of different wives. In this context, it becomes easier to understand the dominant role of his mother, portrayed, as described above, twice in symmetrical scenes on the tomb’s axis.

The third, bottom strip of adornments in the tomb façade also stands out due to the originality of the idea behind it.28 In a convex relief, the owner of the tomb is portrayed eight times, as he strides towards the entrance to the chapel (Il. 5; Fig. 41). Each of these figures can be seen as the ka of the deceased, or his afterworld incarnation. In this symmetrical arrangement, they form two four-person processions placed on both sides of the entrance. The figures differ only in the shape of the hairstyles, the details of the clothing and in the content of the inscriptions, which enclose each one from three sides constituting a rectangular frame. Similar compositions consisting of representations of the deceased were thus far only encountered in architraves above passages situated on the axis of sacral and sepulchral structures, as well as in the ‘false doors’ in the tombs of noblemen, in which each of the symmetrically placed jambs contained a representation of the deceased in its lower part, underneath a vertical inscription. Intrinsically, ←143 | 144→these were images small in size. Thus, we can see a large-format version of such a composition in the decoration of the tomb walls for the first time at the Memphite necropolis here in Merefnebef’s tomb. This is yet another innovation that has no precedence in Egyptian art. As we will soon see, the idea was well received and found an imitator even in the direct neighbourhood of the discussed tomb.

Even a short overview of the decorations of the walls in the vizier’s tomb chapel leads to the conclusion that we are dealing here with a high-level state official with an enormous ego, out of snobbery adopting the symbols of royal might. Wherever it was only possible, he attempted to imitate the pharaoh. This is observable even in his three names, four wives, the red colour of the polychromy of the ‘false doors’ and ceiling, with black spots characteristic for Egyptian granite, and – finally – in the monochromatic inscriptions in the sunken relief imitating the form of the Pyramid Texts. Snobbery worthy of a nouveau riche. But was this really who he was? We will try to answer this question in the next chapter.

Be as it may, this is where the idyll ends, envisioned by Merefnebef during his lifetime, when he still had a decisive influence on the decorations in his tomb. A harbinger of future misfortunes and conflicts was revealed in the next parts of the unusual monument we unearthed. First, there was the courtyard in front of the chapel façade. Much the same as the chapel itself, this was carved out into the rock, as if ‘inserted’ into the hollow with walls one metre high (Il. 22). It forms a single whole with the adjacent upper courtyard, stretching out further to the west and surrounded by a not-too-high wall, the same one that we had unearthed during our first excavation campaign. Each of the two parts of the courtyard is covered in a layer of mud containing bone aggregate, left over from animal sacrifices. But the sediment accumulation in the upper courtyard is much thicker than in the bottom courtyard.29 In addition, along the edge of the rock wall separating the courtyards, there is a strip of variously-sized stone fragments, inserted to level the unnaturally crooked edges of the line of the wall. All this indicates the alteration of an earlier tomb, which had left behind only part of the upper courtyard with a multi-layered mud floor. The eastern part of this flooring had been destroyed to hack out the bottom courtyard, which was located at the same level as the entrance to the chapel of the new tomb. Thus, the vizier’s tomb had not been erected on ‘virgin’ territory, but at the expense of an earlier tomb structure. Who and when had been buried there? Had anyone been? This we will never find out.

←144 | 145→

Behind the chapel’s opposite wall, i.e. the eastern one, at the same level as the chapel’s ceiling, we unearthed the entrance to the underground part of the tomb (Il. 6 and 22). This was a camouflaged shaft within the mastaba with walls made from mud brick, surrounding a stone, mud-brick and sand fill. At the northern wall of the mastaba, on its inner side, there was the entrance to a burial shaft over 14 metres deep.30 Carved into rock, it had a superstructure built from stone blocks in the massif of the mastaba. At the bottom of the shaft, on its western side, lies an entrance to a large funerary chamber, lacking any kind of adornment. A huge, unfinished sarcophagus from white limestone is located at its western wall. Its walls are unevenly cropped, and it has no inscriptions or other decoration. Even the stone surface has not been smoothened and it bears numerous traces of variously-sized chisels. A few large ceramic vessels, in which undoubtedly offerings were placed after the heavy lid had closed the sarcophagus, have been left leaning against the sarcophagus, but… the lid itself does not adjoin the case. In one corner, it has been raised and propped up with a stone of such a size as to make the opening large enough to pull out the corpse, though not without some damage to its integrity. We look inside: the sarcophagus is empty, with tiny fragments of golden foil lying here and there. When we carefully continue our exploration of the upper layer of the backfill, slowly moving in the direction of the chamber’s western wall, we discover the ragged fragments of the skeleton of an adult male, lying haphazardly on the lid of the sarcophagus. “He was about 48 years old and he was very handsome,” states Professor Maria Kaczmarek, our anthropologist.31

Thus, the vizier shared the same fate after death as most of the ‘inhabitants’ of this necropolis. Everything indicates that this plundering was done a short time after the funeral. We find another body in the secondary backfill of the shaft. Perhaps some of the looters had incorrectly calculated the statics of the thick layer in which they had made their vertical canal leading to the funerary chamber, so that the rubble had collapsed on top of them and they had accidentally also found their own burial place in the vizier’s tomb? We will see later more than once that even thieves experienced their own personal tragedies during their work, usually as a result of making some error.

As excavations proceed, increasing amounts of archaeological material appear for which space has to be found. This includes not only ‘tons’ of pottery (Il. 1920; Figs. 8387), an invaluable source for the reconstruction of ←145 | 146→burial customs and for dating the tomb, but also the remnants of funerary equipment, including items made from stone, wood or copper, i.e. raw material of no significance for the gangs who plundered the tombs (Figs. 7682). To have enough space for all these artefacts a storehouse is needed, which simultaneously performs the function of a workshop, where an anthropologist can unwrap the mummy and examine the bone material, while a photographer can set up his professional equipment to take photographic records of the highest class, suitable for a scholarly publication. All this has to take place during the excavation campaign for the next such occasion may only come along a year or more later, especially if the internal situation in Egypt temporarily makes it impossible to conduct research. In contrast to the majority of archaeological missions, we try to leave after every campaign with complete documentation concerning the ongoing excavations, so that no external factors make it impossible to publish the results.

The construction of a new warehouse at a historical site was out of the question. We focused our attention on a small storehouse (Fig. 205) standing right next to our excavation site, constructed from fired brick during a time when it had not crossed anyone’s mind that tourists of any sort might venture as far as the area on the western side of the pyramid, considered to be part of the desert, which – in fact – it had until recently been. This area, as I have already mentioned above, had been deemed archaeologically barren and – as a result – no Egyptologist had touched it for over 150 years. A solid storehouse had thus been erected there, with a very specific function, marring the view of the pyramid from the west. It was supposed to hold the sacks containing the ‘financial records’ of the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation, more specifically the stubs from the entrance tickets to the historical area, which remained fastened together with a clasp after the tourists had been sold their proper entrance cards. The storehouse quickly filled up as Saqqara was visited by millions of tourists, and no one had been to check on the place in years. Could these ‘priceless’ documents not be evicted and the small room of the architectural eyesore transformed into our workshop? This idea kept nagging at us and for a few years we proceeded with diplomatic actions aimed at the local antiquities inspector. This was an exceptionally honest man and any sort of corruption was absolutely out of the question. He was also unusually stubborn and scrupulous. No one believed we would have even the slightest chance of succeeding in our talks with him. Irritable to a degree much above the average, he was known throughout Egypt for his favourite word: “No.” He kept repeating it to us over the first few years just as frequently as he had with all other archaeological missions, even though their problems were much more trivial.

The discovery of Merefnebef’s tomb had a miraculous effect on Mr H.’s psyche. He suddenly turned into our closest and dearest friend and gave us ←146 | 147→the sacramental “yes,” if restricted by various conditions. We had to burn the contents of the sacks, but not all of it. Part of the unique records, treated as a signum temporis (sign of the times) were to find their way to the roof of the building, fastened in place with boards and iron rods, and then covered with cement – for posterity. This is exactly what we did. The hundreds of remaining sacks were carried out in front of the building, and the thus erected pyramid was burnt over the course of a few stages. The royal necropolis of Memphis had surely never seen such a fire from the moment it had come into existence, i.e. for more than 4000 years. It could even be stated that this long overdue fumigation was worthy of the pyramid standing nearby, the oldest in the world.

As we agreed at the very beginning of the chapter that the terrible sand storm at the moment of discovering the vizier’s tomb was his revenge for disturbing his eternal rest, the acquisition of the storehouse should be seen as his attempt at achieving expiation. Perhaps, in the meantime, his confused ka had come to the realisation that a scholarly publication on the tomb, in a world language and containing wonderful records of the finds, kept on the shelves of the largest libraries in the world, would grant him immortality for longer than would the reliefs and paintings in the cult chapel of his ‘house of eternity.’

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1 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, Warsaw 2004, pl. XLVI d.

2 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pl. XLIV a, c.

3 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 47–48.

4 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 70–74.

5 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pls. XXXI–XXXIX.

6 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pls. XLIX, LIV, LXII, LXVII, LXXII.

7 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pls. XLIX–LI, LXXII.

8 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pls. XLIX–L, LXXII–LXXIII.

9 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pls. XLIX, LII, LIV, LXXII.

10 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pls. XXIII, LXXIV e.

11 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pls. XXIII, LXXV.

12 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pls. XIX, LIII.

13 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pl. LIII a.

14 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pls. XLIX–L a.

15 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pls. XX, XXI, LV, LIX, LX.

16 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 136–138, pls. XX, LIV–LV, LVII, LIX.

17 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 93–140, 160–174.

18 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 115–117, illustr. 8, pls. XX–XXI, XLI, LXI.

19 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 122–134, pls. XXI, LXII–LXV.

20 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pls. LXIII, LXV j.

21 K. Michałowski, L’art de l’Ancienne Égypte, Paris 1968, p. 184, fig. 76; K. Myśliwiec, “The Tombs of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties at Saqqara,” in: The Treasures of the Pyramids, p. 305 (bottom).

22 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 152–159, pls. XXII, LXVII–LXIX, LXXI.

23 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 65–86, pls. VIII, IX, XI–XII, XXX–XXXII.

24 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 66–69, pls. XII–XIII.

25 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 70–74, pls. XI, XIV, XXX–XXXIV.

26 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pls. XIV, XXXIII.

27 D. Czerwik, F7 A–B: The Inscription in the Middle Register, in: Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 74–83, pls. XI, XV–XVI, XXX–XXXII, XXXIV–XXXVI, XXXVIII, XL g–j, XLI; H. Willems, “Philological Remarks on the Autobiography of Merefnebef,” LingAeg 16 (2008), 293–302.

28 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 83–86, pls. XI, XV–XVI, XXX–XXXII, XXXIV–XXXVI, XXXIX, XLI.

29 Cf. Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pl. XXVIII c, with pl. XXXI.

30 K. Kuraszkiewicz, “Eastern Part of the Complex,” in: Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 54–56.

31 M. Kaczmarek, “Skeletal Remains (Burial 45),” in: Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 185–189.