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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 5. A testimony to stormy times

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Chapter 5. A testimony to stormy times

Abstract: Conflicts in the family of the upstart vizier. Four wives and a dominating mother. Iconoclasts at work. Political problems with heritage jealousy. The cadet takes everything.

Keywords: harem, harpists, fowling, banquet, usurpation, damnatio memoriae.

The idyll described in the previous chapter, conceived by Merefnebef during his lifetime and depicted on the walls of his cult chapel by the best artists from the turn of the Fifth and the Sixth Dynasties (ca. 2300 BC), also presents the sources of the tragedy that was to ensue at latest at the moment when the tomb owner was appointed to be the vizier. He was quite an exceptional vizier.

The fact that a person of such a social status had such a small tomb already gives rise some surprise (Il. 22). The dignitaries bearing this title at the turn of the Fifth and the Sixth Dynasties buried in Saqqara had enormous mastabas, made from highest-quality limestone blocks and consisting in the aboveground part of a few dozen chambers with diverse functions. The largest of these, which was the tomb of Mereruka and a few members of his family, has over forty such chambers.1 Merefnebef’s place of rest seems exceptionally meagre in comparison, with its one-chamber chapel hewn into the rock and mastaba made from mud brick. As already mentioned, one of the most renowned American Egyptologists considered this to be proof that the vizier had lived towards the end of the Sixth Dynasty, when the impoverishment of the upper layers of society had reached such a point that even those who held similar titles were buried in equally modest tombs.2 The relatively simple form of the ‘false doors’ sculpted in the interior of Merefnebef’s cult chapel was supposed to have been evidence for such a dating. However, the researcher did not notice that at the time when the tomb was being dug out in the rock and the bas reliefs carved into the walls of his chapel, Merefnebef was not yet a vizier.

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While the chapel façade and the short narrow corridor leading to its interior are decorated with inscriptions, with the title of vizier in an initial position, this very title is not present at all in the inscriptions inside the chapel. It is not even present in the inscriptions sculpted on the ‘false doors,’ the place where attempts were made in every tomb to provide as full an image of the deceased as possible. The conclusion is simple: the chapel interior was decorated first, at a time when Merefnebef did not yet hold the title of vizier. The only inscription in which this word has been found inside the chapel is located on its southern wall, which was most probably decorated last. Thus, a middle-ranking official made a surprising career only when the work on his relatively modest ‘house of eternity’ was nearing its end. This is no novelty in the history of the Old Kingdom. It sometimes happens that in some of the tombs the highest titles are only to be found on the sarcophagus of the deceased; thus, they were a kind of farewell merit, not implying any political consequences. Even when the word ‘vizier’ sometimes appears in isolation on the courtyard columns in the tomb of a high dignitary, researchers are inclined to consider this to be an honour bestowed posthumously.3

But Merefnebef’s case was different. He became a vizier when the external part of his tomb did not yet have any decorations. Every inscription on the façade and narrow doorway (Figs. 5556) begins with the word ‘vizier.’ Everything indicates that the modest official was possessed at this time by the megalomania of someone who had unexpectedly become a member of the nouveau riche. To suddenly become the first person in the country after the pharaoh! – it would go to anyone’s head. The new ‘prime minister’ went on to build up his tomb, so that its architecture testified to the owner’s new social position. He extended the tomb southward. Right next to the front wall of his chapel, the façade of a second, smaller chapel started being hewn out into the rock (Il. 5).4

Who was it for? Perhaps for his mother, who – as we could see earlier – played the most important role in Merefnebef’s life, or perhaps for his oldest son, i.e. his heir and successor. The inscription on the façade of Merefnebef’s chapel, which is something like the last will of the deceased, clearly stating that the tomb owner does not want anyone to be buried within his ‘house of eternity,’ would speak out against this second hypothesis. Unless he changed his mind or someone forced him to do so at the moment when this ←150 | 151→‘testament’ had already been carved into the wall.5 It seems highly unlikely that the new chapel was meant for one of his ‘beloved wives,’ since their place in the family – as attested by their images on the tomb walls – was rather at the harp during various festive occasions or beside the tomb owner in a papyrus boat during hunts.

The construction of a new chapel was disrupted almost immediately after it had been initiated. Even the doorpost of the future entrance was not fully carved out. One could think that the sculptors were discouraged by the exceptionally poor limestone rock in this place, crumbling at the slightest touch. But this was the type of problem with which they had dealt ideally, if not easily, in the main chapel façade. One would therefore think that it was rather the death of the owner that wrecked his daring plans. A bizarre testimony to the planned alterations is a large cuboid block of original rock left behind by the builders right opposite the monumental inscription carved in deep relief in the southern part of the façade.6 In a way that offends the monumentalism of the architectural context, as the block stands close to the wall, covering part of the inscription and leaving next to it only a very narrow passageway left between the two courtyards in front of the façades of the parallel chapels. It seems obvious that a change in the architectural concept occurred in the course of work. But this block also never saw the moment when it would perform an important bearing function. It remained a half-product as the base for the future portico that was supposed to have been constructed between the courtyards of the neighbouring chapels. This is indicated by the rectangular excision in the upper part of the façade, directly opposite the unfinished colonnade. This nest was supposed to have held the end of an architrave supported by columns. The entablature would also surely have been decorated with inscriptions crafted in deep relief, bearing the titles of the deceased, in which the word ‘vizier’ would have been at the beginning.

None of these ambitious plans were ever realised. Not even the wall was ever finished, which was supposed to have encircled the upper courtyard in front of Merefnebef’s cult chapel. Our excavations have shown that it never reached a height of more than a few dozen centimetres. This is indicated clearly by the profile of the trench adjacent to the wall from the west ←151 | 152→and the north. Similarly, the passageways between the two courtyards, the upper and the lower one, were left in a state unbefitting the position of a vizier. There are no ramps or stairs between them, while – as already mentioned – the edge of the rock wall separating the courtyards from each other was patched up with stones in a way that taunts any elementary sense of aesthetics. The only connecting element between the levels consists of a few irregular blocks in the corner of the courtyard adjacent to the unfinished chapel, which can at most be classified as a ‘back’ staircase, most probably used by the stonemasons during the work that was suddenly interrupted. The fact that these blocks were never even removed confirms the presumption that the work was done very quickly and chaotically, while the deceased embarked on his journey to the land of Osiris before it was completed. At the moment of his death, the tomb was simply a huge construction site.

This upstart turned out to be a real Pandora’s box. The testimony of this tragedy can be observed at every step in the decoration of the tomb. Who was the pharaoh who elevated an average official to the highest function in state administration? We encounter the first premises for solving this mystery right upon entering the tomb chapel. The lateral walls of the narrow (only sixty centimetres wide) doorway leading to its interior are decorated with majestic bas reliefs presenting Merefnebef with a clean-shaven head, wearing a long robe, striding westward, i.e. towards the tomb’s exit.7 Both scenes have an identical composition and the same inscriptions (Figs. 5556). In each of them, the vizier is accompanied by a wife and by two sons depicted as much smaller than their father. While the tomb owner’s name and that of the two ladies bearing different names remained untouched, the images depicting most of the sons and the accompanying inscriptions were carefully hammered out. There can be no doubt that the sons were the victims of damnatio memoriae. In order to understand the ethical value of such an act, we must remember that the soul of the dead remained alive in the afterworld for as long as their names and images were preserved.

The consequences of the iconoclasts’ activities on the corridor’s southern wall are especially diagnostic, as there – in contrast to the northern wall – only one and not both representations of the sons were hammered out (Fig. 56). The ka of the son standing closer to his father was annihilated, which in the sepulchral iconography of this period was primarily the image of the oldest male descendant, i.e. the heir. In turn, the son portrayed standing ←152 | 153→further away, on the other side of a long staff held in the tomb owner’s hand, is younger. His image remains untouched as the only one among the four representations of the male progeniture in these scenes. The inscription identifying him has also not been destroyed: the youngster bears one of his father’s names, Fefi. This scene provides grounds for speculations that it was the eldest son, or perhaps the older sons, who were the main aim of the attack of the iconoclasts, while the youngster, whose ka evaded a similar fate, must have been in opposition to his older brothers, and was presumably even the inspirator behind the destructive act. He strides, turning his head in the direction of his father and older brother, of which only the contours of the bas relief have remained. One has the impression that he is smiling slightly. We can also encounter him inside the tomb, where his role is more pronounced.

For now, we are more interested in the destroyed part of the inscription above his father’s head (Figs. 5556). In both parallel inscriptions, i.e. on both sides of the entrance, the exact same fragment of Merefneber’s titulature was hammered off, or rather it was scratched off with a chisel: jmȜw r… (“honoured (= celebrated) by …”) (Figs. 57–58).8 In the fragment of this epithet that was chipped off, we would have expected the presence of a word which most frequently was the name of a god. If also in this case it was the name of one of the gods of the Netherworld, who could this have bothered? However, a more careful investigation of the furiously hammered off spot, done in various lighting, enable the identification of the contours of another word: ‘king.’

Who was annoyed by this neutral word and why? In and of itself, it is not the carrier of any political content though. It is obvious that the iconoclasts were acting on the orders of someone, whose actions were aimed at a specific pharaoh and his favourite. Who could have been a reviled king at the beginning of the Sixth Dynasty? Had the object of the attack been the first of its rulers, bearing the name Teti, the iconoclast might have been subject to a severe punishment, even if this act of vandalism had only occurred during the reign of his son, called Pepi, the first of two pharaohs to bear this name. Even though royal conspiracies against the ruler were organised during Pepi I’s reign,9 inscriptions bearing his name were not destroyed; thus, it is all the more probable that a word not having any direct connection with him would have been left alone.

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Nonetheless, the period between Teti’s reign, who was probably murdered as the result of a palace plot, and that of his son and rightful heir was interrupted by the short reign of a usurper, about whom we know little. We know that his name was Userkare (“Strong is the ka of [the god] Re”); however, we have no insight into whether any type of family ties connected him to his predecessor. He was ignored by the highest dignitaries of the period: his name is not even mentioned in their biographic inscriptions. It seems obvious that he was condemned to damnatio memoriae during his lifetime. The name sometimes appears in the kings’ registers written down in later times. We do not know how long he was in power. Most researchers ←156 | 157→think that the historical sources do not make it possible to consider him as having reigned for more than a year or two, while a few extend this period to six years.10 Userkare is the only candidate for such a ruler that the very mention of him, if only in the allusion contained in the word ‘king,’ could have evoked such strong emotions, especially at a moment when the rightful pharaoh, Pepi I, had already ascended the throne.

If we assume this hypothesis, Merefnebef’s surprising career forms a logical pattern. A middle-ranked official, suddenly brought to the top of the administrative hierarchy, must have had special ties with this self-appointed ruler, even before the latter came to power for a short period. One of his ←157 | 158→titles, “the one with a pleasant hand,” indicates Merefnebef’s ties with the royal harem, even though the exact meaning of this epithet remains unestablished to this day.11 If it is true that the owner of the tomb we discovered had performed an important function in the harem, he must have known many secrets highly important for the pharaoh in power. We would not at all be surprised if he had played some role in the conspiracy against Teti and in Userkare’s coming to power. These might even have been especially important services, seeing as the new ‘pharaoh’ suddenly promoted him to the highest post in the kingdom. Merefnebef felt himself to be so important and independent that he even usurped a number of prerogatives normally reserved for the ruler, including stylising some elements of his tomb chapel according to patterns borrowed from the royal sphere. The most striking such aspect is the fact that he bears as many as three names and has four wives. Each of these is depicted as a harpist (Fig. 53). These unusual circumstances, very strongly emphasised in the tomb, allow for the supposition that the atmosphere in Merefnebef’s house was similar to that of a harem, which might have been an ‘implant’ from the royal courtyard. The quartet of harpists, each with a different name and each bearing the epithet of “his beloved wife,” appears on the walls of the chapel three times, always with the same names of the musicians, either in scenes occurring at the offering table or during a feast.

After clearing Merefnebef’s tomb chapel of the ancient rubble, it became possible for us to ascertain that the iconoclasts were not satisfied with just destroying the images of the vizier’s oldest sons in the corridor leading to its interior. In the chapel itself, the representations of the eldest son and the accompanying inscriptions were also chipped off the walls (Fig. 59). These include two scenes closing off the decorations of the western wall from the northern and southern side.12 In accordance with the principle of symmetry, in each case they accompany a ‘false door,’ which is carved into this wall twice. In each of them, the representation of the tomb owner’s wife has not been damaged; the anger of these frustrates is focused on the eldest son, who – according to Old Egyptian custom – was to be the heir.

If we take a closer look at the decorations of tombs from the Old Kingdom, we can see that not only Merefnebef’s progeniture had a problem with the privileged first-born male descendant. In many of these mastabas, it is precisely those fragments of the reliefs which doubtless depicted the eldest son or can be suspected of having portrayed him that have been hewn off, more ←158 | 159→or less meticulously.13 The most ancient known deliberate destruction of this type has been attested in the mastabas of the noblemen from the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty, and thus tombs over 200 years older than the one we discovered. Conflicts between the sons did not elude even the noblest and wealthiest of families. One such testimony of this would be the chiselled off fragments of a scene in Ptahshepses’s tomb from the Fifth Dynasty, located in Abusir, only a few kilometres north of Saqqara.14 In terms of its architecture and decorations, this tomb remained an unparalleled model for later viziers buried in Saqqara.

An exceptional example of the activities of iconoclasts in Merefnebef’s tomb chapel would be the fishing scene, located at the end of the eastern wall on its southern side (Fig. 44).15 It shows a person named Merefnebef receiving gifts in the form of fish caught in a water reservoir, next to which a harvest scene has been portrayed. We were struck by the stylistic distinctiveness of this scene as soon as we cleared the rubble from the chapel interior – the faded colours contrasting with the bright polychromy of the remaining reliefs; the different composition of the scene presenting the tomb owner seated near his wife; not portrayed sitting next to each other, but one beneath the other, with her seated on a separate chair below the man. Both figures are identical in size, but disproportionately smaller than in the remaining scenes depicting the tomb owner in the company of one of his four wives. The contours of the silhouettes were carved schematically, lacking the fineness of the modelling characteristic for the neighbouring bas reliefs. It is quite shocking to note the thematic and stylistic discrepancies between the fishing scene and the motifs carved out beneath, forming, somewhat like the frames of a film, a cycle of preparations for the feast depicted on the adjacent southern wall (Figs. 5154). To put it shortly, the mysterious scene makes the impression of having been ‘implanted’ into an already existing frame, much too cramped for its content.

The inscriptions accompanying the seated couple are even more puzzling. While he is described using one of the tomb owner’s names, Merefnebef, she bears the name Hemi, which is not present anywhere else in the tomb. None of the four harpists described as “his beloved wives” has such a name. ←159 | 160→Could the tomb owner have had another, fifth wife with this name? Maybe she became his beloved in the final phase of his life after the four artists had been dismissed?

However, closer observation of the fishing scene suggests a completely different explanation. The whole relief is covered with cracks, corresponding to the outlines of a few irregular stone plates, hastily inserted into a large opening that formed in this part of the wall after its original decoration had chipped away. Gypsum was placed on the surface, which – however – quickly chipped away along the crevices between the plates. Initially, a composition, rich in content but poor in form, was carved into the layer of gypsum using the shallow relief technique, after which it was covered with a very scarce coat of paint. This scene is thus obviously a secondary element in the design of Merefnebef’s tomb, included some time after the carving of the original decoration.

Why was the original décor modified and who came up with the idea for these changes? It cannot be excluded that the exceptionally brittle rock disintegrated in this spot and a large hole formed that had to be filled. However, if this was the case, why did the author of the retouches not restore the original decoration but instead inserted a motif that did not fit in terms of its content to the other scenes? While it is true those who made the secondary décor did attempt to introduce formal links with the damaged original scene, of which only the bottom part of the legs of a few figures were left behind, and they placed the representation of the harvesters in such a way that their limbs were connected with the ‘old’ calves into a whole, this did not fully mask the intentions of the retouchers. From afar, we can sense a propaganda aim, which is confirmed by the names of the depicted couple. The man bearing the name Merefnebef need not be the owner of the tomb, but one of his sons. The practice of giving male descendants their father’s name was a custom extremely common in Egypt during the discussed period. Whole dynasties of noblemen with one and the same name were formed, an illustration of which would be the huge Ptahhotep tomb, expanded in stages, located not far from Merefnebef’s grave and slightly older than it.

Already at the entrance to the tomb chapel of our vizier, we could see a remarkably preserved image of a younger (most probably the youngest) son, who bore his father’s ‘beautiful name,’ Fefi (Fig. 56). It is highly likely that he also inherited from his father or perhaps usurped the ‘great name’ Merefnebef, using it when – upon beating the older progeniture, and especially after destroying his eldest brother’s images – he felt himself to be the genuine heir to the tomb owner’s inheritance. The use of this name in the fishing scene had the additional advantage that it could fool the one looking at it, making him think that it depicts the image of his father. However, ←160 | 161→there can be no doubts about the wife’s name in this scene, differing from the names of all of the four ‘beloved wives’ attested in the original chapel decoration. It seems almost certain that the author of the new décor was the youngest son boasting his father’s names. He must have felt very at ease in his role as victor over his brothers, since he did not hesitate to represent his own life companion in this scene and not one of his father’s four wives. The conclusion is immediately obvious: Fefi/Merefnebef Junior ‘took it all.’ What did he do to his older brothers in real life if he had annihilated their ka (spiritual element) depicted in their father’s tomb? This we will probably never know.

We also do not know whether the original decoration later modified by the youngest son had naturally crumbled away or whether someone had ‘helped’ the process along for political reasons. The destruction of the older brothers’ images might have been more than just an expression of a ferocious struggle over their father’s legacy. During the discussed period, when conspiracies among the courtiers against their rightful ruler were almost an everyday occurrence, particularly during the reign, even if short, of the usurper, political preferences could have played an important role. During Pepi I’s reign, there were at least two conspiracies in which part of the highest officials in the royal court participated, including the supreme doctor of Upper and Lower Egypt, Seankhuiptah, Vizier Hesi and the overseer of the arsenal, bearing the name Mereri.16 All three were punished, not only by their images and names being erased but also by losing their tombs at the royal necropolis in Saqqara. The decorations of these tombs were modified to accommodate other, probably more loyal, courtiers.

The certainty with which Fefi Junior ran rampant in his father’s tomb, probably already after the latter’s death, allows for the supposition that the youngster probably earned himself an irrefutable position, also in the countenance of the pharaoh. There can be no doubt that this ruler, Pepi I, was the rightful heir to the throne, and not his predecessor with a dubious reputation, Userkare, who Fefi Senior had apparently served. Probably the family of the vizier-upstart split in political terms into two feuding camps: the father, owing his career to ‘Pharaoh’ Userkare, and his oldest son named Manefer, supported the ephemeral ruler, for which they had to pay dearly after their protector was overthrown, while the youngest son, obviously sly and an opportunist, found his way into the camp of Pepi I’s supporters, which enabled him to later behave with impunity in his father’s tomb, as if it were his own ‘house of eternity.’ In this context, it becomes clear why the neutral word ‘king’ in his father’s inscription might have evoked such violent ←161 | 162→emotions that it had to be destroyed wherever it was most visible. This must have been perceived as a type of political declaration. Equally without any consequences, the young Merefnebef could reshape part of the decorations in his father’s tomb chapel into a scene depicting him with his wife.

It should be noted that the zeal of the iconoclasts inside the chapel was not as intense as in the entrance to it, i.e. the place where it would be impossible for it not to catch the attention of any person participating in the cult of the deceased. In one of the less visible inscriptions, the word ‘king’ has not been removed as an element of this same epithet ‘honoured by the king,’ while in the procession of the offering bearers depicted in the lowest strip of the decoration on the eastern wall, just above the chamber’s floor, we can see the untouched representation of the eldest son carrying a huge ox haunch.17 It was thus – similarly as in our times – primarily about propaganda and not the essence of things.

One other inscription on the eastern wall, located in such a spot that it is barely visible, has enormous significance for the reconstruction of Merefnebef’s unexpected but rather short career.18 A very important part of the tomb owner’s titulature was carved with tiny hieroglyphs in the least expected place: in the wild bird hunting scene (Fig. 44). It is divided into three parts that fill the remaining space left around the head of the hunting tomb owner: in front of his head, behind it – in front of the raised hand holding a boomerang, and behind the hand. Each of these fragments is arranged differently: the first, in front of his head, consists of one horizontal line and two vertical columns, while the last, behind his hand, is composed of three vertical columns. The middle element, the most interesting one, has three horizontal strips. While the back part of the inscription, which has been well preserved, contains Merefnebef’s banal titles, constantly repeated in the chapel (“honoured by Anubis, who-is-on-his-hill, hereditary prince, count, the only companion, main lector-priest”), the content of the two remaining fragments is original. In front of the tomb owner’s head, there is the above-discussed title “honoured by the king,” which in this case escaped the hands of the iconoclasts probably only because it was barely visible. New titles, not attested anywhere else inside the chapel, appear in the middle part of the inscription, which today is barely visible under the layer of dark grey paint that later covered it, probably when the youngest son was placing an image of himself in the fishing scene, right next to the representation of the hunt. What could have annoyed him in this part of the inscription?

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The part of the inscription that has been painted over can be reconstructed on the basis of the preserved fragments. It goes as follows: “Under-supervisor of the hem-netjer priests [in] the meret temple [of King] Teti; attendant [of the pyramid] Steadfast-are-the-Places-of-Teti [i.e. King Teti’s pyramids]”.19 On this basis, we can see that Merefnebef performed an important function in the cult of the first Sixth-Dynasty ruler, linked directly to his pyramid. The placement and shape of the inscription show that it was not among the original decorations in the chapel. It was ‘squeezed’ into the only available space that was still suitable for such an inscription. Thus, the functions listed in the middle part of the inscription can be counted among the honours that Merefnebef received during the apex of his career, probably during the reign of his protector Userkare, but probably before he had even been given the title of vizier, mentioned for the first (and only) time inside the chapel on the southern wall.

The youngest son of the vizier-opportunist, supporter of the rightful dynastic line, might not have liked the titulature linking his father with such a holy place as Teti’s pyramid. All the more so, as this honour came thanks to the grace of a pseudo-pharaoh who had possibly played a huge role in Teti’s death. He apparently decided to destroy this shameful inscription, especially since the mentioned honours had in the meantime surely fallen to someone else. The inscription was so small and was located in such a barely visible spot that a chisel was unnecessary – it was enough to place a bit of grey paint. However, the same titles were preserved untouched in Merefnebef’s showcase closing his ‘ideal biography’ on the already-mentioned inner architrave crowning the entrance to the tomb.20 It was also barely visible there: the inscription located right next to the ceiling also consists of small hieroglyphs.

Given all the presented ‘anomalies’ and messages between the lines, one could attempt to reconstruct Merefnebef’s turbulent career. His biography emerges from his titulature written down in various parts of the tomb. His beginnings were modest. When he was building and carving out his tomb typical for the middle class of the period, i.e. the beginning of the Sixth Dynasty, he was responsible, among other things, for the royal wigs and the ruler’s hairdos. He also performed cult functions as the main lector-priest, playing an important role in rituals. However, this role simultaneously linked him with the royal court, which is attested by the position of “inspector of the Great House (= the royal palace).” There are especially numerous ←163 | 164→titles describing him as “secretary,” a trusted person in various ways granted access to the ruler’s secrets. Among his various titles, he was “secretary of the king’s every order,” “the secretary of the king in each of his cult places,” but primarily “the secretary of the Morning House,” which probably described him as the person accompanying the pharaoh in the preparation of divine rituals. This is the highest title in the secretary sequence. We do not know what things he was able to tell the king during these ‘secret’ meetings: but it is a fact that it was enough to boost his brilliant career.

His titulature is also listed on the ‘false doors,’ undoubtedly constituting the most important point in the tomb for the owner in the afterlife and probably made as the first decorative element on the walls (Fig. 43), and it was expanded over time. The apogee of his career came after the pharaoh, ignored completely by his contemporaries and only mentioned in passing by next generations, ascended the throne. First, the titles linked to the posthumous cult of King Teti, who had recently passed away, appeared on the chapel’s eastern wall. Later, on the southern wall, the title of ‘vizier’ appeared for the very first time, duplicated repeatedly in the external part of the cult chapel. At that time, Merefnebef decided to expand his tomb, in line with his new social position. However, his ambitious plans for the monumentalising of his place of eternal rest never came to be executed.

Along with the title of ‘vizier,’ other titles appear in the upstart’s biography that are linked to the highest level of the administrative hierarchy. On the façade of his tomb chapel, Merefnebef is described as “overseer of the scribes of royal records,” which in the times of the Sixth Dynasty was a function to which almost exclusively viziers were entitled. We can also find there the title of the “director of the palace of ah,” the importance of which had decreased during the reign of the dynasty preceding Merefnebef’s times and which had disappeared almost completely in the beginnings of the reign of the Sixth Dynasty. However, its presence on the wall indicates the search for distinction according to the best traditions of times gone by.

After Merefnebef’s death, his house goes to hell. The fierce rivalry between the sons, who could have been the children of different wives, ends with the victory of the youngest descendant, Fefi/Merefnebef Junior. He destroys the images of his brothers (Fig. 59) and ‘corrects’ the tomb chapel decoration in such a way as if the tomb were his own property. The reasons behind this conflict might have been both economic (his father’s fortune) and political. The last act of this tragedy is the collapse of the frontal wall in the brick mastaba, which had originally reached the external edge of the chapel hewn out in rock.

At the time when the tomb was discovered, the entire façade was buried under a veritable pyramid of bricks. Some of the brickwork that had initially risen above the front of the tomb chapel was preserved in its original layout ←164 | 165→but in an inverse position. For the 4000 years preceding our excavations, no one had penetrated the rubble or entered the chapel interior, even though the dead began to be buried atop the surface of the brick ruin towards the end of the Old Kingdom. The place once again became a cemetery 2000 years later, during the reign of the Ptolemies (Fig. 62).

It is difficult to establish with any certainty the reason behind the frontal collapse, i.e. that of the western wall of the great mastaba erected above the vizier’s grave. Some researchers think that this happened due to torrential rainfall, which sometimes struck the Memphis necropolis towards the end of ←165 | 166→the Old Kingdom. We have abundant evidence that at the time fast-flowing streams formed, which would run in a western direction from the plateau of Djoser’s pyramid over the rock terraces left behind by former stone quarries and probably linked to the construction of this pyramid. In the case of Merefnebef’s tomb, this theory encounters certain difficulties. The water running from the east towards the vizier’s mastaba would primarily have had to hit its eastern wall, and, while flowing around its side walls, i.e. the northern and southern ones, it would have eroded the structure from these three sides, leading to its gradual disintegration. Meanwhile, these three walls have in fact been preserved in good shape to a height of about one metre, while the wall least exposed to the effects of the flowing mass of water collapsed. It could also be presumed that the interior of the mastaba, filled with earth, sand, stone and vessel sherds, pushed against this structure more than against the remaining walls. Still, the accumulation of collapsed elements in front of the chapel was very homogenous, consisting almost exclusively of bricks.

It is cause for thought that a low wall made from irregular stone blocks was unearthed underneath the brick backfill, directly on the floor of the courtyard adjacent to the front wall of the mastaba, parallel to the edge of the architrave closing off the façade from the top. It gives the impression that someone might have wanted to cushion the expected impact of the mass of brick before the cataclysm was to occur.21 Perhaps this person had been preparing the deliberate destruction of the mastaba’s frontal wall? It is difficult to exclude such a possibility if we consider the scandals witnessed by the vizier’s tomb after his death. An argument in favour of this hypothesis is the astounding fact that no one later attempted to remove the rubble from the entrance to the chapel and reactivate its cult functions, even though it contained such beautiful and rich decorations. It would have taken a small group of people no more than a day’s work.

Instead, sometime after the calamity, but still during the Old Kingdom, the decision was reached for a new place of cult to be built for Merefnebef, this time on the eastern side of the mastaba.22 The new chapel, much smaller and more modest than the previous one, was inserted into the brick wall of the mastaba (Il. 22; Figs. 60 and 88). In actuality, we should refer to this rather as a place of cult than a chapel, as it consists of a miniature courtyard surrounded from three sides by a low brick wall and the place of cult itself. As already mentioned before, the western wall inside this miniature cult chapel contains a huge ‘false door,’ made from a hard type of limestone and only partially preserved, inserted into a hollow hewn out into the surface ←166 | 167→of the brick mass. This fragment of the ‘false door’ was the first element of Merefnebef’s tomb discovered by our mission. It was lying just beneath the surface; thus, we had thought it was a block from one of the plundered graves, lugged here, despite its huge weight, by some band of looters. We had not even suspected that we were standing on the roof of the vizier’s tomb.

However, it is the enormous architrave made from very brittle local limestone that turned out to be the most substantial element of the eastern chapel (Fig. 60).23 This block, 3.2 m in length, 0.63 m in height and 0.25 m thick, was initially located above the ‘false door,’ crowning the façade of the secondary cult place. Only the hard mass of the ‘false door’ was able to support such an enormous weight. It is difficult to say when the architrave fell to the ground. At the moment when it was discovered, it was lying in front of the chapel, with the decorated surface face down, partly on a layer of sand and partly on a rammed clay floor, which at the time must have been at ground level. Upon falling, it cracked into three parts, which required a few weeks of initial conservation work on site before we could turn it over, with its decorated surface facing upwards. A stone altar without any decoration ←167 | 168→lay in front of the ‘false door,’ where the vizier’s second- or third-generation relatives and the priests could place their offerings.

The decoration of the architrave, made using the sunken relief technique, is practically a copy of the lower strip of bas reliefs in the façade of the western chapel (Il. 5).24 Eight figures of the tomb owner form two four-person processions arranged symmetrically on both sides of the axis of the representation. Each of the figures is wearing a long wig, a wide necklace and an apron reaching down to his knees. Each of them is holding a kherep sceptre in one hand, and a long staff in the other. They are all accompanied by inscriptions differing from those in the façade of the earlier chapel. Here, new titles are ascribed to the deceased vizier, not attested in the main chapel. They identify him as “Under-supervisor of the Great House,” “keeper of the linen of the Great House” and “inspector of the artisans’ workshops of the Great House.” It is hard to imagine that such prosaic functions were entrusted to the vizier posthumously. Were they forgotten during the decorating of the main chapel or were they omitted intentionally? Or perhaps this is not the place of the posthumous cult of Merefnebef Senior, but rather his youngest son bearing the same names?

However, this hypothesis is contradicted by the presence of the title ‘vizier’ next to two of the eight figures represented on the huge architrave. There is nothing to indicate that the tomb owner’s youngest son was to later also receive a similar distinction from the king. Unless he unscrupulously not only usurped his father’s cult chapel but also all his titles, including that of ‘prime minister’ (as one would define a ‘vizier’ today). Even such audacity would not surprise us in the biography of the juvenile troublemaker. However, the hammering out of one word in the epithet “honoured by …” speaks for the attribution of the new chapel to the vizier-father. Based on the above-described analogy, i.e. the damaged inscriptions in the entrance to the main chapel, we can assume the word ‘king’ used to be here. If this was the case, we have conclusive evidence that even for some time after the vizier’s death, his supporters who built him a new cult chapel, in many respects reminiscent of the buried (western) chapel façade, clashed with his enemies, who supposedly had not forgotten his ties with the reviled, ephemeral ruler called Userkare.

It remains a mystery why the new chapel was located by the northern edge of the western mastaba wall. Why not in the middle of it, in accordance with the principle of symmetry, widespread in Egypt? It can be presumed that there had been the intention of placing the new ‘false door’ and offering table as close as possible to the masked grave shaft, leading to the ←168 | 169→sarcophagus containing the body of the tomb owner, while the shaft was situated in the mastaba by its northern wall. We would not be surprised if the constructors of the new chapel were linked somehow to the people who had robbed the sarcophagus earlier, leaving the massacred body of the vizier on its cover. Such was the spirit of the times.

Nonetheless, we have evidence that the constructors of the new chapel felt the localisation lacked symmetry. They clearly wanted it to be situated in the middle of the brick wall. To this purpose, they extended the eastern wall of the mastaba northward, connecting it with… the identical wall of the neighbouring mastaba (Fig. 88). Both mastabas stood right next to each other. In this way, we found out that Merefnebef’s posthumous neighbour to the north was the owner of a similar tomb. However, we did not rush to unearth it. As we did not know the state of preservation of the neighbouring mastaba’s cult chapel, we decided to unearth it only after the documentation of the vizier’s mastaba would be ready for publication in the form of a monograph, and restoration work in this tomb was able to secure the stabilisation of the reliefs and painted masterpieces adorning its walls. This took six years. During this time, we covered the mastaba with a shelter made from hard stone blocks, and the bas reliefs were professionally recorded, i.e. photographed, drawn and described. We also unearthed the part of the necropolis extending between Merefnebef’s mastaba and the enormous recessed wall surrounding Djoser’s pyramid enclosure.25

←169 | 170→

1 N. Kanawati et al., Mereruka and His Family, Part 1: The Tomb of Meryteti, Oxford 2004; N. Kanawati et al., Mereruka and His Family, Part 3:1: The Tomb of Mereruka, Oxford 2010.

2 E. Brovarski, “False Doors and History: The Sixth Dynasty,” in: M. Bárta (ed.), The Old Kingdom Art and Archaeology. Proceedings of the Conference held in Prague, May 31–June 4, 2004, Prague 2006, p. 93.

3 H. Altenmüller, Die Wanddarstellungen im Grab des Mehu in Saqqara, Mainz 1998, p. 82 (no. 6).

4 K. Kuraszkiewicz, “Western Part of the Complex,” in: Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, p. 61, pls. XXVI g, XXIX b.

5 H. Willems, “Philological Remarks on the Autobiography of Merefnebef,” Lingua Aegyptia 16 (2008), p. 302; K. Myśliwiec, “Dating the Tombs of Merefnebef and Nyankhnefertem in Saqqara,” in: M. Bárta, F. Coppens, J. Krejčí (eds.), Abusir and Saqqara in the year 2010/2, Prague 2011, p. 658, fn. 1.

6 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pls. XXV d, XXVI f–g, XXVII b, d, XXVIII a, XXIX a, XXX, XXXI.

7 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pls. XIII, XXX–XXXI, XXXVII c–d.

8 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pls. XLII, XLIV c–d, XLV, XLVI c, XLVII f, h.

9 N. Kanawati, Conspiracies in the Egyptian Palace. Unas to Pepy I, London 2003, pp. 48–137, 169–182.

10 Theis, “Userkare,” pp. 56–67.

11 K. Kuraszkiewicz, Titles, in: Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, p. 48 (Titles, no. 1).

12 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 100 (scene 10) and 163 (scene 45).

13 K. Myśliwiec, “Father’s and Eldest Son’s Overlapping Feet; an Iconographic Message,” in: Z. Hawass, P. Der Manuelian, R. B. Hussein (eds.), Perspectives on Ancient Egypt. Studies in Honor of Edward Brovarski (“Supplément aux Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte” 40), Le Caire 2010, pp. 315–318.

14 M. Verner, Abusir I, The Mastaba of Ptahshepses, Reliefs, Prague 1977, pp. 43–45, 204 (40), inscription 44, pls. 24–25, 98, 100, 251 (94), inscription 148, pl. 54.

15 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 141–146.

16 N. Kanawati, Conspiracies in the Egyptian Palace. Unas to Pepy I, pp. 165–166.

17 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, p. 135, pls. XX, LXI.

18 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 123–124, pl. LXIV a, c, d, e.

19 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 123–4.

20 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, p. 74 (F 6, A), pls. XIV, XXXIII.

21 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pls., VII a–b, XXV d.

22 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 56–60, illustr. 1.

23 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, p. 57 (illustr. 1), 59, pls. LXXXII a, LXXXIII a, LXXXV d–f.

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

25 M. Radomska et al., The Catalogue with Drawings (Saqqara III, Part 1), Warsaw 2008, p. 33, fig. 1 (sector V), 42–45, figs. 10–13.