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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 9. Behind the scenes of family bliss

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Chapter 9. Behind the scenes of family bliss

Abstract: Mysterious Mereris, sons of Nyankhnefertum. Who is the father of the two: the tomb owner or the pharaoh? Unusual features in the decoration of the cult chapel. An iconographic and textual message left by iconoclasts.

Keywords: secondary inscriptions, unusual epithet, priestess of Hathor, sledge as phallus, silly jokes.

Temi could die in peace. Aside from having the reliefs decorating the walls in the southern part of his chapel painted, he had managed to do everything to petrify order and harmony in his large family. He had informed posterity about how much he loved his wife, about how he was immensely devoted to both kings who had passed away and the one still alive, but also to the deities, with the youthful Nefertum – the symbol of rebirth – at the forefront. Temi had showed every member of his closest family their place in line, not forgetting even for a moment about his alter ego, i.e. his eldest son, who was to ensure the continuation of the earthly idyll after Temi as the head of the family had moved on to the afterworld. It seems, however, that he overdid the exposure of the special role to be performed by his firstborn son, while – as we know – the devil is in the detail. He might also have perhaps shown excessive caution when wanting to protect his closest ones from the tragedy that had devastated the family of his posthumous neighbour, the vizier-parvenu with the ‘beautiful name’ Fefi, whose tomb had in fact been the prototype for Temi’s ‘house of eternity.’

When one stands in awe in front of the panoramic ‘family portrait’ immortalised on the chapel’s east wall (Figs. 9597),1 a few deviations from the rules draw one’s attention. This does not necessarily refer to the obtrusive exposure of the eldest son’s position at the expense of his beloved wife but rather to the iconographic distinctiveness of one of the eight scenes (Fig. 146) forming this seemingly very monotonous scene, in which symmetry and harmony dominate over all other principles. Such an impression of symmetry is invoked already by the representations of the deceased in each of the eight segments, a figure of almost natural height. In each case, he is striding forward, holding a long staff, a symbol of his stateliness, in his outstretched hand. His naked torso is adorned by a wide necklace, which in reality would have consisted of a large number of pearls strung onto threads forming concentric circles. ←303 | 304→The short, probably artificial beard with an almost rectangular contour is yet another sign of his stateliness. He wears a wig on his head, made up of horizontal rows of small locks, but their shape and length are varied. Alternately, alongside the short wig, fitted to the shape of his nape, there is a long wig, shoulder-length, which broadens out towards its bottom.

The remaining details of the clothing are identical in seven scenes, while the eighth segment (Fig. 146) stands out due to its original iconography.2 It ←304 | 305→is located in the second position from the north side (i.e. from the left, as would perceive it an observer of the scene), and thus it is the next one after the above-mentioned image, in which the feet of the father and the eldest son overlap, which constitutes yet another exception in the whole composition, a type of manifesto with the features of a testament (Fig. 99).

Aside from the mentioned details, everything in this segment is different. Primarily Temi’s attire, consisting of an apron ending in its upper part in a belt with a knot below his navel. While the aprons in the case of the remaining seven figures always have the same shape, characterised by a stiff front, protruding strongly away from the body and triangularly ended, with a diagonal fold between the stomach and the back of the knee, the apron of this last figure is much more elegant. It fits the body tightly from all sides, with a seemingly neatly pleated surface, as can be seen in representations with a more detailed modelling. Such attire appears among high-ranked Egyptian dignitaries during especially ceremonial situations, possibly linked to the ritual of the transition of male progeniture from childhood into adulthood. However, the exact symbolism of this element of clothing remains unclear to this day.

Another attribute that makes this original scene stand out is the kherep sceptre held by Temi in the hand in which in the seven remaining scenes he is holding something like a folded handkerchief with drooping corners. What do these unique attributes of stateliness mean in a composition depicting the tomb owner with his two youngest sons? One of them, probably the older one, is portrayed with a so-called lock of youth (or, rather, of childhood) falling to the side of his head with otherwise short-cropped hair.3 In one hand he is holding the wings of a live hoopoe (Upupa epops), while grasping his father’s tall staff with the other. This gesture is highly symptomatic, as in the discussed family tableau in principle it is characteristic for the eldest son named Meruka (Fig. 99). Meanwhile, the boy from the analysed scene is called Mereri. It is striking that the second child accompanying his father is also described using the same name. The clearly marked variation in height and different attributes suggest that these are not two representations of the same child, but rather a depiction of two brothers, of which one is slightly older than the other. The younger one, shown behind his father, i.e. as a figure striding alongside him, is touching Temi’s leg with his hand. Even though no elements of their clothing have been marked on the relief, the microscopic bump above the crotch might be interpreted as a symbolic marking of their members or as a knot at the belt of their invisible aprons. ←305 | 306→The bird in the hand of the older of the two Mereris probably characterises him as a novice hunter, for which the younger one is not yet mature enough.

Nothing indicates that this scene depicts a special ceremony; thus, Temi’s unique, festive appearance in this specific spot should be attributed rather to the presence of his adolescent sons than to any other context. Are the sceptre and the elegant apron attributes meant to emphasise the hierarchic distance between the youngest sons and their father, the exceptional respect that is due a parent? Or perhaps the exact opposite – which at first seems almost impossible – this is an expression of special respect shown by the tomb owner towards the two children, of whom one is described as “his son, his beloved, Mereri,” while the second as “son, his beloved, Mereri.” But who must these boys have been for their father to feel obligated to express such reverence?

It is possible to contemplate many hypotheses. We should, however, focus on the facts. The first of these is the name of the youths. They both bear the same one, which was nothing out of the ordinary in the discussed period. Similar cases have been confirmed in the tombs of a few of the high dignitaries buried at the Saqqara necropolis. There are even sometimes whole family dynasties with all the members bearing the same name, the most known example of which are the noblemen with the name Ptahhotep from a magnificent mastaba, expanded numerous times, located not far from Temi’s tomb. It should come as no surprise that in Memphis, the centre of the god Ptah’s cult, the theophoric name meaning “Ptah is happy” (=satisfied)” was so popular.

The same was true, though for different reasons, for the name Mereri. Its exceptional popularity during the Sixth Dynasty and directly after the fall of the Old Kingdom has been attested for the whole of Egypt.4 Many dignitaries from the middle layers of the social hierarchy bore this name. This is in fact one of a few different names constructed on the basis of the root mer, which simply means “to love.” It was used to build nouns, verbs and adjectives in various forms, such as through the reduplication of the elements of the root, which intensifies the value of the emotion it contains. Given the frequent brevity of the notation, it is sometimes difficult to establish what shade of love is being referred to in a specific case. It can be stated generally that such terms as “loved,” “beloved,” “loving,” etc. were especially popular in Egyptian onomastics during those stormy times. Searching for the reasons ←306 | 307→behind this popularity, one could probably find grounds in the political and social situation, forming particular premises for the human psychological sphere. One always searches for that which one is lacking. In the turbulent times at the turn of the two last dynasties of the Old Kingdom, and later, up until the first fall of the pharaonic state, such values as love, friendship, loyalty or honesty must have been quite rare, though highly valued.5

However, the exceptionality of Temi’s family is based on the fact that there are as many as three Mereris. Aside from the two boys in the exceptional scene we are attempting to understand (Fig. 146), the family portrait on the east wall of the tomb chapel depicts another person, this time an adult bearing the same name. He appears in the last segment of the southern sequence (on the right side from the perspective of the observer) of this panorama with a symmetrical composition (Fig. 98).6 He is one of two brothers depicted in this scene standing on both sides of their father. Behind the middle figure, i.e. the side closer to the observer, there is a man named Tjetji, described as “his son, his beloved, functionary and attendant of the Great House.” As the only one of the male descendants depicted in the ‘family panorama,’ he walks with his hands lowered, touching neither his father’s staff nor his leg. It seems that his relationship with his father was marked by reserve, at least in the opinion of the latter, who was in fact the instigator behind the decoration. Judging by the titulature, his son’s career must have been quite advanced; therefore, he might have been chronologically the first son after the eldest descendant. If this was in fact the case, he would have had more reasons to be frustrated than any of his younger brothers, as the chance to be the first had slipped through his fingers. It is almost like fourth place at the Olympic Games.

The son walking on his father’s other side, Mereri, is presented in a completely different manner (Fig. 98). With a resolute gesture, he grasps his father’s staff with one hand, as if he felt himself to be the oldest male descendant. Even though he is described identically as his adolescent namesake holding the hoopoe in the mysterious image on the other side of the axis of symmetry, “his son, his beloved, Mereri” (Fig. 146), this is definitely not the same person. In the Egyptian art of this period, there were no scenes depicting the same person a few times at different stages of his life. This is evidenced by the four representations of the eldest son in the described ‘family panorama.’ In each one, Meruka is portrayed identically, as an adult of the same age. Therefore, Nyankhnefertum had three sons named Mereri.

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However, one would be wrong to think the name Mereri appears only in the tomb’s original decoration. It is just as frequently present in the inscriptions added or redone after the head of the family passed away. And it is precisely these inscriptions which reveal the other side of the coin, or the real image of the family that differs from the father’s idealistic vision.

We discovered the first retouch of the reliefs made by iconoclasts in one of the two middle scenes that come together at the axis of symmetry (Fig. 95).7 On the northern side of this axis, the tomb owner is depicted in the company of his wife and one of his sons touching his father’s calf (Fig. 147). It is precisely the representation of this descendant that fell victim to one of the Mereris. The upper part of his torso was hewn off, including the head, as was the bottom part of the inscription accompanying this image.8 No attempts were even made to remove the traces left by the chisel. On the uneven surface, a new face was sculpted, while in front of it, red paint was used to write the barely visible name “Mereri.” He must have been the one to order this act of vandalism. This was in addition a grave sin, as the destruction of one’s image and name were tantamount with annihilating him or her. We do not know the name of Temi’s son portrayed primarily in this segment. The usurpation was probably done by one of the two adolescent Mereris depicted as children in the mysterious scene sculpted somewhat further. Upon reaching maturity, probably after their father’s death, he asserted his alleged or actual rights, which he expressed by destroying the image of his brother, whom their father had placed higher in the family hierarchy. This elevation was expressed by his presence alongside his parents in the middle scene. Even if the anonymous brother had no longer been alive at that time, erasing him from human memory was an unforgiveable crime.

The Mereri clan was not satisfied with just these retouches. More modifications were discovered on the opposite wall, i.e. the west one. In the vertical strip of decoration that accompanies the polychrome ‘false door’ on its northern side, the figures of two offering bearers carrying holy oils was labelled with new content (Figs. 147149).9 As noted above, these figures were originally accompanied by schematic inscriptions naming the depicted action, but without listing any names. The two Mereri brothers decided to immortalise themselves also here. They added something to the inscriptions ←308 | 309→located next to the two anonymous middle representations depicting offering bearers. The new inscriptions can be identified immediately, as they were exceptionally sloppy and made using a different technique than the one applied in the original text. In contrast to the precisely modelled hieroglyphs from the first phase of decorating, made as a bas relief and evenly arranged, the later additions have all the features of a hurried and careless job. The name Mereri was written in red paint in front of one of the offering bearers.10 We immediately recognise the hand of the same scribe who had ←309 | 310→executed the iconoclast’s order in the modified representation of one of the brothers on the east wall.

More content was added to the offering bearer depicted slightly lower down (Fig. 149). In the surface of the rock, using the sunken relief technique, lopsided hieroglyphs were carved out without retaining any proportions, skipping one word in the short titulature: “his son … Great House, Mereri.” In both added inscriptions, the direction of reading the signs was also altered. The original inscriptions had maintained the classical principle that hieroglyphs should be turned in the direction in which the depicted figure is looking or walking. The iconoclast did the opposite: he directed the inscription towards the figure. One important conclusion results from these observations: it was not one but two frustrated brothers bearing the name Mereri who had decided to rewrite their family history, probably after their father’s death.

Traces of the activities of this partnership have also been preserved on the north wall of Temi’s chapel (Figs. 9394 and 153154). This time, the brothers made use of the procession of anonymous offering bearers depicted in the bottom register of the decoration. They presented their own vision of ←310 | 311→the family hierarchy, adding hieroglyphic inscriptions to each of the twelve depicted people. The first five, bearing animal offerings, were described at the tomb owner’s sons.11 As expected, the figure located at the beginning was provided with the name of the oldest male descendant. In the shallow sunken relief, a short inscription was sculpted, spread across one horizontal line and two vertical columns underneath: “his eldest son, inspector of the king’s house, Meruka.”

The second figure was provided with surprising identification (Fig. 153).12 “His son from his body, his beloved, Mereri,” states the accompanying inscription. What is surprising is not so much the fact that one of the Mereris was promoted to such a high position in the family hierarchy, but rather that such an unusual epithet appears in his titulature. The term “his son from his body” is derived from royal titulature and was used during the Fourth Dynasty, i.e. in the period of the construction of the largest pyramids, as a means to refer to the pharaoh’s male progeniture.13 Use of this epithet was later expanded to include the children of other high dignitaries, perhaps linked in various ways to the royal family, but by the beginnings of the Sixth Dynasty it had disappeared almost completely. It is absent in the titulature of any member of Fefi or Temi’s families. Why then does it appear unexpectedly in a short secondary inscription carved, probably at the request of this Mereri, after his father’s death?

There is only one answer: the author of the inscription considered himself to be someone special, with at least traces of royal blood in him, which might also have applied to the other of the younger sons, depicted as a child in the mysterious segment on the east wall (Fig. 146). If this was in fact the case, the tomb owner must have known about it at the moment when the large ‘family tableau’ was being composed for this wall, probably in cooperation with the graphic designer. Such affinity would explain the iconographic distinctiveness and the especially ceremonial character of the scene with the two children.14 It cannot be excluded that Seshseshet, ←311 | 312→Temi’s only wife, was of royal origins,15 but why then would this have not been noted in any way except for labels in the representation of the tomb owner with his youngest children? If Seshseshet were in fact the daughter or at least the granddaughter of Pharaoh Teti, would she have been treated with such a lack of ceremoniousness as we can see on the east wall, where she is clearly competing for priority with the eldest son? And if in fact royal blood ran only in the veins of the youngest siblings, could this not be primarily something to credit ‘the ideal wife’ with, who had perhaps, in the last phase of her marriage to Temi, interpreted her titles of “acquaintance of the king, priestess of the [Goddess] Hathor, Lady of Sycamore” too literally and enriched her own family by adding offspring, who – on the one hand – brought the tomb owner somewhat dubious honour, but were also a fact difficult to debate? He made the best of a bad situation and included the two boys, if in a somewhat original manner, among his own offspring.

In this context, it is worth remembering that 1000 years later, an analogous ethical approach was canonised on the royal and divine plane. In the political theology of the beginnings of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the motif of the ruler’s ‘divine birth’ appeared, a concoction invented for Queen Hatshepsut when it was necessary to legitimise the reign of a female pharaoh. The need arose to show that she had been born out of a relationship between an earthly queen and the god Amon, and thus, she was obviously predestined to accede to power in the Egyptian state. Theologists invented an iconographic topos in the form of a series of scenes and texts providing a summarised account of this exceptional theogamy. The oldest known version of this religious and political comic book is a sequence of scenes in one of the porticos in the famous Hatshepsut Temple in Deir el-Bahari (West Thebes),16 where in fact Polish Egyptologists have been working for years. The terrace is called the ‘Portico of Birth’ from the ←312 | 313→series depicting the divine birth decorating the walls of this part of the temple.

The story begins with an erotic miracle. The bedchamber of an earthly queen, an authentic historical figure, is visited for procreational reasons by the god Amon, without asking for permission from her husband, who was of course also a historical figure. In one of the last episodes of the series, a female child is born into the world, the undisputable king of Egypt. None of the theologists seem to have paid much attention to the pharaoh’s reputation, even though he was the queen-mother’s actual husband. The moderator of this ménage à trois was the god of wisdom, Thoth, who appears a few times in various episodes of the story, conversing either with the queen-mother or, at other times, with the god-father.17 Let us hope that he also talked with the pharaoh, if at all the latter’s opinion mattered to anyone in light of the higher raison d’état. Everything took place lege artis (in compliance with law) and there were no injured parties. It is hard to imagine that Egyptian theology would have allowed for such a solution if such relationships had not been sanctioned much earlier within the mores of the upper class. The pharaoh was in fact also the incarnation of a god: during his lifetime he was associated with Horus; after death with Osiris. At his own request, he could also become any of the other deities, e.g. Seth, considered to be the incarnation of confusion, and yet still reigning – at least in the imagination of the Egyptians – over half the country. If our main character, the loyal priest named Nyankhnefertum (= Temi), had to share his marital rights with the reigning pharaoh for some reason, it is difficult to judge if this would have caused him grief, especially if this occurred towards the end of his life. Does this not evoke associations with an intimate episode from the history of Poland during Napoleonic times?

If this was actually the situation, the two boys bearing the name Mereri must have known about their unusual origins, even if this was knowledge they only gained after their father’s death. This would explain why one of them, probably the elder of the two, not only moved to the top of the family hierarchy but also made clear allusions to his origins in the inscription carved hurriedly next to one of the offering bearers depicted on the north wall.

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The second of the descendants named Mereri only took fifth place in this race.18 On top of the concise, modified inscription that had originally been sculpted into the rock surface and contained another name, currently illegible, the name Mereri was written using red paint, without any titles. The graphics of the secondary inscription are again reminiscent of the notation of this name in two other places, i.e. in the middle segment on the east wall and next to one of the two holy oil bearers on the west wall. Thus, the program of modifications on the chapel walls was a one-time action, meticulously thought through and consistently executed. It is clearly visible that one of the boys with this name had been placed in the back seat by being depicted behind four other rivals present on the subsequent segments of the east wall. These would be: Meruka (the eldest son), Mereri I, Djawy and Tjetji. Even if, like his namesake and almost peer, he also had royal blood flowing in him, he had already been dropped from the competition.

The secondary inscriptions next to the twelve offering bearers sculpted on the north wall contain a manifesto so transparent that one is tempted to identify the author of these retouches. Due to the epigraphic distinctiveness of the technique and style, as well as the precision with which the relief was executed, the ninth figure draws attention: the fourth priest from the end, bearing the name Nefer (“The Beautiful One;” Fig. 154).19 In contrast to the remaining inscriptions, hurriedly carved into the rock surface or only dabbed on using red paint (as in the case of the second Mereri), the name and titles of this participant of the offering procession have been made as a bas relief, with its surface bearing traces of black paint placed there after the inscription was sculpted. Even though only the lower part of this figure’s head has been preserved, the contours of his face show modelling superior to the execution of the remaining figures. Does all this not show that first the author of the retouches was supposed to have been emphasised and then his identity masked? He was no ordinary person as next to his title of priest, he also held the function of “under-inspector of the Great House,” meaning that he had connections in the royal palace that might have facilitated the career of the adolescent Mereris. Ironically, the last of the offering bearers depicted in this procession bears the tomb owner’s name, Temi.

It is worth taking a closer look at the winners. Even if little is stated about them expressis verbis (directly), we have certain grounds to develop a case based on circumstantial evidence. After their father’s death, one of the Mereris, probably the elder of the two adolescent children, became ←314 | 315→important enough that he felt like he was in his own home in the cult chapel belonging to his parent. No one was capable of stopping him from making free-formed, coarse modifications to the chapel walls, aimed at accentuating his own significance. It is possible that this path was paved by the authentic or perhaps only alleged royal blood flowing in his veins, to which he alluded in the above-mentioned inscription. If in fact his closest surrounding had accepted his pretentions, he might have gone far in his court career.

The search for further traces led us to the famous large and exceptionally beautiful tomb of the Ptahhotep family from the end of the Fifth Dynasty, located at a distance of only two-hundred metres north-west of Temi’s mastaba. In one corner of this splendid tomb complex, a modest chamber was added during the Sixth Dynasty, which turned out to be the chapel of a vizier named Mereri.20 Any vizier who did not build his own tomb but was satisfied with an extension to an earlier mastaba must have been exceptionally poor. What is more, part of the flooring in this modest cult place was paved with secondarily used, decorated stone blocks, most probably derived from Pharaoh Teti’s sepulchral complex. Egyptologists concluded that the dismantling of architectural structures in the royal tomb complex from the beginnings of the Sixth Dynasty could not have been conducted earlier than towards the end of this dynasty, and – thus – the poor Vizier Mereri must have lived and died in the final phase of the Old Kingdom.21

It is hard to agree with such reasoning. We have evidence that some of the royal buildings, even the sacral ones, were sometimes at least partially dismantled during the lifetime of the ruler who had erected them, especially if his reign was long. The stone blocks from such a disassembly were immediately reused as valuable building material in monumental architecture. As a classic example of this procedure may serve the group of architectural elements finely decorated with reliefs bearing the names of Amenhotep III, used along with other stone blocks as material filling the interior of a gigantic pylon erected by this same pharaoh in the famous temple complex in Karnak.22 These blocks obviously originate from another building founded earlier by this same ruler, which was dismantled – perhaps for ideological reasons – at the dawn of the ‘religious revolution,’ the culmination of which were the reforms proposed by Akhenaten (Amenhotep III’s son) with distinct features of solar monotheism. It should also be remembered that the workshops of ←315 | 316→Egyptian sculptors must have had an abundance of waste of various types, e.g. pieces of excellent reliefs that had never made their way to their designated spot, for such reasons as cracked stone during sculpting or a sudden change in the concept of the decoration. Not all of the fragments were necessarily destroyed. It is hard to imagine a more honourable use of these works than inserting them into the structure of another sacral or sepulchral building, e.g. into the floor of a tomb chapel, of course after the decorated part has been turned to face downwards.

Therefore, the reliefs probably originating from Pharaoh Teti’s tomb complex, inserted into the floor of the cult chapel of a poor vizier named Mereri, cannot be premise for dating this tomb to much later times. The style of the reliefs decorating the walls of this chapel, as well as the tomb owner’s titulature suggest a time just after Temi’s death; thus, the period in which his sons named Mereri had lived and died. Among the titles of the not-so-well-off vizier, there are some of Temi’s, encountered in his tomb, which would correspond to the custom of inheriting a part of the father’s official functions, commonplace in the discussed time period.23 We can thus assume that Vizier Mereri, who added his modest place of eternal rest to a majestic tomb belonging to a famous family from a slightly earlier period and located not far from Temi’s sepulchre, is one of the three sons bearing an identical name; probably the eldest one from among those depicted on the east wall next to their father as two adolescents, and thus also the same one who on the north wall legitimised himself with an epithet suggesting he was a royal child. Without such connections, even if these were only alleged, it would have been difficult for him to become the vizier. However, the relative poverty of his tomb suggests rather an honorary title than the authentic exercising of such a high official function. He could not have outranked another nouveau riche buried in this vicinity, Vizier Merefnebef, even if the latter was probably his role model for his approach to life.

A lot indicates that we have also been able to identify the tombs of Vizier Mereri’s two namesakes, i.e. his brothers depicted on the east wall of their father’s cult chapel. These mastabas are located in the cemetery surrounding the pyramid of Pharaoh Teti,24 at that time already filled with the tombs of the highest dignitaries from this ruler’s period in power. They might have acquired burial places thanks to the patronage provided by their “father,” Temi, who was in fact one of the priests at this pyramid. Neither of them made such a career as their brother; nonetheless, they maintained quite a high level in material terms. One became, e.g., the “secretary of the ←316 | 317→Toilet-House,” while the second – the “overseer of the Noble Places of the Palace.”25 Their kinship with Temi seems suggested by their titulature, which partially corresponds to the functions performed by their alleged father. The tomb of the first of the sons is especially interesting, with its cult part containing two rooms, each with a ‘false door’ dedicated to a person with the same name – Mereri. In one of them, iconoclasts hammered off the heads of all the images of the tomb owner,26 while in the other, everything remained intact.27 Did they not have time to finish their work before the necropolis guards arrived? As the style of the reliefs in this second interior differs significantly from the reliefs decorating the walls of the first, and – in addition – the inscription on the ‘false door’ contains different titulature than in the neighbouring chamber, it should be assumed that these are the cult places of two different Mereris, father and son, which would be confirmed by the fact that the remains of a few skeletons were found in the burial chamber of this mastaba, including a person much younger than the man who could have been the tomb owner.28

In the case of such an interpretation, it becomes clear why the chapel of the younger of the Mereris, slightly later from the posthumous cult place of the parent, did not fall prey to the conflict: it was either decorated only after the wave of brutal acts of retaliation had passed, or the iconoclasts could distinguish perfectly well between the chapel of the controversial father and the cult place of the blameless son. The reliefs in the son’s chapel are done carelessly, more scratched out into the rock than sculpted, in a very shallow relief, while the style of the decoration on the walls in the neighbouring chapel are comparable to the final phase of sculpting in Temi’s tomb. We have the impression that the crew who did not finish their work in the latter’s tomb was immediately transferred to the son’s place of eternal rest after the father’s death. In neither the first nor the second case did the quality of the workmanship make a good impression.

When we take a look at the unfinished reliefs in the southern part of Temi’s chapel, we are struck by the enormous difference between the workmanship of the master sculptor and what was made by his apprentices, whom he had clearly entrusted with the execution of a large majority of the scenes and inscriptions. It seems that he left them without any supervision. This is ←317 | 318→especially visible in the double ‘false doors’ sculpted onto the southern part of the west wall (Figs. 135138 and 150152).29 The work done by the master can be identified immediately due to the precise execution characterising the central relief of the three jambs found on the right side of the north segment (Figs. 150–151).30 The hieroglyphs stand out due to the classical elegance of their proportions and the precision of the rendered details, characterising, e.g., a male head shown en face in a specimen of the above-mentioned sign with the phonetic value her (Figs. 110–120), or the austere modelling of the owl’s body constituting the phoneme m (Figs. 121–131). The inscription’s composition, similarly to the orientation of the hieroglyphs on this jamb, is a model of exactitude. The modelling of the face in Temi’s representation at the bottom of this vertical decorative sequence is especially meticulous (Fig. 151).31 Similar virtuosity in the execution of details and noble facial expression is present in the reliefs in the most magnificent tombs from the turn of the Fifth and ←318 | 319→the Sixth Dynasties. We can easily identify the hand of one of the masters of the Saqqara school.32

Unfortunately, this is the only part of the double ‘false doors’ executed with such perfection. The master left behind a model to imitate and disappeared. His deputies did not have such artistic competences nor even the desire to imitate his work (Fig. 152). They did, however, boast a specific sense of humour, revealing a fondness for contrariness and bawdy associations incongruous with the gravity of the tomb. We can note the schematic contour lines and careless execution of details in the modelling of Temi’s face on the remaining jambs. Yet another deviation from the canon is the inaccurate ←319 | 320→notation of the hieroglyph with the phonetic value tem, depicting a sled, and present in the name Nyankhnefertum and Temi’s ‘beautiful name.’ These last two appear alternately, like two versions of a calling card, atop each of the six representations of the tomb owner in the bottom part of the ‘doors’ (Fig. 136).33 Only in one case is the notation of the sign tem correct, i.e. in the above-described model jamb (Fig. 150). In the five remaining representations of the sled, they were inverted back to front, i.e. in the opposite direction to the correct arrangement of the other hieroglyphs. However, this graphic joke was not enough to satisfy the sculptors. They knew that they could take more liberties. They over-stylised the hieroglyph tem on the southern ‘false door’ forming a pair with the above-described one. The sled was turned into a phallus (Fig. 155),34 which in fact functions in hieroglyphic script, but as a ←320 | 321→plus – preserves the sign’s original phonetic value met and content linked to the act of copulation. If we were dealing with poets instead of stonemasons, we could suspect them of a much more sophisticated joke: that the simultaneous change in both the orientation of the hieroglyph, as in the case of the first ‘door,’ and the modification of its shape to render the phoneme met, as in the second one, form a double inversion, which – similarly as two minuses in arithmetic calculations equal a plus – restores the sign to its original value.

←321 | 322→ ←322 | 323→

Throughout the long Pharaonic epoch, Egyptian writing abounded in various graphic jokes, which we today refer to generally as cryptography. There is no lack of rebuses and charades, including completely chaotic scatterings of signs.35 However, they appear almost exclusively in texts of a sacral or sepulchral character, linked to the royal sphere, where they could be understood by a narrow group of priests. In the case of Temi’s tomb chapel, these are rather the products of the artisans’ bawdy imagination, who decided to make a mockery both of their master’s artistic perfection and the seriousness of the place and moment. They probably knew that the tomb owner’s death was nearing and that his numerous progeny did not monitor at all the ←323 | 324→progress made in the decorating of their father’s tomb, busy mainly with their quarrels over the inheritance he was to leave behind. As confirmation of this hypothesis may serve the fact that the inscription with the obscene shape of the tem sign is present only in those two scenes where Temi is portrayed in the company of his wife. These scenes adjoin antithetically in the south-western corner of the chapel. There is a large representation of the seated couple on the south wall (Fig. 139),36 while the ‘false door’ at the end of the decoration on the west wall contains a miniature motif of the walking couple repeated a few times,37 always in a warm embrace (Fig. 138).

It seems that the authors of these jokes were so happy with their work that they decided in a similar spirit to retouch the earlier made inscription, classically correct in its form, located in the lintel of the tomb façade (Figs. 156–158). They must have thought it was worth their while to crown it with a modification of the tem sign in Temi’s name sculpted, probably by the master himself, in the next miniature with the representation of the tomb owner, his wife and eldest son. This scene constitutes a ‘calling card’ at the end of a long ‘ideal biography’ sculpted above the entrance to the ←324 | 325→chapel(Fig. 156).38 The pranksters hammered off the correctly sculpted hieroglyph in the shape of a sled and, without even taking the trouble of smoothening the rock surface, they re-sculpted it into a similar sign but inverted from left to right. Observing the consistency with which they attempted to mock the family idyll the father had imagined into creation, one can wonder whether the authors of these ideas were not actually Temi’s younger sons, who long before their parent’s death must have been very ←325 | 326→agitated by the domination of the eldest brother. The only weapon they could use at that moment was mockery. However, at some point after their father’s death, they went a step further, as we have already observed above. Perhaps once again this was one of the younger Mereris?

On the wave of the graphic jokes, inscriptions were also carved into the above-mentioned offering table that accompanied the polychrome ‘false door’ in the northern part of the west wall (Fig. 100).39 This heavy slab, hewn out of limestone of the best quality, has two rectangular pools sculpted into the middle of its surface, and next to them – hieroglyphic inscriptions executed so sloppily that their author could even be suspected of wanting to sabotage the original concept. These inscriptions contain various elements of the deceased’s titulature and names. Arranged asymmetrically, they consist of hieroglyphs with skewed proportions sculpted in the form of a very shallow sunken relief. The dimensions of some signs are miniaturised to a caricatural level or enlarged in relation to the neighbouring hieroglyphs, while their contours display the erratic handwork of the sculptor.40 Once again, the modelling of the sled in the tem hieroglyph displays exceptional diversity and deviations from the classical form. One has the impression that this important element of the tomb furnishings was executed during the last phase of work, probably by the same crew who had made the unfinished reliefs in the southern part of the chapel.

Nonetheless, it must be stated that the creative imagination of the sculptors employed here also allowed for the introduction of a series of original ideas, especially in terms of the composition of the individual scenes. For example, filling the entire east wall with a family portrait in the form of two symmetrical sequences depicting the tomb owner eightfold (Figs. 9597) should be considered an act of great artistic courage.41 Previously attested only on architraves and ‘false doors’ on which the figures were much smaller, this motif was monumentalised already on the façade of Merefnebef’s tomb, where it was placed in the bottom register of the decoration (Il. 5; Fig. 41). The only logical explanation of the decision made by Temi to transfer this decorative element to the chapel interior seems to be an attempt at saving the figures of his wife and sons, obviously important for him, from the brutal actions of iconoclasts, prey to which had fallen the reliefs in the chapel of ←326 | 327→his posthumous neighbour. As we have already seen, this was not enough to avert misfortune. Temi’s male progeniture were visibly consumed by conflict after his death.

In some of the formal solutions applied, one can see a search for three-dimensionality in the two-dimensional image carved onto the surface. Whenever the tomb owner is depicted in the company of two male descendants walking at his sides, the son portrayed from the front is standing a level higher than the two remaining figures, as if floating in the air (Figs. 9598 and 146). This emphasises its distance, and thus its presence on the other side of the main figure. The son depicted behind this figure is walking on the same plane as his parent; therefore, he is located closer to the observer.42 The ‘false doors’ with overlapping jambs at their point of connection is the most original iconographic idea, so far unattested anywhere else (Fig. 135).43 Even if this solution resulted purely from the content of the scenes, deviating from symmetry in favour of three-dimensionality should be considered revolutionary in Old Kingdom reliefs.

When finally, after six years of patient waiting, in 2003 we began the process of unearthing Temi’s cult chapel hewn into the same rock shelf as Fefi’s chapel, we had expected it to be the second in a sequence of at least a few similar tombs running in a straight line from north to south. However, at that time we still had no idea that we were exploring a secondarily-used quarry originating from the times of the construction of the world’s oldest pyramid and that the rock formations in which later tombs were made could take on such surprising forms, dictated by this very function of the plateau during a period 300 years earlier than the tombs.44 To the surprise of the archaeologists, it turned out that just beyond the northern edge of Temi’s tomb, the face of the rock wall veers at a straight angle to the left, i.e. westward, forming something like a rectangular courtyard (Il. 22; Figs. 91 and 157).45 More chapels and burial shafts had been dug into its north wall. However, all the remaining ones had not been completed.

The first adjoins Temi’s chapel as if they were to form an inseparable whole (Fig. 157).46 This is reminiscent of the idea for the double ‘false ←327 | 328→doors’ described above, but also of the north-western corner in Temi’s chapel, where on two adjoining walls two scenes depicting the offering table meet, and – finally – of the south-western corner of this same chamber with adjoining scenes portraying the tomb owner with his spouse. The logic of the layout suggests that this tomb should belong to Temi’s eldest son. It was supposed to be almost a copy of his father’s tomb in terms of its size and shape. Similarly to the case of the previous one, an architrave runs above the narrow entrance, in which an ‘ideal biography’ has been carved with similar content as in Temi’s chapel. It provides the same formula and the same special days for the performance of rituals and bringing offerings.47 The preserved fragments of the titulature mention some function performed by the tomb owner at the pyramid of Pharaoh Unas, located nearby.48 He might perhaps have inherited this honour from Temi, who was a priest of Unas’s posthumous cult and had positioned this pharaoh at the beginning of his titulature.

Unfortunately, our hopes of identifying the owner of this ‘house of eternity’ were dashed by the fact that the left (i.e. western) part of the inscription on the architrave had crumbled away already in antiquity due to the exceptionally poor structure of the rock.49 We can only guess for whom this tomb was intended, while also having no certainty the addressee was even buried here. The bottom part of the façade was not decorated, while the interior of the oblong chapel, along with the alleged cult place, continues to bear numerous traces of various stone-working chisels.50 The short corridor leading to this room is not perpendicular to the front wall and the shape of the chapel is irregular.51 The remains of later arrangements of the interior indicate that it might have been used as a cult place. However, nothing implies that any of the shafts dug in the vicinity of the chapel were directly linked to it.

The next tomb, adjacent to the described chapel from the west, is at an even earlier stage of completion. Much smaller than the previous one, it also has a never-completed slanted chapel (Il. 5).52 A mass of rock was removed in the upper part of the planned interior, determining its contours, but there ←328 | 329→was not enough time to hew out the bottom part of the chapel. In its current form, the room is little more than a metre high and one would have to crawl inside it rather than walk upright. The only burial shaft one might be able to associate with this chapel was hewn into the rock in the north-western corner of the courtyard linking all the three described structures, which together form Temi’s sepulchral complex.53 However, neither the burial shaft nor the burial chamber was ever completed. Even if the latter was used for a burial, it is certain that the chapel adjacent to the shaft was never used as a place for revering the deceased as it remained anepigraphic. Not a single hieroglyph was carved into its façade. However, it might have been the next chapel, with the crumbled name of the owner carved into the architrave in the pediment, which was the actual cult place of the person buried here. This was indicated by traces of burnt offering piles in front of the chapel.

The architecture of these tombs from the final phase of the Old Kingdom completes the image of the gradual decline of Egyptian society towards the end of the third millennium BC, which has been outlined based on an analysis of the scenes and inscriptions sculpted in the tombs of the noblemen from this period.54

←329 | 330→

1 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, Warsaw 2010, pp. 139–152, fig. 51, pls. LXX–LXXXVII.

2 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pp. 147–148 (scene 4), fig. 51, pls. LXXVI–LXXVII; Myśliwiec, “Nobility Marrying Divinity,” figs. 6b.

3 Ch. Müller, “Jugendlocke,” in: Lexikon der Ägyptologie, Vol. 3: Horhekenu–Megeb, Wiesbaden 1980, col. 273–274.

4 K. Myśliwiec, “The Mysterious Mereris, Sons of Ny-ankh-Nefertem (Sixth Dynasty, Saqqara),” in: A. Woods, A. Mc Farlane, S. Binder (eds.), Egyptian Culture and Society. Studies in Honour of Naguib Kanawati (“Supplément aux Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte” 38), p. 71, fn. 1.

5 K. Myśliwiec, “Pierwszy upadek państwa faraonów,” Nauka 4 (2009), pp. 43–66.

6 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, p. 151 (scene 9), fig. 51, pls. LXXXVI–LXXXVII.

7 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pp. 145–146 (scene 2), fig. 51, pls. LXXII–LXXIII.

8 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pls. LXXII–LXXIII c–d; Myśliwiec, “Nobility Marrying Divinity,” figs. 7.

9 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pp. 164–165 (scene 14), fig. 54, pl. CII; Myśliwiec, “Nobility Marrying Divinity,” figs. 8.

10 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pl. CII b, c.

11 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pp. 177–179, fig. 57, pls. CIX–CX a–d; Myśliwiec, “Nobility Marrying Divinity,” figs. 9a.

12 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, p. 177, fig. 57, pl. CX a–b; Myśliwiec, “Nobility Marrying Divinity,” figs. 9b.

13 M. Baud, Famille royale et pouvoir sous l’Ancien Empire égyptien, Le Caire 1999, pp. 159–160; cf. Myśliwiec, “The Mysterious Mereris,” p. 76, fn. 29.

14 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, p. 147–148 (scene 4), fig. 51, pls. LXXVI–LXXVII.

15 T. Stasser, La mère royale Seshseshet et les débuts de la VIe dynastie, Bruxelles 2013, pp. 55–57 (Seshseshet c).

16 H. Brunner, “Die Geburt des Gottkönigs, Studien zur Überlieferung eines altägyptischen Mythos,” Ägyptologische Abhandlungen 10 (1964), 2. Aufl. – 1986, pp. 22–89; W. Waitkus, Untersuchungen zu Kult und Funktion des Luxortempels (“Aegyptiace Hamburgensia” 2), Vol. 1, Gladbeck 2008, pp. 66, 72–81; J. Iwaszczuk, Sacred Landscape of Thebes during the Reign of Hatshepsut. Royal construction projects, Vol. 2: Topographical bibliography of the West Bank, Warszawa 2016, pp. 50–58; S. Bickel, “Worldview and Royal Discourse in the Time of Hatshepsut,” in: J. M. Galán, B. M. Bryan, P. F. Dorunan, Creativity and Innovation in the Reign of Hatshepsut, Papers from the Theban Workshop 2010 (“Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization” 69), Chicago 2014, pp. 23–25.

17 Compare with similar scenes in Luxor: B. Porter, R.L.B. Moss, A Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs and Paintings, 2nd ed., Oxford 1972, p. 326 (152, II/1 and III/2–3).

18 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pp. 178–179, fig. 57, pls. CIX b, CX d; Myśliwiec, “Nobility Marrying Divinity,” figs. 9a.

19 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, p. 180, fig. 57, pl. CXI b.

20 Myśliwiec, “The Mysterious Mereris,” pp. 79–81; “Nobility Marrying Divinity,” figs. 10–11.

21 Myśliwiec, “The Mysterious Mereris,” p. 80, fn. 54, 55.

22 K. Myśliwiec, Le portrait royal dans le bas-relief du Nouvel Empire, Varsovie 1976, p. 68, figs. 129, 132.

23 Myśliwiec, “The Mysterious Mereris,” p. 79, fn. 49.

24 Myśliwiec, “The Mysterious Mereris,” pp. 82–84.

25 Myśliwiec, “The Mysterious Mereris,” p. 82 (fn. 75–78) and 83–84 (fn. 95–96).

26 Myśliwiec, “The Mysterious Mereris,” p. 83, fn. 87.

27 Myśliwiec, “The Mysterious Mereris,” pp. 82–83.

28 E. Strouhal, “The Human Remains from the Tomb of Mereri,” in: W. V. Davies et al., Saqqâra Tombs, Part 1: The Mastabas of Mereri and Wernu, London 1984, p. 35.

29 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pp. 181–191, fig. 59, pls. CXII–CXIX.

30 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pp. 184–188, fig. 59, pls. CXIII, CXV a, c.

31 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pl. CXV c.

32 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, p. 185, fn. 96; K. Myśliwiec, “A ‘School’ of Kagemni’s master?,” in: P. Jánosi, H. Vymazalovà (eds.), The Art of Describing. The World of Tomb Decoration as Visual Culture of the Old Kingdom. Studies in Honour of Yvonne Harpur, Prague 2018, pp. 263, fig. 1.

33 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pls. CXIV a, CXV a.

34 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pls. CXLIII k, CXXIII b; K. Myśliwiec, “Silly jokes of a Master’s deputy (Sixth Dynasty, Saqqara),” in: Z. A. Hawass, K. A. Daoud, R. B. Hussein (eds.), Scribe of Justice, Egyptological Studies in Honour of Shafik Allam, ASAE – suppl. 42, Cairo 2011, pp. 313–326.

35 K. Myśliwiec, Święte znaki Egiptu, 2nd ed., Warszawa 2001, pp. 134–154.

36 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pls. CXXI, CXXIII b.

37 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pls. CXVII–CXIX.

38 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pl. LXV d.

39 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pp. 161–163, fig. 55, pls. LXIX b, XCIII–XCVIII; Myśliwiec, “Silly jokes,” figs. 22–28.

40 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pls. XCVI–XCVII, CXLVIII h, i, m, n, o.

41 See fn. 1; K. Myśliwiec, L’aspecitvité au service de la perspective; ā la recherche de la troisième dimension sur le plan, Fs. A. Labrousse – forthcoming, fig. 3.

42 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, fig. 51, pls. LXX–LXXII, LXXIV, LXXVI, LXXX, LXXXII, LXXXIV, LXXXVI.

43 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pp. 181–191, fig. 59, pls. CXII–CXIII, CXVII.

44 F. Welc, J. Trzciński, “Geology of the Site,” in: Old Kingdom Structures, pp. 333–334; see Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pls. XXXII–XXXV.

45 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pl. XXXV.

46 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, fig. 30, pls. LXII a–b, LXIII a, c.

47 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pp. 92–94, fig. 34, pls. XLVII–XLVIII.

48 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, p. 93, fig. 34.

49 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pl. XLVII b–d, XLVIII d–f.

50 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, p. 94, pls. XXXV b, XLVII d, XLIX–LI.

51 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, fig. 30.

52 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, pp. 94–96, fig. 30, pl. LII.

53 Myśliwiec, Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex, p. 96 (shaft 59), fig. 30, pls. XXXII–XXXIII, XXXV a, LIII.

54 Myśliwiec, “Pierwszy upadek państwa faraonów,” pp. 43–66.