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Old Kingdom Mastaba Tombs At Sakkara

The Saqqara complex is one of the most important archeological sites in Egypt. It is the burial area of the first dynasties of the old kingdom.

The old kingdom was a period of prosperity and ease, which is reflected in the structures constructed in this era. Pyramids, like the step pyramid of Djoser, the most ancient rock structure in history, and the pyramid of Unas, tombs like the tomb of Irukaptah and Mehu, Mastaba tombs like the Mastaba tomb of Mereruka and Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, make the Saqqara complex one of the most important tourist attractions in Egypt. 

In this article, I will shed some light on the most important tombs at Saqqara.


The Tomb Of Irukaptah:


This tomb is nicknamed the butcher's tomb. This is because it belongs to Irukaptah, the Butcher of a king that belonged to the 5th dynasty. His formal title was "Head of the Butchers of the Great House" and "Waab Priest of the King".


The tomb of Irukaptah in Saqqara has particular significance for two reasons: 

  • The first reason is that its design is different than any other tomb in Saqqara.
  • The second reason is that it is the finest preserved example of the old kingdom's art and architecture.


This tomb of Irukaptah is the most famous tomb in Saqqara and it is located just to the north of the passageway leading to the pyramid of Unas. It is completely cut out of rock. The opening of the tomb almost faces the north and then it leads to a semi-rectangular offering room.




The most remarkable characteristic of the tomb of Irukaptah is the set of statues that were carved out of a rock. Some of these statues are completed while others were left in different stages of construction; therefore this tomb represents an important demonstration of the rock construction of the old kingdom. These rock cut statues are not found anywhere else in Saqqara. They are only found in some tombs of the old kingdom in Giza. These statues belong to the family of Irukaptah and some of them belong to him.




Aside from their architectural finesse, these statues give a reliable example of the clothes that the servants of the royal family used to wear in the old kingdom. While the skin was painted dark red, it seems like the servants at that time used to wear skirts painted yellow with bright colored belts around them and a short black wig on the head, which is a common feature of the costumes of the old kingdom.


On the eastern walls of the tomb and above the remarkable statues, there are famous butchering scenes showing a number of men in daily life slaughtering an ox.


The Mastaba of Kagemni:


This Mastaba tomb belongs to an official who was appointed as a chief of justice, the highest governmental post in old Egypt. He served during the reign of king Teti, the first king of the 6th dynasty. Kagemni was a son-in-law to the king and this was why he trusted him with such a high post. This enabled Kagemni to build an extraordinarily-ornamented tomb close to the pyramid of his king, Teti. With his high post and royal connections, Kagemni was able to get the best Egyptian workers of the time to build his tomb.




The Mastaba is located exactly to the north of the pyramid of Teti and to the northeast of the main pyramid at the complex of Saqqara, the pyramid of Djoser. This location reflects the great power of such a high governmental post during the time. This Mastaba tomb is an important stage in the transition from Mastaba building to pyramids building. It was first discovered by pioneering Prussian Egyptologist, linguist and superstar of modern archaeology Richard Lepsius in 1843.


Once one enters the tomb, one finds oneself inside a room that contains three pillars with magnificent scenes of fishing and different animals drawn on the walls. Then, there is another room to the right that contains a number of reliefs with monkeys and greyhounds. There is a relief of Kagemni himself in this room. There are also remarkable sketches of birds.

The Tomb of Mehu:


This tomb hosts the body of Mehu, Chief of justice and Vizier during the fifth dynasty. This man had three wives. One of them was called Iku and held the title " the king's daughter of his body" which means that she was a very important figure of the time. The tomb of Mehu is located  north of the passageway to the pyramid of Unas along with many other tombs. It is considered to be one of the most colorful and best-preserved tombs in the Saqqara complex.


The tomb of Mehu, unlike many other tombs in Saqqara, was discovered by Egyptian scholars, not Western archaeologists. It was discovered by Zaky Saad and excavated by Salam Hussein in 1940. The tomb contains four highly decorated rooms with a wide courtyard.

The wall to the left of the first room displays the scenes of trapping different colorful birds using nets, while the other wall of the room shows Mehu in different hunting scenes, a common characteristic of the tombs of the old kingdom as hunting was considered a symbol of power and intelligence. At the end of this room, there is a long passageway going westwards and decorated with many scenes of the daily life of Egyptians during the reign of the old kingdom with drawings of boat sailing, fishing, harvest, and hunting.


On the wall to the right of this corridor, there is a door that leads to the wide courtyard that hosts two large pillars with reliefs of Mehu on both sides. On the back of these two pillars, there is the false door leading to the tomb of Kahotep, Mehu's son. At the end of the corridor, there are amazingly well-preserved scenes of different men presenting offerings. These reliefs show some colors that are not present at any tomb that goes back to the old kingdom. These paintings continue in the next small room with other drawings of men dancing, singing, and celebrating. A door to the right-hand side leads to a rectangular chapel that contains the false door of the tomb, which was unusually decorated with the dark red color and the inscriptions were made in yellow which resulted in an astonishing detailed piece of art.


A small chamber at the end of this chapel contains the body of Meryre-ankh, the inspector of the priests responsible for the pyramid of Pepi. Most scholars believe that Mehu took this tomb from its original owner. However,he left his offering room intact.


The Mastaba of Mereruka:


Mereruka held many important official posts during the reign of Teti like the Chief Justice and vizier, Inspector of Priests attached to the Pyramid of Teti, Scribe of the Divine Books, and Chief Lector Priest. It seems like he was one of Teti's favorite men. The Mastaba of Mereruka was discovered by J. de Morgan in July 1893 and went through many stages of excavating afterward. It is located to the northeast of the complex of Saqqara just to the north of the pyramid of Teti.




The considerable size and quality of the Mastaba of Mereruka and the Mastaba of Kagemni reflect the power and prestige of aristocratic families during this period, in contradiction to the poor quality and size of the pyramids of the kings of this period which reflects the decline in the kingly power. 

The Tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum:


It is believed that Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum were the sons of Khabaw-Khufu and Rewedzaweres. Khnumhotep was married to a lady called Khentikawes and they had three sons and three daughters, while Khnumhotep was married to a lady called Khenut and they had five sons and one daughter.


This tomb is sometimes called "the tomb of the two brothers." These two men were buried in the same tomb because of their close relationships as it was said that they were brothers who shared the same lifestyle and some assumptions say they were twins. However, there is no clear and accurate proof of the fact of being twins. Some other notions suggest a homosexual relationship between the two men, but this idea was largely rejected by most scholars because both of these men had wives and children.




Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum lived in the reign of Neussere, who was the sixth king of the fifth dynasty of the old kingdom. They held the titles of the " prophets of Ra" and they were also "web priests" of the pyramid and the sun temple of the king, Neussere, which are located in Abu Ghaleb to the west of modern Cairo.


The Mastaba tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum is located in the northern part of the complex of Saqqara and near the Pyramid of the king Unas. It was discovered in the year 1964 and it is considered one of the largest and most remarkable Mastaba tombs in the area of Saqqara.

It seems like the construction of the Mastaba tomb, which was built in three phases, went through a lot of modifications and transformations. The first phases consisted of the cutting out of the northern part of the tomb. This chamber was enlarged to the south maybe to double its size and to add an offering chamber and this was the second phase of construction. The third phase included adding the main passageway that leads to the original antechamber. 

The first scenes one views when entersing the tomb are the scenes of baking bread out of barley and making beer. Other inscriptions display building ships, harvesting, sailing, and netting of birds. The eastern wall contains the names of the other family members who were buried in this Mastaba tomb. At the lower part of this wall, Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum are drawn inside a large ship. The antechamber contains a lot of rock-cut ornaments that included mainly agricultural scenes like sowing seeds and taking care of animals. There are also some amazing inscriptions of the two men with their sons and daughters. 


This tomb is considered to be the most famous tomb in Saqqara and the tomb which is visited the most by tourists. This is mainly because of two factors: the tomb is located near the pyramids of Saqqara and Unas and most of its magnificent colors still remain as a testament to its beauty. 


The Tomb of Queen Nebt:


Queen Nebt and Khenut were the wives of king Unas. They were buried in the same tomb beside his pyramid in the complex of Saqqara exactly to the north of the pyramid. Her tomb is considered to be one of the most remarkable and finely preserved tombs of the area. This is why all the tourist who visits the Saqqara complex should visit this tomb.
The tomb of Nebt and Khenut is a double Mastaba tomb divided into two parts: one for Nebt and the other for Khenut. Both parts of the tomb are equal in size and layout.


However, history had its saying in their preservation. The part constructed for Khenut is ruined while the part of Nebt is well preserved and extremely amazing.
The tomb of Nebt contains three rooms with the second room to be considered the most remarkable. It contains beautifully decorated walls with many inscriptions of the queen. 
The entrance to the tomb is from its southeast side and it leads to an antechamber highly decorated with scenes of the queen sailing along with many funerary scenes of offerings and women servants. Afterward, a passageway leads to a small chapel with many votive offerings of the queen and her daughter.

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