The Cemeteries of Giza in Egypt

The Cemeteries of Giza

by Jimmy Dunn

>> Giza Index

A look at the Cemeteries of Giza

At Giza, the site of the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx have a tendency to blind more casual students of ancient Egypt to the presence of other funerary structures, specifically, the mastabas and other tombs that were not built for pharaohs but rather for some of their most important officials, among others. And yet, the great tombs of the pharaohs at Giza, the Pyramids, have never revealed the details of early Egyptian civilization that the decorated tombs of lesser men record. In fact, more than any other source, these mastabas are responsible for much of what we know about this grand pyramid period and the men who built them.

The necropolis at Giza consists of the Great Western cemetery, the Eastern Cemetery and a third, less extensive field south of the pyramid of Khufu. To the east of Khufu's pyramid, his sons and daughters received enormous solid stone double mastabas, while in the Great Western Cemetery, the high dignitaries of the court and the pyramid's master builders, including Prince Hemiunu, the king's nephew and the son of his older brother Nefermaat, were assigned positions.

A View of a section of the Great Western Cemetery

Specifically, the organized development of cemeteries at Giza are mostly believed to be due to the efforts of Khufu, who had these tombs laid out methodically in "streets" and avenues", and aligned to the axis of his pyramid complex. In fact, scholars believe that Khufu laid out these orderly cemeteries to the east and west of his pyramid in what may have been the world's first example of prefabricated construction, with the assignment of specific tombs to specific individuals only occurring afterwards. Hence, while tourists to Giza are awed by the efforts required to build his Great Pyramid, few realize that at the same time construction was taking place all about this monument. Dr. Hawass, the current Director of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, tells us that:

"It is staggering to consider the sheer metric tonnage of limestone that required preparation, transport (from either local quarries or from Tura, on the east bank, across the river), dressing, and placement during the several decades of the king's reign. Thousands of laborers must have covered the site, working on both the royal and private construction projects, probably simultaneously. The scaffolding, dust, and cacophony must, at times, have been disorienting at best, and downright dangerous at worst."

However, Egyptologists believe that, far from the Hollywood version of brutally enforced slave labor, the Giza constructions were rather a massive public works project, religiously motivated and carried out by and for the benefit of the entire nation.

Map of the cemeteries

The cemeteries at Giza were first systematically studied for the first time in 1848 by Richard Lepsius, who gave each of them a number. His research was followed by that of Auguste Mariette, but apparently there was also much plunder of the area by treasure hunters. After years of watching this plunder of these mastabas, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Egyptian antiquities authorities invited several archaeological missions to excavate the site responsibly. Meeting at the Mena House Hotel in November of 1902, these candidates consisted of an American Team from the Hearst Egyptian Expedition of the University of California headed by George A. Reisner (1867-1942), a German expedition from the University of Leipzig headed by[]=866George Steindorff (1861-1951), and an Italian team from the Turin Museum led by Ernesto Schiaparelli (1856-1928).

Some of the players, including from left Hermann Junker and George Reisner at the Continental Hotel in Cairo

The necropolis at Giza was divided into equal portions, and with most of it, there was little problem dividing it amongst the archaeological teams. But in Reisner's own words, "the chief area in which all were interested was the Great Western Cemetery", and M. Maspero, the Director-General of the Antiquities Department, instructed the three groups to find some way to divide up that cemetery amicably. Hence, Mrs. Reisner drew slips of paper from a hat, resulting in the Italian group being given rights to the southern third of the cemetery, the German group the middle and the Americans receiving rights to excavate the northern third.

However, in 1905, the Italians were obliged for financial and administrative reasons to relinquish their concession and, with the permission of the Antiquities Department, their areas were assigned to the Americans. This same year, Reisner's sponsorship was transferred from the University of California to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard University. Later, in 1911, the German concession was transferred to Hermann Junker (1877-1962) of the University of Vienna, so only Reisner, from his Harvard Camp west of the pyramid of Khafre, worked continuously on this necropolis. He remained at Giza until, physically exhausted and nearly blind after forty-three years of excavations, he died there in June of 1942.

Another view of the Giza cemeteries

By then, Reisner's concession included two thirds of the western cemetery, the entire cemetery east of it, and the pyramid and valley temples of Menkaure. The Steindorff/Junker expedition excavated the central third of the Western Cemetery and the row of mastabas just south of the Great Pyramid. Later, Selim Hassan (1886-1961) also conducted important excavations at Giza on behalf of Cairo University, revealing what is now referred to as the Central Field, west of the Sphinx and south of the causeway to Khafre's pyramid.

These scholars and other produced a total of about thirty monographs on their work at Giza, which remain fundamental sources for the study of Old Kingdom Mortuary tradition as well as most aspects of ancient Egyptian civilization.

Most of the tombs of the High officials at Giza consist of two elements. There was a substructure to protect the deceased mummy, and a superstructure that could act as a cult focus and a place of offering. After carving out the substructure, the mastaba was outlined with a course of limestone blocks which was then filled in with rubble or debris. Only a few mastabas contained a solid limestone core. Additional blocks were then added, set back from the preceding course to form a battered or stepped exterior.

Typically, the burial shaft (or shafts) were sunk through the core of the mastaba's superstructure deep down into the bedrock. A short corridor then connected the shaft to the actual burial chamber. Later, some superstructures received an additional exterior casing of smooth, fine, white limestone from Tura.

Interestingly, at least the earliest of these mastaba's at Giza built during the reign of Khufu vary considerably from previous tombs. At Giza, and to a lesser extent at Dahshur under Khufu's father, Sneferu, these tombs became much more austere and simple. Tombs had evolved into elaborate structures with multiple chambers in the superstructure and false doors serving as the focal point for offerings, but now, these were replaced with solid buildings. With very few exceptions, the tombs of the early 4th Dynasty at Giza show only a simple niche at the south end of the east wall where an inscribed rectangular slab stela was installed. These stela were carved with just about everything needed for a successful afterlife, including a scene of the deceased at an offering table and his or her name and administrative titles. Sometimes there was also a mud-brick exterior chapel built around the stela.

Never before in Egyptian history were the claims of divine kingship so thoroughly considered and so perfectly executed. For the first and only time, all of state and society were integrated into the strict order of the royal necropolis and into the conception of the king's destiny in the afterlife, so that they would be available to serve him eternally.

However, as the 4th Dynasty drew to a close, these tombs were sometimes embellished with stone exterior chapels and monolithic false doors, so that tomb construction once again came to follow a more traditional path. In fact, the 5th Dynasty saw the beginnings of the eventual breakdown of Khufu's ordered system of mastabas. Intrusive burials, additional shafts and whole new areas all added to the complexity of this urban city of the dead, but with this also came an increased repertoire of wall scenes and more texts.

Some Tombs of the Eastern Cemetery

Some Tombs of the Great Western Cemetery

  • (G 2196) Iasen, Tomb of

  • (G 2370) Senedjemib-inty, Tomb of

  • (G 2374) Khnum-inty, Tomb of

  • (G 2375) Akhetmehu, Tomb of

  • (G 2378) Senedjemib-Mehu, Tomb of

  • (G 5110) Duaenre, Tomb of

  • (G 6010) Neferbauptah, Mastaba of

  • (G 6020) Iymery, Mastaba of

  • (G 6030) Ity, Mastaba of

  • (G 6040) Shepseskafankh, Mastaba of

Some Tombs of the Southern Cemetery
  • (G 7060) Nefermaaat, Tomb of

  • (G 7070) Senefrukaef, Tomb of






Reference Number

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Harvard University Press

ISBN 0-674-00376-4

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None Stated

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Kent R. Weeks


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