Tuna el-Gebel (and el-Bersha)

Tuna el-Gebel (and el-Bersha)

by Jimmy Dunn

A part of the Armana Period boundry Stelae at Tuna el-Gebel

The Ancient Egypt site of Tuna el-Gebel borders Amarna, the capital of the pharaoh Akhenaten, who is one of the most controversial pharaohs of today due to his break from ancient Egypt's traditional religions. It is a little over four miles west of Hermopolis and just west of the modern village of Deirut. It is one of several necropolises of ancient Hermopolis.

The ruins of Tuna el-Gebel are scattered over an area of about three kilometers. The oldest monument found here is one of six stelae on the boundary of Akhenaten's ancient city, which shows the king and Nefertiti in various poses. It is a part of a rock-cut "shrine" a little way up the escarpment.

A mummified Baboon in the catacombs at Tuna el-Gebel

To the south (at el-Fassagi) is the late necropolis of el-Ashmunein (ancient Hermopolis) Apart from material of Ramesses II that may have been out of context, the earliest objects found here are Aramaic administrative papyri of the 5th century Persian occupation discovered in a jar in the catacombs of ibis and baboon burials, which are the largest feature of the site and include a baboon sarcophagus dated to Darius I. The animal necropolis is huge, and may stretch all the way to Hermopolis, though it has only been mapped out for some three kilometers.

Niches in the catacombs at Tuna el-Gebel

Located in catacombs (ibiotaphon), at one time there were thousands of mummified baboons, and literally millions of ibises and ibis eggs. Several underground cult chapels cased with limestone blocks formed the entrance rooms into the ibis galleries. The rooms were up to 15 meters long and contained cult niches with facades decorated with the shape of superimposed chapels carrying uraeus friezes. These animals were sacred to Thoth. Most of these mummies were destroyed by robbers, and date mainly to the Greek and Roman periods of Egypt. A temple of the Macedonian period was incorporated into the catacombs. A selection of pottery, bronze statuettes and mummies is displayed in the museum in nearby Mallawi. Ibis and baboon are the two chief sacred animals of Thoth, the god of el-Ashmunein.

The tomb chapel of Petosiris at Tuna el-Gebel

Today, the site is also known for the remains of Ptolemaic and Roman chapels and tombs. In many cases, free standing stairways lead to a high podium on which stand the temple tombs. There are a variety of funerary chapels in the shape of small temples. The more elaborate examples have an Egyptian pronaos at the front with walled up intercolumniations and small windows in the shape of chapel facades. Behind the pronaos are the actual cult chapels with wall recesses, apses and wall paintings. Some chapels are temples in the pure classical style, while others represent houses in mixed pharaonic-Greek style.

The best known structure is the unique tomb of the family of Petosiris, which probably dates to the early Greco-Roman period. He was a high priest of Thoth. The tomb takes the form of a temple with an entrance portico and a cult chapel behind. The burials are in underground chambers. It is unusual in that the tomb paintings, which depict scenes of daily life and of offering bearers, combine Egyptian and Greek styles, having for example, traditional Egyptian farming scenes but with people dressed in a Greek fashion.

The tomb of Isadora

In the chapel of the tomb, the plinth, which is decorated with bearers of offerings, is said to be a true masterpiece. In addition, text within the chapel contains important texts, including an extensive description of works in the temples of Hermopolis.

South of the tomb of Petosiris is a Greco-Egyptian city of the dead of the first century AD, with tombs and mortuary houses decorated in a complex mixture of Greek and Egyptian styles. Both the galleries and part of the necropolis were excavated by the Egyptian scholar, Sami Gabra, between the two world wars. Since then, Egyptian, British, German and Italian expeditions have worked here since the 1970s. Included here is the tomb of Isadora, who drowned in the Nile in about 150 AD.Her mummy is still here.

A Faience goblet from Tuna el-Gebel

Notably, one of the most characteristic materials employed by the ancient Egyptians was faience, the brightly colored frit in use from the earliest times for vessels, inlays and a variety of ornaments. One of the finest assemblages of Egyptian faience anywhere in the world is the little-known collection put together by William Joseph Myers and bequeathed to his old school, Eton College, in 1899. What distinguishes the Myers collection from other assemblages of such objects is the fact that many of the key pieces appear to come from a single site, Tuna el-Gebel.

That Tuna el-Gebel was the scene of a great discovery of Egyptian faience during the mid-1890s is recorded by Henry Wallis, a contemporary of Myers and one of the earliest students of Egyptian glazed wares. It is also confirmed by the large number of faience objects with a Tuna el-Gebel provenance which began to enter the major Egyptian collections at this time, many of them by way of the German dealer Reinhardt. The local people, clearly, had stumbled onto a rich and undisturbed area of the cemetery, which they were working carefully and with great profit.

Small figurines of gods from Tuna el-Gebel

Wallis himself noted "vessels of all kinds, figures of the gods, elegant objects of personal adornment, and all the trappings and paraphernalia of the mummy. The art also covered a considerable period of time, ranging from the XVIIIth Dynasty, over the Ramesside times, to the Roman conquest". Masterpiece after masterpiece of Egyptian faience is attested from the site.

As these finds seem to show, Tuna el-Gebel was a principal center for high quality faience manufacture, particularly during the Third Intermediate Period. Among the site's most typical products are delicate chalices, modeled in the form of either the blue or the white lotus and with naturalistic relief decoration or narrative scenes, together with rings, spacer-beads and amulets of most delicate, openwork and technically challenging design.

Inside the tomb of Djehutihotep at Deir el-Bersha

Across the river from Tuna el-Gebel, a desert valley called the Wadi el-Nakhla breaks through the cliffs and runs in a southeasterly direction. Apart from the limestone quarries of various periods, it contains a number of rock-cut tombs. This is el-Bersha (actually the name of a nearby village) where the nomarches of the Fifteenth Nome of Upper Egypt during the 11th and 12th Dynasties have their tombs. These are not in good repair, but there are about ten tombs from that period (possibly more), and others in various zones dating back as far as the Old Kingdom, and into at least the Ptolemaic Period. Excavation work at el-Bersha appears to be ongoing by a Belgian Mission.

Another of the tombs at el-Bersha clearly showing Coptic occupation

The most spectacular of these is the tomb of the "Great Overlord of the Hare nome" called Djehutihotep, who lived during the reigns of Amenemhet II, Senusret II and Senusret III. The west wall of the inner room of the chapel bears the famous scene of the transport of a colossal statue from the calcite quarries at Hatnub.

It should be noted that this area, sometimes referred to as Deir el-Bersha, also probably contained a good many monks during the Christian Period, who used some of the tombs for housing or other purposes.

These tombs were excavated by the Egyptian Exploration Fund (P. E. Newberry and others) between 1891 and 1893, Harvard University and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1915 (G. A. Reisner and others), and a Dutch American expedition in the 1990s.

Also nearby is the 5th and 6th Dynasty tombs of the governors of Hermopolis at a location known as Sheikh Said. Many of their names can still be read in the inscriptions.






Reference Number

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Reeves, Nicholas


Thmes & Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05105-4

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None Stated

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Wilkinson, Richard H.


Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05100-3

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Arnold, Dieter


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ISBN 0-19-512633-5

Last Updated: June 13th, 2011