The provincial cemetery of el-Moalla is located in the desert cliff of the River Nile’s East Bank, about 32km south of Luxor. The site appears desolate and windswept, but two important tombs among many belonging to provincial governors and officials of the Old Kingdom to First Intermediate Period can be found here.
The Tomb of Ankhtifi
A small tomb, first located by French archaeologists in the 1920s, is known to be the grave of the provincial governor and warlord Ankhtifi, who held power in the region during Dynasty IX. As ‘Great Overlord of the Nomes of Edfu and Hierakonpolis’, ‘Overseer of Priests’, Ankhtifi was the governor, or ‘nomarch’ of several districts between Edfu and Armant. His decorated tomb shows many interesting and important painted scenes which give us glimpses into the complicated political events in the obscure First Intermediate Period.
A single rock-cut tomb chapel is all that is left today of Ankhtifi’s monument. The entrance leads to a rectangular hall which once contained many columns, though most of them are now missing. The irregular plastered walls are not well preserved, but the remaining painted decoration is very beautiful and much more flexible than the more formal Old Kingdom style. Inside the doorway, a fishing and fowling scene on the right-hand wall is especially interesting for its varieties of fish, which the deceased is spearing and reeling in, while his wife is holding a bird by its beak. Ankhtifi also supervises butchers while his fleet of ships waits beyond. The colours too are interesting and unusual, with much use of a light green paint and patterns of alternating colours. The absence of the papyrus thicket is another deviation from Old Kingdom conventions of art.
The opposite wall (east) depicts rows of cattle and other animals in agricultural scenes. Note the braided hair on some of the cattle and the donkeys carrying grain. The wall opposite the entrance probably once contained a false door, and Ankhtifi and his wife are seen seated at a table with poorly preserved remains of banquet scenes beyond. At the end of this wall men are depicted going off to hunt, with bows and arrows and their hunting dogs. The burial shaft is in the centre of the tomb in front of the false door.
The few remaining columns are also decorated, illustrating industries, including carpentry, agricultural activities, food preparation and brewing. Two square pillars can be seen just inside the entrance and Ankhtifi is depicted on the right-hand pillar facing into the tomb, with three of his dogs beside him. Two columns in the southern half of the tomb show pictures of sowing and ploughing and a choir of women holding hands.
The biographical text is considered to be the most important inscription in the tomb, and describes a famine during Ankhtifi’s time in which the deceased proclaims his own glory in saving his people from ‘. . . dying on the sandbank of Apothis’. The text mentions the towns of Hefat and Hor-mer, whose location is not now known. Ankhtifi tells of feeding and clothing the people in adjoining districts, and states ‘. . . I was like a sheltering mountain . . . the whole country has become like locusts going in search of food, but never did I allow anybody in need to go from this nome to another one. I am the hero without equal.’ Modest chap! Famine seems to have haunted the Egyptians periodically and there are many reliefs in monuments over the whole country which show scenes of hunger and hardship. Archaeologists suggest that the turmoil and uncertainty surrounding the end of the Old Kingdom was largely due to a prolonged drought when the Nile inundations were low and the fields did not produce enough food.
British archaeologists Mark Collier and Bill Manley have recently returned from an exploratory trip to el-Moalla, to study inscriptions in Ankhtifi’s tomb. The humble rock-cut tomb they went to record was found not to be cut into the cliff at all, but has turned out to be a pyramid burial (normally reserved for royalty). The tomb chapel is set within a ceremonial courtyard and has a causeway, which could be seen from the mountain above, with a massive necropolis stretching for some 5km. The burial now appears to be a free-standing pyramid-shaped mountain, which is surrounded by hundreds of other tombs, raising hopes that Ankhtifi’s lost city of Hefat might be located near by. The French archaeologists in the early 20th century had only excavated the entrance to the tomb-chapel itself, whereas Collier and Manley state that the monument appears to have all of the features of a proper pyramid, although a natural one.
The Tomb of Sobekhotep
A few metres to the north of Ankhtifi’s tomb is the smaller tomb-chapel of Sobekhotep, another First Intermediate Period official and this is the second decorated tomb at el-Moalla. It is roughly cut and not so well preserved as its neighbour, but has a few interesting scenes.
The tomb is of a similar shape to that of Ankhtifi, but has three burial shafts instead of one. On the walls to the right of the entrance there are damaged scenes of the funeral procession, with scenes below of men taking grain to a store-house. Sobekhotep is depicted here with his wife and son. On the eastern wall there are remains of industrial scenes at the bottom with the more traditional desert hunt above. Parts of agricultural scenes, showing animals and produce can be seen on the rear wall, with two rows of men and women at the western end. Sobekhotep and his wife are again depicted on the wall to the left of the entrance, receiving offering-bearers.
How to get there
El-Moalla is only about half an hour’s taxi drive from Esna or Luxor and since the convoy has stopped in 2009 the site is now much easier to visit independently by taxi. On reaching the village, cross the railway line and ask for the guard of the tombs who has the key. It is a steep climb up the hill to the tombs, but you will be rewarded with a spectacular view over cultivated land towards the Nile.