Stone quarrying has a very long history in Egypt. The quarries at Hatnub, at least half a day’s journey from the Nile in ancient times, are situated in the hills of the Eastern Desert, around 65km from el-Minya, to the south-east of el-Amarna. The area contained the principal quarries for travertine or calcite, usually known as ’Egyptian alabaster’ and was in use from as early as the Old Kingdom and intermittently through to the Roman Period. The name Hatnub means ‘Mansion of Gold’.
There have been many hieroglyphic inscriptions, graffiti and pottery sherds found at Hatnub which enable us to gain an understanding of the history of the site. There are inscriptions of Dynasty VI kings Teti and Pepi I carved into the quarried rock, but the site is perhaps immortalised during this period in the ‘Biography of Weni’ from the official’s tomb chapel at Abydos. In his biographical text Weni described a mission he undertook for Pepi’s son Merenre, in which ‘His Majesty sent me to Hatnub in order to bring a great altar of alabaster . . .’ presumably for use in the construction of Merenre’s pyramid. Pepi II’s name also appears in texts here.
Although the Hatnub quarries were, at least in the early days, exclusively for use by the king, later graffiti show that very wealthy families of the First Intermediate Period also exploited the valuable stone. Important topics addressed in texts from the quarries include the struggle of the Herakleopolitan rulers against the Theban rebels at the end of the First Intermediate Period. The Theban kings eventually gained in power and inscriptions of the Middle Kingdom rulers Mentuhotep III and Mentuhotep IV, are recorded on the rock walls. Mentuhotep IV’s texts suggest that some of the nomarchs of Middle Egypt might have been troublesome at this time. The nomarchs of the Heliopolitan nome were self-styled ‘kings’ who still held power during the Middle Kingdom, although now more closely supervised by the pharaoh’s officials. The ruler of the Hermopolite nome, Neheri, left inscriptions at Hatnub dated to his own ‘reign’ (although actually during the time of Mentuhotep IV), suggesting that he was seriously challenging the Theban pharaoh’s authority. Probably one of the last of the powerful nomarchs was Djutihotep of Dynasty XII, whose tomb at Deir el-Bersha contains a depiction of 172 men dragging a colossal alabaster statue over 6.5m high from the quarries at Hatnub.
There is evidence to suggest that the Hatnub quarries were much used in the New Kingdom, receiving attention from the time of Amenhotep I of Dynasty XVIII and it is likely that the colossal ‘alabaster’ sphinx in the precinct of the Ramesside temple at Memphis, was carved from calcite from the Hatnub quarries. It has been suggested that the sphinx may have originally been one of a pair who guarded an earlier monument at Memphis and may have been placed there by Hatshepsut, whose name has been identified on an alabaster jar fragment from the Temple of Ptah at Memphis. She was the first New Kingdom ruler known to have built monuments in Middle Egypt and presumably had access to the Hatnub quarries.
Hatnub had three principal quarrying areas and its main quarry (P) is a pit 55m by 85m in area and 16m deep. There were also settlements for the workers, characterised by drystone walls, windbreaks, and a transportation system of causeways and roads.
Hatnub was an important source for the precious stone which could be either carved so thinly that light would shine through it or used in the construction of altars, sarcophagi and beautiful shrines such as that of Senwosret I which has been reconstructed in Karnak open-air museum. There was nothing to equal its aesthetic qualities in ancient Egypt.