Beni Hasan is a small village, south of el-Minya, where an important group of rock-cut tombs are carved into the high limestone cliffs on the east bank of the Nile. The tombs date mostly to Dynasties XI and XII, although there are a few smaller and less elaborate ones belonging to Dynasty VI when provincial rulers had begun to establish their independent power along the Nile Valley. The tombs are reached via a long steep flight of stone steps up the hillside, from where there is a magnificent view up and down the river valley.
The most important of the tombs belonged to provincial rulers of the 16th Upper Egyptian nome. Of 39 tombs on the upper part of the cliff, only 12 were decorated and four are currently open to visitors along with another undecorated tomb (BH18). These offer a rare chance to see the distinctive style of mortuary art characteristic of the early Middle Kingdom with their colourfully painted scenes of daily life, recreation and military activities. The location of the cemetery on the east bank of the Nile is somewhat unusual – the west being the domain of Osiris. The necropolis was recorded by several early explorers and between 1890 and 1894 was surveyed by Percy Newerry on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund. John Garstang excavated some of the Dynasty VI to Dynasty XII tombs during 1902 to 1904 and Nina de Garis Davis copied wall-scenes in 1931. In the early 1980s some of the Dynasty XII tombs were cleaned of their grime by the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation, restoring the wall paintings to their original bright colours.
Tomb of Baqet III (BH15)
The tomb of Baqet III is the earliest of the tombs which are open. Baqet was provincial governor of Menat-Khufu (modern el-Minya) during the later years of Dynasty XI. A large rectangular cult chapel lies behind the plain tomb façade with two slender lotus columns separating the front part of the chapel from the rear.
The north wall of the tomb has many painted scenes depicting Baqet and his life in the provincial community, including the desert hunt with many types of animals. Industrial scenes of weaving and spinning, goldsmiths and sculptors are mingled with scenes of country living – hunting and fishing in the marshes, catching birds and gathering papyrus. Battle scenes are shown on the east wall, along with wrestlers which seem to be a feature of the decoration in tombs from this period. The south wall depicts more traditional funerary scenes, with the deceased’s statue being dragged on a sledge to the tomb, accompanied by offering-bringers, but also includes recreational scenes of sports and playing senet. There is also a small L-shaped statue chamber in the eastern side of the south wall.
Tomb of Khety (BH17)
Khety, also a Dynasty XI governor, was the son of Baqet. The architecture of his tomb is similar to that of his father’s, but with six slender closed lotus pillars in the rear portion. The east and north walls of the tomb are decorated with scenes of fowling and the papyrus harvest, hunting in the desert and local industries below. Khety and his wife are shown presiding over the activities and watch women dancing and playing games. Clappers and dancers and musicians are shown before Khety’s statue being dragged on a sledge.
On the east wall there are long scenes of men practicing unarmed combat or wrestling. The movements can be seen easily because the bodies are painted in contrasting shades. Towards the left-hand side, battle scenes show a fortress under siege, with piles of slain bodies towards the right-hand side. The south wall contains agricultural scenes including wine-making, ploughing and processions of colourful cattle. The funeral rites are also depicted, with the traditional boats as well as offering-bringers and butchers on the west wall.
Tomb of Amenemhet (BH2)
The tomb of Amenemhet, who was called Ameni, dates to Dynasty XII and is a little more elaborate than the earlier tombs. We can be more precise than this, as the tomb-owner’s biographical text is dated to year 43, month 2 of the season of inundation, day 15 of the reign of Senwosret I. Amenemhet was the last holder of the hereditary title ‘Great Overlord of the Province of the Oryx’ at a time when the government of Egypt was once more becoming more centralised. The architecture of Amenemhet’s tomb differs from the earlier style by having a courtyard and a portico with two columns before the entrance to the tomb-chapel.
The tomb chapel is large and rectangular and contains four wide polygonal pillars and two burial shafts. An elaborately decorated ceiling is divided into three naves, each with a vaulted roof. The wall-paintings contain themes similar to earlier tombs, with agriculture and industries, hunting in the desert, military activities and funeral rites with offering-bringers. A large offering list appears across the top of the south wall, before Amenemhet who sits with his wife at a table containing all the produce of his lands. These later tombs also contain a small statue chamber, to the east beyond the tomb-chapel. In Amenemhet’s tomb there are the remains of a statue group which probably depicted the owner with his wife and mother, with an offering table in front.
Tomb of Khnumhotep II (BH3)
Khnumhotep II was a successor of Amenemhet and occupied one of the latest of the Middle Kingdom tombs built at Beni Hasan. Although he was a provincial governor, technically his power would have been less than that of his predecessor as the Middle Kingdom government of Egypt became stronger. His titles include ‘Hereditary Chief’, ‘King’s Acquaintance’ and ‘One who is Beloved of his God’.
Khnumhotep’s tomb follows the architectural style of Amenemhet’s, with four polygonal columns in the tomb-chapel behind the impressive façade and portico. The same themes are continued in the wall decoration too, but the scenes are more colourful and lively and make this perhaps the most interesting and distinctive of the Beni Hasan tombs. On the north wall is a famous scene depicting a caravan of asiatics in their striped robes bringing gazelles and other items to trade. Two especially beautiful scenes dominate the east wall – portrayals of Khnumhotep with his family, fowling and snaring birds in the marshes in a papyrus skiff.
Khnumhotep’s well-preserved autobiographical text can be seen running along the base of the walls, painted to simulate granite. A statue chamber behind an elaborate doorway on the east side of the tomb-chapel still contains the lower part of a statue of the deceased.
How to get there
The tombs at Beni Hasan are on the east bank of the Nile, about 20km south of el-Minya. A new rest-house has been recently constructed (which serves very good coffee) and there is a ticket office at the entrance to the site. Tickets cost EGP 30. Photography is no longer allowed inside any of the tombs.