Near the modern village of Tuna el-Gebel, on the edge of the Western Desert, a large site functioned as the necropolis for the ancient town of Khnum or Hermopolis. The cemetery was located 11km from the city, in an area which is perhaps better known as the north-western boundary of Akhenaten’s city of Akhetaten and is marked by a boundary stela (stela A).
When visiting Tuna el-Gebel, Akhenaten’s boundary stela is the first monument to be reached, on the right hand side of the road and also the earliest monument at the site. A steep flight of stone steps leads to a tiny rock shrine cut into the escarpment and the large boundary stela which is cut into the face of the cliff. The shrine, found by a Jesuit traveller, Claud Sicard in 1714 contains the first of the Akhetaten boundary stela to be identified, with rock-cut sculptures of Akhenaten and his family and an accompanying text dated to year 6 of his reign. At the top of the stela the king and queen offer to the Aten in a typical Amarna pose, while the text below records Akhenaten’s oath not to extend the limits of his city. The royal statues on the left are now headless and support tall offering tables depicting the couple’s three eldest daughters. The stela, now much eroded is protected by large smoked glass doors. A gafir holds the key to open the doors (if he can be found!) for visitors with permission to view the stela.
A short distance further south is the Tuna el-Gebel necropolis, with a very good rest-house just inside the entrance gate. The site stretches for about 3km to the south along the desert and contains tombs and mortuary houses arranged in sand-swept streets which vary in style dating from the Late Period to the Roman era. Only a portion of the necropolis has been excavated, first by Chassant in 1903-4 and Weill in 1912. The galleries of the city of the dead dating to the first centuries AD were uncovered by Sami Gabra’s excavations for Cairo University in 1920s and 1930s and British, German and Italian expeditions have worked at Tuna el-Gebel in the latter half of the 20th century. The earliest material to be found dates from Rameses II, but this is thought to have been out of context.
The first monument encountered is the family tomb of Petosiris, a high priest of Thoth who probably lived around 300 BC. This temple-tomb is unique, built in pure Egyptian style with a pronaos (pillared entrance hall) at ground level and a cult chapel behind, with the burial chambers cut into the rock below ground. The inlaid wooden coffin of Petosiris can be seen in Cairo Museum. The pillared portico contains scenes of industries (jewellers, metalworkers, incense-makers and woodworkers) and agriculture. On the rear wall at either side of the entrance to the cult chapel Petosiris and his wife are seen with their relatives, with scenes of butchers and offering-bringers below. The cult chapel contains four square pillars with the burial shaft in the centre. The wall decoration here is in Egyptian hieroglyphs, but the figures wear Greek-style clothing in a rare blend of the two distinct periods. The eastern and western halves of the chapel are dedicated to the father and brother of Petosiris respectively and show traditional funerary scenes and Egyptian deities. The extremely well-preserved and elegant reliefs are heavily influenced by both Egyptian Old Kingdom and conventional Greek style art. One of the most important texts in the chapel includes a description of works in the temples of Hermopolis. The tomb appears to have been recently cleaned and has modern lighting installed, which shows the superb reliefs at their best. Most of the original paint is still in place and the colours are soft and airy with a great deal of pale blue. This is one of the most beautiful Egyptian tombs I have ever visited.
Behind the tomb of Petosiris is the tomb of Isadora, which dates to the 2nd century AD, with it’s sparse decoration and Greek texts in memory of the lady buried here. A tragic legend is connected to Isadora – a young girl who lived in the town of Hermopolis and renowned for her beauty and good nature. She fell in love with a young man from Antinopolis (present day Sheikh ‘Ibada) on the east bank of the Nile. Unfortunately disaster struck when Isadora’s boat overturned while sailing to visit her fiance and she was drowned. Her grief-stricken father built the elaborate tomb in her memory and she lies there still, her mummy enshrined in a case inside the first chamber of the tomb. At the rear of the chapel is a large sculpted half-shell over the funerary couch.
To the south-east of Isadora’s tomb is the Oedipus tomb, decorated with copies of scenes from the Greek Theban cycle – the originals are now in Cairo Museum. There are many other tombs in the city of the dead, some painted with mock stone panelling, similar to Greek tombs at Alexandria. Some of the tombs are open and others may be opened on request. A little further south is an enormous Roman waterwheel and well-shaft, 34m deep, which probably supplied the area with water during the Roman era.
Back towards the north of the site a stone balustrade is said to have defined an enclosure in which sacred ibis were raised and beyond this are the ibis and baboon burials in extensive catacombs – the largest feature of Tuna el-Gebel. These are the sacred catacombs of Thoth, his ‘living images’. Most of the animal burials date to the Graeco-Roman Period and a baboon sarcophagus dating to Darius I was found here as well as a number of stone ibis sarcophagi. The side chambers of the catacombs are packed with pottery jars containing the mummified bodies of the birds. One of the most important finds here includes a jar which contained Aramaic administrative papyri from the Persian occupation. The catacombs also incorporated cult structures above ground, including a temple built by Alexander IV.
Excavations have continued at Tuna el-Gebel, most recently (in the late 1990s) by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization directed by Zahi Hawass. Remains of a church and Roman mudbrick walls have been uncovered in a town located at Nazlet Tuna to the north of the site which is mentioned in administrative papyri and where thousands of artefacts lie scattered on the ground.
How to get there
Tuna el-Gebel is situated on the west bank of the Nile and can be reached from Mallawi or el-Minya, and easily combined with a trip to el-Ashmunein. From el-Ashmunein the main road leads west, crosses the Bahr Yusuf and turns south along the edge of the desert. Tickets for Tuna el-Gebel cost EGP 20. Photography is no longer allowed anywhere on the site.