Gisr el-Mudir Enclosure
Following early royal burials at Abydos, Saqqara was the necropolis for kings of the Early Dynastic Period onwards. Although Djoser’s Step Pyramid is Saqqara’s best known monument, archaeologists believe that there are many early tombs still awaiting discovery. Looking at an aerial photograph of the Saqqara necropolis, you can see many regular enclosed areas still buried beneath the seemingly barren desert. The largest of these areas is known as Gisr el-Mudir (Enclosure of the Boss), situated to the west of the Buried Pyramid of Sekhemkhet.
Gisr el-Mudir is an enigmatic structure almost twice the size of the Step Pyramid enclosure, with massive stone-cut walls and is thought to be even older than Djoser’s complex which is said to be the oldest stone-built monument in Egypt. This structure and traces of others like it were first noticed in the 1920s with the emergence of aerial photography, but they were too difficult to excavate. It is only in recent years, with the use of new technology, that Egyptologists have been able to properly investigate these enclosures. In 1990 the National Museum of Scotland, under the direction of Ian Mathieson, obtained a concession to survey and excavate the desert structures at Saqqara and with the use of modern prospecting equipment they have been able to produce geophysical and topographical maps which will be used to point the direction for more detailed excavation.
The enclosure of Gisr el-Mudir measures approximately 650 by 350 metres and its walls are a massive 15m wide at their base. The walls have been excavated to a height of 15m, but their width suggests that they were originally much higher than this. The fifteen courses of masonry uncovered consist of a skin of limestone blocks with a fill of rubble, and solid rough-cut stonework at the corners. The enclosure wall seems to have been completed and no trace of a structure has been found inside the walls, which rules out the possibility of a pyramid and so its purpose is still unknown.
Pottery recovered from the rubble fill of the enclosure walls dates the structure to Dynasty II, predating Djoser’s complex by several years. This and other enclosures in the area bear a remarkable resemblance to the mudbrick mortuary structures found in the desert at Abydos, especially the largest, Shunet el-Zebib, which has been identified as belonging to King Khasekhemwy of Dynasty II. Limestone was more readily available for building purposes at Saqqara than at Abydos, and it is just possible that the Abydos monuments were a reflection of experiments begun at Saqqara during this period. Several Dynasty I and II tombs have been found at Saqqara which make use of limestone for lining, roofing and portcullis slabs, suggesting that the quarrying and use of stone was developed in this area. Before Gisr el-Mudir was closely examined it was assumed that it had belonged to a Dynasty III king, one of Djoser’s successors, but it is now believed that the structure should be dated to Dynasty II. Recent findings at Khasekhemwy’s Abydos tomb have strengthened the belief that the king was Djoser’s immediate predecessor – a seal impression on the tomb doorway suggests that Djoser buried Khasekhemwy. It is therefore not unreasonable to suggest Khasekhemwy was the builder of Gisr el-Mudir, which Djoser then copied and developed into his Step Pyramid complex. If this is the case, then Khasekhemwy and not Djoser should be heralded as the builder of Egypt’s first stone monument.
A press release in February 2009 announced by Culture minister Farouk Hosni states that two previously unknown Old Kingdom tombs have been discovered in the Gisr el-Mudir area at el-Deir Bridge. An Egyptian archaeological mission headed by Dr. Zahi Hawass are excavating the tombs of Iya-Maat, ‘Supervisor the King’s Property’ in the reign of King Unas and a Dynasty V ‘Supervisor of all Singers’, a woman named Thinh. The team have also recently discovered here the Dynasty VI mud-brick mastaba tomb of a man named Sennedjem, behind which was found a deep shaft from the Saite Period of Dynasty XXVI that contained thirty burials. Four limestone sarcophagi and four anthropoid wooden coffins have were found, one inscribed with the name Padi-heri. In the presence of the world’s press, Dr Hawass opened the first of the sarcophagi on February 9 2009 and was faced with an intact mummy.
For more information and pictures see Zahi Hawass website.
For information on the The Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project see their website.