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What the new pharaoh tells us about ancient Egypt

It’s not easy undertaking archaeological work in Egypt currently – but a major new find illuminates a torrid period in Egyptian history. Neil and Kathy Carey

Last month’s discovery in South Abydos, in Egypt – of the remains of the pharaoh, Senekbay, which date to the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1750-1550 BC) – sheds new light on a complex and divided period of Egyptian history.

The collapse of the Old Kingdom, the age of the great pyramid-builders, saw the dissolution of central government and the formation of independent states. The unprepossessing tomb of a provincial king named Senebkay not only supports Danish Egyptologist Kim Ryholt’s previously dismissed theory of an Abydos Dynasty, but changes the political landscape of Egypt during the turbulent Second Intermediate Period.

Senebkay’s times and the Abydos Dynasty

Senebkay, who lived around 1650 BC, was ruler of Middle Egypt, situated between kingdoms ruled from Avaris (Tell el-Daba in the Delta) and Thebes (modern Luxor).

The cartouche of Senebkay, from inside the newly-discovered tomb. Wikimedia Commons

Prior to the discovery of the Abydos South cemetery, the only established dynasties were those of the north (the 13th and 15th dynasties, Hyksos) and south (16th). These vied for power until the Theban king Ahmose pushed south and succeeded in reunifying the country at the beginning of what is known as the New Kingdom (1550-1075 BC).

It’s worth noting here that term “dynasty” is a modern artificial academic concept – a means of grouping Egyptian rulers chronologically. It would not have been recognised in the ancient world.

In his 1997 book on the political situation in Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period, Kim Ryholt first suggested the existence of an Abydos Dynasty, one that occupied the central area between the divided regions of Upper Egypt (with its Theban powerbase) and Lower Egypt:

at the moment when the 15th Dynasty [Hyksos] conquered Memphis and brought an end to the Thirteenth Dynasty, a power vacuum was created in Middle and Upper Egypt in which a native dynasty immediately arose in Thebes (the 16th Dynasty) to rival the foreign ruler in the north … it is difficult to imagine that Abydos, one of the largest and most prominent cities in Egypt, should have idly waited for the foreign ruler to take it into possession. Rather, one may expect that the dignitaries at Abydos would have reacted in a manner similar to those at Thebes and immediately have proclaimed their own king to rival the 15th Dynasty.

A transcription of the Turin King List. via Wikimedia Commons

Based on an analysis of the Turin King List, a papyrus document dating to the reign of Ramesses II (c. 1303-1213 BC), Ryholt suggested that 16 kings contemporary with the 16th Dynasty could be identified as belonging to the otherwise unattested Abydos Dynasty.

The papyrus was damaged in antiquity, and the difficulty in assimilating the fragmentary names of these rulers into traditional models of political structure in the Second Intermediate Period meant these kings remained in obscurity, overlooked by scholars.

Until now.

The kings of Abydos come into view

The only other documents hinting at the existence of the Abydos Dynasty and their possible burial at Abydos are three stelae of “exceptionally crude quality”, according to Ryholt, and an ivory wand discovered at Abydos in the 1889-1902 season by British archaeologists M.A. Randall-MacIver and A.C. Mace, now in the Cairo Museum.

The wand, an object carved with images of demons designed to keep evil forces at bay, provides the name and titles of Se(ne)bkay, identified by Dr Wolfram Grajetzki as the same king (albeit slightly mis-spelt) buried at South Abydos. The inscription reads:

The perfect god, lord of the Two Lands, lord of achievements (literally “doing things”), the son of the sun-god (Re), Se(ne)bkay, beloved of the goddess Isis.

The wand with the name of the pharaoh Senebkay. WIkimedia Commons

One of the significant aspects of the king’s titulary is that he is referred to as “lord of Upper and Lower Egypt” (the unified Two Lands), a standard royal title but one that was clearly inappropriate during this stage of Egypt’s development. Inscriptions on the tomb walls also refer to (Useribre) Senebkay as the King of Upper and Lower Egypt and the Son of the Sun-god.

The burial of Senebkay

The adoption of standard titles and the mummification of Senebkay’s body, including canopic jars for internal organs, show that he was considered as more than just a local ruler.

Mummification required time, expertise and expensive materials, such as imported resins, only ever available to royalty and the elite even in settled and prosperous times.

A relief cartouche from the tomb of Sobekhotep at the Louvre. Wikimedia Commons

The re-use of the gilded cedar canopic shrine (from the nearby tomb of 13th Dynasty king Sobekhotep I) may explain the inclusion of an unusual image of a canopic shrine on the wall of the tomb, flanked by the goddesses Isis, Nephthys, Selket and Nut and the name and titles of Senebkay, the king claiming his own burial equipment for eternity along with that procured for him.

The tomb itself was built from reclaimed Middle Kingdom blocks. Reuse of material is not completely unknown in royal tombs – some of Tutankhamun’s burial equipment appears to have originally been intended for someone else – but it does suggest a lack of resources, perhaps unsurprising for a decentralised government with limited access to tax revenue and other sources of wealth.

Although Senebkay’s burial area had been plundered in antiquity, it is possible that one of the remaining 15 royal tombs (or those of queens and officials) remains intact.

Ancient and contemporary grave-robbers

Such a find would give a better idea of the economic situation and contact with neighbouring towns and regions. However, Ryholt noted that the 15th Dynasty operated a “scorched-earth policy”, and that it is likely that the royal tombs of the Abydos Dynasty were systematically plundered. Even if not officially sanctioned, royal cemeteries were often targeted, sometimes by the workmen responsible for constructing them.

It is not only ancient grave-robbing that archaeologists have to contend with, though.

Since the Revolution of 2011 in Egypt, looting of archaeological sites has become an industry of its own, with heavy machinery used in some cases to bulldoze sites for treasure.

The tension between a modern Islamic state and the country’s ancient pagan past has been apparent in calls for Egyptian authorities to cover or destroy statues or demolish the pyramids of Giza.

Since 2011, armed gangs have raided sites and storage areas for items to sell on the black market, simultaneously depriving scientists and scholars the opportunity to study securely provenanced material and a country of its own heritage.

Security issues and regular changes of government officials have delayed the processing of permits for fieldwork – but the threat of site destruction has seen the continued return of excavation teams despite the increased risk to personal safety.

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