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central mountain pyramid built

Between the end of Dynasty 6 (2170 B.C.E. ) and the inauguration of the Middle Kingdom in the Mid-eleventh Dynasty (2008 B.C.E. ) royal architecture did not exist because the central government had collapsed. Egypt was ruled by provincial officials. Royal architecture in the Middle Kingdom begins again with King Nebhepetre Mentuhotep, the founder of the Middle Kingdom. Nebhepetre Mentuhotep was among the most famous kings in ancient Egyptian history. He reestablished the central government of Egypt after the First Intermediate Period (the period without central government from 2130–2008 B.C.E. ), and ushered in a unified period now called the Middle Kingdom about 2008 B.C.E. Kings for the next 1,000 years claimed Nebhepetre Mentuhotep as an ancestor because they believed it helped them establish their own legitimacy to rule Egypt.


The funerary temple for Mentuhotep was unlike those built by his predecessors in ruling Egypt, the kings of the Old Kingdom who built pyramid complexes. Instead Nebhepetre Mentuhotep built a temple and tomb based on local traditions in Thebes, the area where he was born. For reasons unknown, only Hatshepsut, the queen who ruled approximately 500 years after him, imitated his temple. The major architecture during his reign was his tomb and temple built in Deir el Bahri on the west bank of the Nile opposite modern Luxor. This region is also known as Thebes. Deir el Bahri is surrounded by cliffs that mark the beginning of the Sahara. The tomb itself was carved out of the mountain. Directly at the base of the mountain, Mentuhotep’s builders constructed a T-shaped platform with the longer part of the “T” extending from the mountain and the wider part of the “T” stretching north and south. Priests could access the platform by a long causeway that formed the entrance to the building. Approaching from the causeway, the priest would reach an area called the central edifice, 22.2 meters (72.8 feet) square. A columned ambulatory (a sheltered walkway) surrounded a central core that has been reconstructed in three different ways. The original excavator, Swiss archaeologist Edouard Naville, reconstructed the now destroyed central core as a pyramid. He knew that the Abbott Papyrus , written hundreds of years after this temple’s construction, described this building as a mer , the ancient Egyptian word for pyramid. The German archaeologist Dieter Arnold, however, restudied the blocks from the temple in the 1970s and demonstrated that the walls of the central edifice were not strong enough to support a pyramid as a central core. Arnold argued that the word mer during the time of the writing of the Abbott Papyrus meant only “tomb,” and no longer meant “pyramid” exclusively, and reconstructed a cube on the central edifice. The German archaeologist Rainer Stadelmann subsequently suggested that a mound was built on the central edifice. This mound would be a reference to the sand mounds found in the most ancient Egyptian funerary structures at Abydos. This reconstruction, though, is purely hypothetical. Behind the ambulatory is a hypostyle hall, literally a room filled with columns. This room contained eighty octagonal columns leading to a rock-cut niche containing a statue of the king. The king appears to stride directly out of the mountain. A tunnel cut in the bedrock leads to the burial chamber.


The royal tomb itself is cut into the mountain. A tunnel 44.9 meters (147 feet) under the mountain and 150 meters (492 feet) long leads to a granite-lined vault. An alabaster shrine, surrounded by basalt, filled the burial chamber, and probably contained the king’s mummy in a wooden sarcophagus. A garden surrounded the causeway that led up to the central edifice. The designer planted 53 tamarisk trees and a large sycamore fig in the garden. Twelve statues of Mentuhotep dressed as Osiris, the king of the dead, faced the east. At some point the statues were decapitated though it is not known why. The English Egyptologist Howard Carter, who later discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, excavated the Secondary Tomb after a horse stumbled over it. The tomb thus gained the name Bab el-Hosan (“Gate of the Horse”). There Carter found a forecourt and open trench enclosed with mud brick leading to a tunnel. A statue of Mentuhotep wrapped in linen as if it were a mummy lay in a chamber at the end of the tunnel. The Bab el-Hosan probably represented the same kind of secondary royal burial known as early as the First Dynasty. These secondary or subsidiary burials formed a part of the early complexes in Abydos and in Old Kingdom Pyramid complexes.


The funerary temple built by Nebhepetre Mentuhotep is difficult for Egyptologists to understand. The building has nearly no precedents and no successors. This originality, which modern people prize, was unusual in ancient Egypt. Later kings would return to imitating the pyramid complexes of the Old Kingdom. The lack of similar buildings makes it impossible to restore the damaged parts with any certainty.


Dieter Arnold, Der Tempel des Konigs Mentuhotep von Deir el Bahari (Mainz, Germany: Mitteilungen d. Deutchen Archaologisches Institut, 1974–1981).

Howard Carter, “Report on the Tomb of Mentuhotep I,” Annales du Service d’Antiquités Egyptien 2 (1901): 201–205.

Mark Lehner, The Complete Pyramids: Solving the Ancient Mysteries (New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1997).

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