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A Planned Town of the Middle Kingdom: Kahun - PYRAMID TOWN FOR SENWOSRET II’S CULT., THE TOWN’S FUNCTION., DESCRIPTION OF THE TOWN., ELITE HOUSES.

square complex street temple

In 1889 the English archaeologist W. M. F. Petrie, the founder of scientific archaeology in Egypt, excavated the pyramid town he called Kahun. The town was located just over one kilometer from the valley temple of Senwosret II’s pyramid complex at Lahun. The Egyptians built the town to house the priests, administrative personnel, and workers who maintained the cult of Senwosret II at the pyramid after his death. The texts found here reveal that the town’s name was originally Hotep-Senwosret , “Senwosret is Satisfied.” The town’s urban planning reveals the extent of social stratification in this period and the failure of planning to meet everyone’s needs.

THE TOWN’S FUNCTION.

Beyond proximity to the pyramid complex of Senwosret II, the texts found in the town reveal its function. One group of texts deals almost exclusively with the administration of the pyramid complex. A second group, which has never fully been published, deals with a wider circle of people. Some of the documents deal with places outside Kahun, even including construction at a project in the reign of Amenemhet III, 50-75 years after the town’s founding.

DESCRIPTION OF THE TOWN.

The town was square, roughly 384 meters by 335 meters. The streets run north/south and east/west in a grid pattern, aligned both with the cardinal points of the compass and the pyramid complex of Senwosret II. Such a grid pattern could only be the result of advance planning. One main street on the north side of the town runs east/west with ten large houses on it that Petrie called mansions. One of the mansions is located on the highest point in town, an area Petrie called the acropolis. On the west side of the town, closest to the pyramid complex, there were 220 small houses. The small houses were located on streets that ran east/west. Each of these streets ran into a wider north/south street that led to the gate nearest the valley temple. The town’s plan clearly reveals two social classes living in separate quarters.

ELITE HOUSES.

The large houses built for the elite were 2,520 square meters (27,125 square feet)—huge houses in any time or place. A staircase carved into the bedrock led from street level to the house on the acropolis. The house itself appears similar to the other large houses on the street, but Petrie believed this house belonged to the mayor because of its position. All the elite houses were rectangular in shape with internal divisions that were also a series of rectangles. The archaeologist Barry Kemp has compared the house plans at Kahun with contemporary models of houses found in tombs. He found that the focus of the house was a central courtyard that often contained a pool and garden. The walls surrounding the court were plastered and painted in black, blue, yellow, and white. A portico at one end of the courtyard had wooden columns, also brightly painted. Even the flat roof of the portico was painted blue with gold stars on the underside. From the courtyard, it was easy to reach a reception room, the equivalent of an American living room. This room usually had four columns supporting the roof. Arranged around the reception room were bedrooms with built-in platforms for beds in alcoves. Arranged around the bedrooms were additional, smaller courtyards that allowed light and air into them. The house also had workrooms and granaries to store grain. The models show that these workrooms included a bakery, brewery, cattle shed, and butchering area. These houses provided a lot of space and privacy to the members of the elite class at Kahun.

SMALL HOUSES.

The small houses contained about 120 square meters (1,291 square feet). According to the surviving texts, the people who lived there were manual laborers, soldiers, low-level scribes, doorkeepers for the temple, and singers and dancers of both sexes for the temple. The houses themselves have no regular plan, though they are all basically rectangular in outline and also in the internal divisions. The English archaeologist Barry Kemp suggests that the residents remodeled an original standard plan to suit each family’s needs. A series of census documents for the town provides a glimpse of who lived in these houses and the function of these dwellings. The soldier Hori, his wife Shepset, and their son Sneferu originally occupied one house. At some point Shepset’s mother and five sisters joined the household, raising the number of residents from three to nine. By the time Sneferu was an adult, his mother, grandmother, and three aunts lived in the house with him. This fluctuation shows the likelihood that the residents made internal adjustments to the plan to accommodate larger and smaller numbers of people living in them at different times.

SOURCES

Alexander Badawy, A History of Egyptian Architecture: The First Intermediate Period, the Middle Kingdom, and the Second Intermediate Period (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966).

Barry Kemp, Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization (London and New York: Routledge, 1989).

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