Qubbet el-Hawa, central necropolis showing the concession of QHRP below the 1st terrace, view from NE

Qubbet el-Hawa, central necropolis showing the concession of QHRP below the 1st terrace, view from NE

The necropolis of Qubbet el-Hawa (engl. dome of the winds) is located in West-Aswan, south of the Nubian village of Gharb Aswan. What looks like a huge sand dune covering a massive formation of Nubian Sandstone is home to one of the most densely occupied cemeteries of ancient Egypt, dating from c. 2500 BC to Roman Times. The main part of the site holds burials from the Old Kingdom to the New Kingdom.

Top end of the causeway of Khunes (QH 34h). This causeway is the main access route to the 1st terrace and was still open during the 18th C

Top end of the causeway of Khunes (QH 34h). This causeway is the main access route to the 1st terrace and was still open during the 18th Century

While at least the causeway of Khunes leading up to tomb QH 34h and the first terrace was known to the French expedition following Napoleon’s Egyptian military campaign (1798-1801), Qubbet el-Hawa first caught the interest of British archaeologists in 1885 when General Francis Grenfell explored the site. Only 15 years later, Lady Cecil started excavating at the site.

The central part of the necropolis is made of four levels of rock-cut tombs. The first, top layer, located underneath the tomb of Sheikh Ali Abu el-Hawa, consists of a small number of tombs of modest appearance (Lady Cecil tombs) while further below, the quality of the standing rock provided for lavish tombs created by the elite of the 1st Upper Egyptian Nome (1st terrace). Governors of Elephantine who amassed riches through expeditions into and trade with neighbouring Lower Nubia occupied the major part of the central section of the necropolis and were buried within the 1st terrace during the Old Kingdom, 1st Intermediate Period, and the Middle Kingdom, accessible via the causeway of Khunes. As previous scholars such as Labib Habachi (1946-1952) and Elmar Edel (1959 – 1984) exclusively focussed on tombs from the 1st terrace, almost everything that is known today about the site is gained from the publication of these two scholars. In 2008, the number of tombs identified at Qubbet el-Hawa had reached 209.

In 2016, the joint University of Birmingham/ Egypt Exploration Society Qubbet el-Hawa Research Project (QHRP) identified a third level, protected by a retention wall and accessible via a causeway which leads up to the southern extension of this carefully built wall. The discovery of these two monumental buildings lead the QHRP to assume a 2nd terrace of tombs was accessible via this causeway. Attached to the North and East of this causeway, a forth level of tombs was also identified. Covering a large part of what is now called the Lower Necropolis of Qubbet el-Hawa, super structures of currently seven mastaba tombs have been identified. These tombs are accessible by a grid system consisting of narrow roads that once gave access to open tomb courts. According to preliminary studies carried out by a team of ceramologists under the directorship of Eman Khalifa (Cairo University), the 2nd terrace as well as the elaborate infrastructure of the Lower Necropolis date to the 1st Intermediate Period and early Middle Kingdom.

South end of the retention wall of the 2nd terrace. The wall is in line with a causeway.

Left: South end of the retention wall of the 2nd terrace. The wall is in line with a causeway; right: the chief inspector of Aswan, Nasr Salama, with Dr Martin Bommas viewing the retention wall.

Remains of the super structure of tomb 1 in the Lower Necropolis after cleaning in 2015

Remains of the super structure of tomb 1 in the Lower Necropolis after cleaning in 2015

Further to the north and within the northern border of the QHRP’s concession, the causeway of Sarenput I’s tomb (QH 36) was discovered. With a length of 133 meters, Sarenput’s I causeway was built during the early stages of the construction of his tomb and included elaborate decoration in both sunk relief (inside) and raised relief (outside), both found in situ. The headstone which marks the eastern extension of this causeway shows the scene of driving a bull up the causeway to Sarenput’s I tomb. It is the only privately commissioned artwork of the early Middle Kingdom in West Aswan ever found.

Happy faces all around when the eastern extension of the causeway of Sarenput I was discovered. We want to thank Mohamed Abd el-Raziq from

Happy faces all around when the eastern extension of the causeway of Sarenput I was discovered. We want to thank Mohamed Abd el-Raziq from the Aswan Inspectorate for his help and support.

Future research will focus on the clearing of the 2nd terrace, the two causeways found within the concession, as well as the documentation of the causeway of Khunes and the Lower Necropolis. Additional funding will be needed to carry out ground radar surveys in the Lower Necropolis and residue analysis of the contents of complete pots which give us further insights into how the living interacted with the dead at Qubbet el-Hawa. Due to the above average preservation of the archaeology of the site and the lack of illicit activities so far, QHRP faces the unique opportunity to unlock the secrets of how an ancient Egyptian necropolis was actually used and frequented by the living wanting to interact with their deceased relatives and ancestors. Unparalleled in their number, the causeways of Qubbet el-Hawa did not only provide for efficient tomb building and accessibility, but in the long run served as memory lanes for those who engaged with the deceased in a way archaeology, sadly, so often is unable to address.

Members of the EES visiting the excavations in 2016

Members of the EES visiting the excavations in 2016.

Further reading

Bommas, M. 2017. ‘Displaying social mobility during the time of Senwosret I’, Egyptian Archaeology 51, 26-29.

Bommas, M. 2016. ‘Qubbet el-Hawa, 2016’, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 102, 23-40.

Edel, E. 2008. Die Felsgräbernekropole der Qubbet el-Hawa bei Assuan. Wiesbaden

Vischak, D. 2015. Community and Identity in Ancient Egypt. The Old Kingdom Cemetery at Qubbet el-Hawa. Cambridge.