Abydos Royal Enclosures, West of Kom es-Sultan
(Talbezirke, Funerary enclosures, Open Courts)

(Francesco Raffaele)

See detailed map of Cemetery  BSee image below (orientated to the North)


Click on the hot-spots (1, 2)
(Plan from Digital Egypt website)

Shunet ez ZebibEarly Dynastic Funerary Boats

1 - Shunet ez-Zebib (Khasekhemwy)
2 - Mudbrick lined royal boats (12)
3 - Western Mastaba (Adjib or Semerkhet ?)
4 - Merneith (or Den ?) enclosure
5 - Middle Fort (Peribsen)
6 - Djer enclosure (only the row of subsidiary burials is shown here)
7 - Djet enclosure (only parts of the two rows of subsidiary burials are shown in this picture)
8 - Deir Sitt Damiana enclosure (incorporated in the omonymous village; Qa'a ?)


The Early Dynastic Royal Enclosures - Some notes

A) the general location and orientation
the shape and conformation (architectural features like niches pattern, entrances, flat perimetral bench, subsidiary tombs, central mound, other inner/outer buildings, boats)
the finds
    C1- relief decorations and inscriptions (on door-jambs and other architectural elements of the Hierakonpolis 'Fort')
    C2- other finds of ritual/funerary/cultual/ relevance, eventual offerings, caches, deposits, vessels, pottery...
    C3- mud seal impressions and other inscriptions on/for storage commodities
D) Possible references to these monuments in contemporary (year-labels, sealings, stone vessels) or later inscriptions and representations (Annals, Pyramid texts, Myths, rituals, Heb Sed reliefs)
functional and structural similarities with earlier, contemporary and later monuments
F) main purpose of the enclosures

The site of the royal 'funerary' enclosures is located West of Kom es-Sultan/ Khentyamentiw temple, in the low desert of Abydos North, more than 1,5 Km north of the Early Dynastic royal cemetery of Umm el-Qaab.
It consists of seven enclosures of which only the Shunet ez-Zebib (Khasekhemwy's one, double walled and with some portions of the main -inner- wall still standing at more than 10 m in height) and the Deir Sitt Damiana (incorporated in the wall of the village and of the coptic deir; perhaps dated to Qa'a) are still visible, owing to the more massive thickness of their walls.
The main group of enclosures forms two rows of 3 rectangular monuments each, roughly with the same NW orientation of the main axis.
In the southern row, from SW to NE: Shunet ez-Zebib, Western Mastaba, Merneith's enclosure.
In the northern row, SW to NE: Middle Fort (Peribsen), Djer and Djet enclosures.
North of this group, somewhat detached, the Deir Sitt Damiana wall is oriented of some more degrees West than the six southern enclosures.

There would be many more aspects to be discussed, but this is not the proper constest; I can only hint at three main points:
1) the possible relationship of the site of the enclosures with the early temple of Khentyamentyw and, possibly, with the Early Dynastic settlement of Abydos / This (cf. Kemp, in: MDAIK 23, 1968; id., in: Antiquity 51, 1977). Perhaps this reflected a northward shift of the urban center from the site of the early and middle Naqada town, which would lie nearer to the site of the Cemetery U, B and the Umm el-Qaab (?).
2) the practical and symbolical function of the walls in early towns (B. Williams, Security and the problem of the city in the Naqada period, in: P.Silverman, ed., 'For his Ka - Essays in memory of K.Baer' 1994, 271-83) and especially in "preformal" temples and royal funerary monuments (A. Jimenez-Serrano, Royal Festivals..., 2002, with bibliography).
3) the possibility that the tradition of this monuments might have been much earlier than the reign of Djer (as D. O'Connor, G. Dreyer and S. Hendrickx have proposed in recent years). Perhaps already in Naqada IIIA such structures were built, yet probably they were paliçades of perishable materials which have left no trace.

B) It has been often stressed the similarity of the plan of these enclosures with the hieroglyph Gardiner O6 (Hwt; cf. P. Spencer, The Egyptian temple, 1984, 22-23, 43).
Early excavations (Ayrton and Peet) concentrated on the monuments of Khasekhemwy and Peribsen: their main entrance is in the S part of the E side, but a minor one also opens in the N (precisely NE) corner. Later, F. Petrie (in 1922) evidenced the layout of subsidiary tombs around the four eastern enclosures, but apart from some later walls ('Mastaba') and burials in Merneith's monument and MK chapels beside a late First Dynasty brick shrine W of Djer's one, he failed to find the courses of the walls. Petrie published the objects from the "tombs of the courtiers" (1925) and he found some evidence of the practice of ritual human sacrifices in some of the pits around Djer and Merneith. Djet's enclosure showed traces of a double line of surrounding tombs.

A very important archaeological activity has been carried out by Yale/Pennsylvanya Universities under the direction of D. O'Connor from mid 1980s to mid 1990s. The sondages have evidenced the lower courses of Djer enclosure wall, with a flat bench at its base (as those found by Emery in the North Saqqara tombs S3504-7, early/mid first dynasty) perhaps also to be adhorned with clay bulls' heads provided with true horns.
Thus even the early 1st Dynasty enclosures were already furnished of a mudbrick wall, and not of perishable material paliçades as supposed by Kaiser. Djer's enclosure parallels his Umm el-Qaab tomb (O) as far as number of slain retainers: during his reign they exceed 500, while the practice rapidly contracts in the middle-late 1st Dynasty, to be completely abandoned after the last king, Qa'a.
Also the N entrance to Peribsen's enclosure has been cleared, similar to the same one in the Shunet.
Some of the earlier enclosures had blocked entrances; a similar feature was observed by Emery at N Saqqara (Sekhemkasedj's S3504, Nebitka's S3038): he thought that these were temporary accesses to ease the works and provisions of burial chamber and magazines.
Such a feature observed in the enclosures, could have a relevant meaning with regards to the purpose of these structures. Khasekhemwy's "Fort" at Hierakonpolis had yielded traces of building and pillars (granite) within itself, and Lansing had also found architectural decorative elements, namely granite jambs with foundation and other ceremonial scenes (see Alexanian 1998); on the contrary the same king's Abydene monument had, until recently, failed to reveal inner structures.
O'Connor's team found traces of a flat mudbrick coated mound in the Shunet ez-Zebib, which appeared to precisely parallel the position of the M1 initial mastaba of the Djoser complex at Saqqara at the time of the original layout of the funerary complex. This fact enlightened a clear pattern of development of the royal funerary monuments in the Early Dynastic period, finally leading to the IIIrd Dyn Step pyramid complexes and also demonstrating the ideological link of the mastaba and pyramids remounting to the concept of the (mythical) primeval mound.
Another important discovery by David O'Connor was the fleet of 14 boats found out of the E side of the Shunet ez-Zebib (yet probably earlier in date than it). These were housed in mudbrick casing (white washed) and probably poles/ pennants were inserted in this casing; a boulder perhaps symbolized their anchors. The length of the structures varied from nearly 20 to 27m. In one of the boats seal impressions were found (no royal name, but Early First Dynasty in style) which haven't been published yet.


Ivory comb of Djet, from his enclosure in Abydos North (subsidiary burial n. 445; Petrie, 1925, pl. II,6)

General bibliography

BOOKS (reports):

- Ayrton - Currelly - Loat, Abydos, Part III, London, 1904
- T.E. Peet, The cemeteries of Abydos II, London, 1914
- W.M.F. Petrie, Tomb of the Courtiers and Oxyrhynkhos, BSAE, London, 1925 (this is now available on-line at Abzu/Etana: in pdf format)


- B.J.Kemp, Abydos and the Royal Tombs of the First Dynasty, in: JEA 52, 1966, 13-22
- J.P. Lauer: Murs à redans encadrés par les "tombs of courtiers" et "forts" d'Abydos, in: MDAIK 25, 1969, 79-84
- W. Kaiser: Zu den koniglichen Talbezirken der 1. und 2. Dynastie in Abydos und zur Baugeschichte des Djoser Grabmals, in: MDAIK 25, 1969, 1-21
- W. Helck: Zu den "Talbezirken" in Abydos, in: MDAIK 28, 1972, 95-99
- W. Kaiser - G. Dreyer: Umm el-Qaab. Nachuntersuchungen im frühzeitlichen Königsfriedhof. 2., in: MDAIK 38, 1982, 211-269
- D. O'Connor: The Earliest Pharaohs and the University Museum, in: Expedition 29:1, 1987, 27ff. (esp. p. 35-39)
- D. O'Connor: New Funerary Enclosures (Talbezirke) of the Early Dynastic Period at Abydos, in: JARCE 26, 1989, 51-86
- D. O'Connor: Boat Graves and Pyramid Origins, in: Expedition 33:3, 1991, 5-17
- D. O'Connor: The Earliest Royal Boat Graves, in. E.A. 6, 1995, 3-7
- D. O'Connor: Abydos, Early Dynastic funerary enclosures, in: K. Bard (ed.), Encyclopedia of the archaeology of Ancient Egypt, 1999, 93-95
- D. Sharp: Funerary Enclosures. Early Dynastic "Forts" Reexamined, in: KMT 12/1, 2001, 60-72

Summary of theories:

T.A.H. Wilkinson, Early Dynastic Egypt, London/New York 1999 (2001 2nd ed) p. 238-240, 243-246 (Saqqara, Abydos and Hierakonpolis encl.).
M. Lehner, The Complete Pyramids, 1997, 77.
R. Stadelmann, Die Ägyptischen Pyramiden, 1997, 13, 26ff.
A. Jiménez-Serrano, Royal Festivals in the Late Predynastic Period and the First Dynasty, Oxford 2002, 31ff. (Review in March 2003)

Other Royal Enclosures:

For the Hierakonpolis "Fort"and related bibliography also see and the issues of Nekhen News 11, 1999, 14 and 12, 2000, 20f. available on-line in the same website on Hierakonpolis (in Adobe Acrobat-PDF format).
For the decorations of the Hierakonpolis monument: N. Alexanian: Die reliefdekoration des Chasechemui aus dem sogennante Fort in Hierakonpolis, in: N. Grimal (ed.) ‘Les criteres de datation stylistiques a l’Ancien Empire’, 1-21, Cairo 1998.

For the West Saqqara (stone masonry) enclosures see: Saqqara (with large bibliography) and/or the Second Dynasty page introduction.
Also cf. Joris van Wetering, The Royal Cemetery of the Early Dynastic Period at Saqqara and the Second Dynasty Royal Tombs, in: in K.M. Cialowicz, M. Chlodnicki, S. Hendrickx & R. Friedman (eds.) Proceedings of the 'Origins of the State. Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt', held at Krakow Aug-Sept 2002. Krakow, in press (see the abstract of paper HERE); id., internet pages in preparation at

Francesco Raffaele (March, 4-7, 2003)