The Second Intermediate Period (c.1650-1550 BC) belongs to the darkest of ancient Egyptian history. Around 50 kings ruled parts of Egypt. The succession of these kings and their realms of power often remain unknown or a matter of guesswork. Kings are often only attested by a small number of monuments, most often just providing us with the king’s name. However, in contrast to the meagre evidence for single kings, there are quite a high number of private stelae dating to this period. Most of them come from Upper Egypt, from Abydos, Thebes, Gebelein and Edfu. Some of them have biographical inscriptions, providing us with glimpses into the life of people in this obscure period.
Horemkhauef is one of the best-known people of the Second Intermediate Period, thanks to the discovery of a stela inscribed with a short biographical text that he set up to record a particularly important event in his life. In the 1930s, the Metropolitan Museum of New York conducted brief excavations at Nekhen (better known in modern times as Hierakonpolis), a site mainly famous for its Predynastic and Early Dynastic remains. However, because of its Horus temple, the site remained important throughout the Old and Middle Kingdom and beyond, although perhaps operating on a smaller scale. In 1934/35, the Tomb of Horemkhauef was exavated. It consisted mainly of a small decorated chapel containing the biographical stela (now in New York, MMA 35.7.55).
From the style and the text of the stela, it is clear that Horemkhauef (‘Horus is his protection’) lived in the Second Intermediate Period (c.1650-1550 BC), although it seems impossible to provide a more precise date. His small tomb chapel is highly unusual. Only a very few decorated rock-cut tombs from the Second Intermediate Period are known to us. Such tombs were common in the early Middle Kingdom, but are rare after the reign of Senusret III (c.1874-1855 BC). Indeed, the highest number of decorated rock-cut tombs dating to this period is found at Elkab, on the opposite side of the Nile. Directly facing each other, Elkab and Hierakonpolis formed twin cities, where the local ruling class continued to build these decorated tombs at a time when it was not common in other parts of the country.
Horemkhauef was ‘First Inspector of the Priests’ and ‘Overseer of the Fields’. The fields he supervised were probably attached to the Temple of Horus at Nekhen. There are not many priests known from this temple from the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period. Horemkhauef appears to be the main person in charge of the temple, so could be considered the high priest there. His father was Djehuty (or Thoth), who was ‘First Inspector of Priests’ too. His mother, Tjet, held the title ‘King’s Ornament’, a common title for women in this period. His wife, who held the same title, was called Sobeknakht (‘Sobek is strong’), which is typically a name used by men, but in the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period it was not unusual to provide women with a male name.
On his tomb stela, Horemkhauef records an important event in his life. He tells us the local god Horus told him to travel to the city of Itj-tawy in the North to receive an image of Horus and Isis in the presence of the king. The Temple of Horus at Hierakonpolis was evidently in need of new cult images. It seems that there were no well-trained artists in the province who could create such images. It is also possible that only certain religious institutions at the royal capital were allowed to produce an image of a god. Creating the image of a deity was not only an art or craft; the process required priests to carry out the rituals needed to make the statue become a real image of a god. One example of such a ritual is the ‘Opening of the Mouth’, performed in front of statues to bring them to life. Only priests with special ritual knowledge could perform this. Those priests might only have operated at the royal capital, and Itj-tawy was the capital of Egypt at this time, founded under Amenemhat I at the beginning of the Twelfth Dynasty. The location of the city is not known for sure, but it might be in the region of the modern village of Lisht, near to the pyramids of Amenemhat I and Senusret I, the first two kings of the dynasty, and the huge cemeteries of the Middle Kingdom with many burials belonging to people of the highest social status.
In the Second Intermediate Period, Egypt was divided into two kingdoms. There were the Hyksos kings in the North (the Fifteenth Dynasty), with their capital at Avaris close to the border with Sinai, and therefore close to the trade routes to Palestine and Syria. The area of the Delta ruled by the Hyksos was very much a Levantine kingdom, with many people from the region living in the Delta region of Egypt during this period. At the same time, Egyptian kings, known as the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Dynasties, ruled from Thebes. The extent of their kingdom is not known for sure, but we might assume that they ruled most parts of Upper Egypt. It is unknown what happened to Itj-tawy in this period. The city is no longer mentioned in New Kingdom sources, so appears to have lost importance at some point, although exactly when is not yet known for sure. Evidently, at the time when Horemkhauef was in charge at Hierakonpolis, Itj-tawy was still an important place, with a king ruling from there.
Horemkhauef’s tomb chapel is small, but it is one the very few decorated rock-cut tomb chapels of the period. Horemkhauef clearly had resources for such an important monument. Unusual for Egyptian artworks, the painters of the tomb are known by name. These are the ‘Draughtsmen’ Ahmose and Sedjemnetjeru (‘who listen to the gods’ or ‘servant of the god’); both are shown in the tomb decoration. Sedjemnetjeru is known from two other tombs at Elkab as well, including that of the governor Sobeknakht (who is not named on Horemkhaeuf’s stela, but can be dated by family ties to sometime during the Second Intermediate Period). It is evident that Sedjemnetjeru was the man in charge of decorating several tombs in Hierakonpolis and Elkab, and he is one the few ancient Egyptian artists known by name whose work is fairly well substantiated from more than one object. He bears the title ‘Draughtsman’ but also ‘Great One of the Tens of Upper Egypt’. The latter title is well attested in the late Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period, and seems to indicate a highly prestigious social status, although researchers are still discussing the meaning of this term.
The paintings are today not well-preserved, although the ceiling retains much of its colour. Old photos from the beginning of the 20th century show that they were in a much better condition at that time. There are several subjects shown. One main scene depicts Horemkhauef, represented as the tallest person with a slightly smaller man behind him, standing in front of a row of granaries, each with a painted number that perhaps indicates the volume of grain each could hold. Horemkhauef was also ‘Overseer of the Fields’, therefore the scene relates to his working life. Taking the evidence altogether, the scene is perhaps an idealised image of working on the fields.
Another scene shows a desert hunt, and is of special importance. It shows a gazelle caught in a trap. The animal has one end of a rope attached to its leg, while the other end is attached to a large stone to ensure that the animal cannot escape. The man shown on the left is coming to collect his booty. Such rope-and-stone animal traps are well known from rock art in the Egyptian desert, but are not normally shown in Egyptian tombs. In tomb scenes, the main focus is the owner of the tomb standing and shooting at desert animals with a bow and arrow, clearly showing the deceased as young, strong, and proud.
In Horemkhauef’s tomb, the desert scene appears to be taken from the real working life of desert hunters. We might see this unique scene as testament to the ability of the painter Sedjemnetjeru as well. He was certainly able to create something new, something not seen before in the canon of Egyptian conventional art.
Wolfram Grajetzki is Honorary Senior Research Associate at University College London/University of Pisa, a regular contributor to AE and the author of several books on ancient Egyptian administration and burial customs. His previous articles include the rise and fall of the office of Chancellor (AE 126). He also manages Golden House Publications, whose range of Egyptology books includes the Middle Kingdom Studies series.
W V Davies (2001) ‘The dynastic tombs at Hierakonpolis: the lower group and the artist Sedjemnetjeru’, in W V Davies (ed.) Colour and Painting in Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum Press), pp.119-120.
M Gallinaro and S di Lernia (2018) ‘Trapping or tethering stones (TS): a multifunctional device in the Pastoral Neolithic of the Sahara’, PLoS ONE 13(1): e0191765, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0191765.
W C Hayes (1947) ‘H·oremkha‘uef of Nekhen and his trip to It¯-Towe’, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 33: 3-11.