Travels in an antique land: The rock-cut tombs of El-Hawawish

The interior of M43, the Tomb of Hem-Min at Akhmim.

In November 2022, I spent a week at the very congenial Flower of Life guesthouse in Abydos with a travel companion from the UK. We had planned to explore the immediate area, with the addition of a side trip to the Sohag National Museum. So several visits to the wonderful temples of Sety I and Ramesses II, a glance down into the intriguing Osirion, and a meander around the lesser visited sites of Kom el-Sultan and Shunet el-Zebib were all on our hit list, along with a few hours in the ‘Rituals of Pilgrimage’ gallery at the museum. Not long after our arrival in Abydos, Ameer – the charming host of the guesthouse – suggested adding the rock-cut tombs at El-Hawawish to the itinerary. The tombs were part of the ancient necropolis of Akhmim, and had only recently opened to the public. It would also be an opportunity to revisit the colossal statues of Meritamun and Ramesses II that are located nearby. I quickly arranged for a local driver to take us to both sites, and a couple of days later Abdullah turned up – barely out of his teens, beaming, and wearing flip-flops – to drive us in his vintage Peugeot. It was a classic start to what was a momentous day.

The colossi of Ramesses IIand his daughter Meritamun in the open-air museum at Akhmim.

As readers will probably be aware, travelling around Middle Egypt often comes with extra security in the form of police escorts, and the journey from Abydos to Akhmim was no exception. For security reasons, our journey was monitored and logged, and we were escorted from the boundary of Abydos village and back again. While staying at the guesthouse within the village itself, we had been allowed to walk around freely, and had met the chief security guard at the checkpoint located by the entrance to the Temple of Sety I. As we left the village, he asked us where we were heading, and told Abdullah to pull over while he made a few phone calls to his colleagues between Abydos and Akhmim. A few minutes later, he cheerfully waved us off. We had no police escort for the first part of our trip, but we were given one at the next checkpoint in El-Balyana, and we were handed over from team to team from there onwards. Without exception, each group of armed police was polite and friendly. Most travelled in their own vehicle ahead of us, and once or twice we were joined by an officer who squeezed into the back seat of our car. Once we had to stop at a roadside falafel stall, as the chief officer was hungry. He was so apologetic that he even offered to buy us a sandwich to say sorry for the delay!

The new Visitor Centre and car park at El-Hawawish was officially opened in early 2021.
The spectacular view from the top of the steps leading up to the tombs. 

The modern town of Akhmim is about 50 km north of Abydos, and the journey time is around two hours, including the time taken to change security escorts. In ancient times, Akhmim was called Ipu and was the capital of the ninth nome of Upper Egypt. It was a place of worship to the ithyphallic god Min, and a centre for weaving, as it still is today. The wealthy, but non-royal, family of Queen Tiye of the Eighteenth Dynasty are believed to have come from Akhmim, and archaeologists working in the area have made many discoveries linked to Ramesses II over the past 50 years. There is now good evidence to suggest that there was a very large temple built here during his reign. The only parts of that temple that can currently be visited by the general public are the two raised colossi of the king and his daughter (and Great Royal Wife) Meritamun, located in their own open-air museum.

The single-room tomb chapel of Nehwet-Desher (G95).

One of the cemeteries for Ipu during both the Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period was located nearby in the mountains outside El-Hawawish. The hillside necropolis of rock-cut tombs is about a 5 km drive north-east from Akhmim on relatively new tar roads. The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (MOTA) has invested hugely in the area during the past five years, and access to the site is both comfortable and easy. The new car park and Visitor Centre are large, well maintained, and clearly set up for receiving large groups of visitors. While the café was not fully operational, we were offered hot and cold drinks by the site manager if we wanted them. I am sure that he would have also provided some food had we asked for it. The toilet block was clean and in good working order, with soap and paper available. The interpretation centre was a simple single-room arrangement, with half a dozen illustrated and easy-to-read information panels in both Arabic and English. The site was inaugurated and officially opened in February 2021, with the total cost of the whole project apparently reaching LE9 million (9 million Egyptian pounds). At the time of visiting, the price of an adult ticket for foreign visitors was LE60.

A detail of a scene showing Isi, the wife of Nehwet-Desher.

Once through the Visitor Centre, we were confronted with a challenge that I had not really anticipated: steps! A large number of stone steps snaked their way up the side of the mountain to the tombs. The steps are in relatively easy-to-manage sections, with plenty of new benches along the way, but if your mobility is limited, or you have difficulty walking up/down steps, then a visit to El-Hawawish might not be for you. We were told by the elderly site guardian (who sprinted nimbly up and down like a mountain gazelle) that there were over a thousand steps in total. However, a huge bonus of the climb was the incredible view from the top. Looking down on to the local landscape and the glistening waters of the Nile in the near distance was a truly magical and memorable experience.

The exterior of Tomb M22, belonging to Hesi-Min.
The false door visible inside the Tomb of Hem-Min (M43).

In the necropolis there are more than 800 tombs from the Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period, cut deeply into the rock, of which around 60 have interior painted decoration. Five of the Old Kingdom tombs are now open to the public for the very first time. The site was originally excavated from 1979 onwards by an Australian expedition working under the direction of Professor Naguib Kanawati, who published the tombs in ten volumes from 1980 to 1992. We were able to visit all five open tombs. Each tomb was slightly different, and the condition of the painted decoration inside varied considerably. None of the tombs was spectacular in comparison to, say, the Old Kingdom rock-cut tombs at Saqqara, but they were all very interesting.

Offering-bearers in tomb M43, with the baskets on their heads very finely depicted.

The first tomb we entered was G95, owned by Nehwet-Desher (aka Meri), who was a Sole Companion to Pepy II of the Sixth Dynasty. He held numerous other titles, including Overseer of Priests, Treasurer of the King of Lower Egypt, and Attendant of Min. The wall decoration in the simple single-room chapel was very fragmented, but here and there it was possible to pick out small details of some very fine brush strokes. I was particularly taken with the detail of the ear of Isi, the wife of Nehwet-Desher.

A cleaning programme is under way in H24, the Tomb of Shepsi-Pu-Min.

The slightly older tomb M22 (Hesi-Min) was in a similar condition. Hesi-Min was an Overseer of Works and a priest of Min, possibly during the reign of Djedkara of the Fifth Dynasty. His L-shaped tomb chapel had several sets of scaffolding inside during our visit, which made it very difficult to photograph any of the wall scenes.

A depiction of Shepsi-Pu-Min (aka Kheni), wearing an elaborate collar.

M43 is a large tomb, possibly reflecting the status of the tomb owner, Hem-Min. He was Overseer of Upper Egypt and a Priest of Ma’at during the reign of Teti of the Sixth Dynasty. In the main chapel (shown in the photograph on p.52), there are the remains of six square columns, several of which have been carefully reconstructed. There are a couple of empty niches set into the walls, a false door, and some painted wall scenes of the owner of the tomb fishing in a pond, birds flying out of the reeds and marshes, and a large group of offering-bearers of both genders.

The condition of the scenes is once again fairly fragmentary – there is the added problem of bats living in the tomb – but there are flashes of extraordinary detail that show how beautiful the tomb must have been. The weave pattern on the baskets held aloft by one or two of the offering-bearers was so fine that you could almost imagine the real baskets being there in front of you.

The last two tombs belonged to a father and son from the reign of Pepy II of the Sixth Dynasty. Shepsi-Pu-Min (aka Kheni), owner of Tomb H24, was the eldest son of Theti-Iker (aka Ka-Hep), owner of H26, and held many titles including Overseer of Upper Egypt, Treasurer of the King of Lower Egypt, Sem Priest, and Sole Companion of the King. The walls and ceilings of his tomb were all rather dark, and looked as if they had been badly damaged by soot and bat droppings. It was difficult to see much, but it was possible to pick out several depictions of the tomb’s owner wearing quite elaborate collars, as well as cattle-herders, butchers, offering-bearers, boats, and a very damaged false door. Again there was scaffolding in the tomb with some cleaning items, which suggested that a much-needed cleaning programme is currently under way.

A boat depicted on a wall in Theti-Iker’s tomb (H26).

The tomb of Shepsi-Pu-Min’s father, Theti-Iker, had the best-preserved wall scenes of all the open tombs. There were classic pastoral scenes of farming, hunting, and fishing; a few scenes of butchery; and further scenes of artisans making funerary items, which were shown being transported by boat to the funeral. There were dancers and musicians and family members, including a touching scene of Theti-Iker’s wife kneeling and holding a lotus to her face. This was my favourite tomb of the whole visit.

The wife of Theti-Iker (H26).

Although the condition of the paintwork in all of the open tombs at El-Hawawish is not superb, their spectacular location more than makes up for that, and a visit to the site can be most rewarding if you have the energy to climb the many steps to the top. Visitors are still few and far between – ticket numbers on the day we visited were only in double figures – although I see that the site has begun to be included on itineraries for some of the specialist tour companies. If you are spending time in Middle Egypt, the tombs of El-Hawawish are definitely worth a few hours of your time.

Karl Harris, a freelance consultant to the heritage education sector, makes frequent visits to Egypt as an independent traveller, and is a regular contributor to Out and About in AE magazine.

All images: Karl Harris