While the pyramids and the sphinx are by far the best-known monuments at Giza, the area also includes an extensive private necropolis, effectively a small town, consisting of mastabas or tombs — featuring decorations and inscriptions — of dignitaries of the IVth dynasty. Regrettably very few of these mastabas are open to visitors. However, in March 2012, the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) announced that the tomb of Meresankh III, closed until then, was safe for a special authorisation permit to be granted, and so to be opened to the public.
This tomb, in the eastern portion of the necropolis, is of considerable historic and artistic interest, and is one of the best preserved on the site.
Meresankh III was the grand-daughter of Kheops (or Khufu) c.2600-2555 BC, and wife of Khephren (or Khafre) c.2548-2522 BC. The nature of this queen's burial illustrates the importance of royal sons and daughters in Egypt in the IVth Dynasty, a period when the Old Kingdom was at its zenith, and a time when craftsmanship in sculpture and painting reached a high level of sophistication.
At this time the cultural evolution of the state and society was much influenced by the rise of the creator sun god Re, who, from then on, would occupy a major place in religion, ethics and the concept of the state in Pharaonic Egypt. As evidence of this, it was in relation to the sons of Kheops that the epithet
"son of Re" first was to made its appearance in royal nomenclature.
Two private necropolises are to be found on the eastern and western sides of the great pyramid of Kheops and the three smaller pyramids of his queens. Each necropolis consists of hundreds of mastabas, arranged in parallel rows, laid out in mastaba streets (see ) and organised in a hierarchical order, emulating the court. These cemeteries were to operate until the end of the Old Kingdom.
The purpose was to create a city for the living ka and so to reproduce the royal entourage in the beyond. The ka of the king, upon leaving his pyramid, was thus able to encounter the kas of his parents, family and of his servants, just as the king did when alive.
The eastern necropolis: this began in the latter part of the reign of Kheops, and took the form of mastabas or decorated tombs. It was essentially intended for members of the royal family, and for very high dignitaries (often being the one and the same in this period). Close to the pyramid there are eight double mastabas for the children of Kheops.
This highly structured cemetery was duly to be extended by means of another cemetery further to the south (GIS south). Following a system introduced by Reisner, the tombs in these necropolises each are designated by a four-digit number preceded by the letter G, the first digit indicating the row.
The men who worked on the pyramid construction sites and on these IVth Dynasty mastaba areas lived on the south side of a massive wall (called "the wall of the ravens") that separated them from the royal necropolis. They had their own cemetery, different from that of the nobles.
The queen's name is sometimes transcribed as Mersyankh, meaning
"the Living One loves her". Nevertheless, the version Meresankh,
"she loves life", is almost universally adopted.
Her father was prince Kawab, eldest son of Kheops by the queen Merytytes I, to whom the mastabas G7110+20 is customarily attributed.
Her mother was Hetepheres II, Her mother was Hetepheres II, a daughter of Kheops, who therefore married her biological brother. Four children of this couple are known: Duaenhor, Kaemsekhem, Mindjedef and Meresankh herself. Kawab should have succeeded Kheops as king, but he predeceased him. Hetepheres II was to become queen by remarriage — to her stepbrother Djedefre, who acceeded to the throne upon the death of Kheops. However, after a reign of only eight years, he died without an heir, and so the throne passed to another son of Kheops, Kephren. The transmission of power seems to have occurred without any difficulty.
Hetepheres II must have been a very important person, to whom her daughter Meresankh probably owed everything, which would explain the allusions to her all over the the chapel of her daughter.
Meresankh III married her uncle Kephren (the biological brother of her father, Kawab) by whom she had several children: these included a daughter named Shepsetkau, and four sons: Noubhotep, Duaenre, Niuserre and Khenterka, some of whom are named in the chapel.
As Meresankh did not give birth to him who was to succeed to the throne, it is difficult to explain why major privileges were accorded to her. For example, she alone of all the royal wives is depicted seated on a throne featuring a lion, which is a royal prerogative. She would proclaim herself
"daughter of the king, of his body, wife of the king" (see ) ; the detail
"of his body" indicates a biological connection, and is added because the title
"daughter of the king" is occasionally, if only rarely, an honorary one.
It seems likely that Meresankh III, at one time or another, might have played some part in the transmission of power, but quite what that might have been is uncertain.
he tomb was discovered on 23 April 1927. In October 1927 Reisner wrote in the "Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Craftsmanships":
"On the very last day of the season, the gangs were clearing the eastern face of the third mastaba in the fifth row from the west, when a doorway was unexpectedly revealed in the rock under the eastern wall of this mastaba. Later we found that two stairways led down from the floor of the street to the level of the doorway, which was about two meters below. Above the doorway were inscribed the titles of a princess and queen named Meresankh. As soon as the debris in the doorway was photographed we cleared away enough of the sand at the top to crawl in; and getting our heads, one at a time, just inside the doorway, we saw a rock-cut offering chapel consisting of three rooms. The entrance to the main room was blocked by a cone of sand and stone, on the top of which we were lying (see ). Our eyes were first startled by the vivid colours of the reliefs and inscriptions around the northern part of this large chamber. None of us had ever seen anything like it."
The tomb is in the seventh row of the eastern cemetery. It consists of a surface mastaba, a stone built chapel and a funerary chamber (see , ). From the graffiti of masons it appears that the chapel was created in the 13th year of the king. While the actual king is not named, this can only be Kephren. The surface mastaba, necessarily of earlier construction, probably dates from years 1 to 5 of the same king (Reisner).
The structure, probably intended for Hetepheres II, was built during the reign of Khephren. It is adjacent to G7520, which effectively extends the mastaba towards the north, virtually making it all into a single unit. It is currently in a state of gross disrepair (as can be seen from the side view opposite; for an overhead view see ). This surface mastaba measures 47.50m north-south and 16.88m east-west. There is no funeral shaft.
Dunham and Simpson also speak of an exterior, stone, chapel, that was unfinished, starting from the south-east corner of the mastaba and extending northward for a minimum length of 14.75m and width of 3.80 m. The comments and plan that they provided are, however, confusing, and it is consequently difficult to form a clear impression of what they wished to describe. A possible explanation for this confusion is that this unfinished chapel has since been destroyed or moved.
It was cut in a second stage, under the mastaba, and decorated, by Hetepheres II, for her daughter Meresankh III, who predeceased her.
This information is known from an inscription added to the existing decoration, and from inscriptions on the sarcophagus. These stipulate that this sarcophagus was given by her mother, Hetepheres II. Hetepheres, herself, never used this funerary complex, Reisner being of the view that she was buried in mastaba G7350.
In the alleyway separating the mastaba of Meresankh from G7650, two staircases had been cut into the base rock, one to the north, the other to the south, leading under the first part of the construction.
It was used at the time of the queen's burial — and probably afterwards, because it remained accessible for a long time — for the placing of offerings, as well as for various ceremonies, notably the ritual of 'Opening of the Mouth', that appeared about this time. Originally the purpose was to give life to a royal or divine statue. This practice would thereafter be applied to everything that could receive a divine presence, thus also including deceased people. In the Old Kingdom, the ritual was performed on effigies of the deceased rather than directly on the mummy in its coffin, as would be the case in the New Kingdom. This might explain the considerable quantity of statuary in the chapel.
This chapel is one of the better preserved, and certainly one of the most beautiful, in the necropolis of Giza. The technical achievement, and talent, of the sculptors and painters displays a high level of mastery. Moreover, and very rarely, two of the actual craftsmen are named in the monument.
The positioning of the chapel in relation to the overlying mastaba is unique. Normally chapels are found on the same level as the mastaba, whether on the exterior face or included within the stonework.
There are sixteen statues — an unusually large number — built into the walls. Among these, ten statues of women on the north wall reveal the importance granted to women of the royal family.
The iconographic program evident in the chapel is for the most part unprecedented (as far as it known). It was to inspire generations that followed. Some scenes were to become classics, and were to appear prominently in the decorative programs of many later Egyptian funerary monuments, right up to the Ptolemaic period.
The chapel itself (G7530sub), with its three chambers and funerary chamber, will be described in full in the following pages.
Access to the chapel and burial chamber of Meresankh III is obtained from a small open courtyard, dimensions 3.0 x 2.4m, situated 2.0m below the street level of tombs in the G7500 series (see south view, and north view).It is reached by steps leading down to it from the south and north. The well-preserved southern staircase consists of four slightly sloping steps (see ). The northern staircase descends from a higher level and has about twenty steps (see ).
At the southern extremity of this courtyard (see ) part of a rectangular compartment still exists; this might have been a serdab that contained the beautiful statuette of Hetepheres and Meresankh (for more on this, see page 4). At the northern end of the courtyard there is a small alcove-like area. The end wall of this features a false door (see and ).
On each side of the entry facade and doorway to the chapel there are two monolithic upright limestone pillars, projecting forwards from the upright surface of the main outer wall. These were created to support a lintel, now no longer present. These pillars, together with the now lost lintel, framed the main doorway (slightly inset). They are the only elements of the chapel not to have been carved directly in the rock.
A protective stone covering, taking the place of the vanished lintel, today overhangs the entrance, and a modern security portal has also been added. As a consequence it is now impossible to obtain photographs of the inscriptions on the facade, and accordingly it is necessary to refer to an old photo made by Reisner (see ).
(See and .) The entrance facade slopes backwards, an effect that becomes very evident in profile. A singularly unusual feature is that the inscriptions on both sides of the entrance consist only of the dates of the death and funeral of Meresankh.
"Daughter of the king, Meresankh, year 1,1st of Shemu (i.e. 1st day of the summer season)
, day 21, going to rest with her ka, going to purification" The queen has therefore died, and has been taken into the building of embalming.
"Wife of the King, Meresankh, year after 1,2nd of Peret (i.e. year 2,2nd day of the winter season)
, day 18, her arrival at her beautiful tomb".
The time that elapsed between the date of her death and that of her burial is thus 273 or 274 days, clearly longer than the supposed seventy days traditionally allocated to mummification. Another curious point is this: Reisner places these dates in years 1 and 2 of the reign of Shepseskaf (the last king of the IVth Dynasty, approx. 2503 - 2498 BCE) ; Derry on the other hand, basing his view of the period on evidence of the skeleton, holds that the king in question was Mykerinos (father of Shepseskaf). In either case, both are at the end of the IVth Dynasty.
"The beholder of Horus and Seth, the great favourite of the Two Mistresses (Nebty)
, the follower of Horus, great of favour, the beloved of Thoth and Horus, his companion, daughter of the king, of his body, wife of the king, Meresankh.".
The Nebty - or the Two Mistresses - relates to the two tutelary goddesses of Lower and Upper Egypt, respectively the goddess Wadjet, with the cobra head, of Buto in the Delta, and the goddess Nekhbet, with the vulture head, of Nekheb (el Kab). The reference is therefore about paying homage to the one who unifies the two lands under his authority.
The title "The one who sees Horus-Seth", or "Horus and Seth" is regularly borne by the queens of the IVth to VIth Dynasties , who thus considered their spouse as the one who united and reconciled the antagonists in the Two Lands (Upper and Lower Egypt). As is the case here, this title is for the most part associated with a Horian reference, to mark the dominance of Horus over Seth. As Gauthier summarised it:
"To see the king, meant to be admitted, without witness, to contemplate his beauty and to adore his divinity in intimacy, which was a unique privilege, reserved to only the wife of the Pharaoh-god, to the queen".
The entrance is about 1.65m long. In width it is 0.85m at first, enlarging after the drum to 1.30m, so as to include the wooden access door.
The doorway drum is meant to represent a rolled-up curtain, the purpose of which was to close off openings into the houses of the living. The text inscribed on it states:
"The one who sees Horus and Seth, the great favourite, the royal wife, Meresankh".
Situated to the right of the entry there is a panel divided in two parts: at the top there is Anubis, and below, the queen. Both are facing to the east, out of the mastaba. Because of the nature of the underlying rock, the panel was plastered, with the actual decoration being incised into plaster.
The god Anubis is represented in the form of a crouching canine, his long tail descending behind the image of Meresankh. Around his neck he has a piece of cloth as if he is wearing a scarf. Above and below Anubis is the following text:
"An offering which the king gives, and Anubis, foremost of the divine booth, to a spirit who is noble in sight of the great god, lord of the desert". This final epithet denotes Anubis himself.
She is designated as
"The beholder of Horus and Seth, daughter of the king, greatly praised, wife of the king, Meresankh". She is wearing a large tripartite wig as well as a tight-fitting dress with supporting straps, but no jewellery. Her right hand hangs loosely by her side, while her left she is holding across her chest.
In front of her the
"funerary priest, Rery" is guiding a hyena forward (see ). It is perplexing to consider what use the Egyptians might have made of such a smelly animal as a hyena, particularly because it is hard to imagine they might have ever eaten any of it. Beneath the hyena scene a man is shown pulling a male oryx (see ).
Behind the image of the queen are two women, positioned one above the other. The upper one is balancing a chest on her head. The lower is advancing, holding in one hand a large fan or sunshade, which she has laid on her shoulder; and in the other she has what may be a smaller fan (see ).
As with the wall opposite, the south door-jamb panel is also divided into two. Once again, Meresankh and Anubis are facing out of the mastaba, towards the east
In the upper scene Anubis is shown in exactly the same way as in the first image (see ). Accompanying this image of Anubis is the text:
"An offering which the king gives, and Anubis, he who is in the west, the Lord of the Sacred Land (
Ta-Djeser = the necropolis)
, to the spirit who is noble in the sight of the great god, lord of the Sacred Land."
In this second portrayal, Meresankh is shown with wig and dress the same as before, except this time she is has a choker around her neck as well as a necklace on her chest. In a delicate gesture she is holding the stem of an open lotus flower, the symbol of rebirth, before her nostrils, breathing in the fragrance. She is identified as
"The beholder of Horus and Seth, the great favourite, the companion of Horus, beloved of him, the follower of Horus, wife of the king, daughter of the king, Mersyankh".
Behind her a woman is standing: in one hand she is holding a bird while with the the other she is balancing a chest on her head. Beneath her a second woman is advancing: she is also one-handedly balancing a chest, but this time on her shoulder, while in her other hand she is holding a curious object, possibly a fan.
Standing in front of Meresankh is an official (see ), identified by the column of text behind him as:
"The royal purification priest, honoured before his Lord, Khemet[nu]". He is clad in a loincloth, and has a short wig. In his hands he is holding out before him what may be an unscrolled papyrus (more likely this than a board, in spite of the rigidity of the representation). The text in front of him states:
"Presenting the document of the funerary-priest for inspection, by the overseer of funerary priests, Khemetnu". This papyrus depiction is one of the first known scenes of this type. In the rare cases where a papyrus might includes an enumeration of items, such a list might consist of a catalogue of invocatory offerings, or a list of redistributed offerings, of perfumes, of the service records of the funeral priests, a register of funeral property, a census of livestock, etc.
Thus, right from the point of entry into the mastaba, the visitor, the officiating priest and the deceased queen can be assured that the funerary service has been, is and will continue to be, carried out in perpetuity.