Twenty Years of Research in the Cenotaph of Harwa (TT 37)


  • General view of Deir el Bahri. Photo by Sandro Vannini


The Assasif necropolis stretches from the mortuary temple of Mentuhotep II to the cultivation in the West Bank of Thebes (modern Luxor). It comprises tombs dating from the Middle and New Kingdoms - the most impressive being that of Kheruef (reign of Amenhotep III) - but it was mainly used as a burial place by the highest ranks of the Theban administration during the 25th and 26th Dynasties.

Harwa, the Chief Steward of the Divine Wife, Amenirdis I, who lived at the beginning of the 7th Century BC decided to be buried in the Assasif necropolis, initiating a burial custom that lasted for about two centuries. Harwa’s pre-eminence was recognised by his successors who not only took inspiration for their funerary monuments from his, but also wanted to have their tombs around Harwa’s.

There are eight statues of Harwa located in museums in Egypt (Aswan and Cairo) and Europe (Berlin, Paris, and London). The most realistic depict an aging bald man with a large, round face, almond-shaped eyes and a thin-lipped mouth. The body is corpulent, demonstrating consolidated wealth.

In spite of these monumental remains, relatively little is known about the life of Harwa. He was born from Padimut, son of Ankhefenamon, a secondary priest of Amun, whose wife was a lady named Nestaureret. The excavations of his cenotaph indicate that Harwa had a brother, three sons and a namesake nephew. A coffin held in the Archaeological Museum of Padua belonged to a lady who must have been his daughter and whose name is Merytamun.

The Cenotaph of Harwa was left unfinished and the northern part of the corridor that surrounds the subterranean part was used by his successor Akhamunru for his own tomb.

The scientific exploration of the Cenotaph of Harwa began in 1995 under the aegis of the Civiche Raccolte Archeologiche of Milan and has been continued by the Missione Archeologica Italiana a Luxor (Italian Archaeological Mission to Luxor; MAIL) since 2002. These twenty years of work have produced several important results.

The Path of Harwa

One of the earliest discoveries was that the Cenotaph of Harwa was laid out to illustrate an ideal pathway which seemed, at least initially, to describe human destiny from life to eternal rebirth in the Netherworld. In 2009, the identification and translation of further texts led to a change in that assumption and established that what we had come to call “the Path of Harwa” actually continued further.

After having spent an imprecise amount of time in the Netherworld, the deceased was assumed to reach the stars and eventually exit the cenotaph to enjoy resurrection on earth. The final step of the journey led to a transfiguration into a winged creature enjoying a new life of riches and offerings.

The Path of Harwa shed a new light on the Egyptian beliefs about human destiny in the afterlife. It is normally assumed that Egyptians imagined the afterlife as a continuation of existence after death and that the deceased spent all eternity in mundane activities or in contemplation of the gods. The idea of a resurrection on earth, although hinted at in Egyptian texts themselves (not least by the real title of the Book of Dead, namely the “Book of going forth by day”), has been discarded by Egyptologists. This may be because it was thought to be too close to Christian conceptions on the afterlife and therefore not appropriate to the exotic and metaphysical characteristics commonly attributed to Egyptian civilisation.

By contrast, the decoration of the Cenotaph of Harwa clearly shows that Egyptians strongly believed in resurrection on earth and the future orientation of research will be to ascertain whether this idea can already be found in monuments of an earlier date or if it represents a change in funerary beliefs that took place during the period of Harwa.

Harwa as Viceroy of Upper Egypt

Although the Cenotaph of Harwa was first opened in 1995, excavations started only in 1996. The work was begun from the second pillared hall and extended to the other rooms of the subterranean part of the monument in the following years up to 1999.

Plan of the Cenotaphs of Harwa and Akhamunru (in pale blue) RA = Entrance  ramp; CV = Quarry; PT = Entrance portico; VE = Vestibule; CR = Courtyard; NE = Niche entrance; P1 = Entryway to the first pillared hall; I = First pillared hall; P2 = Entryway to the second pillared hall; II = Second pillared hall; P3 = Entryway to the Shrine of Osiris; SO = Shrine of Osiris; AF = Funerary apartment; CD = Corridor; NE = Niche entrance (pale blue); NO = Niche of Osiris (pale blue); I = Pillared hall (pale blue)

Plan of the Cenotaphs of Harwa and Akhamunru (in pale blue)
RA = Entrance ramp; CV = Quarry; PT = Entrance portico; VE = Vestibule; CR = Courtyard; NE = Niche entrance; P1 = Entryway to the first pillared hall; I = First pillared hall; P2 = Entryway to the second pillared hall; II = Second pillared hall; P3 = Entryway to the Shrine of Osiris; SO = Shrine of Osiris; AF = Funerary apartment; CD = Corridor; NE = Niche entrance (pale blue); NO = Niche of Osiris (pale blue); I = Pillared hall (pale blue)

In 1997, at the centre of the first pillared hall, a limestone shabty of Harwa, broken in two pieces, was discovered. It depicted the deceased with the flail and crook in his hands. In 2003, a second shabty of Harwa, with the royal insignia in his hands, was also found in the storeroom of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. They are the only two known non-royal funerary figurines of this type. It also worth noticing that the name of Harwa is preceded by the title “Great among the Greats” on the shabty found in 1997. This designation was normally used for kings who were either of non-Egyptian origin or of secondary importance.

Harwa lived in a period when the Valley of the Nile was ruled by the so-called “black pharaohs” of the Nubian 25th Dynasty and, from their perspective, it is likely that an Egyptian ruling over a limited area of the country could be considered a “foreign king”.

That the influence of Harwa must have reached as far as Assuan is confirmed by a graffito engraved on the rocks of the Island of Sehel, where his name is associated to that of the Nubian king Kashta (765 – 753 BC) and the Divine Wife Amenirdis I. The possibility that Harwa could have acted as a sort of viceroy of Upper Egypt on behalf of the pharaohs of the 25th Dynasty leads us to reconsider how power was managed in Thebes during this period.

It is generally assumed that the town was ruled through the Divine Wife of Amun, a position that was held by a lady of the royal family: in that period Amenirdis I. According to this theory, the Divine Wife was in charge of all political and administrative matters on behalf of the reigning Pharaoh, supported and facilitated by Theban dignitaries, such as Harwa.

The two shabtys of Harwa with the royal insignia suggest the possibility that actual power was in the hands of a line of dignitaries who succeeded each other without being related by kinship – so as to avoid any possibility of competition with the royal dynasty. This would also explain the lack of any specific title designating their position. However, the great power of these dignitaries is illustrated by their access to significant economic resources which allowed them to build immense funerary monuments in the Assasif.

  • Statue of Harwa in the Nubian Museum of Assuan (JE 37386). Photo by F. Tiradritti © Associazione Culturale per lo Studio dell’Egitto e del Sudan

This hypothesis is supported by the fact that Montuemhat was referred to as “Sharru” of Thebes in the annals where Assurbanipal II (668 – 627 BC) listed all the rulers under his control. In Assyria the title “sharru” indicated kings of secondary importance like the Egyptian “Great among the Greats” associated with Harwa.

The first Theban dignitary apparently invested with viceregal power of whom we know must have been the lector-priest Padiamun-nebnesutauy, mentioned in the Victory stela of Piankhy (753 – 723 BC). Otherwise it is not understandable why a person with a secondary sacerdotal title was summoned to represent Upper Egypt in the negotiation with the Lybian kings of the North.

Between the lector-priest Padiamun-nebnesutauy and the Steward of the Divine Wife Harwa there may have been another dignitary, while, after Harwa, the power must have passed into the hands of the Fourth Priest of Amun Montuemhat, whose cenotaph is directly west of that of Harwa. The last in this line of dignitaries was Petamenophis, a lector-priest again. His cenotaph, the largest private funerary monument of Egypt, was excavated on the eastern side of that of Harwa.

The Memphite Origin of the Decoration of the Cenotaph of Harwa

The decoration of the Cenotaph of Harwa is considered to be among the most magnificent of all ancient Egypt. This judgement is mainly based on the reliefs carved on the rear walls of the northern and southern porticos of the courtyard. The influence of the Old Kingdom is clearly visible and means that the Cenotaph of Harwa is considered the earliest monument to display that archaic style referred to as the Pharaonic Renaissance and that influenced Egyptian art and culture for a more than a century.

Although the decoration of the other Assasif funerary monuments is also of high quality, that in Harwa’s shows stylistic characteristics that led the American scholar Ann Russmann to suppose that it was produced by an extra-Theban artistic school. According to her, the artists who worked on Harwa’s tomb were the same brought by Taharqo (690 – 664 BC) to Kawa to build and decorate the temple dedicated to the local form of Amun. On their way back to Memphis, they stopped in Thebes where they worked on the Cenotaph of Harwa.

10.Offering bearers on the north portico’s rear wall of the courtyard. Digital collage by F. Tiradritti from a picture by G. Lovera © Associazione Culturale per lo Studio dell’Egitto e del Sudan

Offering bearers on the north portico’s rear wall of the courtyard. Digital collage by F. Tiradritti from a picture by G. Lovera © Associazione Culturale per lo Studio dell’Egitto e del Sudan

The connection between the Temple of Kawa and the Cenotaph of Harwa is striking. The resemblance is not only in the style of the reliefs but also in the similarity of the plan of the two monuments. That of Harwa is not only conceived so as to imitate a typical temple, but it has also a distribution of its spaces that exactly transposes that of Kawa in a subterranean structure. This leads us to consider the Memphite origin of the artists who worked on the Cenotaph of Harwa highly likely and encourages us to look further for traces of their presence.

The most outstanding of these is the presence of the Apis bull in the context of the Path of Harwa. The god once appeared (the image is now lost but his name is still preserved) in the scene on the south wall of the entryway to the second pillared hall, which depicts the allegory of death, where Anubis grasps the hand of Harwa, represented as an old man, and leads him into darkness. The goddess Imentet occupies the same position in the scene on the south wall of the entryway to the shrine, which shows the arrival of Harwa in the Netherworld. Imentet was the patron of the Theban necropolis and this leads us to think, by contrast, that the Apis bull represented the patron of the Memphis necropolis.

This can be considered a sort of signature left by the Memphis artists. The fact that the Apis bull appears in the context of the Path of Harwa and comes before Imentet/Thebes may suggest that they also intended to represent their journey from Memphis to Thebes. The association of Apis/Memphis with the allegory of death and Imentet/Thebes with the arrival in the Netherworld and, consequently, the attainment of eternal rebirth makes us also think that they intended the representation as a form of thanks to Harwa.

The Plague of Cyprian

Over the last years, research by the MAIL has been focused on the courtyard of the funerary complex of Harwa and Akhamunru. The application of a strict stratigraphic method to the excavation, based on “open area” principles, gave us the opportunity to reconstruct the main phases of utilisation of the monument.

Plan Harwa (St Cyprian Plague)

Three lime kilns discovered against the east wall of the courtyard and traces of a large bonfire exposed in the middle of the courtyard seem to be attributable to the same phase. Further analysis indicates that they were used to dispose of the corpses of plague victims. Although research is still underway, the associated pottery gave a preliminary date from the 3rd Century AD and allowed us to tentatively relate this phase to the Epidemic of Cyprian that scourged the Roman Empire during this period and, at its peak, caused 5.000 dead per day.

This discovery provides a better understanding of further layers excavated in other parts of the funerary monument, enabling us to relate them to the same phase and to reconstruct in detail the process of the corpses’ disposal. The people in charge of the operation built the kilns along the east wall of the courtyard and filled them with fragments of limestone taken from the decoration of the Cenotaph of Harwa and Akhamunru that were already in decay. To fuel the kilns they used coffin and mummies, mainly of the 2nd Century AD, that were taken from burials in the neighbourhood. They slaked the quicklime in the entrance room to the Cenotaph of Akhamunru and used the lime to cover the plague-infected corpses that they had previously aligned inside the first pillared hall of Harwa. Then they burnt the corpses on the bonfire that they had set in the centre of the courtyard. They threw the vessels which they had used to bring meals and water with them into the fire where they had slaked the lime and then left. After that, for centuries the Funerary complex of Harwa and Akhamunru was considered a haunted place. There are no significant traces of subsequent frequentation until the beginning of the 19th century, when robbers began to enter it in search of antiquities.

The human remains recovered in connection with the phase of the Plague of Cyprian will be submitted to further analysis in the hope of identifying the genome of the virus that provoked it. If successful, the result could help in the battle against other serious diseases, such as Ebola.


Dr. Francesco Tiradritti is Assistant Professor of Egyptology at the "Kore" University of Enna, Italy
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Dr Hawass' views.
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