Zawyet Sultan

The archaeological site is located near the modern village of Zawyet Sultan (Middle Egypt) on the eastern bank of the Nile, about 7 km south of the modern city of el-Minya. It is also known as Zawyet el-Maiyitin, Zawyet al-Amwat or Kom el-Ahmar and corresponds to the ancient city of Hebenu, the capital of the 16th district of Upper Egypt.

Zawyet Sultan extends over a vast desert slope, bordering to the north with the modern village and the Muslim cemetery, to the east with the ancient limestone quarries, and continues to the south with the area better known as Kom el-Dik. The main core of the archaeological area includes a pyramid of the Old Kingdom, located at the entrance of the site, and some graves of the Old, Middle and New Kingdom carved into the rock cliff.

Around the pyramid there is a village dated to the Roman period, below which many shaft-graves and some remains of mastabas were found. The mastabas originally belonged to the attendants of the elite individuals buried in the rock tombs.

History of archeological expeditions

The site of Zawyet Sultan has been of interest since the late 18th Century, when members of the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt visited the archaeological area and included a brief report in the Description de l’Égypte.

Even the French-Tuscan expedition, directed by Jean-François Champollion and Ippolito Rosellini, briefly stopped here in October 1828. In Monumenti Civili, Rosellini paid particular attention to two of the greatest Old Kingdom rock tombs and was fascinated by the beautiful landscape. However, the first complete topographic reconstruction was carried out by Richard Lepsius in 1843, together with the reproduction of wall decorations and rock tombs inscriptions.

The first real archaeological excavations only started from 1912, when on several occasions (1912, 1913, 1928-29, 1933) the area was systematically investigated, mainly by Raymond Weill. He focused exclusively on the main buildings of the site, such as the pyramid and the rock tombs. In more recent times, Zawyet Sultan has been the subject of further studies and archaeological investigations (Patrizia Piacentini, Werner Keiser-Günter Dreyer, Barry Kemp). However, the site does not have yet in-depth analysis that allows to fully understand how monuments and objects found there relate to each other and with the remains of the ancient city Hebenu.

Current excavations

In 2014 Richard Bussmann and Gianluca Miniaci developed the project to bring new attention to the remains of this archaeological site. They created a joint archaeological mission between the University College London (UCL), the University of Cologne, the University of Pisa, and the Ministry of Antiquities in Cairo, and started new investigations in the area.

The main aims of the mission are the evaluation of the conservation status of the known monuments, identification and dating of new structures, and development a plan for the future conservation of the buildings in situ.

The 2015 archeological excavation focused mainly on the topographic survey of the site, paying particular attention to the pyramid of the Old Kingdom, to the rock tomb of the officer Khunes, and to the mapping of 100 shaft-grave tombs spread out across the archaeological area. The pyramid is one of the seven known in Upper Egypt dated to the 3rd dynasty. However, unlike the other pyramids, the Zawyet Sultan example presents an external facing with limestone blocks. The tomb of Khunes, dated to the 6th dynasty, with three main chambers and three rectangular shafts, had been reused for late intrusive burials, as evidenced by the 20 anthropoid-shaped cavities dug into the funerary complex.

The survey has achieved unexpected results, such as the discovery of a necropolis, dated to the 3rd dynasty, thanks to the study of the ceramic materials found on site. All these data shed new light on the so far little-known history of ancient Hebenu.