Pompeii in the desert

After the first buildings at the site—cult places of the god Thoth, e.g., a temple and an underground gallery especially active during the Ptolemaic period (Kessler 2011) — around 300 BC the first tombs were erected in this area (Lembke 2012, 207–10). Built of local shell-limestone and having a temple-like structure, the excavator Sami Gabra named them ‘temple tombs’ (Gabra 1941). The most famous is the tomb of Petosiris, a lesonis of the god Thoth (Lefebvre 1923–24). The same is true for another tomb of the early Ptolemaic period belonging to the priest Padjkam and situated only a few metres east of the tomb of Petosiris (Gabra et al. 1941, 11–37). Both tombs have a short dromos leading to a T-shaped building with a wide hall at the front and an almost quadrangular main room. Other new features are the altars in front of the entrance; these places of worship seem to be a Greek interpretation of Egyptian offering tables. The bodies were laid in underground rooms accessible only by deep shafts. All these buildings were at least partially decorated with reliefs and painted in vivid colours. When the tomb of Petosiris was discovered and published, it was not only the quality of the reliefs and the perfect preservation of the colours that attracted attention, but also the unusual combination of Greek and Egyptian iconography in different styles. Indeed, it was most surprising to find this unique mixture already at the beginning of the Ptolemaic period. The reliefs suggest a school of artists well-versed in the Egyptian representational style, but also influenced by the Greek imagery that circulated in the cosmopolitan environment of a city like Memphis.

A recent geomagnetic survey by the Institute of Geophysics of Kiel University has provided new information about the area. While in the northern sector two broad streets with several narrow by-roads lead from the Nile valley to the sanctuary of Thoth and its underground galleries, the southern sector, the so-called necropolis of Petosiris, is situated south of a processional way leading to a temple with a saqiya in its courtyard, a water well of the Roman period. The survey came to the conclusion that only about 10% of the area has been excavated and that the unexplored area of the necropolis measures about 20 hectares. It is therefore one of the largest Graeco-Roman necropoleis in Egypt known so far.

Not only is the horizontal expansion interesting, but also the vertical development of the necropolis is extraordinary. The ‘material turn’ in Tuna el-Gebel is marked by the change from stone to mud-brick used for the later buildings, obviously a lower cost alternative compared to stone monuments. The material and the architectural structure of these buildings provoked the excavator Sami Gabra to call them ‘house-tombs’ (Gabra 1941).

While the stone tombs had one storey only, the later tombs built of mud-brick had up to four different levels constructed one after the other. In the first instance, the theory of the excavator Sami Gabra seems plausible, that the so-called temple tombs belonged to the Ptolemaic period, while the tombs built of mud-brick were not earlier than the Roman period (Gabra and Drioton 1954, 13). Our studies, however, have shown that this is only partially true: there are certainly tombs built of stone belonging to the Roman period, and it is also possible that the first mud-brick tombs were built during the reign of the Ptolemies.

As a result of the new building technique, the congestion of tombs in the cemetery increased, and more and more people were buried there. Instead of stone monuments for a single person of high social rank, the mud-brick buildings now offered a cheaper (and faster) alternative, with burial space for numerous individuals. Therefore the use of different building material had not only a religious significance, but also a social one. As a consequence, the necropolis developed in a city-like lay-out from north to south, with the tomb of Petosiris at its core.

Not only the architecture changed considerably, but we also observe a development from Egyptian themes to Roman iconography. Like the stone tombs of Petosiris and Padykam, also the first funerary houses built at the site display Egyptian rituals and gods. During the 2nd and 3rd century AD, however, Greek mythological scenes and imitations of precious stones dominate the decoration of the tombs.

Some of the tomb houses excavated by Sami Gabra as well as their associated parts of buildings with wall paintings, photographically documented by Bernd Harald Krause in the 1980s and early 1990s, are now digitally available as datasets. B. H. Krause´s comprehensive documentation remained unpublished, including an extensive photo archive stored at the Archaeological Institute of Trier University, which Günther Grimm handed over to Katja Lembke in 2004 for processing and publication after the death of Bernd Harald Krause. This archive is now published with the datasets of the necropolis of Tuna el-Gebel and available to the public for the first time through DAI´s iDAI.objects/Arachne. Reconstructions of numerous wall paintings in the tomb houses can also be found among the images in Arachne. They were realized by Ulrike Denis, the illustrator of the Archaeological Institute of Trier University, under the guidance of Günter Grimm and Bernd Harald Krause. This documentation also remained unpublished so far, but it is now digitally available through Arachne. Further information and data: