Nearly 5,000 years old, a monument known today as the Shunet el-Zebib, the only surviving example of a series of monumental cultic buildings built by Egypt’s earliest kings at Abydos, has been ravaged by the elements, attacked by animals and insects, and structurally compromised by humans over the millennia; its present day survival seems almost miraculous. One of the most mysterious of ancient Egypt’s monuments was in danger of imminent collapse. In 2001, the experts all agreed that unless steps were taken immediately this massive mud-brick structure would not remain standing much longer.

Nearly 5,000 years old, a monument known today as the Shunet el-Zebib, the only surviving example of a series of monumental cultic buildings built by Egypt’s earliest kings at Abydos, has been ravaged by the elements, attacked by animals and insects, and structurally compromised by humans over the millennia; its present day survival seems almost miraculous. One of the most mysterious of ancient Egypt’s monuments was in danger of imminent collapse. In 2001, the experts all agreed that unless steps were taken immediately this massive mud-brick structure would not remain standing much longer.

A conservation and stabilization program was developed, sponsored by New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, and surprisingly the most suitable methods recommended by the experts for saving the monument turned out not to be highly technical ones of modern construction, but rather those more traditional, and ancient, in nature. Work began soon after using many of the same techniques to save the monument that were employed to build it five millennia ago. The conservation of the monument, which occupies more than two acres, is now nearly fifty percent complete.

The project director for the program is Dr. David O’Connor, the Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Egyptian Art and Archaeology, Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. The associate project director is Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams, Research Scholar, Institute of Fine Arts at NYU. All work has been carried out under permit from Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and is subject to its inspection and approval.

“At the start of the project, our primary goals were to record the current state of the monument, assess its structural problems, and design and implement a program of conservation measures,” said Dr. O’Connor. “We did not want to restore it to its original appearance, but rather to preserve the monument in a way that reflects its nearly 5,000 year history. The centuries of damage from the elements, animals, and later human activity are part of that history, and, while their most serious consequences are being repaired, their effects will continue to be a visible aspect of the monument.”

The Shunet el-Zebib is the last and the grandest of the early royal cult enclosures built at Abydos, noted Dr. O’Connor, and it is the only one still standing today. Comprising two concentric enclosure walls, the inner still mostly standing to near its original height of 35 feet and defining a large open ritual space embellished by a substantial mud brick chapel, the monument was built as a setting for king Khasekhemwy’s mortuary cult rituals. He ruled at the end of the Second Dynasty (ca. 2750 BCE) and only some 300 years after the emergence of a politically unified Egyptian state. Like other kings of the First and Second Dynasties, Khasekhemwy was buried in the ancestral royal cemetery at Abydos in southern Egypt, in close proximity to his predecessors. As such, his enclosure, built overlooking the ancient town of Abydos, represented the most visible statement of the king’s presence at this site, since his underground tomb was located a mile farther into the desert.

Dr. Adams said, “The Shunet el-Zebib’s survival seems almost miraculous, although its massive, 15-feet thick walls are more substantial than those of earlier enclosures. Only one other surviving monument in Egypt is as early, another - much smaller - cult enclosure of Khasekhemwy at Hierakonpolis, some 90 miles south of Abydos, though that structure is not associated with a royal tomb and may have been rather different in function.” Originally, the Abydos enclosure had four monumental gateways, and a brilliant whitewashed façade characterized by a complex pattern of niching. “Most of these details have been lost or obscured by millennia of exposure, erosion, and collapse, but the enclosure itself still looms impressively over the surrounding landscape,” added Dr. Adams.”

Team of Experts
Initial on-site assessments in 2000-01 by the project’s expert consultants William Remsen, a preservation architect, Anthony Crosby, an internationally recognized expert in mud-brick and earthen architecture, and Conor Power, a structural engineer, quickly revealed that the great enclosure’s collapse was imminent. Wind and rain denudation had affected it, but more significant were deep cavities cut into the walls to create rooms, or cells, now long collapsed, for early Christian monks, who took up residence there some 3000 years after the enclosure was built. Moreover, there was extensive animal burrowing into and under the bases of its walls, as well as the destructive impact of hornets that dug deep into the walls to create cavities for large nests, a process that continues even to this day.

“It was these factors, and others, frequently acting together, that weakened the structural integrity of the walls to the point that they were in danger of collapsing,” said Dr. Adams. Large segments of the walls had already collapsed in earlier times, but now the survival of the entire enclosure was in a state of crisis. After extensive study, the consultants decided that the best means of saving the Shunet el-Zebib was to employ mud bricks like the ones used to build it. “The ancient bricks were scientifically analyzed and new bricks formulated to be technically compatible with the old, remarked Dr. Adams. “In addition, the new bricks are similar in appearance to the old, although upon close inspection the difference between old and new is perceptible, a principle followed in all responsible architectural conservation today.”

Virtually all the weakened areas-the enormous cavities for monks’ cells, the high wall ends about to sheer off, and the innumerable holes caused by animals and insects-were all remedied by replacing the missing brick masonry with freshly made mud bricks. And each repair is made after careful cleaning and, where necessary, excavation and documentation of significant archaeological or cultural features.

Work Site
According to project leaders, in many respects the work area around the enclosure recreates the original ancient work site. A short distance away from the monument, brickmakers are producing tens of thousands of sun-dried mud bricks by traditional means; shaping each brick by hand with an individual wooden mould and leaving them in the sun to dry. Once dry, the bricks are transported to the work site by tractor-drawn wagon, where they are unloaded by hand to minimize breakage. On-site, workers carry bricks to be stacked near each work area, while others mix the sand, soil, and water for the mud mortar used in the new construction, as it was originally. The archaeological remains left by similar ancient activities during the original construction have been frequently discovered during the project’s work.

Teams of local masons experienced in mud-brick construction, supervised by Anthony Crosby, lay the new bricks that replace missing sections and fill holes in the walls, reinforcing the layers periodically with a special thin perforated sheet of plastic textile material, developed originally for applications in stabilizing earthen embankments during highway construction. This geogrid textile provides horizontal reinforcement in the new construction, for which the original builders used layers of reeds. (Reeds are not being used in the project’s work because after a short time they lose their strength and because they are likely to attract insects.) Through a system of simple mechanical ties, the geogrid also allows new masonry to be securely attached to the original fabric of the walls.

Enclosure Gateways
As did the original designers of the monument, the project team is devoting special attention to the enclosure’s four gateways. Each had collapsed anciently when the wooden members used to roof the gateway openings and which supported the wall above either decayed or was stolen. Additional damage was done when monastic cells were created in the gateway areas and subsequently collapsed. Now, the walls adjacent to each of the collapsed gateways are among the most at risk. The solution is to partially reconstruct the area of each gateway, to provide the structural support essential to saving the adjacent walls. Because the gateway openings were essential features in the design of the enclosure originally, they are being recreated as part of this work.

With the restoration of the gateways, the interior ritual space of the monument will once again be fully enclosed, walled off from the outside world, which it has not been for many centuries. “This differentiation of interior from exterior would have been one of the most fundamental purposes of the structure when it was originally built,” said Dr. Adams. “Thus, the new work on the gateways is restoring, not just the missing physical fabric of the walls, but also a basic aspect of the function of the monument.”

Since 1986, the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, in association with the Penn Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University has been excavating the enclosures of Khasekhemwy and other early kings at Abydos and has made important discoveries about how and why these mysterious structures, ritually related to the royal tombs that lay some distance away, were originally built. “As research progresses, it becomes increasingly clear,” says Dr. O’Connor, “that these enclosures, and especially Khasekhemwy’s, are integral to the development of royal mortuary monuments in Egypt and are in large part ancestral to the classic pyramid complexes of later times. In fact, the great monument of king Djoser at Saqqara - the Step Pyramid and its surrounding complex of enclosure and multiple chapels - was built immediately afterward and was undoubtedly influenced by Khasekhemwy’s Abydos monument.”

After the burial of king Khasekhemwy in his tomb a mile to the south, the Shunet el-Zebib enclosure was abandoned. His successor Djoser built his tomb, the great Step Pyramid, near the ancient capital Memphis, as did most Egyptian kings for many centuries following. Significant design features of the Abydos enclosures can be seen in the Step Pyramid complex, and the Abydos enclosure tradition clearly represents an important part of the evolution of Egyptian royal pyramids.

Although the Shunet el-Zebib was no longer being used, it nevertheless was respected for centuries as a sacred place. Hundreds of later tombs and burials surround it, coming right up to its outer wall, but the enclosure itself was left sacrosanct. Around 700 BCE, the enclosure once again became an active ritual space, this time for the burial of hundreds mummies of ibises, birds sacred to the god Thoth, which were dedicated by worshippers to carry their prayers to the god.

After the decline of the cult of the sacred ibis, the enclosure was once again abandoned, until it was re-occupied by an early Christian monastic community. The project’s excavations are revealing much about this final stage in the history of the monument. The monks’ cells, including traces of both painted decoration and graffiti on the walls, as well as kitchens, storage, and work areas, are all being carefully studied, and many objects from their tenure have been found in the excavations, including items made from cloth, leather, and wood, as well as a few fragments of papyrus and parchment documents.

The Shunet el-Zebib conservation and stabilization program has been made possible by two grants totaling nearly $800,000 from the Egyptian Antiquities Project of the American Research Center in Egypt, managing funds made available by the United States Agency for International Development. Further funding is now being developed in order to complete the remaining work and thus to ensure this uniquely early royal monument is guaranteed at least another 5,000 years of existence.

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