New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts (IFA) has announced that the Shunet el-Zebib, the 5,000 year old monumental cult building in Egypt presently undergoing conservation and stabilization in a program developed and sponsored by the IFA, has been included in the World Monuments Fund’s (WMF) 2008 Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites. WMF (www.wmf.org) is a nonprofit organization that has helped save hundreds of endangered architectural and cultural sites around the world by calling international attention to the challenges and threats they face.
The Shunet el-Zebib is the only surviving example of a series of monumental cultic buildings built by Egypt’s earliest kings at Abydos. It is an architectural ancestor of the pyramids and one of the oldest mudbrick structures still standing in the world. In 2001, the IFA undertook a site assessment which determined that the massive structure was in imminent danger of collapse.
“We are extremely pleased with the decision of the World Monuments Fund to include the Shunet el-Zebib on its 2008 Watch List,” said Mariët Westermann, director of the IFA. “Protecting and preserving the world’s cultural heritage is everyone’s responsibility. The wonderful advocacy of WMF in the field of endangered cultural and architectural sites is well known and respected world wide. We are honored WMF has chosen to take up the cause of helping to preserve the Shunet el-Zebib.”
Subsequent to the IFA’s 2001 site assessment a conservation and stabilization program was developed to preserve the monument and work began shortly thereafter. Initial funding for this work was provided by two grants totaling nearly $800,000 from the United States Agency for International Development through the Egyptian Antiquities Project of the American Research Center in Egypt.
“The survival of this important structure from early Egyptian history is almost miraculous when one considers its age and the extent of damage that occurred to the monument,” said David O’Connor, project director of the conservation and stabilization program at the Shunet el-Zebib and the Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Egyptian Art and Archaeology, Institute of Fine Arts at NYU.
The associate project director and a research scholar at the IFA, Matthew Douglas Adams, said, “Thanks to the initial funding we were able to complete about fifty percent of the conservation project, but much work still remains before the monument is out of danger and additional funds need to be raised. We’re encouraged that the international public attention and visibility now brought to the project as a result of WMF’s participation will mean this grand early royal cult enclosure will survive for another 5,000 years.”
The Shunet el-Zebibravaged by the elements, attacked by animals and insects, and structurally compromised by humans over the millenniais the last and the grandest of the early royal cult enclosures built at Abydos, noted O’Connor, and 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.
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 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.”
The Institute of Fine Arts is one of the world’s leading graduate schools and research institutes in art history, archaeology, and conservation. The Institute has a permanent faculty unrivalled in the breadth and depth of its expertise and an extraordinary adjunct faculty drawn from top museums, research institutes, and conservation studios. Since the Institute awarded its first PhD in 1933, more than 1,600 degrees have been conferred. A high proportion of alumni hold international leadership roles as professors, curators, museum directors, archaeologists, conservators, critics, and institutional administrators.