Egypt: the burial Mastabas


Between the Fayum and the apex of the Delta, the Lybian range expands and forms a vast and slightly undulating table-land, which runs parallel to the Nile for nearly thirty leagues. The Great Sphinx Harmakhis has mounted guard over its northern extremity ever since the time of the Followers of Horus.

Hewn out of the solid rock at the extreme margin of the mountain-plateau, he seems to raise his head in order that he may be the first to behold across the valley the rising of his father the Sun. Only the general outline of the lion can now be traced in his weather-worn body. The lower portion of the head-dress has fallen, so that the neck appears too slender to support the weight of the head. The cannon-shot of the fanatical Mamelukes has injured both the nose and beard, and the red colouring which gave animation to his features has now almost entirely disappeared. But in spite of this, even in its decay, it still bears a commanding expression of strength and dignity. The eyes look into the far-off distance with an intensity of deep thought, the lips still smile, the whole face is pervaded with calmness and power. The art that could conceive and hew this gigantic statue out of the mountain-side, was an art in its maturity, master of itself and sure of its effects. How many centuries were needed to bring it to this degree of development and perfection!

In later times, a chapel of alabaster and rose granite was erected alongside the god; temples were built here and there in the more accessible places, and round these were grouped the tombs of the whole country. The bodies of the common people, usually naked and un-coffined, were thrust under the sand, at a depth of barely three feet from the surface. Those of a better class rested in mean rectangular chambers, hastily built of yellow bricks, and roofed with pointed vaulting. No ornaments or treasures gladdened the deceased in his miserable resting-place; a few vessels, however, of coarse pottery contained the provisions left to nourish him during the period of his second existence.

Some of the wealthy class had their tombs cut out of the mountain-side; but the majority preferred an isolated tomb, a “mastaba,” [ see NOTE 1] comprising a chapel above ground, a shaft, and some subterranean vaults.

[NOTE 1] “The Arabic word ‘mastaba,’ plur. ‘masatib,’ denotes the stone bench or platform seen in the streets of Egyptian towns in front of each shop. A carpet is spread on the ‘mastaba,’ and the customer sits upon it to transact his business, usually side by side with the seller. In the necropolis of Saqqara, there is a temple of gigantic proportions in the shape of a ‘mastaba.’The inhabitants of the neighbourhood call it ‘Mastabat-el-Faraoun,’ the seat of Pharaoh, in the belief that anciently one of the Pharaohs sat there to dispense justice. The Memphite tombs of the Ancient Empire, which thickly cover the Saqqara plateau, are more or less miniature copies of the ‘Mastabat-el-Faraoun.’Hence the name of mastabas, which has always been given to this kind of tomb, in the necropolis of Saqqara.”

From a distance these chapels have the appearance of truncated pyramids, varying in size according to the fortune or taste of the owner; there are some which measure 30 to 40ft. in height, with a facade 160ft. long, and a depth from back to front of some 80ft., while others attain only a height of some 10ft. upon a base of 16ft. square. [see NOTE 2]

[NOTE 2] The mastaba of Sabu is 175ft. 9in. long, by about 87ft. 9in. deep, but two of its sides have lost their facing; that of Ranimait measures 171ft. 3in. by 84ft. 6in. on the south front, and 100ft. on the north front. On the other hand, the mastaba of Papu is only 19ft. 4in. by 29ft. long, and that of Kmbiuphtah 42ft. 4in. by 21ft. 8in.The walls slope uniformly towards one another, and usually have a smooth surface; sometimes, however, their courses are set back one above the other almost like steps.

The brick mastabas were carefully cemented externally and the layers bound together internally by fine sand poured into the interstices. Stone mastabas, on the contrary, present a regularity in the decoration of their facings alone; in nine cases out of ten the core is built of rough stone blocks, rudely cut into squares, cemented with gravel and dried mud, or thrown together pell-mell without mortar of any kind. The whole building should have been orientated according to rule, the four sides to the four cardinal points, the greatest axis directed north and south; but the masons seldom troubled themselves to find the true north, and the orientation is usually incorrect. [see NOTE 3]

[NOTE 3] Thus the axis of the tomb of Pirsenu is 17deg. east of the  magnetic north. In some cases the divergence is only 1deg. or 2deg., more often it is 6deg., 7deg., 8deg., or 9deg., as can be easily ascertained by consulting the work of Mariette.

The doors face east, sometimes north or south, but never west. One of these is but the semblance of a door, a high narrow niche, contrived so as to face east, and decorated with grooves framing a carefully walled-up entrance; this was for the use of the dead, and it was believed that the ghost entered or left it at will. The door for the use of the living, sometimes preceded by a portico, was almost always characterized by great simplicity. Over it is a cylindrical tympanum, or a smooth flagstone, bearing sometimes merely the name of the dead person, sometimes his titles and descent, sometimes a prayer for his welfare, and an enumeration of the days during which he was entitled to receive the worship due to ancestors. They invoked on his behalf, and almost always precisely in the same words, the “Great God,” the Osiris of Mendes, or else Anubis, dwelling in the Divine Palace, that burial might be granted to him in Amentit, the land of the West, the very great and very good, to him the vassal of the Great God; that he might walk in the ways in which it is good to walk, he the vassal of the Great God; that he might have offerings of bread, cakes, and drink, at the New Year’s Feast, at the feast of Thot, on the first day of the year, on the feast of Uagait, at the great fire festival, at the procession of the god Minu, at the feast of offerings, at the monthly and half-monthly festivals, and every day. The chapel is usually small, and is almost lost in the great extent of the building.[ see NOTE 4] It generally consists merely of an oblong chamber, approached by a rather short passage.[see NOTE 5]

[NOTE 4] Thus the chapel of the mastaba of Sabu is only 14ft. 4in. long, by about 3ft. 3in. deep, and that of the tomb of  Phtahshopsisu, 10ft. 4 in. by 3ft. 7in.

[NOTE 5] The mastaba of Tinti has four chambers, as has also that  of Assi-onkhu; but these are exceptions, as may be  ascertained by consulting the work of Mariette. Most of  those which contain several rooms are ancient one-roomed mastabas, which have been subsequently altered or enlarged; this is the case with the mastabas of Shopsi and of  Ankhaftuka. A few, however, were constructed from the outset with all their apartments–that of Raonkhumai, with six  chambers and several niches; that of Khabiuphtah, with three chambers, niches, and doorway ornamented with two pillars; that of Ti, with two chambers, a court surrounded with pillars, a doorway, and long inscribed passages; and that of Phtahhotpu, with seven chambers, besides niches.

At the far end, and set back into the western wall, is a huge quadrangular stele, at the foot of which is seen the table of offerings, made of alabaster, granite or limestone placed flat upon the ground, and sometimes two little obelisks or two altars, hollowed at the top to receive the gifts mentioned in the inscription on the exterior of the tomb. The general appearance is that of a rather low, narrow doorway, too small to be a practicable entrance. The recess thus formed is almost always left empty; sometimes, however, the piety of relatives placed within it a statue of the deceased. Standing there, with shoulders thrown back, head erect, and smiling face, the statue seems to step forth to lead the double from its dark lodging where it lies embalmed, to those glowing plains where he dwelt in freedom during his earthly life: another moment, crossing the threshold, he must descend the few steps leading into the public hall. On festivals and days of offering, when the priest and family presented the banquet with the customary rites, this great painted figure, in the act of advancing, and seen by the light of flickering torches or smoking lamps, might well appear endued with life. It was as if the dead ancestor himself stepped out of the wall and mysteriously stood before his descendants to claim their homage. The inscription on the lintel repeats once more the name and rank of the dead. Faithful portraits of him and of other members of his family figure in the bas-reliefs on the door-posts.

The little scene at the far end represents him seated tranquilly at table, with the details of the feast carefully recorded at his side, from the first moment when water is brought to him for ablution, to that when, all culinary skill being exhausted, he has but to return to his dwelling, in a state of beatified satisfaction. The stele represented to the visitor the door leading to the private apartments of the deceased; the fact of its being walled up for ever showing that no living mortal might cross its threshold. The inscription which covered its surface was not a mere epitaph informing future generations who it was that reposed beneath. It perpetuated the name and genealogy of the deceased, and gave him a civil status, without which he could not have preserved his personality in the world beyond; the nameless dead, like a living man without a name, was reckoned as non-existing. Nor was this the only use of the stele; the pictures and prayers inscribed upon it acted as so many talismans for ensuring the continuous existence of the ancestor, whose memory they recalled. They compelled the god therein invoked,  whether Osiris or the jackal Anubis, to act as mediator between the living and the departed; they granted to the god the enjoyment of sacrifices and those good things abundantly offered to the deities, and by which they live, on condition that a share of them might first be set aside for the deceased. By the divine favour, the soul or rather the doubles of the bread, meat, and beverages passed into the other world, and there refreshed the human double. It was not, however, necessary that the offering should have a material existence, in order to be effective; the first comer who should repeat aloud the name and the formulas inscribed upon the stone, secured for the unknown occupant, by this means alone, the immediate possession of all the things which he enumerated.

The stele constitutes the essential part of the chapel and tomb. In many cases it was the only inscribed portion, it alone being necessary to ensure the identity and continuous existence of the dead man; often, however, the sides of the chamber and passage were not left bare. When time or the wealth of the owner permitted, they were covered with scenes and writing, expressing at greater length the ideas summarized by the figures and inscriptions of the stele.

Neither pictorial effect nor the caprice of the moment was permitted to guide the artist in the choice of his subjects; all that he drew, pictures or words, bad a magical purpose. Every individual who built for himself an “eternal house,” either attached to it a staff of priests of the double, of inspectors, scribes, and slaves, or else made an agreement with the priests of a neighbouring temple to serve the chapel in perpetuity. Lands taken from his patrimony, which thus became the “Domains of the Eternal House,” rewarded them for their trouble, and supplied them with meats, vegetables, fruits, liquors, linen and vessels for sacrifice.

In theory, these “liturgies” were perpetuated from year to year, until the end of time; but in practice, after three or four generations, the older ancestors were forsaken for those who had died more recently. Notwithstanding the imprecations and threats of the donor against the priests who should neglect their duty, or against those who should usurp the funeral endowments, sooner or later there came a time when, forsaken by all, the double was in danger of perishing for want of sustenance. In order to ensure that the promised gifts, offered in substance on the day of burial, should be maintained throughout the centuries, the relatives not only depicted them upon the chapel walls, but represented in addition the lands which produced them, and the labour which contributed to their production. On one side we see ploughing, sowing, reaping, the carrying of the corn, the storing of the grain, the fattening of the poultry, and the driving of the cattle. A little further on, workmen of all descriptions are engaged in their several trades: shoemakers ply the awl, glassmakers blow through their tubes, metal founders watch over their smelting-pots, carpenters hew down trees and build a ship; groups of women weave or spin under the eye of a frowning taskmaster, who seems impatient of their chatter. Did the double in his hunger desire meat? He might choose from the pictures on the wall the animal that pleased him best, whether kid, ox, or gazelle; he might follow the course of its life, from its birth in the meadows to the slaughter-house and the kitchen, and might satisfy his hunger with its flesh. The double saw himself represented in the paintings as hunting, and to the hunt he went; he was painted eating and drinking with his wife, and he ate and drank with her; the pictured ploughing, harvesting, and gathering into barns, thus became to him actual realities. In fine, this painted world of men and things represented upon the wall was quickened by the same life which animated the double, upon whom it all depended: the “picture” of a meal or of a slave was perhaps that which best suited the “shade” of guest or of master.

Even to-day, when we enter one of these decorated chapels, the idea of death scarcely presents itself: we have rather the impression of being in some old-world house, to which the master may at any moment return. We see him portrayed everywhere upon the walls, followed by his servants, and surrounded by everything which made his earthly life enjoyable. One or two statues of him stand at the end of the room, in constant readiness to undergo the “Opening of the Mouth” and to receive offerings. Should these be accidentally removed, others, secreted in a little chamber hidden in the thickness of the masonry, are there to replace them. These inner chambers have rarely any external outlet, though occasionally they are connected with the chapel by a small opening, so narrow that it will hardly admit of a hand being passed through it. Those who came to repeat prayers and burn incense at this aperture were received by the dead in person. The statues were not mere images, devoid of consciousness. Just as the double of a god could be linked to an idol in the temple sanctuary in order to transform it into a prophetic being, capable of speech and movement, so when the double of a man was attached to the effigy of his earthly body, whether in stone, metal, or wood, a real living person was created and was introduced into the tomb. So strong was this conviction that the belief has lived on through two changes of religion until the present day. The double still haunts the statues with which he was associated in the past. As in former times, he yet strikes with madness or death any who dare to disturb is repose; and one can only be protected from him by breaking, at the moment of discovery, the perfect statues which the vault contains. The double is weakened or killed by the mutilation of these his sustainers. [see NOTE 6]

[ NOTE 6]The legends still current about the pyramids of Gizeh furnish some good examples of this kind of superstition. “The guardian of the Eastern pyramid was an idol… who had  both eyes open, and was seated on a throne, having a sort of halberd near it, on which, if any one fixed his eye, he heard a fearful noise, which struck terror to his heart, and caused the death of the hearer. There was a spirit appointed to wait on each guardian, who departed not from before him.” The keeping of the other two pyramids was in like manner entrusted to a statue, assisted by a spirit. I have collected a certain number of tales resembling that of Mourtadi in the “Etudes de Mythologie et Archeologie Egyptiennes,” vol. i. p. 77, et seq.

The statues furnish in their modelling a more correct idea of the deceased than his mummy, disfigured as it was by the work of the embalmers; they were also less easily destroyed, and any number could be made at will. Hence arose the really incredible number of statues sometimes hidden away in the same tomb. These sustainers or imperishable bodies of the double were multiplied so as to insure for him a practical immortality; and the care with which they were shut into a secure hiding-place, increased their chances of preservation. All the same, no precaution was neglected that could save a mummy from destruction. The shaft leading to it descended to a mean depth of forty to fifty feet, but sometimes it reached, and even exceeded, a hundred feet. Running horizontally from it is a passage so low as to prevent a man standing upright in it, which leads to the sepulchral chamber properly so called, hewn out of the solid rock and devoid of all ornament; the sarcophagus, whether of fine limestone, rose-granite, or black basalt, does not always bear the name and titles of the deceased. The servants who deposited the body in it placed beside it on the dusty floor the quarters of the ox, previously slaughtered in the chapel, as well as phials of perfume, and large vases of red pottery containing muddy water; after which they walled up the entrance to the passage and filled the shaft with chips of stone intermingled with earth and gravel. The whole, being well watered, soon hardened into a compact mass, which protected the vault and its master from desecration.

During the course of centuries, the ever-increasing number of tombs at length formed an almost uninterrupted chain of burying-places on the table-land. At Gizeh they follow a symmetrical plan, and line the sides of regular roads; at Saqqara they are scattered about on the surface of the ground, in some places sparsely, in others huddled confusedly together. Everywhere the tombs are rich in inscriptions, statues, and painted or sculptured scenes, each revealing some characteristic custom, or some detail of contemporary civilization. From the womb, as it were, of these cemeteries, the Egypt of the Memphite dynasties gradually takes new life, and reappears in the full daylight of history. Nobles and fellahs, soldiers and priests, scribes and craftsmen,-the whole nation lives anew before us; each with his manners, his dress, his daily round of occupation and pleasures. It is a perfect picture, and although in places the drawing is defaced and the colour dimmed, yet these may be restored with no great difficulty, and with almost absolute certainty.

The king stands out boldly in the foreground, and his tall figure towers over all else. He so completely transcends his surroundings, that at first sight one may well ask if he does not represent a god rather than a man; and, as a matter of fact, he is a god to his subjects. They call him “the good god,” “the great god,” and connect him with Ra through the intervening kings, the successors of the gods who ruled the two worlds. His father before him was “Son of Ra,” as was also his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, and so through all his ancestors, until from “son of Ra” to “son of Ra” they at last reached Ra himself. Sometimes an adventurer of unknown antecedents is abruptly inserted in the series, and we might imagine that he would interrupt the succession of the solar line; but on closer examination we always find that either the intruder is connected with the god by a genealogy hitherto unsuspected, or that he is even more closely related to him than his predecessors, inasmuch as Ra, having secretly descended upon the earth, had begotten him by a mortal mother in order to rejuvenate the race.[See NOTE 7]

[NOTE 7] A legend, preserved for us in the Westcar Papyrus (Erman’s  edition, pl. ix. 11. 5-11, pl. x. 1. 5, et seq.), maintains that the first three kings of the V dynasty, Usirkaf, Sahuri, and Kakiu, were children born to Ra, lord of Sakhibu, by Ruditdidit, wife of a priest attached to the temple of that town.


TITLE: History Of Egypt, Chaldaea, Syria, Babylonia, and Assyria, Volume 2

Author: G. Maspero (Edited by A. H. SAYCE, Professor of Assyriology, Oxford)



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