Hawara Diaries 1


Norris Ansley standing on top of the ruined pyramid at Hawara

Part of elementamundi.com. By author Mark David: Twitter @authorMarkDavid

Extracts from the diaries of K.O. Eklund. Hawara 1917

labyrinthWhat a picture of desolation! And yet we are standing in the midst of one of the most fertile tracts in the world. These rough sun-dried brick under our feet form the summit of the pyramid of Hawara, which stands in the mouth of the Fayûm, and from this elevated point of view Norris was looking southeastward through the valley which connects the depression of the Fayûm with the Nile valley. Beyond on the horizon is the pyramid of Illahun .

We should note it well, for it marks the southern end of our sixty-mile line of pyramids, to which we have so often referred; and the 12th Dynasty, to which it belongs, was the last to construct great pyramids. That line, then, of which we have here reached the end, was in course of construction during a period of over a thousand years; and Lepsius, during his great expedition, found no less than seventy-six pyramids in the Nile valley.

What a line of noble sepulchers, and what a line of kings who raised them! Out of our range of vision, on the left, behind the hills, is the pyramid of Medum, the first real pyramid; built by Snofru, the last king of the 3rd Dynasty. With this exception, the north half of the pyramid line belongs to the Old Kingdom, and the south half to the Middle Kingdom, and thus as we have before noted, we have passed down the dynasties and down the centuries as we have come south from Gizeh.


Pyramid at Hawara. K.O. Eklund archives. Taken 1917.

The kings who made the 12th Dynasty so famous took great interest in the Fayûm. Here a depression in the desert of some thirty by forty miles, not differing from those which form the oases of the Sahara, had been flooded by the waters of the Nile inundation, which found access to the basin through the valley down which we are looking (Map 6). By enormous hydraulic works, continued from reign to reign, and completed by Amenemhet III, the waters were pushed back, and the completion of a wall or dike twenty-seven miles long, restored to cultivation some 27,000 acres of very productive land.

The body of water behind the dike was known to the Greeks as “Lake Moeris,” and its basin in classic times, as the waters continued to recede, became the very garden of Egypt. We shall have occasion to refer to it again, when we visit the ruins of its principal city. Under the 12th Dynasty kings, it was connected with the Nile by a canal, and served as a basin for the storage of water for use in irrigation.


Egypt tour of the Fayum, by Norris Ansley 1905

It was thus the forerunner of similar modern works, like that of the great dam at Philae, which we shall later see. The modern successor of that canal is visible on our right. It is a natural channel, known as the “Bahr Yusuf,” that is, “the river of Joseph,” whose name is thus connected in popular tradition with one of the most important sources of irrigation in modern Egypt, as it was with the exploitation of the country’s fertility in ancient days.

The 12th Dynasty kings who thus improved the region, lived in the vicinity, and a residence city of theirs, now lost, was located somewhere between here and Memphis (which is off here on our left). Just here on our right, between us and the canal, you observe a few low mounds. These are the edge of the spot, which extends beyond our range on the right, where once stood the labyrinth, famous in the literature of the Greeks as the forerunner of the Cretan labyrinth. It is stated by them to have had no less than 3,000 rooms, which is unquestionably an exaggeration; but it must have been an enormous building, for the excavation of Petrie on the spot have shown that it was 800 by 1,000 feet on the ground plan.

From the Roman period on, it was used as a quarry, and the walls were so completely carried away down to the ground, that it was very difficult for Petrie to trace the plan. Modern investigation has therefore been unable to determine its character and use with certainty, but judging from Greek descriptions, it can hardly have been anything else than a temple. Its builder was Amenemhet III.

You have been struck with the fact that this pyramid on which we stand is not of stone. It was, to be sure, once sheathed in a splendid casing of limestone masonry, which has since been removed for building material, thus serving as a quarry like the vast labyrinthine temple at its base. But the 12th Dynasty kings discovered that sun-dried brick formed very effective core masonry for such a structure as a pyramid, when properly cased in stone, and thus they saved themselves enormous labor and expense in the quarries. When completed this pyramid was 333 feet and 10 inches square on the base, and 190 feet high.

El-Lahun pyramid. K.O. Eklund

El-Lahun pyramid. K.O. Eklund

Finding that the carefully planned pyramids of their predecessors were being opened and robbed, the kings of this time introduced the most ingenious devices to conceal the entrances to their pyramids, and to baffle the robbers when the entrance was once found. Instead of making the entrance of his pyramid on the north, as was customary in the Old Kingdom, the builder of this one placed the descending passage, which pierced the rock beneath this pyramid, here on the south side, on our right, and far to the west of the middle.

The passage, after making four turns, then approaches the burial chamber from the north, having gone clear around it! At three of the turns, progress was completely barred by a huge trap-door block, weighing, in one case, twenty-two tons; but the dishonest architects of the Pharaoh had closed only the first one, certain that the royal family would never know what they had done with the other two, after the first was closed.

The tomb robbers, therefore, had to cut their way through the great trap-door block, but were not troubled by the other two. But they were completely taken in by one of the architect’s devices. They found the entrance to a certain passage carefully masoned up, and thinking it must contain something of value, or certainly lead to the burial chamber, they removed the masonry, only to find more behind it.

This also they removed, and continually finding more, their appetites were but sharpened as they saw how much labor had been expended in making the passage secure. After they had thus removed a masonry filling from a passage about 84 feet long they found it ended in an aimless cul de sac, in nothing, in solid rock!

K.O. Eklund archives. Base of pyramid at Hawara. Taken 1917

K.O. Eklund archives. Base of pyramid at Hawara. Taken 1917

The burial chamber itself was in the native rock beneath the pyramid, as it is in all pyramids except the first pyramid of Gizeh. There was no door, but it had been entered on the day of burial through the roof. To make this possible it was necessary to construct two roofs with a space between them. The upper roof was constructed of enormous blocks of limestone weighing fifty-five tons each, and was assisted in its burden bearing by an arch of sun-dried brick above it; the lower roof covered the chamber itself and had a trap-door block of quartzite at one end, weighing forty-five tons. This was lowered into place on the day of burial, after the king had been laid in his sarcophagus. The tomb robbers were unable to raise it, so they cut away one corner and crawled through.

The chamber to which they had thus gained entrance is 8 by 22 feet on the floor, and 6 feet high, and is cut from one single block of “glassy hard” quartzite weighing 110 tons. Yet in spite of all these elaborate and costly devices, which must have exhausted the skill of the best engineers and craftsmen in that ancient realm, the robbers forced their way into that chamber deep under our feet and despoiled the body of the king of his splendid regalia, and pillaged the sepulcher of its magnificent furniture.

Seeing the futility of such means for protecting his sacred body, the Pharaoh no longer expended his wealth in vast sepulchers like these, and thus it is that we stand here upon the summit of the last pyramid. When we have arrived at Thebes, we shall see that after a short interval of modest masonry tombs, built upon the plain, the Pharaohs followed the example of their nobles and hewed vast tombs into the mountain side.


Entry into the Labyrinth. K.O. Eklund picture archives. Taken at Hawara 1917.

Just one more glance up that connecting valley before we go down. See that cloud of sand which a wind-burst is carrying from the desert into the valley. That process has been going on for ages. For the archaeologist nothing more fortunate could have happened than this gradual covering with sand, which we have seen so often burying fathoms deep the works of the Pharaohs. Myriads of monuments that rejoice the heart of the Egyptologist would have perished forever, had they not been thus covered by the timely sands and hidden from the destructive hand of the vandal.

Myriads more of just such monuments still remain, secure beneath the friendly sands, awaiting the rescuing hand of the excavator. But these invading sands are anything but a blessing to the peasant. They do not in the long run gain much upon the Nile valley as a whole, but there are certain districts where they have taken complete possession.


Out beyond about midway between us and the tent of our photographer, you notice a transverse line running across the valley. That is the pipe-line of the English engineers, who by thus piping the water from the canal, are rapidly reclaiming the district between the distant pyramid and that on which we stand. We see how the government thus utilizes the Nile inundation in this practically rainless climate, but we must now observe how the native employs the water, furnished him by Providence and the authorities, in the vast network of canals, which we saw from the top of the great pyramid.