Dominating the low desert of Hierakonpolis is an imposing, if enigmatic, structure built of sun dried mud-brick we call the “Fort”. Our only standing structure, it is also the oldest freestanding monumental mud-brick structure in the world and one of the earliest upstanding remnant of Egypt’s long and rich tradition of mud-brick construction, which paved the way for its more famous stone architecture. Measuring 67m by 57m (c.220ft x 185ft) in dimensions, with walls 5m (16ft) thick at their base, the ‘Fort’ is still preserved in places to near its original height of 10m. Decorated on its exterior with a series of raised pilasters creating the niched “palace-façade” familiar from Early Dynastic royal serekhs, it was originally coated with a gleaming white plaster, traces of which still survive. It must have been a striking sight in its time, and 4600 years later this monument stands as a testament to the abilities of its builder, King Khasekhemwy, the last king of the Second Dynasty (c. 2686BC).
Thanks to a laser scan in 2012 you can now see the Fort from all sides at http://vimeo.com/45539654
Although we still called it the Fort, as it was first described, this imposing structure had no military function. Its actual purpose remains a mystery. It is certainly related to the ceremonial enclosures that were erected near the royal burial grounds of the Early Dynastic kings at Abydos to house their mortuary cults, but differs from them in many aspects. Khasekhemwy was among those who built a mud-brick funerary enclosure at Abydos. His is the largest. Covering an area of 1.07 hectares, it too still stands to near its original height, and is known as the Shunet es Zebib (the storehouse of the raisins). Over twice the size of the Hierakonpolis Fort, it accompanies an equally immense desert tomb. These three structures alone earn this king the right to be called the first of Egypt’s great builders and there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that this was not all he was capable of.
In form and monumentality Khasekhewmy’s enclosures are direct ancestors of the great stone pyramid complexes of Egypt. As the Fort took approximately 4.82 million to build according to recent calculations (see Nekhen News 24), (and the Shunet far more), it is perhaps no surprise that the lessons learned in marshaling manpower and materials allowed Khasekhemwy’s immediate successor Djoser to build the first of these—the Step Pyramid at Saqqara.
But why Khasekhewmy needed two enormous mud-brick enclosures is not clear. The standard explanation has been that during the shadowy and transitional period of the Second Dynasty Egypt was experiencing the first test of its unity, and in the second half of the dynasty the country was ruled by rival kings. It has been suggested that Khasekhem (meaning “the power appears”), as he was initially known, first ruled as one of these kings perhaps from a power base at Hierakonpolis given the number of fine statues, stone vessels, stela and architectural features bearing his early name found at the temple at Nekhen. He may originally have planned to be buried at Hierakonpolis and began to build his funerary enclosure, but when he defeated his rivals and assumed control of all Egypt he changed his name to Khasekhemwy (meaning “the two powers appear”), and built a new enclosure and tomb at Abydos, the traditional burial place of the Early Dynastic kings, of which he was the last.
This is a plausible theory, but the identification of two building phases for the Fort suggests the story may not be that simple. Deep within the walls, it is possible to detect a Fort within the Fort: an earlier version, with walls only 2.1m (4 cubits) thick, but complete with niches and pilaster intrinsic to the construction. The walls of this first phase had only reached about 2.5m in height when plans were evidently changed and the walls were enlarged to 5m in thickness by adding addition bricks to both sides and then carried up to their final height as one fully integrated construction. Unfortunately, it is not yet possible to determine the length of time, if any, between the two phases. Although the bricks used in the two phases differ in size and especially in recipe (discussed in detail in Nekhen News 24), the architectural plan and details of the decorative masonry remained exactly the same, suggesting that the same ruler was responsible for both. Only the low perimeter wall that originally surrounded the monument on all sides (a feature shared only with Khasekhemwy’s Shunet at Abydos) was a later addition, being built exclusively with second phase bricks. Running across the main entrance, it prevented an axial approach and just how the complex was entered is still unclear. The location of the opening in the perimeter wall and its trajectory along the east side of the monument are just two of the many mysteries we still need to solve.
While it is possible that the construction of the Fort began in the early part of the king’s reign for one reason and was completed later for another, from the outset the Fort had many features that are unique and suggest it may never have been intended for funerary use. Unlike the rectangular enclosures at Abydos, the Fort is nearly square in plan, and has a single projecting entrance way, which was decorated in both phases with a complex pattern of niched brick work. To either side of the entrance are narrow chambers that presumably once held stairways allowing access to the ramparts. This projecting gateway and its flanking chambers are features not found in any other monument of this type, but bear a similarity to niched-façade palace discovered in the Dynastic town of Nekhen in the flood plain (Weeks 1972), to date, the only niche architecture known from a non-mortuary setting.
Also unique to the Fort are the elaborately carved stone embellishments that graced the enigmatic structure within it. Remnants include a sizable pink granite column base (amongst the earliest examples of the architectural use of granite), which is currently the focus of rituals performed by local women to insure the birth of a male child (seven leaps over, followed by the distribution of sprouted grain). Originally one of a pair, these bases each had a recessed center to hold a hefty wooden column to support the roof of a now poorly preserved internal structure. Located near the center of the enclosure, investigations in 1999 and 2008 revealed it to be a mud-brick structure about 20m NE-SW by at least 10m NW-SE and possibly originally square, with walls at least 1.85m thick. Interestingly, the lowest course of the wall was made with the distinctive bricks of the first phase of construction, suggesting that this structure was planned from the outset.
Like the so-called model palaces or shrine built in the southeast corner of the enclosures at Abydos, the Fort’s internal structure also has an orientation slightly skewed to the main walls. However, at Hierakonpolis, this structure may also have been embellished with further stone fittings as investigations in 1999 revealed many fragments of worked red granite. Although none were decorated or in situ, the stone is identical to that of the decorated lintel inscribed for Khasekhemwy discovered near the Fort by Ambrose Lansing in 1934. Lansing’s brief report states that the fragments had probably been re-used in the walls of a pottery kiln, thus their origins were unclear, but the recovery of granite fragments near this internal structure presents the exciting possibility that the lintel may have come from it. If so, it was a sumptuous building indeed.
The lintel, though shattered and fragmentary, features the king prominently, showing him engaged in ritual activities, in the company of the gods, and as the focus of processions and offerings. It is one of the earliest examples of royal propaganda on a permanent architectural scale. It was not long before the Egyptian kings took this to new heights, covering every inch of temple walls with images to their glory.
The scenes on the lintel, especially those of the king dressed in Heb Sed garb suggest what type of activities took place in the Fort, but don’t tell us when: in life or in death? The fittings of the internal structure suggest that the Fort is not a replica for use in the next world, but the real thing for use in this one and this conclusion is supported by the pottery recovered during the 1999 excavations, which dates Second Dynasty activity in the Fort to the middle of the reign of Khasekhemwy. As no pottery characteristic of the end of his 30+-year reign was found, it seems unlikely that the Fort was a cenotaph, or second funerary establishment. Instead this imposing enclosure may have been built to commemorate the king’s rejuvenation festival or perhaps even the reunification of land under his command and the grand festival when Khasekhem was reborn as Khasekhemwy. Indeed, what could be a better place for such a celebration than the home of the patron god of Egyptian Kingship, Horus of Hierakonpolis. Proof for this theory, however, is hard to come by mainly because we are not the first to look at the Fort.
Almost without exception, those who came to explore Hierakonpolis could not resist the temptation to probe in and around the Fort, as the disheveled state of its interior attests. They more successfully fought off the urge to publish their results, and other than brief notes and archival photographs we have little information about what has been done. We know that the enclosure was already disturbed by looters in 1897, when Quibell mounted the first scientific excavations at Hierakonpolis and the architect Somers Clark made the first plan. At this time the southern wall and gate were still covered by collapse. In 1905, John Garstang cleared this away while also making excavations within the enclosures on behalf of the University of Liverpool. We know he uncovered 166 late Predynastic graves some 1.5m below the level of the Fort's walls and in the process trenched around the walls of the internal structure, destroying connections and contexts. Only briefly reporting on this work, his notes on the cemetery excavation were published much later by Barbara Adams (1987) and although he roughly planned the structure, an accurate map of the Fort was not completed until 2000! (see Nekhen News 12). In 1934 Ambrose Lansing excavated further predynastic burials around the exterior of the monument, some partly beneath the Fort’s walls. Together these excavations have done extensive damage to the structure, lowering the ground level around and within the walls and exposing the foundations to the erosion, subsidence and more.
Weakness in the foundation is a particularly serious issue given how the structure was built. When the Fort was enlarged, the masonry of the first phase was encased by six rows (1.5m) of brick on the exterior and five rows (1.2m) on the interior, but this additional brickwork only abuts and does not bond with the original. Once the height of the first wall was reached, construction then continued upward as one massive wall, transversely bonded throughout. Thus, the lower 2.5m of the Fort is in essence three separate structures standing side by side, but not joined together. As a result, any damage to the foundations causes the added bricks to fall away, exposing the wall at the core while leaving the fully bonded masonry above dangerously unsupported. This is amply illustrated by the archival photographs showing catastrophic losses in just the last 100 years, the most recent being the collapse of the northeast corner in 2002.Thus, it was clear that if we had any hope of unlocking the mysteries of this enigmatic monument, it was critically in need of conservation and protection.
Luckily, a grant from the World Monuments Watch®, a program of the World Monuments Fund®, with additional and generous donations from the Friends of Nekhen, made it possible to undertake the most critical fixes necessary to stabilize this structure. Work on the emergency repairs began in 2004 and concluded in 2010, although, like old building everywhere, maintenance is on-going and there is always more work to be done. In 2012, in addition to essential maintenance and the repair of an expanding crack, the Fort was laser scanned, allowing us not only to rotate its image, but measure it with accuracy and assess its future needs.
Repair of the Fort came with a steep learning curve. You can follow our voyage of discovery at Interactive Dig Hierakonpolis.
Our first task was to figure out just how to go about this vast undertaking and perfect our brick recipe, which was not as easy as it might sounds. See: http://interactive.archaeology.org/hierakonpolis/field/forta.html
We then began our first fix: the repair of the southwest corner http://interactive.archaeology.org/hierakonpolis/field/fortb.html
But a wall is only as good as its foundations, so we had to strengthened the deflated ground surface to protect exposed foundations and bring the ground back up to its original level and higher. The fragile nature of the walls meant everything had to be done by hand (and donkey), one bucket at a time. It was slow work, but this low tech approach paid high dividends, improving both safety and appearance.
Before we could really get started we had to test our new bricks and our brick laying patterns. See: http://interactive.archaeology.org/hierakonpolis/field/fortd.html
Having worked out the kinks we then got down to business, with conservator, Richard Jaeschke at the helm devising the treatments based on close study of the surviving masonry. Most critically in need of attention was the area at the center of the west wall, where a large gap about 15m long and 3m high on the exterior was actively shedding bricks. Overall, repairs proceeded incrementally. As each area of collapse was usually accompanied by a disturbance of the underlying desert surface, reinforcement of the foundation is necessary. A monumental task, it took us two seasons! http://interactive.archaeology.org/hierakonpolis/field/fort06.html
Once the exterior had been repaired, we could now tackle the more complicated interior. Here the surface was a lunar landscape of heaps and depressions that needed to be leveled, while the large gap in the center of the interior west wall proved to be every bit as ugly and difficult as it first appeared. It gave us some sleepless nights but we eventually consigned it to history with great relief.
The damage that destabilized the monument also provided a view into its interior and allowed a better understanding of how it was built and how best to treat it. As most large mud brick constructions in Egypt, its walls are composed of transversely bonded stacked headers, with only a surface veneer of headers and stretchers. This type of construction allows the long walls of the structure to flex and settle, but relies on the corners to provide longitudinal support. With the loss of the corners, the walls begin to separate and lean outward, creating large cracks running through the matrix, which are then exacerbated by water flow and wild life habitation. Thus, one of the priorities of the work was to repair the corners. We were successful in repairing the crumbling southwest corner.
The northeast corner proved to be more of a handful, as only isolated tower of masonry remains here, the rest of the north wall having blown away with the prevailing wind ages ago. Its eastern face has been extensively eroded, while the second phase construction on its north face finally lost its grip in 2002 leaving a large mass in the upper walls unsupported. As at the other corners, the deep pits cut into the underlying desert surface by treasure hunters had to be reinforced with compacted earth to form a firm base. New masonry was then laid following the original extent of the second phase build. Although this looked a little excessive, it was necessary to provide support to the remaining original brick work. In the end we opted for a sloping buttress, which follows the ancient brick pattern at a slight incline inward. In future we hope to continue this work and make the repairs look more sympathetic to the monument, but for the moment it serves its purpose to keep this part of the Fort standing for some time to come.
In future we also hope to be able to attend to the northwest corner, lost in its entirety, and requiring about 80,000 bricks to repair. Relatively stable at the moment, its reconstruction is still crucial for the long term survival of the monument.
While the major focus of the work has been to stabilize the structure against further deterioration, in so doing we have striven to revive some of the original grandeur of this imposing monument. Where surviving evidence permits, the new masonry was built flush with the original façade and the decorative pilasters were reconstructed, but only where evidence for their placement is clear and where the conservation work would otherwise have obscured their presence. The overall effect we wish to achieve is one of both actual and visual strength, which will make the condition of the monument easier to monitor and maintain into the future. The enclosure is still actively visited by the local community on holidays and weekends, a practice we seek to encourage, as only local interest and respect for the structure will ward off the depredations of brick miners and insure its survival.
It took dedication, a lot of work and a lot of bricks—around 100,000 of them. Now able to withstand the future, the Fort still needs our help. An unstable section of wall near the main gate needs stabilizing soon. This is our next major project. But it will require more scaffolding than we now own and many more bricks. So please don’t leave us holding the Fort.
Join the Friends of Nekhen and help us make a difference. Conservation is not just a buzz word, but an important responsibility for all of us who cherish Egypt’s ancient heritage.
For more on the Fort as we explore and repair see Nekhen News volumes 11, 16-22, 24
For further information on the Fort see:
Alexanian, N. 1998. Die Reliefdekoration des Cheschemui aus dem sogenannten Fort in Hierakonpolis [in:] Grimal, N. (ed.), Les critères de datation stylistiques à l'Ancien Empire. Institute Francaise d'Archéologie Orientale, Bibliothèque d'Ètude 120: 3-21.
Friedman, R. 2007. New Observations on the Fort at Hierakonpolis.[in:] Hawass, Z. and Richards, J. (eds.) The Archaeology and Art of Ancient Egypt. Essays in Honor of David B. O’Connor. Annales du Service des Antiquités de l'Égypte Cahier 36. Cairo: 309-336
Garstang, J. 1907. Excavations at Hierakonpolis, at Esna, and in Nubia. Annales du Service des Antiquités de l'Égypte 8: 132-148.
Jaeschke, J.L & Friedman, R.F., 2011. Conservation of the Enclosure of Khasekhemwy at Hierakonpolis, Upper Egypt: Investigation, Experimentation and Implementation [in:] Rainter, L., Rivera, A.B. & Gandreau, D. (eds.), Terra 2008. Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on the Study and Conservation of Earthen Architectural Heritage, Bamako, Mali February 1-5, 2008. Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles: 189-193.
Kemp, B.J. 1963. Excavation at Hierakonpolis Fort 1905: A Preliminary Note, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 49: 24-28.
Lansing, A. 1935. The Egyptian Expedition 1934-1935. The Museum's Excavations at Hierakonpolis. Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Arts, New York 30: 37-45.