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Restoring a Mud-Brick Tribute to a Departed Egyptian King

Before the great pyramids, ancient Egyptian kings left less grandiose monuments to themselves: fortresslike sanctuaries enclosed by mud-brick walls. Inside these mortuary complexes, people presumably gathered to worship and perpetuate the memory of their departed ruler.

The crumbling, almost vanished remains of such structures, archaeologists say, attest to the political hierarchy and religion of the newly unified Egyptian state, beginning more than 5,000 years ago. As symbols of the early power of kings and their roles in the cosmic order, these mysterious funerary centers are considered ancestral in purpose to the classic pyramids of Giza.

The last and largest of the cult centers the only major one still standing in clearly recognizable form was erected for King Khasekhemwy, who ruled in the second dynasty around 2780 B.C. Known today as Shunet el-Zebib, the two-acre enclosure stands on a desert plain at Abydos, 300 miles south of Cairo near the burial grounds of early Egyptian rulers.

Now, in an ambitious effort to preserve this ruin, archaeologists, engineers and teams of artisans and laborers are shoring up the walls and gates of Shunet el-Zebib, ravaged by time and the elements and in danger of imminent collapse.

Officials of the project said in recent interviews that the work over the last two years had been slow and careful, but was at least halfway completed. More than 250,000 mud bricks, made on the scene from an ancient recipe, have been laid to build up the high walls. It has cost $1 million, and an equal amount is being raised to finish the job.

We are not trying to restore the original structure, producing a kind of Walt Disney thing, said David OConnor, an Egyptologist at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. We are preserving and stabilizing it as it is in a way that reflects its nearly 5,000-year history.

Dr. OConnor, director of the preservation work, has conducted excavations at Abydos that have exposed the ruins of eight such enclosures. He suspects there are one or two others yet to be discovered.

British archaeologists investigating the site more than a century ago described the enclosures as fortresses, but more recent excavations, particularly at the one dedicated to Khasekhemwy, revealed the association with royal mortuary practices. Even so, owing to a dearth of inscriptions, archaeologists remain largely in the dark as to just what went on inside these centers to memorialize the king in afterlife.

The rulers were not buried at these sites. The underground royal tombs at Abydos are a mile south of the excavated enclosures. Later kings were buried elsewhere inside pyramids, which adjoined stone temples where priests made offerings and conducted rituals for the king.

At Shunet el-Zebib, the pre-pyramid architecture represents a grandeur of purpose and an investment of time and labor signifying expanding royal power. High, thick double walls, more massive than for any previous mortuary complex, enclose a rectangular open space. Originally, the structure had four monumental gates and a whitewashed facade that glistened in the sun.

Most of these details have been lost or obscured by millennia of exposure, erosion and collapse, said Matthew Douglas Adams of N.Y.U., associate director of the project. But the enclosure itself still looms impressively over the surrounding landscape.

The open area in the center could accommodate a multitude of people, though archaeologists are not sure if the public was allowed inside. Traces of small chapels have been uncovered inside the walls. Each was dedicated to a specific king.

In two such chapels at other enclosures, Dr. OConnor said, remains were found of benches for statues or inscribed tablets, as well as evidence of spilled libations and burnt incense.

Writing in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by Ian Shaw, Kathryn A. Bard, an Egyptologist at Boston University, said, The paramount role of the king is certainly expressed in these monuments, and the symbols of the royal mortuary cult which evolved at Abydos were to become further elaborated in the pyramid complexes of later dynasties.

Betsy M. Bryan, a professor of Egyptian art and archaeology at Johns Hopkins University, who is not involved in the project, said the Abydos enclosures and also one at another site on the Nile, Hierakonpolis, were important artifacts in serious danger.

The enclosures, Dr. Bryan said, provide great information not only about burial preparation but about elite religious beliefs on the eve of Egypts big bang the pyramid age.

A generation after Khasekhemwy, King Djoser introduced burial pyramids. His tomb was the Step Pyramid (designed as a staircase to heaven for the king) near the ancient capital Memphis, outside modern Cairo. Scholars note that Djosers burial complex incorporates significant aspects of the Abydos enclosures. The pyramid was surrounded by walls enclosing chapels.

It was in the 26th century B.C., a few generations later, that even more powerful kings erected the majestic pyramids at Giza, the last surviving of the so-called seven wonders of the ancient world.

In 2001, archaeologists grew concerned for the survival of the Shunet el-Zebib enclosure. They were alarmed to discover that the structure was in danger of collapse.

Some of the mud-brick walls still stood at close to their original height of 35 feet and thickness of 15 feet. But there were gaping holes where whole sections had caved in. The four gates were in ruins. Deep cracks and crumbling brick threatened further disintegration, Dr. Adams said.

The Abydos project, which also includes archaeologists from Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, called in American experts to decide what could be done to forestall further damage. The experts William Remsen, a preservation architect; Anthony Crosby, a specialist in mud-brick and earthen architecture; and Conor Power, a structural engineer recommended immediate action.

With financing from the American Research Center in Egypt and the United States Agency for International Development and permits from the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, workers began rebuilding some fallen walls and strengthening others. Brick makers from a nearby village were recruited.

An analysis of the ancient bricks revealed their original formula: two parts mud, one part sand mixed in water and sun-dried for two weeks. The replacement bricks, each stamped with PYIFA (for Pennsylvania, Yale and the N.Y.U. Institute of Fine Arts), now fill the most vulnerable sections of the old walls.

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