JAEA 2, 2017, pp. 19-54
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The Dark Side of a Model Community: The ‘Ghetto’ of el-Lahun

David Mazzone

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El-Lahun1, also called Kahun or Illahun,2 is the site of one of the largest state-planned settlements dating back to the Late Middle Kingdom period of Egyptian history (c. 1850-1700 B.C.).3 This isolated site occupies an area of approximately 13 hectares in the present-day governorate of the Fayum (Fig. 1). The site lies on the west bank of the Nile, along the desert edge, north of the modern village of Al-Lāhūn (Fig. 2). It is around 1 km west of the pyramid of pharaoh Khakheperra Senwosret II.4 Kahun, as it was originally referred to by Petrie, was excavated and recorded in two separate fieldwork campaigns funded by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES). Petrie and his colleagues mapped nearly three quarters of the existing buildings (approximately two thousand rooms), and uncovered an impressive grid of mud-brick structures above paved floors.5

Fig. 1. The remains covered with sand of the city of el-Lahun (Photo Courtesy of Franck Monnier).

The function of the relatively large, dense and permanent settlement of el-Lahun was connected to the cultic activities that took place in a series of temples and sanctuaries. Apart from its architectural features, the social characteristics of this rather isolated Pyramidenstadt are still largely unexplored. The recent publication of two documentary archives from the site, covering a duration of approximately four generations, is central to any attempt to reconstruct the daily life of its working population.6

El-Lahun was one of several settlements of considerable size that are considered urban centers of the multi-ethnic Middle Bronze Age society. Complex activities were carried out in these centers and they were often permanently occupied for long periods of time.7 The appearance of urban centers in Egypt and on the ancient Levantine coast is often mentioned in conjunction with the emergence of urban planning. Social composition shifted from pre-urban rural to a partially urbanized state-controlled culture. In this context, el-Lahun is considered as a model of urban planning belonging to the ‘classical period’ of ancient Egypt.8

From the hieratic documents it is clear that the settlement was a compound with two zones of different names: Htp snwsrt mAa-xrw (‘satisfied is Senwosret, true of voice’) and sxm snwsrt mAa-xrw (‘powerful is Senwosret, true of voice’, hereafter called hetep and sekhem).9

Chronologically, but also functionally, the Pyramidenstadt of el-Lahun can be compared with wAH swt xa-kAw-Raw mAa-xrw m AbDw (‘enduring are the places of Khakaure, true of voice, in Abydos’, hereafter called Wa-sut). It was a similar urban settlement built south of Abydos,10 associated with the mortuary temple Nefer-Ka, for the perpetual cult of pharaoh Khakaure Senwosret III (c. 1878-1841 B.C.).

The original purpose of both establishments was to maintain the cults of their respective deceased pharaohs. These two satellite towns display features typical of state-controlled construction projects. Their architecture is extremely hierarchical and rigid in layout, organized into monolithic blocks along a strict orthogonal grid of streets.11 The presence of similar buildings and comparable urban features at el-Lahun and Abydos, and to some extent at Qasr el-Sagha,12 Tell el-Dab’a,13 and Abu Ghalib,14 indicates and confirms the existence of a consolidated ‘idea in town planning’, intended to organize the functions of collective life in the contemporary urban settlements of the Middle Kingdom’.15

Pyramid towns were associated with the pyramid complex and were located in the vicinity of the pyramid necropolis. The development of el-Lahun seems to conform to an essential principle of town planning in ancient Egypt in that they indicate a purely functional approach to the physical form of the urban environment. The state’s first goal was to identify the functional requirements. An urban form would follow and then a particular social formation would result.

Fig. 2. Map of Egypt with locations mentioned in the text.

The complexes at Abydos and el-Lahun show the same orthogonal layout of residential areas, the same overall shape of the settlement, and both seem to have accommodated large and multi-cultural urban communities.16 To modern observers the organization of the urban spaces in these towns invokes a narrative about life within. Their somewhat excessively institutional aspect together with the function and scale of the architectural features conveys a sense of both social inclusion and exclusion of specific groups from the center of social activity. A strict separation, defined by a rigid zoning system, created areas for the ‘élite’ and areas with ‘dwellings for the masses’. These were common features of the urban layouts of both el-Lahun and Abydos.17 Despite scant architectural remains, the footprint of the original grid-iron town planning at el-Lahun left significant evidence for a fundamental and rigid form of social stratification. The town planning and the consequent social order at el-Lahun may have imposed a condition of coercion over the population, effectively caging people in ‘ghetto-quarters’ with the intention of centralizing the resources of thousands of individuals.18

In this light, and in the sections that follow, this article reviews the contextual evidence from el-Lahun that seems to indicate that a punitive institution known as a xnrt19 (‘prison’, ‘fortress/enclosure’ or ‘workcamp’) was in existence in the western part of the town called the Sekhem.20

Fig. 3. The Fayum area in Egypt with the location of the ancient site of el-Lahun at 29°14' N, 30°59' E.

Overview of the urban form

At el-Lahun, Petrie unearthed evidence of significant poverty from the lanes of the sekhem.21 As reconstructed in his conclusions, the all-urban compound was originally surrounded by an enclosure wall of monumental proportions, which gradually disappeared over time due to erosion and the depredations of fertilizer diggers. Recent excavations have confirmed Petrie’s first impression that the western block of sekhem was a later addition against hetep’s enclosure wall. This was revealed by the remains of a low thin lining of limestone in the north-west corner of the enclosure wall.22

It is possible that an earlier nucleus of the town was already in existence, named Htp snwsrt anx Dt r nHH (‘satisfied is Senwosret alive for ever and eternity’), perhaps built to support the numerous irrigation projects in the area prior to the establishment of the pharaoh’s funerary cult.23 Senwosret-ankh would have been located in the middle of a series of projects to govern the abundant produce of the region of ancient lake Moeris (modern Birket Qarun). The town’s name appears on several clay seal impressions and is followed by the epithet anx Dt r nHH (‘alive for ever and eternity’) instead of the expected mAa-xrw (‘true of voice’).24 Senwosret-ankh could have been established at the beginning of the reign of Senwosret II, sometime around 1897 B.C. In the Fayum region it would undoubtedly have played a significant administrative and religious role. It seems that el-Lahun was therefore built in two successive chronological phases. A first phase, when Senwosret-ankh functioned as a local administrative center, and subsequently a second phase when the funerary cult was established, with a compound formed by a core town hetep and a western ‘ghetto’ built against the first enclosure.

Circulation within el-Lahun seems to have been restricted, due to the limited number of roads and the calculated subdivision of the urban area into separate sections. Blind alleys divided the settlement into uniform and equal blocks, with the majority of these blocks being long and narrow. Dwellings are small in floor plan and often similar in style, indicating a relatively constrained system of public interaction.25 At el-Lahun, like in most ancient Egyptian towns, it seems that streets did not have names. A stele, Cairo JE 47261, provides evidence that blocks probably had specific designations and that streets were just the empty space in-between. Few main streets appeared to be dominant, but in sekhem the cardo maximus was oriented north south and intersected by constricted secondary east-west lanes which ended in cul-de-sacs.26 Buildings facing these lanes show similar plan arrangements. The high density of the housing and the narrowness of the streets may have conveyed a feeling of bureaucratic control, which would have been particularly evident in the conglomeration of smaller units.

In the presence of such meticulous urban organization, it might be expected that towns such as el-Lahun would be oriented towards important features such as royal palaces or religious places of worship. Possibly the pyramid of Senwosret II was the most important monument in the area, but this was hardly visible from the town due to the great enclosure walls. The eastern ends of the longer blocks were nearly closed at the entrances to the north-south main road, indicating the possible use of a system of admittance for individuals arriving and leaving. The entire western suburb was a closed environment. Its prominent axiality, the symmetrical arrangement of houses, the walled areas with limited access and a strict system of gates or entrances to pathways was perhaps required so that a few watchmen could effectively control it, perhaps even day and night, a circumstance already suggested by Petrie.27 The only preserved gateway into the city was found at the north east. It gave access to an east-west running street. The gate appears unfortified and unusually narrow for the primary entrance into the town. Perhaps the surveillance of the entrance was under the control of an jmy-r aA xnrt (‘door-keeper of a Prison’).28 With the width of the main streets and of the minor lanes reduced to a minimum, sekhem seemed to have been a walled town with restricted circulation and a large population, and so it would have felt overcrowded (Fig. 3).29

Fig. 4. The plan of el-Lahun reproduced from Petrie’s reports. In yellow is the workers’ quarters at el-Lahun, the ‘ghetto’ sxm snwrt mAa-xrw. In blue are the ‘élite residences’ of the eastern suburb Htp snwsrt anx Dt r nHH.

The internal wall dividing hetep from sekhem has the same characteristics as the northern and eastern boundary walls of the settlement site. It excluded any direct communication between the two main sectors and it also indicates an intentional, strict, administrative and social separation.30 The width of the west enclosure wall dividing hetep from sekhem (c. 3.2 m wide), its sloping sides and, more significantly, the impressive elevation of more than 6 m when complete, imply that no view was allowed over the enclosure walls, surely inducing a sense of restriction and seclusion. The monumentally sized enclosure walls would have been impressive to the inhabitants of el-Lahun, and certainly represented a very significant investment of resources.

At the southern end, the regular north-south direction of the western boundary wall bends slightly, but significantly, to become aligned with the pharaoh’s funerary temple which is located directly to the south. The slightly different alignment of the southernmost house-blocks adjoining this boundary wall, in comparison to the rest of blocks at sekhem, could be the result of a later phase of construction associated with the cult temple to provide services dedicated to its distinctive function.31

Monumentality, conformity and organization according to architectural rules at el-Lahun seems to have conveyed important social messages to the town’s inhabitants. The consistent pattern, imposed by the state, restricted and shaped the dwelling forms and limited personal choices. Social rules, physical constraints, and imposed directives from above determined how people carried out and arranged their domestic activities, within and outside their houses. The power and supremacy of the institutions were first used to mobilize the resources to build these vast projects. This demonstrated their authority to divert a large number of people and force them to conform to set rules. The structures then reinforced this idealized vision for the society and its individuals, and maintained the social differentiation necessary to transform ‘chaos’ into ‘order’.

From farms to townhouses: The emergence of state planned towns

The transition that took place from rural villages to state planned settlements, often referred to as the ‘urban revolution’ in the Nile valley, is a poorly documented and little understood developmental phase.32 Our knowledge of the social and ideological context in which the evolution from village life to the ‘civilization’ of planned towns took place, is inadequate given the complexity of the phenomenon.33 In Egypt, the layouts of prehistoric settlements like Merimde Beni-Salame34 and el-Ma‛adi35 provide evidence of primitive urban planning and community organization, with rows of huts positioned along what look like roughly-formed roads, as early as the Fayum Neolithic (c. 4000 B.C.). The archaic remains reveal a series of dwellings organized in approximately rectangular blocks, along straight streets, evidence of the initial stages of a planning strategy, in sharp contrast to the more spontaneous organic developments of the majority of farming villages.36

Although the lexicon used to describe these developments remains unclear, terms such as Hwt, mDt (‘walled, rectangular (?) settlement’, sometimes also used for ‘royal funerary domain’), njwt (‘walled, round (?) settlement’), dmjt (‘town’, ‘quarter’ or ‘sanctuary’), wHyt (‘village’), dmj (‘farming village’), for example, are used in Egyptology, but they tend to cover a rather large and often vague range of meanings.37 Clearly, clusters of small dwellings at the back of a sanctuary cannot be considered a ‘town’ by even the broadest definition.38 More securely, some of the earliest evidence for an urban community is recorded in the annals of the Palermo Stone under the pharaoh Horus-Nebmaat Snefru (c. 2600-2450 B.C.). Several foundation ceremonies are recorded for the first two dynasties, and also the ‘making of thirty-five houses’, almost certainly a new settlement for funerary personnel and priests.39 The emergence of these earliest ‘planned settlements’ in Egypt, but also across the entire Fertile Crescent, contrast with the more familiar organic developments.40

Examples of towns with a certain degree of standardization between sites are well attested in the Old Kingdom. Several urban centers emerged41 characterized by a combination of organic layouts and closely packed streets, often thought to represent the typical Egyptian town.42 Most likely, this arrangement was representative of the majority of the ancient urban settlements in early Egypt.43 The ancient urban settlements of Elephantine,44 Dahshur,45 and Memphis46 are examples of ancient towns which evolved organically.47 They are characterized by a lack of noticeable overall direction of growth, and contained a compact community with a variety of trade specializations, which were organized and developed into different quarters. In these settings, most likely one house was added to an earlier one along narrow streets, according to arbitrary alignments.

From the beginning of the 4th Dynasty, the transformation from farming villages to urban agglomerates and, in a similar way, the shift from ‘farms’ to ‘town houses’ was doubtless triggered by the emergence of strong centralized government, an increasingly military attitude, the concentration of resources, and social control of the wider population.48 The Decree of Dahshur of pharaoh Merytawy Pepi I (c. 2300-2181 B.C.) mentions two early pyramid towns built near the pyramids of Sneferu.49 Another town, currently under investigation, is Heit el-Ghurab at Giza. Its inhabitants would have supported the mortuary cults. It extends over an area of c. 0.65 ha to the east of the main pyramids, in the vicinity of the causeway of the monument of Queen Khentkawes (late 4th Dynasty, c. 2529-2471 B.C.).50 Such settlements seem to have had a series of dedicated quarters in a similar manner to el-Lahun. There were quarters for bureaucratic officials, priests and overseers employed in the temples, on one side, and a more congested sector for larger number of workmen involved in the heavy toil at the pyramids and sanctuaries, on the other. An early stage of urbanism can be recognized in these state planned developments of the Old Kingdom. They are physical manifestations of an ideology inspired and controlled by a dominant élite group, who were intent on building institutionalized mechanisms enforcing community integration.51

The natural, original, form of Egyptian society in Antiquity was rural village life, and it was inherently conservative. It was characterized by a society in which the majority of its members lived in relatively small homogeneous groups, based on closely knit primary relations, usually involving immediate family, and a neighborhood that was inter-related.

There are good reasons for inferring that the subsequent establishment of state control over the built environment was characterized by the dissolution of the model of civitas prevalent in the Predynastic and Old Kingdom periods, and the intensification of social complexity and social control. Ancient Egyptian society progressed through a profound socio-cultural change as a result of the diffusion of new planned settlements. With the abandonment of the conservative thinking typical of traditional rural life, the cultural evolution undoubtedly had consequences for social relations.52 As well as state planning, state architecture was closely related to the governmental system. State authority enabled control over both the physical environment and its inhabitants.53 Ideology, as an active force within the society of the Middle Kingdom, was communicated via both material and symbolic elements, and was undoubtedly influential in shaping the urban architectural forms of the new planned settlements.

Where the symbolism of architecture emerged, it was very closely linked to royal ideology and was used as a form of ‘monumental propaganda’.54 Urban planning in Egypt first became systematic within defended forts and work camps built by the royal establishment. In these developments, orthogonal planning was widely used to establish the urban layout and the housing arrangements, using an architectural language of rigid grids, straight lines and square corners; clearly the manifestation in the built environment of strict norms and rigid social rules.55

The physical environment: urban order, housing and lifestyle

At el-Lahun, the largest concentration of houses in the west compound Sekhem-Senwosret is distributed along eleven parallel east-west lanes extending off a main north-south running street (Fig. 4). For Petrie, it was evident that the west block was a ‘barrack-like camp’ or a sort of ‘dormitory for confined people’.56 The majority of blocks are of similar size and have the same internal layout, with a prevalence of rectangular rooms of two or three standard size variants.57 Its design was repetitive in room arrangement and in allocation of space. The use of an integrated orthogonal interior plan suggests a higher level of planning than simply common alignments or semi-orthogonal urban blocks. Even though only the lower courses of their walls survive, we can conclude that this repetition reflects a precise vision of society in the town. This man-made environment is the expression of social division, made by a ruling élite class to separate themselves from those located at the bottom of the social ladder.58 The house units in the sample at el-Lahun range in ground floor area from about 44 to about 170 square meters for the most generous units.59

Fig. 5. Detailed plan of the workmen quarters 'ghetto' sxm snwsrt mAa-xrw (after Petrie's reports).

In contrast to this regularity, the nature of mud-brick generally encouraged development of the houses by gradual enlargement. In the Fayum mud was much cheaper and easier to obtain than stone, and as a result, all of the structures, whether private houses or royal palaces, were built of sun dried mud brick. Studies of mud brick architecture have shown that when a house collapsed or was pulled down, the mass of debris was not necessarily removed but sufficiently levelled before another house was erected on top of it. The rectangular ground plans of houses at el-Lahun indeed show that rooms were added or subtracted when family groups extended, using the most common building material available. The simplicity with which additions could be built allowed houses to ‘grow’ as required, and as opportunities for expansion occurred such as through the destruction or abandonment of adjacent proprieties.60

Even with the excellent survey conducted by Petrie, we do not possess a reliable source of information regarding these changes.61 The extensive re-use of material mixed-up traces of structural alterations corresponding to different owners, which perhaps also indicate changes in the rank of the inhabitants.62 Looking at the pattern of altered structural walls it is possible to infer that, originally, all blocks of the houses were extended as a standard scheme for the full extent of the west precinct, and perhaps extended into the unexcavated area at south.63 After the initial flourishing of the settlement during the Middle Kingdom, the division of the residential quarters into elongated strips was maintained into the New Kingdom era, however, larger dwellings in the south-west area may have been part of a subsequent re-construction, aligning houses with the temple. They may have accommodated the priests and lay personnel responsible for the perpetual cult of the deceased king, during this later phase.64 Suggestions have been put forward that they provided temporary accommodation and offices for the high-status temple functionaries and the temple staff, in direct proximity to the place of the cult. These larger dwellings may have been the result of a longer-term commitment to maintaining rituals and the ritual purity of cult attendants and temple functionaries.65

Reconstructing and characterizing site use through time

Understanding the chronological sequences and site stratification at el-Lahun is challenging. After the death of its founder, Senwosret II, el-Lahun went through a series of occupational phases that spanned many decades. These are evident in the archaeological record, especially in the southern part of the west suburb, however, alterations made during the later history of the settlement, mainly during the New Kingdom, also appear in Petrie’s survey plans.

In places, the houses of the earliest strata of the settlement are badly destroyed by the more recent building activities of the late Middle Kingdom, but in the case of the layout of Rank B, the sequence of dwellings of medium size, identical shape, and uniform appearance is remarkable.66

Reconstructing the overall architectural form of a xnrt is not easy. There is no documentary or pictorial evidence for what a ‘special work camp’ looked like. Quirke has argued that xnrwt were initially defense related but ‘impermanent edifices of loose stone or organic materials’ which roughly resembled a well-planned, regularly constructed and well-organized ‘district’. Hence, xnrwt seem to have been qd (‘assembled’) but were not necessarily intended to endure, at least in the face of offensive military action.67

How much can be said about the feelings of those who lived in these type of dwellings? This is difficult to answer due to the concept’s multi-dimensional nature. Any hypothesis must be related to the local environment as well as to the design and functionality of the dwellings. Central to understanding peoples’ feelings and quality of life in this environment is the ability to evaluate the various factors in play.

Households cannot be studied in isolation, but need to be contextualized within their wider social setting. In the west block of Sekhem-Senwosret, there does not seem to have been any significant natural or man-made elements within sight or in the surrounding environment, meaning that it was a largely barren landscape. There were neither distant nor varied views nor additional spaces such as public areas or meeting places within the urban scheme. In fact, el-Lahun did not include communal or shared gardens, courtyards or private open spaces. In ‘work camps’ such as el-Lahun, it seems that there was no opportunity for public interaction within a social space, which could have contributed to a better quality of living.

The multiple dwellings were arranged in ranks with no traces of communal property within the complex. The buildings shared a common orientation aligned with the rectangular compound wall, and this rectilinear form may have been particularly susceptible to prevailing winds.68 Government control and enforced standardization can also be manifested by the use of standard units of length, but at el-Lahun the hypothesis put forward by Doyen, for an urban scheme based on a unique unit of length for the construction of the whole settlement, appears weak.69

At el-Lahun, only one outer door opens to the street from each property. The level of privacy this provided is unclear, but it should be expected that the entrances provided a degree of privacy for the interior even when the door was open. All households forming part of a group were positioned next to each other in a patterned arrangement. It is not clear if discrete groups of inhabitants occupied each separate structure. Many of the houses seem excessively small, with only four small rooms that can be considered ‘living spaces’ each, arranged back to front in rows in most cases. Doyen defines them as ‘pièce ďaccès’ (a),‘annexe’ (b),‘circulation’ (c),‘antichambre’ (d),‘pièces terminales’ (e).70 When interpreting the differences between rooms it is easy to fall in the trap of assuming that a single room was allocated a single function, whereas the reality in ancient times was usually more complicated. In the majority of buildings there was a predominance of rectangular rooms with widths of 2 or 3 multiples of standard vault spans, indicated by the positions of structural walls of the appropriate thickness. This arrangement is characteristic of mud-brick vaulting which was probably similar in form to better preserved examples from the Middle Kingdom, such as the cenotaphs at Abydos. It is likely that the interiors of the chambers were roofed with barrel vaults in mudbrick in the so called ‘Nubian’ or ‘skewed construction’ style,71 unlike other domestic examples from the New Kingdom at Deir el-Medina or Tell el-Amarna.

The whole settlement was surrounded with a six-meter high monumental wall on its four sides. Kemp, Uphill and Smith, and others, concord with the idea that the settlement was closed to the south by a fourth side consisting of a ‘dike-like’ wall, as Petrie anticipated. The only ancient entrance to the settlement so far identified is in the eastern enclosure wall, with a width of less than two meters (c. 2.8 cubits). It is still unclear if any other town gates existed to provide access to traffic routes linking this community to other contemporary urban centers, to the north, such as the towns of el-Lisht,72 Medinet el-Madi,73 Memphis, Dahshur, or perhaps towards the south, as far as Abydos and Elephantine.

The separation walls and enclosure fortifications are often assumed to have been built for defensive purposes, but despite their magnitude, more careful analysis suggests that they may have been erected primarily in order to segregate and control the work-force. Their primary purpose may in fact have been symbolic, to dwarf and dominate the surrounded individuals with their monumental proportions,74 and as such they articulated a form of monumental propaganda.

This conclusion can be justified in part by considering that Egypt, at the time the work-camp was constructed, was not at risk of attack or raids during the late Middle Kingdom. Structural aspects and symbolic elements imply that ideology was an active force in shaping the earliest state-planned settlements. Massive elements of architecture were ideal for population mind control and indoctrination and for the dissemination of propaganda.75 The thick wall dividing the two parts of the settlement seems to support this logical explanation. The two blocks Hetep-Senwosret and Sekhem-Senwosret co-existed at el-Lahun within a system of separate but ‘contained communities’ in which enclosure walls, rather than active force, impressed and intimidated the population, imposing differentiated status, and standing for power, influence and social control.76

Evidence from the First Intermediate Period demonstrates that local families in power frequently decided to build enclosure walls.77 Town walls in antiquity, according to several authors, invite a functionalist explanation rather than a structural one.78 The form of the walls at el-Lahun suggests limitations on mobility and intimidation were the design criteria, rather than protection from external threat. As an extension of this logic, we should consider the possibility that in the Ancient Near East, walls were not only constructed as defenses against an external enemy, but perhaps more often as protection against possible internal state disorder and turmoil.79 Upon deeper examination, the arrangement of the town at el-Lahun is more complicated than originally assumed.

Apart from uncovering the major architectural elements, investigations of the town have produced other informative archaeological discoveries. The re-flooring of some of the big ‘mansions’ over burials in the eastern part of the town suggest that the town was occupied for many generations, and that it was abandoned at least twice.80 As often happened in the dynastic history of Egypt, once the maintenance of the mortuary cult of a pharaoh ceased, the funerary establishment and related town were mostly deserted, and parts of it were subsequently used as burial areas. A significant number of Asiatics were found in the burials at el-Lahun, but it is difficult to conclude if they were slaves brought into Egypt following conflicts abroad, as war prisoners, or as merchandise to be traded in exchange with others, or possibly both of the above.81

One of the important aspects that Petrie noted was the introduction of the custom of burying infants within the interior of several houses at el-Lahun, a practice that was not originally part of traditional Egyptian culture or rituals.82 Several wooden boxes were found in-situ containing infant burials, which scholars have interpreted as indicative of high childbirth mortality:

ʽ…beneath the brick floors of the rooms were, however, the best place to search; not only for hidden things, such as a statuette of a dancer and pair of ivory castanets, but also for numerous burials of babies in wooden boxes.83 These boxes had been made for clothes and household use, but were used to bury infants, often accompanied by necklaces and other things…ʼ.84

Artefacts in bronze, such as a mirror tang, weights, and large amounts of pottery were discovered by Petrie and identified as imported goods from their morphological styles and compositions.85 Burials attested across the whole settlement and, more intriguingly, within domestic contexts, have shown that after a first occupational phase, the town was inhabited during a second phase of intense activity in the New Kingdom, during the reign of Nebmaatre Amenhotep III (c. 1391-1353 B.C.). Petrie was certainly right in classifying the site of el-Lahun as the workers’ town related to the construction of the pyramid of Senwosret II. Only in the second season did he recognize the sparser evidence for occupation during the 18th Dynasty, in particular during the reign of Amenhotep III. The presence of later burials in the south-eastern part of the site indicate that el-Lahun was uninhabited and partially in ruins by the late 18th Dynasty.86

Characterizing the inhabitants of the xnrt wrt, the ‘Great Prison’

The minority of officials and élite people in Ancient Egyptian society have received a disproportionate amount of scholarly attention, and this misrepresents the realities of the past. The workers that lived in the high-density town suburbs of el-Lahun are a good example. They would hardly have been noticed were it not for the recovery of documents recording information about their everyday lives from the town and elsewhere in Egypt. These have provided information about the large population in the lower social strata who would otherwise have left few traces of their existence.87

The formation of a social class system and the origins of inequality and social stratification in Ancient Egypt are matters of some scholarly debate. El-Lahun offers the opportunity to explore to what extent differences between social groups and diverse backgrounds can transform a view of Ancient Egyptian society from one of an orderly and reverential culture into one of an environment rich with confrontational situations.88

There is certainly evidence of abundant cultic activity at Sekhem-Senwosret.89 From the highest offices down to the household level, participation in the royal cults was enforced. There were at least four temples90 in Sekhem-Senwosret, and there is also evidence of other cults, such as for Hathor. Hieratic documents attest to other institutions involved with the cults such as the Snwt nt Htpw-nTr (‘granary of divine offering’) and Sna n Htpw-nTr sxm snwsrt (‘food production area of divine offering of Sekhem-Senwosret’),91 but the majority of the documents recovered provide anecdotal evidence of a much harsher daily life. The administrative texts are pre-occupied with keeping track of prisoners and making sure they complete their allocated work.

The majority of the papyri recovered from domestic and religious settings at el-Lahun consist of records of the daily interactions of the inhabitants. These activities were conducted through and recorded in a large number of administrative texts.92 Many of them manifest personal or social disputes, and reveal a rigid system of rules operating in the community. The central context of the discussion at el-Lahun is the term xnrt wrt (‘great prison’), often mentioned in connection with the community of Sekhem-Senwosret.93 For some scholars the translation of the term xnrt remains ambiguous, but this masculine noun may originate from the verb stem xnr (‘to imprison’, ‘to restrain’, and ‘to confine’).94 Faulkner95 related the term to the word xnrj (‘criminal, prisoner’), implying an institution equivalent to a prison. Gardiner96 also considered the meaning to be connected to the root xn(r)j to ‘restrain’. The Wörterbuch defined the term xnrt as ‘prison’, ‘fortress’, or a kind of ‘barrier’.97 The translation and interpretation of this term was amply discussed by Hayes,98 and more recently reviewed by Quirke.99 Hayes saw a link between institutions such as the xnrt and concepts such as ‘prison’, or in the case of xnrt wrt (the ‘great prison’). Roccati100 followed this interpretation, finding that the xnrt wrt of Thebes denoted a ‘campo di concentramento’ (a concentrations camp) that provided forced labor for a series of state projects. Quirke’s work provided a very thorough survey and analysis of the relevant textual data, and he raised some objections against Hayes’ interpretation, concluding that for these terms a softer rendition such as ‘compound’ or ‘enclosure’ would be more appropriate.101 Despite the ambiguities of Egyptian terminology in the documents of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, and several alternative interpretations, in the majority of cases this term refers to Hsb.w (‘conscripted’ or ‘confined men/women’ or similar). One of the best known examples of the use of the word is in a tale from the Westcar Papyrus. It describes an event that took place in the court of king Khufu102 involving a xnrt, who is clearly considered to be a xnrj (‘criminal’ or ‘confined man’):103

Dd.jn Hm.f jn jw mAat pw pA Dd iw.k rx.tj Ts tp Hsq Dd.jn +dj tjw jw.j rx.kwj jtj anx wDA snb nb.j Dj.jn Hm.f jmj jn.tw n.j xnrj nty m xnr.t wd nkn.f

‘…then his majesty (Khufu) said: is it the truth what they say that you know how to tie a severed head ? And Djedi said: yes, I know how to, sovereign my lord, life-prosperity-health. Then his majesty said: let me be brought a criminal who is in prison and inflict the injuries on him’.104

Similarly, when describing the tragic events that took place during the First Intermediate Period, the Admonitions of Ipuwer recorded in the P. Leiden 334, refer to the widespread deterioration of the institutions. A significant episode concerns the escape of a number of individuals from a xnrt, who were found walking freely in the streets:

jw ms hpw nw xnrt djw r xnty Sm.tw m ms Hr.s m jwwyt

‘…indeed, the laws of the xnrt are thrown out and men walk on them in public places’.

In another passage a similar situation of scandal is described as follows:

jw ms xnrt wrt m pr-hA.f Hwrw Hr Smt jyt m Hwwt wry.wt

‘…indeed, the great xnrt is a popular resort, and poor men come and go to the Great Mansions’.105

Here again textual evidence conveys the sense of undesirable freedom of movement of individuals outside what should have been a place of incarceration. This episode could only have happened if those individuals had previously been detained in the establishment. Clearly they had been released or had left their restricted condition during a period of political instability and uprisings, when social control was evidently more relaxed.106 Similarly, texts from the end of the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom Duties of a Vizier included a specific task associated with a Sfd n xbnty (‘criminal register’)107 which indicates a list of individuals, certainly a group, who were kept in the xnrt wrt (‘great prison’):

‘Now as for every act of the vizier when hearing cases in his bureau. As regards anyone who is not efficient in every duty concerning which he (the vizier) questions him, namely the one who will be unable to exculpate himself in a hearing instituted on the matter, he shall be entered into the criminal register which is in the Great Prison. The same goes for the one who will be unable to exculpate his messenger, and if their wrongdoings will occur for the second time, then it shall be reported and passed on to the vizier that they are registered on the criminal register, with a statement of the case for which they were previously entered on the register in accordance with their offences’.108

These criminal registers were surely necessary for controlling such institutions, and they indicate the complexity of organizing them, particularly with respect to the number of people involved and the level of activity described. A state workforce could potentially have been concentrated in the xnrwt, the ghettos of the njwt mAwt (‘new towns’). Those institutions may have served as the basis of the state’s corvée labor workforce.109 It seems likely that the main purpose of the xnrwt was to amass and control, on a considerable scale, a workforce of convicts, criminals and captives, either prisoners of war and/or natives. This restricted the social status of the convicts, while making them available as required for cult activities, private household work, quarrying, mining, and large-scale construction works. It is also possible that people could have been forcibly relocated from the countryside in order to construct and populate new forts and planned towns.

During the Middle Kingdom, a large number of captives, Asiatic/Western Asiatic (Levantine) and Nubian, were taken by force to Egypt after successful campaigns as a result of the expansion of the Egyptian state over that time.110 Many of these non-acculturated groups, especially those mentioned in papyri with the ethnic label aAm.w/aAm.t (‘male/female Asiatic’),111 were transported to Egypt, organized into gangs and sent to work in ghetto camps or on estates,112 while others ended up in private ownership.113 This movement of people must have had a significant effect on the Egyptian demographic, and in particular on the urban communities which were established during the Middle Kingdom.

Obliged to work: Anecdotes from the hieratic documents

It is still a challenge for Egyptologists to explain the huge volumes of construction work achieved in pharaonic Egypt, but it is probably safe to assume that the work could only have been achieved under some form of pressure, and that consequently, it depended on some levels of coercion and conscription. Collective ‘religious enthusiasm’, ‘devotion to the sovereign’, and ‘social obligations’ could have represented the less forceful motivations to work,114 but the administrative documents attest to a legally codified system of slavery or servitude at el-Lahun. It should be noted that the concept of ‘slave’ is essentially derived from later Roman law, but there is evidence for the organization of labor into divisions or ‘phyles’ spanning all of Ancient Egyptian history. It was the system put in place to organize workers employed in quarries. Stone masons were typically designated as members of teams involved in construction works or in tomb preparations, and in a few instances also in military projects.115 Similarly, people of foreign origin who lived in Egypt must have been obliged to adapt to the social and cultural systems of their host country and were probably subjected to restrictions on their freedom.116 It is, however, not always clear from texts attesting to slavery in the late Middle Kingdom which mention the sale of labor, whether they are referring to the person or to his/her labor.117

At el-Lahun, the term mrjt (‘dependent’) is frequently used to refer to foreign captives brought to Egypt, primarily as property of the king, and assigned to temple workshops, granaries and to the fields. According to Bakir, n-Dt refers to subjugated foreigners and people who contributed service to religious institutions. The population of el-Lahun, composed mainly of confined men and women, often of Syrian-Palestinian origins and scarcely motivated by religious devotion to the sovereign, were most likely subject to a certain amount of coercion.118 Seclusion and beatings were probably common, and were most likely aimed toward subduing the foreigners.119 There is evidence documenting this in the historical record, in literature and in iconography. The role of foreigners within Egyptian society, a society considered by some to have been liberal in some respects, was clearly one of total subjugation:

js aAm Xsy qsn pw n bw ntf Ahw mw StA m xt aSA wAwt jry qsn m-a Dww n Hms.f m st wat stSw aqw rdwy.fy jw.f Hr aHA Dr rk @r

‘…the miserable Asiatic! He is wretched because of the place he is in, lacking of water, scarce in wood, many are its roads and painful because of mountains. He has not settled in one place. Food forces his legs forward, he has been fighting since the time of Horus’.120

Based on the evidence, the living conditions of these confined men and women must have been low due to poverty, cramped quarters and general overcrowding in the town.121 While a controlled level of hostility and forced assimilation of social groups into the social system were essential in this setting, at el-Lahun there were all the components of a violent society in which social cohesion was achieved by the use of physical force.122

A high concentration of different ethnic groups in such a relatively small area must have produced social problems typical of small districts, rather than of larger urban contexts.123 Maintaining social cohesion, perhaps in conjunction with the corvée system of manual labor, a type of tax system in the form of manual work, must have required a strict regime controlling behavior, attendance, and monitoring progress. From the institutional point of view, the intent seemed to have been to remove the personal cultural traditions of the rural individuals and force them to conform to the patterns of urban behavior required for state labor projects. It is likely, therefore, that the society was susceptible to class-based, racial, and ethnic disputes between different groups, and between those in charge and the subordinates. Although ideas and beliefs are only indirectly preserved in the archaeological record, it is possible to interpret the walls around the houses and the districts as instruments for regulating social stresses.124 The architecture manifested social divisions and distinctions as a form of ‘institutionalized racism’.

From the 4th Dynasty onwards, the pharaohs obtained the necessary workforce of Hmw/Hmwt (‘male/female slave’) from Asia and Nubia. Often the foreigners were brought to Egypt via trade or as prisoners of war, and were assigned to local temples or to prominent officials.125 It appears that inside xnrwt-quarters, every captive was forced as an individual to execute the required hAw (‘manual labor’) as demanded by the institutions, or find a jwAw/jwAyt (‘male/female substitute’).126

A document of the time of Amenemhat III (c. 1844-1797 B.C.) recovered in a similar urban context seems to depict the control of food supplies and relief from ‘deprivation’ and ‘starvation’ as another aspect of the labor system during the Middle Kingdom Egypt. Individuals from the desert seeking refuge in Egyptian towns and volunteering to work are attested in several places.127 The papyri P. BM10752 contains on its recto a military dispatch from Elephantine, one of the so-called ʽSemna dispatchesʼ, a series of reports on Egyptian border activities from the fortress of Semna West:

‘Copy of a document which was brought to him as something brought from the fortress of Elephantine as something sent by a fortress to another fortress. For the gladdening of your heart, may you be healthy and living. To the effect two Medjay-men three Medjay-women and two infants came down from the desert hills in year 3 third month of the winter season day 27(?). They said, we have come to serve the Palace (i.e. the Pharaoh) life- prosperity-health. It was asked about the condition of the desert. They said we did not hear anything, except that the desert population is starving to death so they said. Then the servant there caused them to be dismissed to their desert on this day’.128

Based on sources such as the one above, it is reasonable to think that many individuals were forced to live in state-planned towns because they had little choice over their lifestyle.

Although largely conjectural, scholars have estimated that the population of el-Lahun was up to 9000 individuals.129 This is based on the capacity of the granaries,130 and taking into account Butzer’s hypothesis of a total Egyptian population of 1.1 million during the Middle Kingdom.131 Estimates of the town’s population vary considerably based on estimates of housing density, the possibility that the dwellings had an upper story, and estimates of the storage capacity of the granaries in large houses, pushing the upper limit up to as many as 11,000 inhabitants.132 A consistent number of documents mention Asiatics who were permanent residents in the town. Generic ethnonyms such as aAm.w/aAm.t (‘male/female Asiatic’) or nHsy (‘Nubian’), were used by the ancient Egyptians to refer to both foreigners living outside of Egypt, and ‘adapted members’ living in the Egyptian social system, i.e. assimilated members of Egyptian society.133 The terms remained vague and did not differentiate individuals according to their precise origins, as these were rarely of importance to the Egyptians. Nevertheless, residents came from numerous areas comprising the Levant, Syria, and Mesopotamia. As discussed above, it appears that the individuals also included Egyptians who, due to famine, debt and the like gave up their legal freedoms voluntarily. They were usually referred to as bAk.w (‘servants’) but generally not as xm.w (‘slaves’). The generic word for aAm.w (‘male Asiatic’), became synonymous with ‘slave’ to indicate those condemned to live on the fringes of Egyptian society, in awful conditions, occupied in heavy labor in the mines and in the quarries of the eastern desert. The term Xsy (‘miserable’, ‘wretched’ or ‘vile’) is often associated with it.134 Lorton noted that in the context of the Instruction for King Merikare this emphasizes the misery of their daily life and their hopeless situation.135

Members of workforces engaged in heavy labor, especially during the unbearably hot months of the summer, would have had little or no autonomy. Furthermore, if they were held in isolated town-communities with all of their relatives, they would have had little reason to escape. The individual’s relationship with the state was one governed by an ideology centered on the king and the subjugation of non-Egyptians. The longevity of the state136 depended on this ideology. It drove the workforce to feel obliged to perform corvée on major royal projects, such as pyramid building, and to work effectively within a disciplined but effective construction system. The majority of the time spent awake for most Egyptians seems to have been devoted to work, or, in the case of the bureaucrats and/or officials, to the organization and inspection of work.137

The west suburb of el-Lahun also accommodated the priests and the personnel associated with the temples in the town and the royal mortuary cult of the pharaoh.138 Temple personnel included doorkeepers, musicians and dancers, mostly women, as well as ritual celebrants.139 Inhabitants of el-Lahun were perhaps sorted into different suburbs or zones according to their socio-economic status, their ethnic affiliation, their seniority by age, religious beliefs, family and clan structures, trades or craft specializations. This type of arrangement may have been imposed via official zoning regulations. El-Lahun, Abydos and also Thebes are good examples of late Middle Kingdom royal establishments containing this type of prison-like camp within their boundaries.

The xnrt in el-Lahun is mentioned in several daily reports which attest to the careful management of camp populations, in this case the relocation of an individual by force in the great xnrt of el-Lahun:

‘I speak so that I let you know regarding having him in the great enclosure camp…saying…’.140

In another case an Asiatic called Jarw is to be transferred from the special Asiatic camp together with his son and other individuals.141 Registers and letters142 mentioning the nHsyw/nHsyw.t (Nubians) and mDAyw/mDAyw.t (Medjay) include their occupations and titles. The textual records agree with the archaeological record in indicating that foreign slave workers were almost as numerous as the native Egyptians.143 Several individuals were grouped together and labelled as hb.w (‘dancers’) and hs.w (‘singers’), designations that should be regarded as their title and profession, while others were designated as mDAyw guards.144

Some Aamu and Medjay men mentioned145 refer to more privileged foreigners among the temple workforce, using Egyptian names for the most part, and in some cases outnumbering the Egyptians.146 Some names had Egyptian aspects but were Asiatic in origins147 and it appears that Asiatics who had another title were no longer obliged to use the term aAm before their name.148 Undoubtedly, after extended contact with the Egyptians, Asiatics and Nubians became settlers, and so a steady influx of new imported workers could have been necessary for the state to maintain the working population of towns and estates.149 Despite assimilation in some respects, the settled immigrants retained a lower status than native Egyptians.

Immigrants were required to leave behind their own countries and cultures, which were regarded as disgraceful and hostile, and adapt to the Egyptian ethic of servitude to the reigning king. They would eventually no longer be referred to as xAs.tyw (‘foreigners’), an adjective reserved for people living in lands outside of Egypt.150

Immigrant people who lived and worked in Hetep-Senwosret and Sekhem-Senwosret and the surrounding area were subordinate to several officials such as the jmy-r xnrw (‘overseer of prisoners’),151 the jmy-r xnrt (‘overseer of a prison’)152 or the jmy-r xnrt n r-aA-wr (‘overseer of the prison of the Great Doorway’).153 Their lives were under the scrutiny of the sS n xnrt wrt (‘scribe-secretary of the great enclosure’)154 who controlled their movement within the special camp, and the sA xnrt (‘prison guard’).

A significant number of families lived permanently in the vicinity of the main administrative block.155 Every member of those low status families156 was expected to contribute labor. They were represented by the head of the household who was responsible for the group and when communicating with officials. Those called up to work could be, and were often, replaced by other family members or other substitutes,157 sometimes for brief periods on tasks such as temple duties. There are even examples of replacements working for a month at a time.158

In one such typical situation a man declares that:

jwA.kwj Hr sA.j kAwty n Hw.t-nTr jm r Dd jw.f m nhw n hAw

‘I was seized on account of my son the workman of the temple there (by my district officers who said) that he is in deficit for state-labor’.159

The administration registered individuals that belonging to households and enrolled them in the monthly staff allocated to temples or work groups.160 Massive construction projects and state planned work in stone quarries seem to have been particularly in need of Hsbw (‘the counted’, ‘enlistees’ and ‘conscripted workers’). Low status workers like the ‘stone-pullers of Hetep-Senwosret’ and ‘men of Sekhem-Senwosret’ are mentioned in temple archives.161

Egyptians rmT162 often appear in Middle Kingdom documents in parallel with terms such as tSj.w (‘defectors’), mry.t (‘employed’), bAk.w (‘workers’), sqr.w-anx (‘bound for life’), usually foreign prisoners of war or nfr.w (‘low status young’)163 often recruited for heavy work in quarry expeditions. The evidence from the papyri indicates that sooner or later everyone at el-Lahun had to respond to roll-calls from the authorities, although it seems that protesting against work was not rare, especially among people involved in the more arduous labor in the stone quarries and building sites.164 A fragment of a papyrus165 indicates that such protest could be substantial: m…n…m wTs Hrw (‘…in…not…in raising rebellion’).

The local administration kept an up-to-date list of all the residents in a series of name lists166 with headings jmy-rn.f Hsbw jtHw-jnrw (‘name-list of conscripts stone haulers’) or simply jmy-rn.f mnyw (‘name-list of conscripts’). Several documents,167 not surprisingly, suggest that several individuals were able to vanish in the middle of the crowded suburb.

An aAm worker called %n-wsr.t is included in a dispatch reporting five individuals ‘…who did not come to work...’.168

Punishment, however, could be harsh. The Nauri Decree169, a much later text of the 19th Dynasty, records the ‘discipline’ of the government included the ‘…beating with two hundred blows’ together with exacting the work bAk.w of the person belonging to the foundation from him, for every day that he shall spend with him, and give them to the foundation…while also …punishment shall be done to him by cutting off his nose and his ears he being put as a cultivator in the foundation…and as previous plus…and putting his wife and his children as serfs(?) of the steward of his estate…’.

The written evidence consistently records cases of fugitives from the xnrt. A list of corvée-fugitives of the reign of Amenemhat III170 includes a report on absences from duties. A certain man called %n-wsr.t, who apparently had been hiding in Sekhem-Senwosret, came to be the concern of a certain steward !rw-msA.f:

‘this is a communication about the man of &p-jhw Nmtj-nhtw’s son %nwsrt saying he is guardian in sxm %nwsrt mAa-hr.w there are no duties of his since many years… behold he is the son of the retainer Jmnj the son of Jjkj’.171

In a dispatch a servant called @m-nsw.t is caught before an attempt to run away:

swDA-jb pw n nb anx wDA snb Hr rdjt djt.tw jb xnt pAy.k !m-nsw WAḏ-hAw m rdjt sSw.f nn rdjt btA.f mj bw nb nfr jrrw nb anx wD snb

‘…this is a communication to the lord life, prosperity and health, about having attention given to your servant Wadj-haw, in assigning his documentation without allowing him to evade, in accordance with everything suiting the lord, life-prosperity-health.’172

Another example concerning fugitives is even more illuminating:

‘…as for any persons whom you may find missing among them, you are to write to the steward Horemsaf about them…I your humble servant, have sent a list of missing persons in writing to the pyramid town Htp snwsrt mAa-xrw satisfied is Senwosret true of voice’.173

A letter found on a fragmented sheet of papyrus describes the fate of someone who tried to escape from the xnrt:174

mt wj AbAb.kw gm.n.j Hm-nsw %bk-m-Hb mt wnn.f war mt rdj.n.j sw n xnr.t n sDm mt grt pw m-a.t kA dj.t mwt.f m xA n wHmw jmj spr.tw r.f m tA At

‘…look I am delighted! I have found the king’s servant Sobekemheb. Look he had indeed fled. Look, I have handed him over to the prison for judgment. Look, moreover this means it is in your hands, so you seem to be letting him die/languish (?) in the office of the reporter. Have someone to go to him right away!’.175

Each worker's presence and absence were clearly noted and addressed, thus making it possible for administrators to monitor work attendance across time and space. Fleeing from work on state projects was classified as a criminal offence against the state and punished severely, possibly including capital punishment.176

Another piece of correspondence, in this case between the pharaoh and the temple scribe !rw-msA.f, refers to an individual taken by force: ‘…you should know that the door-keeper of the temple %nt’s son Jmnj appealed to me saying, I was deprived of my son …’.177

A papyrus recovered from Thebes, now in Brooklyn, contains a list of 76 residents of Upper Egypt who were held in the ‘great prison of Thebes’ ‘…because they avoided performing the compulsory services required by state administrators…’. This list comprises Egyptians of humble origins, amongst whom were ‘those not certain who their fathers were’.178 The same papyrus includes instructions to the ‘Great Prison’ to deal with these individuals in accordance with the relevant sections of the criminal law. A section records the sentences given and the conclusion of nearly all the cases, such as the following:179

‘…the daughter of Sianhur Teti the scribe of the Fields of This a woman an order was issued to the Great Prison in regnal year 31, month 3 of Shomu, day 9 to release her people in the law-court being an order issued in order to execute against her the law pertaining to one who runs away without performing his service here (check mark) statement by the scribe of the vizier, Deduamun it is completed, case closed’.180

The papyri also indicate that many individuals who lived in Sekhem-Senwosret181 belonged to somebody. This is demonstrated by the name of a person or the name of an institution written behind the name of the enrolled individual.182 A document of year 29 of the reign of Amenemhet III deals with the sale of slaves. It is a swn.t (‘deed of cession’) for a female Asiatic made for an official called Ihysoneb. The text reads:

‘…regnal year 29, month 3, inundation, autumn, day 7 drawn up in the office of the vizier … a cession deed of the assistant to the treasurer Shepset’s son Ihysoneb of the northern sector…the female Asiatics Akhiatef Kemeteni, Keme[t]eni Sopduemmeru, Mashy 2 years and 3 months […]am Benwy(?)ʼ.183

Foreign manual workers were in demand as workforce all over Egypt in the second half of the 12th Dynasty in Egypt. Bietak’s excavations184 at Tell el-Dab’a uncovered a special Aamu quarter that was still in use during the Second Intermediate Period, but there is evidence of Egyptian intolerance towards the easterners as can be found in the letter of the official Senwosret‘s son Khakheperre Sonbe to the steward Horemsaef in the year 37 of Amenemes III. An ‘overseer of the sealers’ called %nbtj.fj addressed his concerns towards the nomarch saying: ‘…from the overseer of treasurers and judges %nbtj.fj…saying, send 30 corvée-workers to follow the lord-life-prosperity, do not send these Asiatics!’.185 Another document referring to the delivery of poultry is particularly revealing when it mentions two Asiatic men aAm.w among the delivery goods.186 According to the documents from the archive, the Asiatic and Nubian population slowly increased, in particular during the second half of the reign of Ammenhat III.187 Fragments recovered from the xnrt wrt (‘great prison’) of Thebes188 give detailed glimpses of life in these burgeoning communities:

Aw.n xnrt wrt m (...) r wHa Xr.w.f m DADAt m Awy r jrt hp r.f n warw xnrt

‘It was issued to the xnrt wrt (or the xnrt wrt issued) on (date?) to release his dependents from the board, being the document issued to execute the regulation against him for one who flees the xnrt’.

Less serious infringements recorded include a petty theft:

jr pA bjt hnw 1 rdy n bAk-jm gm.n bAk-jm sw(r)j.n sw pA aAm Dd.f smj n bAk-jm m-Dd mk jn bnrt rdj jry.j st

‘…as for the hin of honey (already) assigned to the servant-there, the servant-there has discovered that the Asiatic has drunk/used it up, saying quote: look, it was the sweetness which made me do it…’.189

A final unfortunate individual exclaims dramatically mwt.kwj mjn jx tm.j mAA xpr.tj.sj, ‘I am dead today, rather than see what may happen…’.


Studies of the earliest urban settlements in the Nile Valley often neglect the social organization and built environments of the ‘poor’. Studies of ancient settlements, including at el-Lahun, have had a tendency to focus on the minority of ‘élite’ people and their living conditions. They use the traditional top-down approach to the subject, overlooking the people of lower status and their social and living conditions. This article and the associated study were intended to advance the discussion by addressing the daily lives of the majority of the population in these highly-structured communities.

For the western community of el-Lahun, the textual and architectural data demonstrate a built environment reflecting strong social boundaries; a community regulated by way of impressively regimented settlement forms. Moving from a spatial scale of individual building to the urban settlement as a whole, the architectural aspects discussed appear to be particular relevant for social interpretations. Information about the lives of the inhabitants of el-Lahun is scarce, and so the architecture is a valuable resource, but analysis at the single household level is not easy because of the difficulties in understanding architectural variations in structures with no clear-cut functional distinction between rooms. The structuring of space within households and the degree of internal and individual variations between living spaces was undoubtedly of cultural and functional significance to the inhabitants, but a full understanding of this, based on the archaeology alone seems irremediably lost. In addition, the daily lives of those living in that environment were surely different to those of the officials who designed and constructed it.

Nevertheless, general cultural patterns can be inferred from investigations of the structural remains. The intended organization of daily life, the physical limits on movement and social interaction, were rooted in social rules, rituals and relations of power intended to control the community and subject it to centralized coordination. It seems that the city enclosure walls, often thought to be erected for defensive purposes, were largely symbolic. They were primary intended to dwarf the individuals with their monumental dimensions and to segregate the low status workers from the ruling group, into what were essentially prison-like conditions. Nevertheless, or perhaps as a result of those efforts to control the population, the textual evidence shows that el-Lahun experienced more social turmoil than equivalently sized traditional rural villages. In such an overcrowded environment, social discrimination and injustices caused by ethnic differences and inequality often led to disputes and conflicts.


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