a site located 410 kilometers (250 miles) south of Cairo, on the western side of the Nile (27°11′N, 31°10′E). Asyut is renowned for an extensive ancient necropolis situated on a steep elevation (known locally as Istabl Antar) of the western hills that delimit the Nile Valley. Preserving the Old Egyptian toponym Saut (sʒwty) the Arabic place name Asyut designates a large provincial capital. The ancient town is buried, presumably, under the present-day city and the surrounding cultivation.
Situated in the thirteenth Upper Egyptian nome (province), Asyut had the gods Wepwawet; Anubis, and Hereret for protective deities; represented in canine form or with canine heads, they explain the name Lycopolis (“city of the dog”) that was current in Ptolemaic and Roman times. Temples of Wepwawet and Osiris once existed, but their locations are unknown. Among the other deities worshiped at Asyut were Amun-Re, Hathor, Ptah, and Thoth.
Although Asyut was inhabited from at least the Old Kingdom through the Roman period, it is most famous for its tombs of the First Intermediate Period and of the twelfth dynasty. Three of those burials, belonging to ἰt(.ἰ)ἰb(.ἰ) and two persons named Khety, contain the most important inscriptions of the so-called Herakleopolitan period (ninth and tenth dynasties), a subset of the First Intermediate Period, which was a time of rivalry between a northern court at Herakleopolis and a southern counterpart seated at Thebes. A fourth tomb, belonging to a twelfth dynasty official, Hapidjefa I, contained an inscribed legal contract, detailing his provisions for his mortuary cult (A. J. Spalinger, in Journal of the American Oriental Society 105 , 7–20).
The archaeological importance of Asyut lies not only in the historical information of the tomb inscriptions but also in the exquisite quality of the tomb reliefs, hieroglyphs, wall paintings, decorated coffins, and wooden sculptures; this material indicates that the arts flourished at least at Asyut and perhaps elsewhere in Herakleopolitan territory, no doubt because of its access to the great Memphite ateliers. The Asyut material further demonstrates the serious mistake in assessing First Intermediate Period art using as evidence only the better-dated, but much more provincial, monuments from Theban territories.
Asyut and the neighboring sites of Durunka and Rifeh have never received the comprehensive study that they richly deserve. Archaeological work at all three sites would add invaluable information about the First Intermediate Period and the twelfth dynasty. The British philologist Francis Llewellyn Griffith copied several tomb inscriptions at Asyut and Rifeh, on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund (now Society) in London, and published both a discussion of the site and a hand-copy of the three Herakleopolitan inscriptions. Several other missions worked at Asyut, with more modest results, and did not achieve a comprehensive archaeological, architectural, or epigraphic survey. The motivation appears to have been to collect the coffins and wooden sculpture for which the site is famous. The only architectural plans of the tombs are those published in the fourth volume of the monumental early eighteenth-century Description de l'Égypte. The best archaeological report was published in 1911 by Émile Chassinat and Charles Palanque, who had worked at Asyut from 1903 to 1904 for the Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale in Cairo; this material is largely divided between the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, and the Louvre in Paris. David G. Hogarth, who had been sent to Asyut by the British Museum in 1906 and 1907, excavated portions of the necropolis and sent many monuments to London; his notes are unpublished. An Italian team under Ernesto Schiaparelli worked at Asyut periodically from 1905 to 1913; with the exception of one article (G. Marro, in Annales de l'Université de Grenoble 32, pt. 2 , 15–48), the results are also unpublished but many of the finds from Schiaparelli's expedition are now in the Museo Egizio, Turin. Ahmed Bey Kamal, who was an agent for both the Egyptian Antiquities Service and for the Egyptian collector Sayyid Bey Khashaba, was a frequent visitor to the site; Kamal's publications are little more than checklists and inaccurate textual copies (Kamal, in Annales du Service des Antiquités de l'Egypte 12 (1912), 128–142; 16 (1916), 65–114), and Khashaba's collection has been dispersed widely. Since the 1960s, military occupation of Istabl Antar has made access difficult, and in the 1990s Islamist activity in the region of Asyut has made on-site research unwise.
The tombs are in ruinous condition. The façades of many of the smaller, unrecorded burials have collapsed and filled in the entrance passageways. Portions of the biographical inscription in the cavernous tomb (number 3) of ἰt(.ἰ)ἰb(.ἰ) are visible, but they are in poor condition. The fine painted-plaster alteration of the original text, which is incised on the limestone walls of the tomb, is in an extremely fragile state. Only tomb 4, which belongs to one of the two persons named Khety, is well preserved; the extensive biography on the northern wall and the large well-rendered relief of warriors on the southern wall have made this tomb the most famous of the three Herakleopolitan burials.
The order of the three Herakleopolitan tombs is perplexing. Although the generally accepted line is 5, 3, 4, Diana Magee has demonstrated that Griffith's original sequence of 3, 4, 5 may be accurate. Khety of tomb 5, who is traditionally regarded as the first of the three officials, may have been the last buried.
Alone among all known Herakleopolitan provincial officials, ἰt(.ἰ)ἰb(.ἰ) and the two Khetys had close connections with the royal court, but the nature or their ties is not completely clear. The revised biography in the burial of ἰt(.ἰ)ἰb(.ἰ) has led to at least two interpretations. Either ἰt(.ἰ)ἰb(.ἰ) once enjoyed the favor of the king and then lost it or else he or his immediate family sought to disguise his loyalties after Thebes was victorious. Neither scenario is necessarily accurate. As a child, the Khety of tomb 5 was brought up as a royal ward at the Herakleopolitan court. In the long tomb 4 inscription, Khety the overseer of priests and a nomarch (provincial civil administrator) detailed his loyal service and apparently close relationship with King Merikare, the best known of the obscure eighteen Herakleopolitan monarchs. That Khety's fidelity is conspicuous. No other private Herakleopolitan tomb has a cartouche or any mention of the reigning king, much less a record of conscientious duty, perhaps indicating that the Herakleopolitan sovereigns were unpopular in their own kingdom. The revision of ἰt(.ἰ)ἰb(.ἰ) biography, for example, may have been occasioned by vacillating loyalty.
Royal ancestry may also explain the connection between the court and the Asyut region. In the Western Desert at Dara, northwest of Asyut, is a small ruined pyramid that probably belonged to a king Khui (R. Weill, Dara, Cairo, 1958). Although that name cannot be associated with any monarch of the Old, Middle, or New Kingdoms, it may well denote one of the eighteen Herakleopolitan sovereigns whose names are mostly unknown.
Many late Demotic papyri have been found at Asyut and in neighboring areas. Asyut lies in the center of many important ancient Coptic sites such as Deir Durunka, Ganadlah, Deir Rifeh, and Wadi Sarga. The neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus was born in Asyut.
- Beinlich, Horst. “Assiut.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 1: 489–495. Wiesbaden, 1975. Good general summary with excellent bibliography; perhaps the best introduction to the site.
- Brunner, Hellmut. Die Texte aus den Gräbern der Herakleopolitenzeit von Siut mit ubersetzung und Erlauterungen Ägyptologische Forschungen, 5. Glückstadt, 1937. A re-edition with corrections and commentary on Griffith's (1889) standard edition of the Herakleopolitan texts at Asyut; has valuable historical reconstruction.
- Chassinat, Émile, and Charles Palanque. Une campagne de fouilles dans la nécropole d'Assiout. Mémoires publiés par les Membres de l'Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale du Caire, 24. Cairo, 1911. The best report of any archaeological work at Asyut. A remarkable work for its time, not only because of the fine photographs of several wooden sculptures and coffins but also because of its pioneering attention to hieroglyphic palaeography; the copies of the hieroglyphic inscriptions are quite accurate.
- Edel, Elmar. Die Inschriften am Eingang des Grabes des “Tefib” (Siut Grab III) nach der Description de l'Égypte: Ein Wiederherstellungsversuch. Abhandlungen für die Kunde des Morgenlandes, 39.1. Wiesbaden, 1970. This and the following work are important for their historical and architectural discussions.
- Edel, Elmar. Die Inschriften der Grabfronten der Siut-Gräber in Mittelägypten aus der Herakleopolitenzeit: Eine Wiederherstellung nach den Zeichnungen der Description de l'Égypte. Abhandlungen der Rheinisch-Westfälischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 71. Opladen, 1984.
- Griffith, Francis Ll. “The Inscriptions of Siût and Dêr Rîfeh.” The Babylonian and Oriental Record 3 (1989), 121–129, 164–168, 174–184, 244–252. Excellent summary of both Griffith's and some earlier work at Asyut.
- Griffith, Francis Ll. The Inscriptions of Siût and Dêr Rîfeh. London, 1889. The standard edition of the inscriptions from the three Herakleopolitan tombs (nos. 3, 4, and 5) and the only publication on some of the tombs at Rifeh.
- Magee, Diana. “Asyût to the End of the Middle Kingdom: A Historical and Cultural Study.” Ph.D. diss., University of Oxford, 1988. A landmark work, but very difficult to obtain; the finest recent study of the archaeological material from Asyut. In particular, it has an important catalog and discussion of the coffin types found at Asyut, an interesting critique of the chronology of the three Herakleopolitan officials, and an extensive bibliography.
- Porter, Bertha, and Rosalind L. B. Moss. Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs, and Paintings, vol. 4: Lower and Middle Egypt (Delta and Cairo to Asyût). Oxford, 1934. Although out-of-date and sometimes inaccurate, this important volume is the standard bibliographical reference for early publications of specific monuments found at Asyut and related sites.
- Spanel, Donald B. “The Herakleopolitan Tombs of Kheti I, Jt(.j)jb(.j), and Kheti II at Asyut.” Orientalia n.s. 58 (1989), 301–314. A summary of both earlier work at the site and the current condition of the tombs; contains the only published photographs of some of the Herakleopolitan inscriptions and a paleographical study. Extensive bibliography in the footnotes.
- Thompson, H. Herbert, ed. A Family Archive from Siut, from Papyri in the British Museum, Including an Account of a Trial before the Laocritae in the Year B. C. 170. Oxford, 1934. Excellent publication of some of the Demotic papyri found near Asyut.
Donald B. Spanel