village across from present-day Mallawi (province el-Minia), on the eastern side of the Nile River. Deir el-Bersheh (often called Bersheh or el-Bersheh), is a large cemetery of ancient Egypt. At its center—at the mouth of the Wadi Deir en-Nakhla, to the east of the village—were found some shaft tombs. Other cemeteries on the desert edge stretch from the mouth of the wadi to below the modern village. The administrators of the fifteenth Upper Egyptian nome (the Hare nome) whose seat was in Hermopolis (modern Ashmunein) were buried in the rock-cut necropolis behind Bersheh during the Old and Middle Kingdoms. The necropolis for the city of Hermopolis, which probably served as a cemetery for commoners as well, was accessible via a natural waterway from the city to the ferry station near the present-day town of Rairamun beri Mallawi. During the Old Kingdom, this site was used more frequently than the necropolis farther south, near Sheikh Said, which had been established by those who were sent to Hermopolis from the royal residence.

Bersheh was first explored in 1891 and 1892 by the Egypt Exploration Fund under G. W. Fraser. In subsequent years, the tombs were frequently plundered, so many objects were transported from them into various Western museums. Under Daressy and Kamal, the Egypt Exploration Fund tried to fight that development by carrying out official excavations, from 1897 to 1902. In 1915, a further exploration was undertaken by Harvard University with G. Reisner as director; the beautifully painted coffin of the nomarch Thoth-nakht (tomb 5), now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was recovered during that dig. From 1970 to 1980, the Egyptian Exploration Fund carried out several smaller digs in the flat necropolis area that was threatened by the expanding village. The shaft tombs at the mouth of the wadi have been explored anew since 1988, the old plans have been updated, and corrected copies of the texts have been produced. Among the new findings were, for example, sections of the autobiography of the nomarch Aha-nakht II, who probably also supervised the economically important quarries as “Chief of the Desert” and “Overseer of the Hunters.” The new explorations have as long-term goals not only a modern archaeological description but also the creations of an art historical record and an analysis of the tomb decorations. The exploration was at first coordinated by the Department of Egyptology of the University of Leiden (Netherlands), then by the international cooperation of the Netherlands Institute in Cairo, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania (under E. Brovarski, R. Freed, D. P. Silverman, H. Willems, R. van Walsem, and others).


Bersheh. Plan of the tomb-chapels.

Parallel to the work on the tombs, efforts continue to date and establish the chronology of Bersheh's decorated, box-shaped coffins that were dispersed in the various museums; they came from the tombs of the nomarchs, their administrators, and the attendant higher echelon of officials—and all contained Coffin Text spells (excerpts from the funeral spells used in the royal tombs at Memphis). A debate still surrounds the somewhat doubtful hypothesis that the Coffin Texts also contain aspects of the local theology, from the nearby Thoth temple at Hermopolis. Bersheh's very delicate coffin paintings have characteristic and extraordinary contrasting colors.

Some seventy small and plain shaft tombs were located along the southern side of the wadi. Many of those mostly uninscribed tombs have been destroyed. They were used for the burial of lower officials from Hermopolis and were dated from the Old Kingdom's fifth to sixth dynasties or from the First Intermediate Period. Other groups of shaft tombs from the Old Kingdom were located along the northern side; there was also found the rock-inscribed decree of Horus Nefer-khau (probably the pharaoh Neferirkare Kakai of the fifth dynasty) addressed to a Hermopolitan priestly official called Ia-ib. The best known tombs are the elaborately decorated group belonging to the nomarchs of the Middle Kingdom, situated on the northern side, high above the floor of the wadi. Those large shaft tombs consist mostly of two chambers or of a single chamber with a niche in the rear wall. The imagery is traditional in theme, depicting mostly hunting, birding, and fishing scenes, but scenes were also included of bullfighting and wrestling, as well as images of mythical animals such as the griffin. The tomb of the nomarch Thoth-hotep (tomb 2) was unusual, in that it contained an illustration of the transport of a 6-meter-high (19-foot) colossal statue—probably the king—from the calcite (Egyptian alabaster) quarries at Hatnub, using teams of laborers.

The dates and chronology of the nomarchs of Hermopolis are still under discussion, and according to some studies, the chronology of documented nomarch tombs begins with Aha-nahkt I (tomb 5), the son of a Thothnahkt who probably served during the Middle Kingdom reign of Montuhotep I or II of the eleventh dynasty. The nomarch title remained in the same family until the time of Senwosret III of the twelfth dynasty. Nomarchs of the Hare nome were probably still buried at Deir el-Bersheh under Amenemhet III and even later. Brovarski (1981 and 1992) mentioned a nomarch Upauaut-hotep, whose placement in the chronology cannot yet be established; that nomarch was mentioned on a seal, now at the Oriental Institute Museum, Chicago (no. 18647). The nomarchs of Hermopolis served also as high priests of the local Thoth temple. The early nomarchs enjoyed a measure of political independence, as was the case with Neheri I (tomb 4), who used military force to become involved in the succession struggle at the beginning of the twelfth dynasty; probably, he supported the later pharaoh Amenemhet I. That nomarch had his own official count of years, but later members of the family, by contrast, were subservient to the all-powerful royal court.

After the Middle Kingdom, Bersheh's cemetery seems to have been abandoned and the inhabitants of Hermopolis were buried to the west, near Tuna el-Gebel, at the beginning of the eighteenth dynasty; then, quarrying near the mouth of the wadi during the New Kingdom changed the landscape drastically. A rock stela is preserved on the northern side from Thutmose III and another stela from Amenophis III is on the south side. Both kings quarried the fossil-rich limestone on the edge of the wadi for their new additions to the Thoth temple in Hermopolis. The gallery quarries of Amenhotpe III, to the south, reach to depths of 250 meters (760 feet) in the rock. Farther along in the wadi, Demotic inscriptions were found in the quarry caves, where cartouches mention Nektanebo I of the thirtieth dynasty. The work in the quarries came to an end just before Roman times. The village of Bersheh seems to be of Roman origin, judging from the surface finds of broken pottery. During the Early Christian period, Coptic monks occupied many of the older quarry caves and the pharaonic rock-cut tombs near Bersheh, where many of their crosses and benedictions cover the “heathen” images of their predecessors.


  • Brovarski, E. “Ahanakht of Bersheh and the Hare Nome in the First Intermediate Period.” Studies in Ancient Egypt, the Aegean, and the Sudan, edited by W. K. Simpson and W. M. Davis, pp. 14–30. Boston, 1981. On the unpublished excavations of Reisner.
  • Brovarski, E., et al. Bersheh Reports I: Report of the 1990 Field Season of the Joint Expedition of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Leiden University. Boston, 1992. A recent report on work in the necropolis.
  • Griffith, Francis, Ll., and Percy Newberry. El Bersheh. London, 1893–1894. The fundamental monograph.
  • Klemm, Rosemarie, and Dietrich D. Klemm. Steine und Steinbrüche im Alten Ägypten, pp. 118–124. Berlin and New York, 1993. On the stone quarries in ancient Egypt.
  • Terrace, Edward L. B. Egyptian Paintings of the Middle Kingdom: The Tomb of Djehuty-Nekht. New York, 1968. Covers the sarcophagus of Thot-nakht.
  • Willems, Harco. “The Nomarchs of the Hare Nome and Early Middle Kingdom History.” Phoenix: Jaarbericht van het Vooraziatisch-Egyptisch Genootschap “Ex Orient Lux” 28 (1983–1984), 80–102. On the geneaology of the nomarchs.
  • Willems, Harco. The Chests of Life: A Study of the Typology and Conceptual Development of Middle Kingdom Standard Class Coffins, pp. 68–78. Mededelingen en verhandelingen van het Vooraziatischen-Egyptisch Genootschap “Ex Oriente Lux,” 25. Leiden, 1988. For the geneaology of the nomarchs, see p. 71.
  • Willems, Harco. “Deir el-Bersheh: Preliminary Report”. Göttinger Miszellen 110 (1989), 75–83. A recent report on work in the necropolis.
  • Zimmer, T. “La Moyenne Égypte: Methodes d'investigation, bibliographiques et priorités.” Bulletin Société francaise d'égyptologie: Ré-unions trimestrielles et communications d'archéologie 96 (1983), 22–25. A summary of older archaeological works.

Dieter Kessler