The term cenotaph is a Greek word that means “empty tomb,” but in Egyptology it denotes a symbolic structure that has specific associations with the afterlife of the deceased. Applied to a range of ancient Egyptian funerary and cult structures, cenotaphs include both royal and private tombs devoid of actual burial, as well as other buildings of a mortuary nature.

It is important to recognize that there is no single word in ancient Egyptian that corresponds with the meaning of “cenotaph.” The various structures to which the term is applied appear to have embodied different religious concepts and functions in the context of Egyptian funerary practice. The term has often been loosely applied, without full explanation of the specific functions of the various structures so identified. In many cases, the simple designation “cenotaph” does not fully indicate the complex religious notions inherent in such mortuary structures.

The overview of the evidence presented here includes two major groups of structures. The first consists of tombs that did not contain the actual interment of a body, but which through other contents or specific features are identifiable as having a symbolic function for the afterlife of the deceased. The second group is composed of mortuary buildings where a funerary/offering cult was maintained, although the actual burial of the deceased was elsewhere. The primary concept involved in structures of both types is that of providing necessary housing and support for the ka of the deceased. Symbolic royal tombs often contain statues associated with the ka of a deceased king, while mortuary chapels of both kings and private individuals were focused on the afterlife associations of the deceased and on the maintenance of the ka. Under this heading examples are also discussed of symbolic god's tombs (divine cenotaphs), as well examples of tombs that have been identified as cenotaphs, but for which that designation now appears to be incorrect.

Royal Tombs.

A variety of royal tombs and mortuary complexes from the Early Dynastic period through the New Kingdom have been identified as cenotaphs. In some cases the word is warranted, particularly where a symbolic tomb exists without an actual burial. In many cases, however, empty or unused royal tombs do not appear to have been purposefully designed as cenotaphs.

Early dynastic tombs at Abydos and Saqqara.

One of the longest scholarly debates relating to the issue of royal cenotaphs has concerned the identification of the royal tombs of the Early Dynastic kings at Abydos. In 1899–1900, W. M. Flinders Petrie (following earlier work of E. Amélineau) excavated the royal cemetery of the Early Dynastic period at Abydos (Umm el-Qa'ab), where he recorded subterranean tombs of all of the kings of the first dynasty as well as two kings of the second. Although Petrie initially identified these tombs as the actual burial places of these pharaohs, later work from 1936 to 1956 by W. Emery at north Saqqara revealed a large elite cemetery of the Early Dynastic period containing numerous mudbrick mastaba tombs. Sealings and inscribed objects with royal names, as well as the proximity of the site to the royal capital of Memphis, led Emery to suggest that the Saqqara tombs were the true royal burial places. The Abydos tombs, then, were to be identified as cenotaphs or symbolic tombs built in the south for religious purposes.

More recent excavation of the royal cemetery at Abydos, combined with more critical analysis of the evidence, leaves little doubt that the Abydos tombs were in fact the actual burial places of the kings of the first dynasty. Kemp (1966, 1967) has shown that the scale of the Abydos complexes (which include a subterranean tomb with associated funerary enclosure at the desert edge) is substantially greater than that of the Saqqara mastabas. Although Emery had originally raised the possibility that brick mound-like architectural elements contained within the Saqqara mastabas were the precursors to the royal pyramid, recent discussion by Kaiser (1969), Dreyer (1991) and O'Connor (1991) has further shown how closely the Abydos mortuary complexes precede the elements contained in the third dynasty pyramid complex of Djoser at Saqqara, as well as later pyramids. The excavations of G. Dreyer have provided considerable new evidence on the form and contents of the royal tombs at Abydos and support the claim that the cemetery is an actual royal burial ground with roots in the Predynastic period, rather than a series of symbolic tombs.

At Saqqara, on the other hand, the same royal names occur on objects in different mastabas, making it likely that these represent the burials of more than one high-ranking individual from any particular reign. The Saqqara Early Dynastic mastabas are most likely the burials of contemporary elite and members of the extended royal family. The combination of this evidence suggests strongly that the notion of the royal cenotaph has been mistakenly applied to the Early Dynastic tombs at Abydos and Saqqara.

Multiple and unused burial places.

The issue of royal cenotaphs has also emerged in instances where kings possessed more than one viable burial place; the Early Dynastic tombs at Abydos and Saqqara are an example. Some kings of later periods, however, did possess multiple tombs, and in such cases, the question of actual versus symbolic tomb has become an issue. Multiple burial places are attested for a number of kings, including Sneferu, Amenemhet I, Senwosret III, Amenemhet III, Ahmose, and others. In most cases, the occurrence of multiple tombs can be explained primarily through factors such as construction problems (for example, under Sneferu and Amenemhet III) which led to abandonment of a site, or political shifts (Amenemhet I) which produced more than one royal burial monument. In some instances a completed monument was not used for the actual burial but was the site of an active mortuary cult; such structures might be understood as de facto “cenotaphs,” though not purposefully designed as symbolic empty tombs.

Most unused or empty burial places may, however, have other explanations. At Saqqara, the unfinished pyramid of Sekhemkhet contained a sealed but empty alabaster sarcophagus. In the fourth dynasty secondary tomb of Hetepheres at Giza, the tomb was sealed without burial of the queen's body. Factors other than construction of a symbolic empty tomb seem likely in these two instances, and probably others.

Royal ka-tombs.

More specifically identified as symbolic tombs are secondary tombs built within or adjacent to the actual burial monument of a king. This phenomenon emerges quite early in the Step Pyramid complex of King Djoser of the third dynasty at Saqqara, where the complex includes a second royal tomb, the “South Tomb.” The South Tomb at Saqqara is a subterranean structure which includes a stone burial vault and employs a form and decoration similar to that of the actual tomb beneath the pyramid. This vault is likely to have contained a royal statue burial or some other related symbolic interment. Without specific textual descriptions of the concepts associated with this tomb, its precise symbolic role is somewhat ambiguous. Most likely, however, the South Tomb was employed for the symbolic burial of the king's ka or double. In subsequent pyramids of the Old Kingdom, a satellite or “ka-pyramid,” generally situated on the southeastern side, represents the continuation of the South Tomb concept. In the satellite pyramid of Khafre (fourth dynasty) at Giza, a deconstructed wooden “divine booth” provides evidence for the use of the satellite pyramid for the burial of a royal ka-statue.

One of the most significant examples of a royal tomb that had a symbolic function and hence has been understood as a “cenotaph” is the so-called Bab el-Hosan in the courtyard of the eleventh dynasty mortuary complex of Montuhotep II at Deir el-Bahri. The tomb, located by H. Carter in 1912, was a large subterranean structure consisting of a sloping passage leading down to a rock-cut burial chamber. In the burial chamber was found a wooden sarcophagus which contained a painted limestone statue of the king, dressed in a heb-sed robe and wearing the Red Crown. This statue had been wrapped in linen and purposefully buried in the tomb along with offerings.

Several possibilities have been raised regarding the function of the Bab el-Hosan. The purposeful wrapping and burial of a statue of the king in a secondary tomb would appear to be the physical expression of specific symbolic or religious concepts. It has been suggested that the Bab el-Hosan is an “Osiris-tomb,” ka-tomb, or a royal shawabti burial, or that it is connected with the king's sed-festival. Although the nature of the evidence makes it difficult to discriminate among these various possibilities, it is probable that one or more of these concepts are expressed. The purposeful burial of a statue of the king in its own tomb strongly suggests that the statue was conceived as a physical substitute for the actual body of the king, which was buried elsewhere in the mortuary complex. An association with the king's ka or possible needs or activities of that ka in the afterlife is likely to pertain to this tomb. The Bab el-Hosan therefore parallels similar concepts in ka-tombs and ka-pyramids of the Old and Middle kingdoms.

The concept of the ka-burial of kings and royalty continues into the later Middle Kingdom and is attested explicitly in the layout of the interior of the pyramid of Amenemhet III at Dahshur, where burial chambers for the king and queens are paired with southern “ka-tombs.” The concept of the royal ka-burial is continued in an attenuated manner in the tomb of the thirteenth dynasty king Awibre Hor at Dahshur, where, apparently because of limits of size, a wooden ka-statue is included within the actual tomb.

Royal mortuary complexes at Abydos.

At Abydos, a number of possible “cenotaph” complexes of kings of the Middle Kingdom and later have been identified. A mortuary complex of Senwosret III (named “Enduring-are-the-Places-of-Khakaure-maa-kheru-in-Abydos”) at South Abydos consists of a large subterranean tomb with attached funerary temple, as well as a town that housed the priests and administrators connected with the cult and royal mortuary foundation (Wegner, 1995, 1996). Since Senwosret III also built a pyramid complex at Dahshur near Memphis, it was long believed that the Abydos complex was a “cenotaph.” Its major function would in this case be that of symbolic tomb built at the holy city of Abydos in order to associate the deceased king with the god Osiris. Recent work at Abydos and Dahshur, however, suggests that the Abydos complex was conceived and built as a fully functional burial place for Senwosret III. The king's pyramid at Dahshur was never used for a burial, while the Abydos tomb was used for a royal interment. This makes it probable that the king was buried at Abydos, and the complex therefore may not be accurately identified as a cenotaph.

Later monuments at south Abydos—a mortuary complex of King Ahmose I of the eighteenth dynasty and an offering chapel/pyramid for his grandmother, Queen Tetisheri—have been identified as cenotaphs. The Ahmose complex includes a pyramid, mortuary temple, and underground tomb (Harvey, 1994). The complex has been thought to be a cenotaph because a body identified as that of Ahmose was found in the Deir el-Bahri royal mummy cache and some form of the cult of Ahmose is attested in Western Thebes. However, whether the complex was intentionally designed as a symbolic cenotaph (rather than a viable burial place) is questionable. Like that of Senwosret III, it may have been intended as a functional funerary complex for the king, but may have become a de facto cenotaph if the king was buried in Thebes. More specifically allied with the concept of cenotaph is an offering chapel, which probably had a pyramidal superstructure and was dedicated to Queen Tetisheri at south Abydos. It contained an inscribed stela which describes the building as a votive chapel and also says that the queen's tomb (i.e., her actual burial place) was at Thebes.

Although use of the term “cenotaph” oversimplifies the manifold religious concepts inherent in these monuments, it is possible these structures of Ahmose and Tetisheri could have functioned primarily as commemorative or votive mortuary cult structures which associated their deceased owners with Osiris, the main god of Abydos.


Cenotaphs. Middle Kingdom cenotaphs at Abydos. (Courtesy David P. Silverman)

Mortuary Cult Buildings without Tombs.

Another group of buildings that have been identified as cenotaphs includes structures that maintained a mortuary or offering cult but were not associated with any actual burial (Simpson, 1974, 1979). Such votive cult buildings are attested for both royalty and private individuals. They were often constructed in proximity to an important temple or cult site, such as that of Osiris at Abydos.

Royal ka-chapels.

Royal mortuary chapels were built at a number of important religious centers beginning in the Old Kingdom (Abydos, Dendera, Bubastis, Ezbet Rushdi, and others). These structures designated by the Egyptian term ḥwt-kʒ (“ka chapel”) are dedicatory or votive cult structures which associated the king with various gods. They housed statuary and were the sites of royal mortuary/offering cults. At Abydos, for example, remains of a number of such buildings indicate that the main Osiris temple was surrounded by a cluster of royal ka chapels. The function of these chapels falls within the general rubric of “cenotaph” in that one of their major functions was to maintain a mortuary/offering cult, even though they possessed no attached tomb and the king's burial place was elsewhere. The tradition of royal mortuary chapels continued through the New Kingdom. Known examples at Abydos include buildings of Amenhotpe I, Thutmose III, Thutmose IV, Ay, Sethnakhte, Ramesses III, and Psamtik I.

Private mortuary chapels.

In the nonroyal sphere, the term “cenotaph” has most commonly been applied to offering chapels with a commemorative/mortuary function that were dedicated or built by private people. These buildings represent the nonroyal equivalent of the ka chapel. The best documented example of a nonroyal cenotaph occurs again at Abydos, where clusters of votive offering chapels were built directly behind the precinct of the Osiris temple, associated with an area designated rwd n nṯrʿʒ (“Terrace of the Great God”) in stelae of the Middle Kingdom. These votive chapels were situated adjacent to the temple and in proximity to a processional route which led from the Osiris temple out to the symbolic tomb of Osiris in the old Predynastic and Early Dynastic royal cemetery at Umm el-Qa'ab. The practice of private chapel construction at Abydos is first attested during the early Middle Kingdom (eleventh dynasty). It became extremely popular during the Middle Kingdom and continued through the New Kingdom.

The private cenotaphs at Abydos include structures of a number of different types. Besides actual underground burials with accompanying offering chapels, there are also empty tombs with associated offering chapels, and votive offering chapels which possessed neither a real nor symbolic burial for the dedicator (O'Connor, 1985). The basic plan of all of these chapels consists of a one- or two-room brick structure which could contain one or more offering stelae, statuary, and an offering slab where an offering cult would be maintained by priests. Some of the larger votive chapels were set inside a courtyard and could be fronted by trees. The major role of the private cenotaphs at Abydos was connected with a desire for religious and afterlife association with the important funerary deity Osiris. These structures are described in contemporary stelae by the term mʿḥʿt. As discussed by Simpson (1974), these private chapels were intended to allow the deceased an eternal association with Osiris, as well as participation in the offering cult associated with his main temple. Votive chapels that lack a real burial may be called “cenotaphs” insofar as they have an explicit mortuary function but do not serve as the actual burial place.

The construction of such votive mortuary chapels in the region of the Osiris temple at Abydos has been linked with the development of the pilgrimage to Abydos, a popular theme in tomb decoration beginning in the Middle Kingdom. This event is indicative of the importance of visiting or associating oneself with the main cult center of Osiris. Most people never actually undertook such a pilgrimage, but many of sufficient wealth appear to have expressed a desire for eternal association with Osiris through building commemorative chapels or “cenotaphs” there. Although Abydos is the best-known site for such nonroyal cenotaphs, the practice was wide-spread throughout Egypt, especially during the Middle Kingdom. Many other religious centers (e.g., Dendera, Asyut, Elephantine, and Gebel el-Silsila) possessed zones where private dedicatory or votive chapels were established.

Symbolic Tombs of Deities.

Another type of cult structure that can be classified as a cenotaph is the symbolic god's tomb. This type of structure is best known in connection with the god Osiris, and symbolic “Osiris-tombs” were constructed at a number of sites; documented examples occur at Abydos, Giza, Karnak, and the island of Biga to the south of Philae. Symbolic burial places of other gods also seem to have existed at other locales.

The Osireion at Abydos is the best preserved example of such a god's tomb. Situated immediately to the west of the temple of Sety I (nineteenth dynasty), the Osireion was substantially built by Sety and completed with additions in the reign of Merenptah. It is a massive underground complex, the core of which is a symbolic tomb for the deceased god-king Osiris. The symbolic tomb is situated on a raised central area which is surrounded by water channels. In its central section, the architecture of the Osireion employs monolithic construction techniques that copy Old Kingdom architecture (i.e., an archaizing style). Attached to its core are sections decorated with texts and scenes employing New Kingdom royal funerary texts, including sections of the Book of Gates and Book of Caverns as well as the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead). The tomb represents a symbolic burial place of Osiris and incorporates aspects of the royal afterlife. The Osireion's role as a symbolic tomb warrants its inclusion within the range of structures identified as cenotaphs.


  • Altenmüller, Hartwig. “Doppelbestattung.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 1:1128–1130.
  • Arnold, Dieter. Der Pyramidenbezirk des Königs Amenemhat III in Dahschur. Mainz, 1987.
  • Badawy, Alexander. A History of Egyptian Architecture. Los Angeles, 1966.
  • Dreyer, Günther. “Umm el-Gaab Excavation Reports.” Mitteilungen der Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo (1986, 1990, 1991, 1993).
  • Emery, Walter. Great Tombs of the First Dynasty. 3 vols. Cairo and London, 1949–1958.
  • Harvey, Stephen. “Monuments of Ahmose at Abydos.” Egyptian Archaeology 4 (1994), 3–5.
  • Kaiser, Werner. “Zu den Königlichen Talbezirken in Abydos und zur Baugeschichte des Djoser-Grabmals.” Mitteilungen der Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 25 (1969), 1–22.
  • Kemp, Barry. “Abydos and the Royal Tombs of the First Dynasty.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 52 (1966), 13–22.
  • Kemp, Barry. “The Egyptian First Dynasty Royal Cemetery.” Antiquity 41 (1967), 22–32.
  • Lehner, Mark. The Complete Pyramids. London, 1997.
  • O'Connor, David. “The ‘Cenotaphs’ of the Middle Kingdom at Abydos.” Mélanges Gamal Eddin Mokhtar (Cairo, 1985), 161–177.
  • O'Connor, David. “Boat Graves and Pyramid Origins.” Expedition 33 (1991), 5–17.
  • Petrie, W. M. Flinders. The Royal Tombs of the First Dynasty. Parts I and II. London, 1900, 1901.
  • Simpson, William K. The Terrace of the Great God at Abydos. Pennsylvania-Yale Publications, 5. Philadelphia and New Haven, 1974.
  • Simpson, William K. “Kenotaph.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 3:387–391. Wiesbaden, 1979.
  • Wegner, Josef. “Old and New Excavations at the Abydene Complex of Senwosret III.” KMT 6 (1995), 59–71.
  • Wegner, Josef. “The Mortuary Complex of Senwosret III: A Study of Middle Kingdom State Activity and the Cult of Osiris at Abydos.” Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1996.

Josef W. Wegner