General view of the Beni Hassan cemetery from the lower escarpment
Beni Hassan is situated on the east bank of the Nile, approximately 250km south of Cairo and falls within the ancient boundaries of the 16th province or nome of Upper Egypt, which inscriptions refer to as the Oryx-nome. With excellent rock formation, the region possesses some of the best limestone in the country after Tura, the quarry that serviced the Memphite cemeteries to the north. The tombs at Beni Hassan, dating to the 6th-12th Dynasties spanning from the late Old Kingdom, First Intermediate Period and into the Middle Kingdom, are cut in two ridges half-way up the mountain and command an impressive view across the escarpment and the river Nile. The upper cemetery houses the rock-cut tombs of the administrators of the region, while the lower cemetery consists of a series of shaft and pit tombs at the base of the cliffs and contains the tombs of officials connected to those buried in the upper cemetery. Speos Artemidos, a rock-cut shrine originally dedicated to the local lion-headed goddess Pakhet, built by Queen Hatshepsut and Thutmose III of the 18th Dynasty, lies 1.5km south in an ancient quarry, with a smaller shrine of Alexander II nearby.
At present, the following Old and Middle Kingdom cemeteries can be identified at Beni Hassan:
1) The Upper Cemetery of Beni Hassan: The provincial elite serving in the Oryx-nome were buried in the upper cemetery, which is comprised of 39 rock-cut tombs carved into the cliffs and positioned in a north-south row. During two winter seasons between 1890 and 1892, Percy E. Newberry cleared and recorded most of the tombs in the upper cemetery at Beni Hassan for the Archaeological Survey of Egypt. The upper cemetery of Beni Hassan is unique, for unlike other sites, the scenes and inscriptions painted on the walls of 12 of the 39 tombs are almost completely intact, retaining their original vibrant colours and intricate details. The images are remarkably comprehensive, featuring many traditional scenes of daily life, historical inscriptions, but also new motifs that inject added energy and richness to the repertoire. Some of the more well-known tombs at the site belong to Khety (BH17), Baqet I (BH29) and Baqet III (BH15) dating to the 11th Dynasty, as well as Khnumhotep I (BH14), Khnumhotep II (BH3) and Amenemhat (BH2) dating to the early-mid 12th Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom. The hieroglyphic inscriptions in the tombs indicate they were built for officials holding a range of positions within the ancient Egyptian administration from 'great overlord of the Oryx-nome', 'overseer of the eastern desert', 'hereditary prince', 'count', 'overseer of the great army of the Oryx-nome' in addition to 'overseer of priests' of various regional deities.
2) The necropolis of Nuweirat: This cemetery is located to the north of the upper cemetery of Beni Hassan and contains small rock-cut tombs with square-shaped cult chambers, one or two short shafts and short burial chambers for contracted burials.
3) A series of tombs to the south at the entrance of the wadi which leads to the Speos Artemidos, close to modern Beni Hassan. According to the finds, especially box coffins with yellow eye symbols, ka-statuettes and fragments of models, a date into the First Intermediate Period is most likely.
4) The lower cemetery at Beni Hassan: This cemetery is located within the escarpment at the foot of the cliffs, which was originally excavated between 1902 and 1904 by John Garstang from Liverpool University. Some 888 individual burials were uncovered and date from the late 6th dynasty to the first half of the 12th dynasty. These tombs belong to officials serving the administators buried in the upper cemetery and contain small rock-cut tombs with square-shaped cult chambers, one or two short shafts and short burial chambers. These tombs have not received the attention accorded to the more famous and renowned tombs in the upper cemetery. Nonetheless, the burials have yielded a wealth of archaeological material, such as pottery, coffins, wooden models of boats and figurines, and other funerary equipment, which is crucial to determine the date of the burials in both levels at the site and, more importantly, our understanding of the burial customs and religious beliefs of Egyptian society at the time.