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Five Wives & A Girlfriend -- Exploring the Fabulous Tomb of a High-Living Politician

by Karol Mysliwiec

The western part of Saqqara has long been considered the wrong side of the ancient Egyptian tracks, a low-rent district within the fabled burial ground of pharaohs. Archaeologists assumed there was little to be found there except old stone quarries and refuse heaps. They were wrong.

Zbigniew Kosc

Excavating in the untapped desert just west of the Step Pyramid, tomb of King Djoser, our team of Warsaw University Egyptologists discovered burials that span almost 4,000 years. Among them was the beautifully preserved and colorful tomb of a powerful Egyptian politician, a previously unknown vizier named Fefi.

A vizier was a sort of prime minister, the right hand of the pharaoh. Fefi, whose "great name" was Meref-nebef, seems to have been the life of the party in the twenty-fourth century B.C. The tomb's murals and hieroglyphs describe him cavorting with a woman known as "The One Who Loves Life." His five wives apparently were stuck at home, and political enemies - perhaps his own sons - jockeyed bitterly for power.

Fefi lived late in the reign of King Teti, first ruler of the Sixth Dynasty, a time of turbulence and discord. The Old Kingdom, the first glorious chapter of Egyptian history, had disintegrated into political chaos and civil war as the Sixth Dynasty ended around 2200 B.C. Great power seems to have passed during this dynasty into the hands of the bureaucracy, especially the vizier, who controlled much of the nation's financial and administrative affairs.

Fefi's tomb already offers fresh hints into the life and politics of the time. But much work remains, including the continuing search for the mummy of Vizier Fefi.

The First Pyramid

The world's oldest pyramid dominates the necropolis at Saqqara, in which kings and noblemen were buried from the very beginning of Egyptian history. Saqqara, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of today's Cairo, is just a part of Pharaonic Egypt's largest royal cemetery, which extends along a rocky plateau at the edge of the desert, parallel to the Nile River. This enormous field of pyramids (the tombs of pharaohs and their families) and mastabas (the less-imposing tombs of noblemen and early pharaohs) was the necropolis of ancient Memphis, the legendary capital in which pharaohs were crowned during the Old Kingdom.

Egypt's wondrous pyramids began with the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, built about 2700 B.C. for King Djoser by his master architect, Imhotep.

The city of Memphis, with its great palaces and temples, has been almost completely erased by the stormy winds of Egyptian history, but the pyramids - the final resting place of kings - still bear proud witness to its glorious past.

Nobles and rich commoners, meanwhile, apparently wanted to share in the pleasures of the afterlife and, perhaps, to bask in the reflected glory of the pharaohs. They built mastabas as their graves. These were low, flat structures, made of mud bricks or stone, that resembled benches (mastaba translates to bench in Arabic).

Beneath the surface structure was a series of shafts dug into the bedrock that included offering rooms and a chapel. The crypt itself might be at the bottom of a pit excavated still deeper into the ground. It was such a tomb that we found west of the Djoser pyramid.

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