Egypt’s fortunes had fallen. The stability and fortunes of the Middle Kingdom were in the past, and foes pressed in from north and south. To the north in the Delta were the hated Hyksos, a kingdom of Canaanites who had migrated into Egypt over a long stretch of time and now held sway over all of Lower Egypt. They were pressing south, hoping to swallow up more of the Nile Valley. To the south, Egypt’s ancient Nubian enemies made inroads north to expand their terrotiry.
Egypt’s autonomy had shrunk to the region of Thebes in Upper Egypt, where long-smoldering resentments had led to war with the Hyksos. Kings like Seqenenre-Tao, Kamose, and Ahmose led prolonged efforts to drive the Hyksos from the sacred Two Lands. Seqenenre would die in that war, his badly preserved, wound-riddled body telling us today how violent his end had been.
This was the Second Intermediate Period (1781-1550 BCE), one of three intermediate periods during which the Egyptian kingdom fractured, toppled, and led to rival kingdoms and concurrent dynasties. By their nature these intermediate periods are a challenge to research and understand. The fall of central authority led to fewer historical records and confusing and sometimes contradictory evidence. For instance, in the time of Seqenenre, Kamose, and Ahmose, we recognize the kingdom of Thebes as Dynasty 17 and the rival Hyksos kingdom as Dynasty 15, even though they were concurrent. There was a minor eastern Delta kingdom known now as Dynasty 14. Prior, Dynasty 13 was split in two, tumbling from the Middle Kingdom into the early Second Intermediate Period and a plethora of minor, short-lived kings. There is still a lot about the Second Intermediate Period we don’t understand.
One of those has turned out to be the number of other minor regional kingdoms that might have existed at the time. The University of Pennsylvania under Josef Wegner has been digging for many years at the Upper Egyptian site of Abydos. Located not far to the north of Thebes, Abydos is one of Egypt’s most ancient sites and was the original burial ground of Egypt’s earliest kings, who reigned over 5,000 years ago.
Egypt’s earliest history still has a lot to tell us, and archaeology is key. We know significantly more about the era of the kingdom’s founding in c. 3100 BCE than scholars did even 50 years ago, but there is much more to learn. Teams like Wegner’s will make it happen. But along the way archaeologists can never be certain what they might find to help fill in the gaps in other historical periods.
Wegner and his team were digging in the southern area of Abydos in January 2014 when they came upon something unexpected. One of the first things they unearthed was a massive stone sarcophagus chamber that turned out to have belonged originally to a king named Sobekhotep (probably Sobekhotep I, first king of Dynasty 13, c. 1780 BCE).
But as it turned out, it seemed that Sobekhotep’s sarcophagus chamber had been dragged from its original interment and reused in a different tomb. Exactly whose tomb that was is still not certain. But further excavations led to the discovery of other tombs, and they opened up a new window on a forgotten dynasty in ancient Egypt.
One of the other tombs was simple in design but of high-status for its time and place, and in clearing away the sands, Wegner and his team unearthed inscriptions. The four-chambered tomb turned out to belong to a king who had been lost to history.
The inscriptions tell us the king was named Senebkay, whose name means “My spirit is healthy.” The tomb had been looted in ancient times, so there was no great treasure of the likes of Tutankhamun. Chances are, Senebkay couldn’t have afforded that sort of burial, anyway. Excavations unearthed the fragments of a canopic box in which the king’s organs had been stored after mummification, and the canopic box, like the sarcophagus chamber in the nearby anonymous tomb, turned out to have come originally from Sobekhotep’s burial. Ancient Egyptian kings had a penchant for helping themselves to earlier kings’ goods, which was perfectly legitimate for a ruler and also very helpful if that ruler was not flush with wealth.
In sum, Wegner and his team had discovered the burial ground of a line of kings who appear to have been rulers of just the Abydos nome. Senebkay was among them. The painted tomb reveals his full name to have been Woseribre Senebkay, and one of the epithet’s record that he was “King of Upper and Lower Egypt.” That was a bit of a stretch, given that Senebkay’s reach wouldn’t have extended much beyond the Abydos nome. One of the other inscriptions refers to him by the traditional epithet “Son of Re.”
Wegner dates this local Abydos kingdom to 1650-1600 BCE, placing it late in the Second Intermediate Period. How it might fit into the current order of Second Intermediate Period dynasties is not clear.
By good fortune Senebkay’s remains were found in his tomb, although the body had been reduced to bones. But his skeleton is largely complete.
This allowed for a thorough examination of the remains and some interesting findings about how the king lived and met his end. Muscle attachments in the pelvis and legs were robust and highly suggestive of someone who spent a lot of time on horses. This was something of a surprise because horsemanship in Egypt had only recently entered the kingdom, probably through the Hyksos and their connections with others in northern areas. The first widespread uses of horses was to be for chariot warfare, and it may have been developing in around Senebkay’s time but would not become common place until the succeeding New Kingdom.
More interesting were the insults inflicted on Senebkay’s body. He bore numerous wounds, some of them likely lethal. His skull bears evidence of violent axe wounds, which probably did result in his death.
The remains also revealed numerous wounds to the feet, lower legs, and hands. This suggests Senebkay was attacked while in an elevated position—such as on a horse. It’s possible while in battle on horseback, Senebkay found himself surrounded by foes who were hacking at him until they were able to drag the king from the horse to the ground, and finish him off with blows to the head.
It’s eerily similar to the grisly end met by Seqenenre-Tao, the king of Thebes.
The poor state of Senebkay’s preservation, especially by royal standards, suggests the king may have died in battle away from home and could not be properly mummified in time.
It’s possible the line of Abydos kings was composed of equestrians. It’s unexpected because although chariotry was arriving on the scene at that time, combat while riding horseback was not the norm.
But who killed Senebkay? That’s not so easy to answer. It does appear he died in battle, so we can narrow down the assailants from there. An obvious culprit would be the Hyksos. After all, Senebkay and his Abydos nome lay between the Theban kings and the rival Canaanite warriors in the Delta. And if Senebkay lived and died around 1600 BCE, this places him in the timeframe of known hostilities between Thebes and the Hyksos.
Or was it Thebes? Perhaps Senebkay came up against the army of Seqenenre, Kamose, or Ahmose in their efforts to consolidate power in their prolonged push against the Hyksos. For that matter, was it the Nubians? We have evidence of a tentative alliance between them and the Hyksos, so that enemies could crush Thebes from both sides. Perhaps Senebkay got caught up in such a conflict, although ultimately we know that Nubia’s efforts to seep north at this time did not amount to much.
However it happened, Senebkay met a bloody end. He was buried over 3,600 years ago in a four-chambered tomb we call CS9, and over time the sands swept in and buried the final resting places of Senebkay and his fellow Abydine rulers. They were entirely forgotten until Josef Wegner and his team came along in 2014.
This leaves one to wonder what else might still lie buried at Abydos and other ancient sites in Egypt. This is the kind of story I like because it’s a vivid reminder of discoveries still to be made and new knowledge to be absorbed. Archaeology is key. The more we dig and explore, the more we fill in the blanks of one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever known.
In all probability Senebkay and his fellow Abydos kings were largely forgotten by the dawn of the New Kingdom, in 1550 BCE. Sweeping north, Ahmose was finally successful in driving the hated Hyksos from Egypt. He would besiege and slaughter their remnants in a fortress in the Negev. Thus began Egypt’s greatest age of glory, when it enjoyed unprecedented wealth, reach, and power.This was Egypt’s age of empire and onto the stage of history came truly powerful pharaohs like Tuthmosis III, Ahumhotep III, and Ramesses II. Senebkay and his fellow Abydos kings disappeared into history as the sands swallowed up their humble tombs, and there they would wait quietly for 3,600 years.
“Gant Sarcophagus Leads Penn Museum Team in Egypt to the Tomb of a Previously Unknown Pharaoh.” www.penn.museum. January 2014.
Gleeson, Molly. “Summer 2016 Conservation in South Abydos.” www.penn.museum. July 2016.
“New Forensic Evidence Confirms Violent Death of Pharaoh Senebkay.” www.penn.museum. February 2015.
Wegner, Josef. “Discovering Pharaohs Sobekhotep & Senebkay.” www.penn.museum. April 2014.
Verhelst, Paul and Matthew Olson. “First Glimpse of a New Pharaoh: The Remains of Senebkay.” www.penn.museum. PDF.