Francesco Raffaele


The name of this huge cemetery (more than 10.000 tombs) comes from the Arabic 'Sweet springs' indicating sweet water and sulphur springs of the area.
It's located on the east bank of the Nile (29°51' N 31°22' E) c. 20 km south of Cairo, just in front of the cemetery of Saqqara which is on the opposite bank of the river. The nearest centers are El Ma'asara and 'Ezbet el Walda, c. 2 km to the south. Helwan is 5 km to the East and beyond it there's the important neolithic center of El Omari, near the mouth of the Wadi Hof.
E. Drioton suggested Helwan was the ancient site of Per Hapi but this has now been identified with the modern Athar el Nabi.
The cemetery is nowadays disturbed by the Khashab Canal (built in the 1880s), military camps and modern buildings.
Helwan is the biggest known cemetery in Egypt of Early Dynastic Date, with more than 10.000 tombs excavated.
This was indeed the true necropolis of Memphis since the Protodynastic and almost all the tombs date from Dynasty 0 (Horus Ka) to the Third Dynasty; some tombs have size which indicates that they must have belonged to individuals almost equal in status to the high officials buried at Saqqara, while the most of the others (mere pits) belonged to the common people living in the capital; but the range of individuals' status is much more wide than in the elitary cemetery of North Saqqara, for at Helwan tombs of the low classes' people are found in fields where elite tombs were sited too (as one of a second dynasty royal prince, a first dyn. Queen, the rich nubian (?) Sesi and high officials of various named or not Early Dynastic Kings).
There is also a number of IV th dynasty tombs and one of the Middle Kingdom.
The site excavations were directed by Zaki Youssef Saad (1901-1982), and began by the promotion and expense of king Faruk; they lasted thirteen years (ten excavation seasons) from july 8, 1942 to 1954; preliminary report in ASAE 41 and 3 extensive publications (Cahiers ASAE 1947,1951, 1957) only covered the bulk of material excavated in the first five years, whereas all the tombs excavated during the last campaigns, from 1947 to 1954, were only briefly commented in the final semidivulgative publication by Saad issued in 1969 ('The Excavations at Helwan' Norman- Oklahoma) and in the annual reports on various specialistic reviews (Orientalia).
The core of the necropolis are some medium size stone mastabas around which thousands of poorer burials and pits spread.
The largest mastabas have stairways on the west side and external palace facade pannelling. Large stone slabs of the finest Tura limestone are used for the crypts' floors, walls and sometimes ceilings too (Tura quarries to the north and alabaster Wadi Hof quarries to the south were both less than 10 km distant) as well as for the stairway casing.
Owing to sabbakhin and erosion, only a small portion of the tombs' mudbrick superstructures remained when Saad excavated.
Two long pits in the NE are accessible from the north (the vast 653 H5 resembles the tomb V of Khasekhemwy at Umm el Qa'ab), while many other small graves are approachable from N S W E (in general the most have stairway or simple stairs on northern side).
No tomb presents the characteristic model estate as found at Saqqara since Aha,but there have been indeed found some model granaries. Moreover four or five Ist Dynasty elite tombs (762 H5, 649 H5, 1502 H2 and 680 H5) had a pit with boat burial like the three found at North Saqqara,the two at Abu Roash and the ones the American expedition directed by David O' Connor has recently found at Abydos.

A carved stela was placed on the doorway (cfr. Vandier Man. p.733,734,765); vessels storerooms are north and south of the burial chamber of the wealthiest mastabas, but the majority of the poorer graves have only one vessel placed beside the head of the dead or no funerary provision at all. The niche was placed in the northern end of the west wall (instead of the southern end of the east wall as commonly found at Saqqara).
The stairway had generally one heavy portcullis blocking the way to the intruders.
Many elitary mastabas have subsidiary pits all around as at Saqqara and Abydos (but some weren't contemporary with the main tomb they surrounded).
Some tombs (n. 1 H3, 40 H3) had vertical limestone slabs which were covered by mudbrick ; these slabs formed the casing of the entrance corridor and of the burial chamber's pavement and ceiling (Woods, J.E.A. 73, 59ff).
Some animal burials have been found (dogs, donkeys, goats), as well as child burials; the youngest children and faetuses were buried in another zone of the necropolis.
Most of the graves had been systematically plundered : only 141 of the 735 tombs excavated in 1942 were intact; in tomb 9H Saad found the body of a plunderer who died for the collapse of the tunnel he had dug through the wall of the tomb.
The dead were usually placed in a contracted position; sometimes their heads or hands lacked, taken away by the plunderers in search of nacklaces and armlets. No trace of mummification remains: the corpse in the coffin was only wrapped in linen bandages; the orientation of the dead bodies in the burial chamber is less uniformal than the tombs orientation (generally NS).
Other findings from the tombs, apart from pottery jars and various kinds of stone vessels, were flint knives, two Djed amulets and a toilet spoon in form of the SA necklace (later symbol of Isis; Saad, 1947, pl. 15), a large carapace of Nile turtle over a human body (in tomb 264 H2), wooden coffins (c. 90 x 50 x 40 in average size), nacklaces and armlets in various semiprecious stones, faience (palm/rosette roundel) and ivory objects (gaming pieces, hair pins, a model vessel and model boat), inscribed O.K. ostraca, Early Dynastic stelae (cfr. Vandier cit. and P. Kaplony I.A.F.), and other objects with royal names.
Cylinder seal from Helwan t. 160 H3
Some objects date from the Late predynastic, as the Cylinder seal from tomb 160 H3 (< fig.) with an empty serekh (Naqada IIIa2) which Saad had uncorrectly interpreted as depicting Aha's name (C. Kohler G.M. 168, 1999 p. 49 ff; Saad op.cit. 1947 p. 165-6 fig. 14).
The nine king's names discovered on objects from Helwan tombs range from Dynasty 0 Horus Ka (in tombs 1627 H2 and 1651 H2), Dyn. I Narmer (small faience tag nearby 1H3 and 40H3; SASAE 3, 165 fig. 14a), queen Neithhotep (728 H5), Djer (same object and loc. as Narmer's; SASAE 3, fig. 14b), Den (1380 H2), Semerkhet, Qa'a (150 H5) and Dynasty II Ninetjer (505 H4 pict. below) (MDAIK 52,1996). Two of the stelae found in Heluan tombs, belonged to Second Dynasty princesses (sat-nswt): Khnemet-Ptah (?) [Hpt-xmt] (Saad 1957, 5, pl. 2) from tomb 175H8 debris and Sat-Ba (Saad 1957, 41f., pl. 24) from tomb 1241H9.
Helwan, substructure of tomb 505 (dated to the reign of Ninetjer, IInd Dynasty, by seal impressions found in it)

About twentyfive tombs contained a stone slab (more than the double had an emplacement for that): Z.Saad called them 'ceiling stelae' and they are of Second Dynasty date (sadly almost all of them were excavated in the poorly published last six years excavations; see bibliography below; cfr. Vandier loc.cit.supra).

Ceiling stela of Heken from  tomb 381 H8 (Helwan)

In the Third Dynasty tombs no royal name was found; for the vast IIIrd dyn. mastaba 287H6 , oriented towards the east, stone slabs from older tombs were reused; this is the latest Early Dynastic tomb, has an area of 1232 sq meters, stone core and unfinished brick cladding; Jeffreys and Tavares (MDAIK 50 p.154 n.68) suggest that this tomb was reused in an unprecised later date.
Several IV th dyn. tombs contained hieratic ostraca and one - maybe 36 H5 - was said to have yielded a woollen shroud.
The latest tomb is 359 H3 at the extreme western side of the cemetery belonging to a Middle Kingdom official, Sokarhotep.

Recent news about Helwan
Recent works by the Australian team of Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia) directed by Dr. Christiana Kohler and Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, have brought to the discovery of 6 Early Dynastic mudbrick mastabas with a good number of objects unplundered.
Not less important the research by Dr. Kohler who discovered hundreds of crates in the magazines of the Cairo Museum dated to the excavation of Zaki Youssef Saad and left mostly unpublished by the death of the Egyptian Archaeologist.
An interesting side of this found lies in some unpublished late predynastic inscribed jars in course of publication.
It has been found a further number of Naqada IIIB serekhs on jars, one of which naming a previously unknown ruler, *Nj-Neith (jn.i Neith).[Cf. C.M. Köhler-E.C.M. van den Brink, Four Wine jars with incised Serekh-signs from Helwan recently retrieved from the Cairo Museum, in: GM 187, 2002, 59-81].
Also see the links below

Update Jan-13-2001

I have been informed of new discoveries in Helwan by the Australian team of the Macquarie University, Sydney: quoting an e-mail I ve received by Dr David Pritchard (Department of Ancient History, Division of Humanities od Macquarie Univ.) "...Dr Christiana Koehler reports that they are having their best season ever. They have already found more tombs in the first ten days of this season than in their first four seasons combined...".
These discoveries have an outstanding relevance for our knowledge of some Early Dynastic- (and, by the cited founds in Cairo Museum, also Late Predynastic-) cultural aspects, in particular the architectural and inscriptional ones.
The 'most crowded' cemetery known in Egypt was published by the excavator Z. Saad only in the form of brief reports and a semi-divulgative book ('The Excavations at Helwan: Art and Civilization in the First and Second Egyptian Dynasties', Norman, 1969) due to the premature demise (?) of the Egyptian archaeologist; therefore a re-examination and extension of the excavations in the light of the new knowledge of the period and with the modern technologies are making Dr Koehler 's work one of the most interesting actually in progress in Egypt.
Despite the approximatively 10.000 burials known on this site, we still don't know how many more are yet under the sand and which kind of surprises the site will continue to offer (considering that a number of Saad's excavated tombs were unplundered).
The immensity of the field suggests how large the population of the Early Dynastic Memphis was; to the great amount of middle- status officials' tomb, we can surely add a certain number of tombs belonging to individuals who must have held a somewhat more considerable position in the hierarchies of the Early Dynastic administation.

In the early days of January 2002 three more 'ceiling stelae' have been found in freshly excavated tombs; these and another one published by E. El Banna (G.M. 117-118, pl. 21, 1990), sum up with the other 35 already known (Kaplony, I.A.F. I, 1963 sp. 1-26 pag. 230ff and id. Kleine Beitrage 1966 sp. 44-52 p. 1 and 34ff) to enlarge the corpus up to 40 (including a fragmentary plate also found by Dr Koehler). To these specimens from Helwan we can add other c. 15 from Saqqara, one from Abu Sir and 5 of unknown provenance; thus the overall amount is 61 'grabplatten' of the period from late First Dynasty (Qa'a's reign) to the Third Dynasty known to date (cfr. J. Kahl, 1997 in the bibliography below and the picture of the stela of Heken above).
Each additional piece has a great value for the palaeographical and stylistical studies (cfr. N. Cherpion, Mastabas et Hypogées 1989; J. Kahl op. cit. 1997) of the Agyptischer Fruhzeit.
Also the architectural characters of the tombs of Helwan are not deprived of interest for the study of Early Dynastic tombs, although the structures are smaller in size than the largest mastabas of the elite (pat) members buried at Saqqara.
In some tombs there is a peculiar use of heavy limestone slabs in the casing (W. Woods, 1973, J.P. Lauer, Hist. Monum. 1962) or the presence of funerary boats (cfr. above) as well as the same cited tradition of the inscribed stone panels and other funerary objects/ traditions.
Many Thanks to Dr. Christiana Koehler and Dr. David Pritchard for the informations provided.

Other sources of information used for this article:

- 'Preliminary Report on the Royal Excavations at Helwan (1942)' - Z.Y. Saad in A.S.A.E. 41, 1941 p. 405-09
- ROYAL EXCAVATIONS AT SAQQARA AND HELWAN (1941-1945)- Z.Y. Saad (Suppl. ASAE Cahier n.3,1947)
- ROYAL EXCAVATIONS AT SAQQARA AND HELWAN (1945-1947)- Z.Y. Saad (Suppl. ASAE Cahier n.14,1951)
- [Later Excav. campaigns are summarized in: Chron.d' Eg. 24 (1949) p. 48 and in Jean Leclant in Orientalia 20(1951), 343ff; 21(1952), 243; 22(1953), 95ff.]
- 'Manuel d' Archaeologie Egyptienne' vol.I t. 2 - J. Vandier 1954 p.674 ff, 733, 765
- W. Kaiser in Z.A.S. 91 (1964) p. 105-6, n. 3-6
- 'The Excavations at Helwan: Art and Civilization in the First and Second Egyptian Dynasties' - Z.Y. Saad, 1969
- 'The Archaic stone tombs at Helwan' - W. Woods in J.E.A. 73, 1987 p.59-70
- 'Historical Landscape of Early Dynastic Memphis' - D. Jeffreys-A. Tavares in M.D.A.I.K. 50, 1994 p.143-73 expec.152-54
- 'A re-examination of the Early Dynastic Necropolis of Helwan' - T.A.H. Wilkinson in M.D.A.I.K. 52, 1996 p.337-53
- 'Zur Datierung der fruhen Grabplatten mit Opfertischszene' - J. Kahl in S.A.K. 24. 1997/ 137-145
- 'Helwan' - D. Jeffreys in K. Bard ed. 'Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt' 1999 p.367-8
- 'Early Dynastic Egypt' - T.A.H. Wilkinson, 1999, 2001(2)
- 'Excavations at Helwan' - E.C. Kohler, E.A. 17. 2000 p. 38-40
- Preliminary report on the 2nd Excavation season of the Australian Centre for Egyptology, MacQuarie University Sydney at the Cemetery of Helwan / Ezbet el-Walda (Christiana Kohler) A.S.A.E. 76. 2000-2001/ 23-29 (+ plates I, II)
- E.C. Köhler /E.C.M. van den Brink, Four Wine jars with incised Serekh-signs from Helwan recently retrieved from the Cairo Museum, in: GM 187, 2002/ 59-81.

Web links


If the links have become unactive see the Cached copy of the articles 1 and 2 (MQUniv); 3 and 4 (Al-Ahram Weekly).