Tombs of sacred animals at Saqqara.

 1 . The cemetary of Ibis birds

The tombs which hold the Ibis run to many, many chambers - the numbers of birds found and still to be excavated has been estimated to run into many millions. Although the tombs in which these mummified birds reside has been known to explorers since the 18th Century it was not until 1966 that the catacomb of these birds was entered properly (see below). The huge numbers of birds mummified and buried here dates back to the Ptolemaic Period, pilgrims came to Saqqara to leave offerings (in the form of ibis mummies) in honour of the 3rd Dynasty architect Imhotep (builder of the Step-Pyramid of Djoser), in the Late Period he was famed as a wise man, healer, 'First Chief one of the Ibis' and deified as the Greek god of Medicine Aesculapius.

The ibis mummies and Vivant Denon (artist in the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt) - 1798:

"The vaults at Saqqara had been opened, and there had been found in a sepulchral chamber more than five hundred mummies of the ibis. I was presented with two, and could not refrain from opening one. Citizen Geoffrey and myself, with all the necessary apparatus, sat down alone at a table; and that I might perfectly recollect every circumstance of this operation, and represent it as I saw it in its process, I have given a drawing of every development, and a complete explanation of the whole.
There is a great deal of variety in the particular care with which these birds are embalmed; and the eathern pot is found with all. This inequality of care bestowed upon mummies, taken from the same vault, proves that there was with them, as in embalming men, a great difference in the prices; and consequently that it was at the expense of individuals. We may likewise conclude, that these embalmed birds had not been all fed in temples, or colleges of priests, in reward for the services rendered by the species. If it had been with these birds as the god Apis, a single individual would have been enough, and these pots would not be found by thousands. We must believe, that the ibis, a destroyer of all reptiles, was held in great veneration in this country, in which, at certain seasons, these reptiles abound; and that, like the stork in Holland, this bird growing tame by the kindness always shown to it, each house retained its winged inmate, and gave it, after death, according to the means of the inhabitants, the honours of sepulchure.
Herodotus relates that he was told that the ibis abounded every where in the early ages of this country; and that, in proportion to the draining of the marshes in Upper Egypt, the bird fled to the plain for food. This accords with the report of travellers, who inform us that they are sometimes seen in the Lake Menzaleh. If the species had diminished so much in the time of Herodotus, it is no wonder that at the present day its existence should be questioned. Herodotus relates, moreover, that the priests of Heliopolis told him, that clouds of winged serpents arrived through the valleys which divided Egypt and Arabia, on retreat of the inundation of the Nile, and that the ibis went out to engage and devour these reptiles. He adds, that he had never seen anything of these serpents but their skeletons, which he found in great quantities in the valleys. With all reverence for this patriarch of history, I think that the reputation of the ibis did not require that dragons should be created to make it interesting to Egypt, which is the mother of so many other noxious reptiles. But Herodotus was a Greek and delighted in the marvellous".

Drawing of an ibis pot, and its wrapped contents -

Description de l'Egypte 

Emery at Saqqara - the search for the tomb of Imhotep

It has often been surmised, because he was the architect of Djoser's pyramid, that Imhotep himself would be buried in a so far undiscovered tomb at Saqqara. In 1964 Walter Emery began work at the site using the trail of broken pottery and offerings of ibis birds to show him the way to the tomb. In the course of his search he discovered several 3rd Dynasty mastaba tombs but none belonging to the famed Imhotep, however, during the course of excavating these mastaba tombs the excavators broke through into an underground catacomb of animal burials:

 Plan of the ibis galleries discovered by Emery, similar in design to the Serapeum but much more extensive.

(This was the first of two catacombs discovered whish was used for the burial of ibis mummies, Emery was also to find a gallery of mummified baboons and a gallery for falcons).

Still Emery searched for the tomb of Imhotep, hindered in his search by the massive amount of animal mummies that needed to be cleared before he and his workers could continue. During the 1969-70 season he found evidence that he was nearing his goal; a falcon coffin with a limestone stela - on the stela a drawing of an ibis facing a falcon before an offering table, beneath this drawing an inscription:

"May Imhotep the great son of Ptah, the great god and the good god who rest here give life to Petenfertem, son of Djeho, together with Paptah, son of Djeho, whom Tamneve bore. May their house and their children be established for ever. The blessing of the gods who rest here be upon him who reads this himself ......."

Emery concluded that the galleries would lead to the very tomb of Imhotep, before the task of clearing the tombs of mummified birds could be completed Emery suffered a fatal stroke (1971. The clearing of the catacombs did not continue again until the Egypt Exlporation Society returned in 1992).

The Priest called Hor

One of the most interesting finds from the catacombs are the writings of a minor priest who worked at the ibis galleries - these writings have come to be known as "the Archive of Hor". From these writings, which have been preserved on pottery fragments, it is known that he was born around 200BC in the Sebennytos nome in Middle Egypt. Hor had prophetic dreams which he would record (Hor seems to have had some reputation as a Seer and was even consultated by the King, Ptolemy VI Philometor. Hor relates how he had an audience with the King and Queen in the Serapeum in Alexandria during August 168BC), he would also make drafts of officials matters before copying onto papyrus. Hor wrote about one of his dreams:

"A great man called out to me, saying "come to me: I have found a house which is built, more than a house which lacks its roof beams". He sat down in the middle of the dromos. He said to me, "Bring your clover, this food [for] the 60,000 ibises".

Which indicates that there was perhaps 60,000 ibises at the temple, a figure which seems far too high at any one time (modern estimates would place the figure closer to 5,000 at any one time, Hor indicates that a mass burial of birds took place once a year with the galleries opened briefly for the service and then once more sealed shut). In addition to his dreams, Hor relates how things were not all entirely above board at the temple - how some pilgrims were sold empty jars for burial amongst for example - a comission of inspectors investigated some of the workers and six men were eventually imprisoned.

 Other burials at Saqqara:

Baboons and Falcons
From the terrace of the temple built by Nectanebo II two galleries tunnelled their way into the rock, one for the burials of baboons, the second for falcons.
Baboon burials. The baboon gallery consists of two levels, the lower level had only been dug after the initial upper level had been filled with baboon mummies. The baboons were embalmed and put into wooden boxes - these boxes were then placed into spaces cut into the walls of the gallery. The 400 baboons buried here were identified by its name and date of burial which was written on a limestone slab which sealed the baboon and its box into the wall. (Unfortunately early Christians destroyed all except one baboon burial).
Falcon burials. Found in the southern part of the temple terrace of Nectanebo II. A single corridor leads into the rock, side galleries hold pottery jars which in turn hold the falcon mummies (the side galleries were on average about 2.5m wide X 3 m high and the gallery was about 600m long - once each gallery was full with burials it was sealed off from the main corridor). The quality and type of burials of the falcon varied greatly, some elaborate jars were found to hold a few bones wrapped with linen, while others showed elaborate wrapping. Not all birds found were falcons - some ibises have been found, and some larger pots held mummified vultures.

Entrance to the galleries - where Hor would have worked, and dreamed.