Exploring the secrets of an ancient Egyptian necropolis

Abusir, photo: Juan de la Torre Suárez

Egypt's famous necropolis Abusir, near Saqqara, has been called the site of forgotten kings- a complex of pyramids dating back to the Old Kingdom: some two thousand years BC. Today, four pyramids still stand above the rubble and the sand; in the surroundings lie hidden tombs of priests and private officials. These tombs are now seeing the light of day thanks to the Czech Institute of Egyptology, leading excavation and discovery in the area for the last 44 years. A new exhibition in Prague explores the extent of the Czech contribution and offers visitors insight into the secrets of Abusir.

The Czechs' contribution to the field of Egyptology is significant: since 1960, Czech experts have been working in the area of Abusir, uncovering artefacts and hidden tombs, shedding new light on royal relationships dating back to Egypt's 5th Dynasty, four thousand years ago. On Wednesday, the head of the Czech mission, Miroslav Verner, and the head of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Wafaa el-Sadik, launched the exhibition "Secrets of the Desert and the Pyramids" at Prague's Naprstek Museum. Wafaa el-Sadik:

"[The Czechs] are very respected because they work very seriously, they publish results of the work they do, and the mission at Abusir has been doing so for the last 44 years. So, we are always happy to have them because they are doing their work in a proper way, and they are introducing information which is changing our way of looking at the Old Kingdom."

On display in Prague are a number of items from Egypt, including the statuette of a forgotten god; pottery and other daily utensils, as well as a famous model of the crumbling and never completed pyramid of Neferefre, on loan from Leipzig. Looking at the piece one can only imagine what it must be like to really visit Abusir, to see it on the horizon under a blazing sun.

Ladislav Bares, a professor at Charles University's Institute of Egyptology, explains how the famous necropolis' significance slowly came into play:

"For a long time Abusir was rather neglected among the Pyramid fields, in favour of Giza and Saqqara. But, of course there are periods when Abusir was rather important. We made significant finds in recent years ranging over Egptian history, from the era of the pyramid builders, as well as the last millennium before the Christian era. From the earlier period perhaps the most important find was the unfinished complex of King Neferefre of the early 5th Dynasty. It was the place where the king was buried, and his mortuary, with quite a lot of tools, implements, vessels, plus lost of papyri and archives of the ancient Egyptian state, and other finds."

The best of those finds remain on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, while only fragments can be seen at Prague's Naprstek Musuem, and so the exhibition only hints at the full richness of Abusir. One gets the sense of seeing only a few fragments "of time", wishing there could have been more. On the other hand, it is certainly commendable that the exhibition offers a lot of background information, and part of the exhibit is friendly to the blind, offering text in brail, and replicas that can be touched, to bring ancient Egypt alive.