Fetekti – a priest from Abusir

The mastaba of the official and priest Fetekti dates to the end of the Fifth Dynasty and belongs to the numerous ancient Egyptian tombs with a very sad fate. It was first excavated by the German Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius between 1842-1843, in the course of his survey of the pyramid fields at Abusir and Saqqara. Lepsius limited his works to the excavation of the open court, which formed the entrance part of the tomb, and to the recording of its decoration. In the middle of the 19th century, the walls of the court still bore a large number of scenes painted on white plaster, which showed various aspects of the daily life of the ancient Egyptians. This decoration included scenes of assembling and transport of funerary equipment, wine making, scenes showing carpenters, wild game hunt in the desert, boat journeys, and, last but not least, the ancient Egyptian market.

The tomb of Fetekti was built in a remote area of the Abusir necropolis, on the slope of a small valley, which gradually descends from the Egyptian western desert plateau to the east, toward the Nile. This valley thus formed a natural course for the water, which accumulated on the desert plateaus at he times of annual torrential rains, and flew down to the Nile valley. Its destructive power inflicted substantial damage on a large part of the necropolis where the spirit of Fetekti dwelled.

This cemetery was built towards the end of the Fifth Dynasty as the final resting place of several families of priests who served in royal funerary temples and at the king’s court. Gradually, a complex of mud brick tombs developed here. Each tomb consisted of a large open court and a cultic chapel in the form of a narrow corridor. The western wall of the chapel contained one or more false doors. To the west of the chapel, the mouths of several burial shafts led to the burial chambers located in the substructure of the tomb. Several members of one ancient Egyptian family, commonly a married couple and their children, could be buried in one such structure. When one of the family members attained a higher official status, he could afford to build his own tomb, usually located close to the tomb of his family, and have it decorated by an Egyptian artist. Such a tomb always indicated a relatively good position of its owner in the Egyptian administrative. Fetekti belonged to these relatively successful officials, who possessed an independent tomb. His high status is further indicated by his titles and functions connected with the royal weavers’ workshops, which produced high quality textiles for the royal court. Finally, his burial chamber must also be mentioned in this context, since it lay 10 m below the surface and was the only one in the necropolis to be cased with limestone blocks.

After the termination of Lepsius’ excavations, the precise location of the tomb was forgotten, and for a long time, nothing but its decoration was known. It was rediscovered first in 1991. In the course of the exploration of the tomb, a corridor chapel with more decoration painted over white plaster was discovered to the south of the large pillared court, which was excavated by Lepsius. The western wall of the corridor chapel contained two false doors, which indicate that the funerary cult of two persons was practised in this tomb. The southern door belonged to the tomb owner Fetekti, the northern one to the official named Meti, whose precise relationship to Fetekti remains a mystery. The mouths of two shafts, situated to the west of the chapel, led to the burial chambers of the two men.The main burial chamber contained the completely scattered burial of Fetekti and poor remains of his funerary equipment consisting of several sherds of pottery vessels. The anthropological analysis of the skeletal remains showed that Fetekti died at the age of 30 – 40 years.

The archaeological excavation also showed that the painted decoration of the open court, as it was seen and recorded by Lepsius, does not exist any more. The publication of the tomb thus had to rely on information from the middle of the 19th century. This is true also for the scenes that show the ancient Egyptian market, which originally appeared in several registers of decoration on the southern and western sides of the pillar in the open court. The ancient Egyptian markets were places where peasants, craftsmen and fishermen could meet and exchange the produce of their work. This makes the preserved scenes very important, since they illustrate the details of ancient Egyptian market exchange.

Reading the horizontal registers of these scenes from top to bottom and from left to right, the first band of decoration on the southern side of the pillar is virtually lost. The second register shows, to the left, two men in white skirts. They are approaching the market; the first one, named Iunka, carries beads and sandals in his hands. He is turned to the seller on the right. The latter is sitting next to a basket of cakes, examines the beads and addresses Iunka thus: “Look, my cake is sweet!”. Iunka, still holding the beads, answers: “Look, my sandals are firm!” We are faced here with a proceeding trade transaction: it is a typical bargaining scene, where one type of ware was exchanged for another.

In the bottom register, the vendor is located to the right. It is a peasant with a basket of vegetables, from which we can see only heads of young onions. Two potential buyers are approaching him from the right, one of them is carrying a bag over his shoulder. Behind him, a man is carrying two types of fans. The first of the customers addresses the vendor: “Look at the beautiful adornement, your jewel! Look, your collar! Look, fans!” And the vendor answers: “Let me have a look and tell me your price.”

The western face of the stone pillar is somewhat better preserved. The upper band of decoration shows two man in the middle, bargaining over the price of a cloth. This scene is unique in showing us a transaction concerning a cloth. The making and distribution of textlies in ancient Egypt was a royal monopoly and only two scenes showing a free selling or barter of textiles were preserved to us. And why does one of them come precisely from the tomb of Fetekti? The answer is that Fetekti was an overseer of the weavers’ workshops, and thus he may have received cloth as part of his reward for well-done work, or, alternatively, he may have got hold of it by not exactly legal means.

The left part of the central register shows a seated man holding a stone vessel called mesekhet. He is approached by a woman who carries two small stone vessels containing oil, and speaks thus to the man: “Indeed, this is a festive oil, so you may be satisfied.” Further to the right we see a woman bargaining over the price of fish, offered to her by a seated vendor, who is simultaneously gutting one of his fish. The accompanying text is unfortunately too damaged to be reconstructed.

In the bottom register to the left, we see another fish vendor, who shouts at the woman standing in front of him: “Look, this is the real price!” The woman called Minmeret reacts by turning to the local supervisor of the market, whose task was to maintain order and punish potential thieves. “Come here, supervisor (of the market), Ibi!” she calls, and continues: “Catch him!” Her words indicate that the vendor tries to cheat her and the supervisor Ibi is her last recourse.
To the right, we see the overseer Ibi himself, approached by another man, perhaps with some appeal. Ibi calms him down by saying: “Look, I hold transgressions in my hand (i.e., under control).”

There are other sources that contribute to our knowledge of Fetekti’s life. They come mostly from the tombs at the Saqqara necropolis and from the papyrus archive of the funerary temple of King Neferirkare in Abusir. Based on the dating and identical titles, several mentions of our Fetekti may be identified in these written sources. In the papyrus archives, Fetekti is mentioned twice, in both cases as a lower priest (hem netjer, “servant of god” in ancient Egyptian), who took part at a proccession around the pyramid and took care of part of the temple inventory. In the tomb of the high official Ptahhotep II, Fetekti is twice depicted as bringing offerings to his superior. Finally, in the tomb of the two brothers, manicurists Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotpe, his presence is attested three times, sailing in a boat, dragging a boat on a rope, and riding a donkey.

All this evidence discovered outside the tomb of Fetekti testify to the character of his work as a funerary priest. He took care of part of the inventory of the funerary temple of the deceased king, while he also maintained the funerary cult in the tombs of his better situated and earlier deceased contemporaries at Saqqara. This was not an unimportant job; Egyptian priests were an indispensible component of the so-called redistributional economy. They received their salary in kind (coming from the commodities symbolically offered on the altars of temples and tombs), and probably brought part of this salary to the market, where they could further exchange it for agricultural or handicraft products.

The case of Fetekti is a typical example of how far we can get in our endeavor at the reconstruction of the past, with enough sources at out disposal. Despite the 4500 years that divide us from the time of Fetekti, perhaps we know much more about this ancient Egyptian official than about our own ancestors who lived a hundred years ago.

  Miroslav Bárta