Kaaper, an Egyptian Frontier Guard

Already in antiquity, ancient Egyptian monuments were the focus of great attention. This interest was only natural, since Egyptian cemeteries contained numerous treasures, such as above all luxury stone vessels, wooden furniture, items of personal adornement, jewels, amulets and objects of daily use, which ensured a satisfied life for the deceased in the herafter. First came robbers, looters of the burial chambers, who were able to rob even the most carefully watched places of the tomb, often with the help of the necropolis guards, sometimes even only several days after the burial. In times of unrest and interregnum, tombs became easily accessible sources of wealth and were looted again. At all times of Egyptian history, but above all in the New Kingdom, pyramids and tombs were dismantled as cheap sources of building material. In this respect, the building activities and projects of Ramesses II represent one of the greatest disasters. But the Romans showed no more respect for the ancient structures. In the Arab period, ancient Egyptian monuments and above all pyramids once again became the focus of attention of the Egyptian rulers, who strived to extract from them the greatest possible amount of gold and legendary treasures. These activities reached their peak in the time of the reign of Muhammad Ali (19th century), who used to give Egyptian monuments to European monarchs and important official visitors of the state in order to buy their favour. Thus now, after almost 4000 years of incessant destruction of the buildings, Egyptologists are facing an extremely complicated situation, and must make use of all available sources during their research. Even thus, it is not certain that an optimal state of knowledge will ever be reached. Sometimes, however, it is possible to fight this adversity of fortune and history with success.

The tomb of the army commmander and official Kaaper is an illustrative example of these problems. The reconstructed history of the tomb of Kaaper shows that only during the last 100 years, this monument was discovered and lost several times. Its fate began to be sealed in the beginning of the 20th century, when it first became the target of tomb robbers. They dragged several large limestone blocks out of the cultic chapel. Most of these blocks, which were decorated with fine reliefs, found their way to the museums in the U.S.A. For the second time, it was “discovered” in 1959, when the American egyptologist Henry G. Fischer published a study dealing with the personality and titulary of Kaaper, based on several photographs taken in a tomb lying “somewhere on the Saqqara necropolis.” For the third time, the tomb was finally discovered in 1989 by our Egyptian colleagues, who had to interfere with the ravages of modern tomb robbers. Several more limestone blocks with relief decoration could still be saved from the extensively damaged chapel. The exploration of the tomb of Kaaper was the first project of Czech Egyptologists in the area of South Abusir, and its results brought a lot of new and surprising information.

The tomb itself is built of quality Tura limestone from the quarries located on the eastern bank of the Nile to the south of Cairo. The length of the tomb of Kaaper reaches almost 42 m in the north-south direction, its width is 20 m and its original height must have reached 5 m. The southeastern part of the tomb included a small chapel with an L-shaped groundplan. Its decoration was, as stated above, extensively damaged in the past and therefore, its theoretical reconstruction presented one of the most important tasks to be solved.

The work on the reconstruction of the original appearance of the interior decoration of the tomb lasted several years. On the eastern wall of the chapel, over the entrance, there was originally a scene with fishermen drawing a large towing net equipped with floats. Their catch includes various fish, which are represented with such fine details, that even now it is possible to precisely determine the individual species. A photograph of this part of the decoration taken in 1959 shows more or less the entire scene. Compared to it, the block which is now kept in the Metropolitan Museum in new York is very incomplete. Where is the rest? We can only hypothesize that it found its way to some private collection.

The entire remaining portion of the eastern wall was covered with a typical offering scene showing Kaaper with his wife Tjenteti seated behind an offering table laden with sliced bread and other offerings. This part of the chapel decoration was the only one left untouched by tomb robbers, since it was highly damaged by crystalline salts.

The north wall was originally covered with the representation of a large standing figure of the tomb owner, with his wife lovingly embracing him around his shoulders. This part of decoration, too, is forever lost, and the last photographs of it appeared in the publication from 1959. Already then, however, the faces of both figures were lost – probably because they had been detached and sold on the Egyptian antiquities market. Over the heads of the married couple, there was a damaged hieroglyphic insription, which coud be partially reconstructed. In it, Kaaper addresses future visitors of the tomb: “I have built this tomb, I am justified before the god. I have built this tomb from my own property… I never said anything wrong against anyone, I never stole anything from anyone… Whoever would want to disturb this tomb will be judged by the Great God, lord of the (last) judgement; the king’s official, Kaaper.”

This type of text is known among Egyptologists as “negative confession”. The chief aim of this composition was to persuade the visitors that the tomb owner had lived in compliance with the ethical norms of his time and that he deserved regular offerings and prayers in his chapel to secure for him an undisturbed afterlife existence. The inscription also shows us the typical transgressions of the time of the pyramid builders: Egyptian officials were dismantling older tombs in order to acquire building stone for their own tombs, claumny and gossip were no exception at the court, and often, officials who had enough executive authority would misuse their power for their own enrichment. Unfortunately, our Kaaper was no exception. Here he is depicted as a dignified stout official. Even this trait only stressed the importance of his office and status. After all, he did not have to work in the field for several cakes of bread with vegetables and a jar of beer!

The gradual reconstruction of the decoration of the western wall illustrates how much the work of an Egyptologist may resemble detective investigation. While assembling this formerly almost completely dismembered wall, it became clear that the individual decorated limestone blocks are now kept on at least three continents. The central point of the decoration of the wall was the false door, through which the deceased would pass to this world from the western realm of the dead in the course of offering rituals. Approximately in the middle of the door was an opening leading to a completely closed room, which originally contained an idealized stone statue of the deceased Kaaper (these closed inaccessible rooms are called serdabs). The decoration of the upper part of the false door consists of a panel with a figure of Kaaper seated behind a table with offering loaves. The hieroglyphic inscriptions around him mention more offerings, including, besides food and drink, also various luxury commodities. The favourite items ranged over incense, natron, imported cosmetic oils, black and green pigments used as eyepaint, dates, figs, grapes, wine, assorted cakes and drinks including various types of bread, cakes and beer, to stone vessels and textiles. The panel is now located in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Over the panel, there was originally a lintel bearing more titles and the name of Kaaper. To our great surprise, this lintel was discovered first in 1994, lying in drift sand about 500 m to the south of the tomb. Buried by the thieves and redy for subsequent transport, it was found by our Scotch colleagues. The method and quality of the artist’s work, the preserved titles as well as the dimensions of the block enabled its easy identification and placement on its original spot in the tomb, such as is shown by the computer reconstruction of the wall.

To the right of the false door, Kaaper was depicted standing, accompanied by his wife and their son, who was also named Kaaper, like his father. A larger part of this scene is today located in the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas. Several columns of hierloglyphic inscriptions over the heads of the married couple record over thirty of Kaaper’s titles and offices at the Egyptian court. However, these blocks are no longer in the tomb, but in the magazines of the Saqqara inspectorate. Had our Egyptian colleagues not reacted in time in 1989, even these beautiful incriptions would now undoubtedly be part of some private property.

The inscriptions from the tomb of the official Kaaper are very interesting and important, since they offer us a detailed descripton of Kaaper’s official career. His titles included those of a “herdsman of the dappled cattle, scribe of the pasture lands of the dappled cattle, scribe of the department of documents, overseer of the scribes of the department of documents, scribe of the king’s army in the fortresses of Serer, Tepa, Ida, in the area of the Terraces of Turquoise and in the foreign lands behind the eastern and western border … priest of the goddess Heqet, army general and overseer of all royal works.”

These titles tell us that Kaaper belonged to the highest officials of his time. It is also important to note that in that period, military, priestly and official functions were not strictly separated and one person could perform all three types of activities. For some time, Kaaper’s carreer developed outside the capital; he served as a scribe of the royal documents in several frontier areas and he was responsible for the Egyptian expeditions to the Sinai peninsula, namely to the area of Serabit el-Khadim and Wadi Maghara, where the Egyptians mined turquoise, a higly valued mineral of blue-green colour. Later, Kaaper became the chief royal architect, responsible for royal buildings on Egyptian territory. At the same time, he was also a member of the funerary brotherhood, which organised funerary processions to the tombs in south Abusir and Saqqara.

The ananlysis of his titles is of some importance also for the study of the period of the Old Testament patriarchs. Kaaper lived in the immediatele preceding time (the Patriarchs are now commonly dated to the 22nd century B.C.). Some of his titles make it clear that he was responsible for watching over the Egyptian frontier and over the pasture lands of the dappled cattle. Other sources attest that dappled cattle was typical above all for Asiatic nomadic tribes. Also, the Old Testament mentions that in times of draught, Abraham and his tribe and herds had to find refuge in Egypt, namely the Egyptian Delta, which at that time abounded in large pastures.

Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe.”
(Gen. 12, 10)

The historical context makes it clear that already in the time of the Old Kingdom, various nomadic tribes from the Near East and the Sinai penetrated to Egypt, where pastures were reserved for their herds. However, this could happen only with the consent of the Egyptian frontier police, of which Kaaper was a member. The discovery and interpretation of his tomb thus shed further light on the relationships of Egypt and Syria-Palestine in the time of the patriarchs. The discovery of two imported wine amphorae in Kaaper’s burial chamber justifies our belief that this official played an important role in an area which functioned and still functions as a melting pot of several cultures and religions.

The only thing to regret in connection with Kaaper is the fact that his burial chamber, hidden at the bottom of a 24 m deep shaft, was looted already in antiquity and destryed to such an extent, that it was not possible to explore it for security reasons. Anyway, we might say that we were able, at least in part, to recover the life story of this undoubtedly interesting official from the dark areas of history.

  Miroslav Bárta