Kahun papyrus


The Lahun Papyri

Between 1889 and 1899 Lahun yielded the largest haul of surviving Middle Kingdom (about 2025-1700 BC) papyri, divisible into two groups:

(1) business papers of the cult for king Senusret II, from the rubbish mound north of the Valley Temple of his pyramid complex, by the west wall of the town; most of these are now in the Egyptian Museums of Berlin and Cairo, and date to the reigns of Senusret III and Amenemhat III

(2) miscellaneous manuscripts from across the town site, retrieved from the rescue clearance of the site in spring and autumn 1889 by Flinders Petrie; these are now in the Petrie Museum, and date to the late Twelfth and early Thirteenth Dynasties



Hymns to king Senusret III (1872-1853 BC)

This cycle of hymns for the cult of king Senusret III is preserved in a single copy, on an incomplete papyrus retrieved during the 1889 Petrie excavations at Lahun; the other side of the papyrus bears the end of a narrative literary episode, and a rectangular section had been torn from the end of the sheet in ancient times for reuse as a small sheet (perhaps for writing a short letter or account). The hymns provide a succinct introduction to the imagery of divine kingship during the Middle Kingdom (about 2025-1700 BC), a period of strongly centralised power.
When and where were the hymns sung?

The final section possibly identifies the content (praise of Khakaura) and implies the occasion, by its reference to transport on a ship; the fourth section of the cycle opens each acclamation with the phrase 'he has come', and the emphasis on 'riverbanks' throughout the cycle may also indicate a quayside setting.

Earlier editors of the hymns tended to assume that the hymns would have been sung to the king during his reign, and postulated a visit by the king to the town at Lahun where the papyrus was found. The strongest indication that the hymns were sung during the life-time is the epithet 'may he live for ever and eternity' at the end of the cycle; in accounts papyri this epithet follows the name of living kings, whereas 'true of voice' is written after the names of deceased kings.

However, from the point of view of the cult of the king, there might be no difference between a hymn to the living king, and a hymn for the cult of the dead king: both during and after his lifetime, hymns would be sung to each king, as part of the cult maintaining his kingship. Even if the hymn was composed during the reign of Senusret III, later performances and a later written copy might not have changed the epithet 'may he live for ever and eternity' after the name of the king. The handwriting seems close to manuscripts from the reign of his son Amenemhat III, following a major revision of handwriting style in the early reign of Amenemhat III, visible in Lahun temple accounts papyri now in Cairo and Berlin. However, handwriting is an insufficient sole guide to date, other than to general periods, because an individual writer might have old-fashioned handwriting.

The pyramid complex at Lahun was built for the cult and burial of king Senusret II, father of Senusret III. Accounts papyri preserved in Berlin and Cairo give lists of the statues in that complex, and those include images of both kings as well as certain women in their family. In sum, it seems possible that the hymns were sung at any one or more of the following moments:

* visit of king Senusret III to Lahun
* arrival of a statue of the king for installation in the temple of his father king Senusret II
* cult of king Senusret III during his lifetime, following installation of his statues in the valley temple of the Lahun pyramid complex
* cult of king Senusret III after his lifetime, through the statues of the king in the valley temple of the Lahun pyramid complex

Photograph of the papyrus UC 32157 (hymns on front side only)

(click on the images for a larger picture)

Transcription of the papyrus UC 32157 (hymns on front side only)

Transliteration and translation of the papyrus

Part One: the king as protector of Egypt

(column 1)

Hr [nTr] xprw nbty nTr mswt
Hr nbw xpr
nswt bity xa-kAw-ra
sA ra snwsrt
iT.[n.]f tAwy m mAa-xrw

(column 1)

Horus [divine] of forms, He of the Two Ladies, divine of births
Horus of Gold, who has come into being
Dual King Khakaura
Son of Ra Senusret
He has taken up the two lands as the one true of voice

(columns 2-3)

i.nD Hr.k xa-kAw-ra
Hr.n nTr xprw
mk tA swsx tASw.f
dAir xAswt m wrrt.f
inq tAwy m r-awy.fy

(columns 2-3)

Hail Khakaura
Our Horus, divine of forms
Protector of the land, extender of its boundaries
He who defeats foreign lands by his Great Crown
He who embraces the two lands with his action

(columns 4-5)

[...] xAswt m rmnwy.fy
smA pdtyw nn sxt xt
sti Ssr n itH rwd
Hw.n nrw.f iwntyw m tA.sn
smA snd.f pDt psDt
rdi.n Sat.f mwt xAw m pdwt
[...] pHw tAS.f

(columns 4-5)

He who [...] the foreign lands with his two arms
Who slaughters the bowmen without a blow of a weapon
Who fires the arrow without the string being drawn
He whose dread has smitten the nomads in their land
He whose fear slaughters the nine bows,
whose massacre causes the death of thousands of bowmen,
who [had dared?] to reach his border

(columns 6-7)

sti Ssr mi ir sxmt
sxr.f xAw m x[mw] bAw.f
nst n Hm.f rtH sti
Tsw.f sbhA stiw

(columns 6-7)

He who fires an arrow as Sekhmet does,
he fells thousands of those unaware of his power
The tongue of his Person is the restraint on the Bow-land
and his commands are what set the nomads to flight

(columns 7-9)

wa rnp [nxt?] Hr tAS.f
tm rdi wrd mrt.f
rdi [s]Dr pat r Ssp
DAmw.f n qddw.sn

(columns 7-9)

Unique and youthful one [who fights?] at his border,
who never lets his workers grow weary,
who enables the nobles sleep to daybreak,
with his troops in their sleep

(columns 9-10)

HAty.f m mkty.sn
ir.n wDw.f tASw.f
sAq.n mdw.f idbwy

(columns 9-10)

His heart is their protector,
his decrees have drawn up his borders,
his words have assembled the two riverbanks
Part Two: rejoicing over the king

Haa-wy [...] rwd.n.k pAwt.sn
Haa-wy [...].k ir.n.k tAS.sn
Haa-wy i[...] imy-bAH saA.n.k [ps]Sw.sn
Haa-wy km [...] xpS.k mk.n.k iswt[.sn?]
Haa-wy pat m sxr.k iT.n bAw.k HAw[.sn?]
Haa-wy idbwy m nrw.k swsx.n.k Xrt.sn
Haa-wy DAmw.k sTst rdi.n.k rwd.sn
Haa-wy tAwy m pHty.k mk.n.k inbw.sn

How the [...] rejoice, for you have made their offerings flourish
How the [...] rejoice at your [...], for you have drawn up their border
How the [...] in the presence rejoice, for you have enlarged their shares
How the Egyptians (?) rejoice at your strong arm, for you have protected [their ?] traditions
How the nobles rejoice at your activity, for your power has grasped [their?] prosperity
How the two riverbanks rejoice at your dread, for you have extended their domain
How your recruits at levy rejoice, for you have caused them to flourish
How the two lands rejoice at your might, for you have protected their walls


inyt.f Hr swsx tAS.f wHm.k nHH

its refrain: Horus extender of his border, may you repeat eternity

Part Three: the king as the shelter of Egypt

wr-wy nb n niwt.f awy HH pw nDs pw kwy xA rmT
wr-wy nb n niwt.f isw a pw dni itrw r Afnw.f nw mw
wr-wy nb n niwt.f isw mnqb pw rdi sDr s nb r Ssp
wr-wy nb n niwt.f isw imDr pw Hsmn Ssm
wr-wy nb n niwt.f isw ibt pw tmm SAS drt.f
wr-wy nb n niwt.f isw nht pw nHmt snd m-a xrww.f
wr-wy nb n niwt.f isw Swt pw Axt qbt m Smw
wr-wy nb n niwt.f isw qaH pw Sm Sww r tr n prt
wr-wy nb n niwt.f isw Dw p[w] mDr Da r tr n nSnn pt
wr-wy nb n niwt.f isw sxmt pw r xryw xndw Hr tAS[.f?]

How great is the lord for his city! he is a million arms, a thousand men are little beside
How great is the lord for his city! indeed he is the dam that stops the river at its torrents of water
How great is the lord for his city! indeed he is the cool room that allows every man to sleep to daybreak
How great is the lord for his city! indeed he is a rampart, in the bronze of Shesem
How great is the lord for his city! indeed he is a refuge, unwavering his hand
How great is the lord for his city! indeed he is a shelter, rescuing the fearful from his enemy
How great is the lord for his city! indeed he is a sunshade at Flood, cool in Summer
How great is the lord for his city! indeed he is a warm corner, dry in Winter time
How great is the lord for his city! indeed he is a mountain resisting the storm at the time the sky rages
How great is the lord for his city! indeed he is Sekhmet against the enemies who tread on [his?] border
Part Four: the arrival of the king

ii.n.f n.n iT.f tA Sma Xnm.n sxmty m tp.f
ii.n.f smA.n.f tAwy Abx.n.f Swt n bit
ii.n.f HqA.n.f kmt rdi.n.f dSrt m ab.f
ii.n.f mk.n.f tAwy sgrH.n.f idbwy
ii.n.f sanx.n.f kmt xsr.n.f Snw.s
ii.n.f sanx.n.f pat srq.n.f Htyt rxyt
ii.n.f ptpt.n.f xAswt Hw.n.f iwntyw xmw snd[.f]
ii.n.f [..]A.n.f tAS.f nHm.n.f awA
ii.n.f [..] Xrdw.n qrs.n iAw.n Hr (?)

He has come to us, grasping the land of Upper Egypt, the Double Crown has joined his head
He has come, he has united the Two Lands, he has merged the reed with the bee
He has come, he has ruled the Black Land, he has placed the Red Land in its midst
He has come, he has protected the Two Lands, he has calmed the two riverbanks
He has come, he has given Egypt life, he has dispelled her woes
He has come, he has given the nobles life, he has given breath to the throats of the people
He has come, he has trampled the foreign lands, he has struck the nomads ignorant of [his] fear
He has come, he has [..] his border, he has rescued the oppressed
He has come, [...] our children, we may bury our old .. (?)
Part Five: final sections

mr.tn xa-[kAw]-ra anx Dt r nHH [...]
wdd ir.f kAw.tn nHm [...]
sAw.n rx snfy apr (?) [...]
DbA.tn n.f m anx wAs HHw n [...]


Hst xa-kAw-ra anx Dt r n[HH]
fAt a nfw m wi[A?]
Xkry m Dam r [...]
[..].n idbwy r s..s (?) [...]
[..].n.sn mtnw [...]

May you love Kharkaura, alive for ever and eternity [...]
He who is ordained to create your sustenance, who rescues [...]
Our guardian who knows how to make (us) breathe, who is equipped (?) [...]
May you reward him with life and power and millions of [...]


Praise of Khakaura, alive for ever and eternity [...]
raising the arm of the captain in the [bark? ...]
adorned with electrum more than [...]
the two riverbanks have [...] at ... (?) [...]
they have [...] the paths





The letter of lady Ir, UC 32203

From the town site near the modern town of Lahun, about 1800 BC

Besides several dozen letters from and to men, the Lahun papyri include two, differently formulated, from or to a woman. In one of those two, a woman called Ir complains to a superior that she has been entrusted with working women who are unable to weave, and that therefore she has been unable to deliver a quota of woven linen expected from her: this reinforces an association of women with weaving, found in two administrative documents of the period. She seems to justify her own absence by saying that she entered the temple for purification of the month - the writing is difficult to decipher at this point. This may be a rare reference to purifying rites at menstruation. She also complains that the superior wrongly entrusted a young girl called Heremheb with the task of looking after a guest, a man called Qemau.

It is uncertain whether the lady Ir wrote her own letter, or dictated to a secretary. The handwriting is jagged, and the writer has used vertical instead of horizontal lines, in contrast to most letters from Lahun. These traits might be taken as evidence that the writer had learned to write informally, for example, if a wealthy woman learned to write from friends or family: there is no evidence for women being trained formally to write.


Despatch of the lady of the house Ir communicating to the Lord (may he live, prosper and be healthy) that all matters of the Lord (may he live, prosper and be healthy) are well and good in all their places, in the favour of the dual king Khakheperra and all the gods as this humble servant desires.

It is a communication to the Lord (may he live, prosper and be healthy) concerning that observation of the Lord (may he live, prosper and be healthy)

'Are you well […] left out (?) about our bringing requests, because, have you carried out all your tasks - may [your?] hearing be good'.

It is a communication to the Lord (may he live, prosper and be healthy) about those servantwomen who are here unable to weave clothes […] It is just that the clothes were still on the loom, when this humble servant himself [Note!] had arrived - because this humble servant had gone into the temple on day 20 for monthly (?) purification. The Lord (may he live, prosper and be healthy) didn't bring it with him (= didn't manage it?).

It was a mistake to entrust the young girl Heremheb with the arrival of [Qe]mau. The Lord (may he live, prosper and be healthy) should spend a day here - see, all the clothes due from me are at the temple, as yarn laid out and with no means of weaving it.

It is a communication to the Lord (may he live, prosper and be healthy).

May the hearing of the Lord (may he live, prosper and be healthy) be good.'





Legal documents from Lahun

The deed of conveyance of Mery UC 32037

Dating to about 1818 BC, this document is one of the oldest legal manuscripts preserved from Egypt; earlier examples are copies in hieroglyphs on stone, but this is an original document on papyrus paper.

The first line gives the date, year 37, month 4 of flood, day 29, separate from the 8 lines of core content; these open with the title of the document, imt-pr 'what is in the house' or deed of conveyance. A man called Mery makes the following terms:

1. he asks for his son Intef to be appointed to his official position in the temple of the dead king Senusret II, as 'controller of the watch' (the person regulating the monthly quota of staff); in return Intef should support him as his 'staff of old age' - a Middle Kingdom (about 2025-1700 BC) technical term for family support, compensating for the lack of pensions in the ancient world.
2. he cancels the preceding deed of conveyance which he made for Intef's mother.
3. he grants his estate to the children born to him by a woman called Nebetnennisut - presumably, but not certainly, a second wife.

The document closes with a list of witnesses, partly lost; the title is also written on the other side of the document, in the rectangle that would have been left visible after the document was folded and sealed.

No other sources shed light on the family relations revealed by this document, leaving key questions open:

* did Intef's mother die? or did Mery divorce her?
* have the children already been born? or does the document date to a time when Nebetnennisut was expecting?

However, the document does illuminate some other central issues in social relations in Egypt around 1800 BC:

* Mery expects his son to be appointed, but he cannot himself make the appointment - there is evidently an interface between social consent and the official regulations, and in the official version appointments might always have required the authority of the central administration.
* Mery needs support in his old age: in earlier times, this might have been a social obligation, but, by the late Middle Kingdom in the town at Lahun, it seems that this is not automatic; does this arrangement betray tension between social organisational principles based on kinship and those structured by central authority? what is the role of writing in the logic of the law?

Transliteration (using signs A, i, y, a, w, b, p, f, m, n, r, h, H, x, X, s, S, q, k, g, t, T, d, D) with translation

rnpt-sp 37 Abd 4 Axt sw 29

imt-pr irt.n mty n sA intf sA mry Ddw n.f kbi n

sA.f mry sA intf Ddw n.f iw-snb iw.i Hr rdit pAy.i

mty n sA n sA.i mry sA intf Ddw n.f iw-snb r mdw iAw

xft ntt wi tn.kwi imi dhn.t(w).f m tA At

ir tA imt-pr irt.n.i n tAy.f mwt Xr-HAt sA r.s

ir pAy.i pr nty m spAt Hwt ..-t iw.f n nAy.i n

Xrdw msy n.i in sAt imy-sA n qnbty n w

sbk-m-HAt sAt nbt-nn-nswt Hna ntt nbt im.f

imy-rn.f mtry iry imt-pr tn r-gs.sn

mty n sA sA-.. sA sp sn

[wab nswt?] snwsrt sA snbwbw


imt-pr irt.n

mty n sA intf sA

mry n sA.f

mry sA intf

Ddw n.f iw-snb

Year 37, month 4 of flood, day 29

Deed of conveyance made by the controller of the watch Intef's son Mery called Kebi for

his son Mery's son Intef called Iuseneb. I am giving my (position of)

controller of the watch Mery's son Intef called Iuseneb in exchange for (being) staff of old age,

because I am now grown old. Let him be appointed at once.

As for the deed of conveyance which I made for his mother previously - it is cancelled.

As for my house which is in the district of Hut-..-t, it is for my

children born to me by the daughter of the guard of the district counsellor

Sobekemhat's daughter Nebetnennisut, with all its contents.

Namelist of witnesses in whose presence this deed of conveyance has been written:

controller of the watch Sa-..'s son ditto

Pure-[priest of the king] Senusret's son Senbubu


Deed of conveyance made by

the controller of the watch Intef's son

Mery for his son

Mery's son Intef

called Iuseneb