Représenter les morts, captiver les vivants | Les façades décorées des tombes memphites à l’Ancien Empire : formes, fonctions et réception

Les chapelles des tombes privées memphites de l’Ancien Empire, surtout connues pour leur majestueux décor intérieur gravé et peint, présentaient également des inscriptions et représentations en façade, tout particulièrement à partir de la V e dynastie. La façade et son décor façonnaient ainsi un espace de rencontre entre les personnes qui se déplaçaient dans la nécropole pour des raisons cultuelles et le défunt célébré dans son propre monument funéraire.

Ce travail aborde cet espace relativement délaissé par la littérature égyptologique, en le replaçant dans son contexte architectural et paysager pour mieux en comprendre le fonctionnement. Il analyse la mise en espace et l’évolution des multiples stratégies architecturales, textuelles et iconographiques déployées sur les façades de l’Ancien Empire. Entre affichage ostentatoire d’une identité sociale et volonté d’attirer les multiples passants, le décor des façades des tombes memphites apparaît ainsi comme un investissement matériel essentiel pour assurer la survie du culte funéraire du défunt.


In ancient Egypt, private tombs are monuments intended for both the living and the dead, a twofold purpose that is very specifically expressed through the façade area, which constitutes the first visual element of the monument accessible to external beholders. This façade is very often the support of an elaborate “decorative program”, formed by the interrelation between pictorial representations and hieroglyphic inscriptions, displayed in an architecturally and environmentally specific context. The purpose of the present book is to analyze the communicational function of such a program when it is presented on a façade, both through the intention of the designer and through its reception by an “ideal beholder”, using Memphite tombs of the Old Kingdom, from the 4th to the 8th dynasties.

Despite its rather simple definition at first glance, the notion of “façade” in fact includes very distinct architectural realities depending on the period and culture. By confronting the emic and etic perspectives (chap. 2), the façade appears as a cultural object quite alien to Ancient Egyptian conceptions, which mainly highlight the idea of a passing from one space to another. This confrontation therefore leads to understanding the façade as a multifaceted space characterized by an architectural or inscriptional enhancement of the entrance door, and / or a contact between interior and exterior areas; this definition guided the selection of 137 tomb façades for this study from the necropolises of Saqqara, Giza, Abusir and Tabbet el-Guesh.

The origins of this notion of façade have to be investigated within the large mastabas of the first dynasties (1 to 3), where a “main” exterior wall, opening to the inner funerary chapel of the monument, gradually stands out from the other walls through its decoration (chap. 3.1). A specific evolution of this wall can be described from the 4th dynasty onwards through a 4-periods chronotypology (P1 to P4, chap. 3.2 to 3.5). This sees a progressively greater autonomy of this space in relation to the inner chapel, followed by an increased monumentality of decoration and texts, as well as a standardization of representations and inscriptions at the beginning of the 6th dynasty. Despite there being a small number of decorated façades during the second half of the 6th dynasty, some recent discoveries challenge its so-called “disappearance” at the end of the Old Kingdom. The diachronic evolution of the various architectural elements on the façade complements this panorama and leads to a neat semantic distinction between entrance jambs and thicknesses; some “local” specificities differentiating the tomb façades of Giza and Saqqara are also discussed (chap. 3.6).

In chap. 4, the façade space is considered through several types of inscribed decoration and the visual mechanisms that bind them together. The façade is thus used for the auto-representation of the deceased, guided by a thematic and graphic emphasis, both iconographic and textual (titles, names), often supported by the figuration of people from his “family” (in the broadest sense), mainly spouse, children and / or subordinates. The deceased is also characterized by his own close relation to the king, only expressed through texts, and almost exclusively presented on the façade space. This appears therefore as a biographical object which displays the individual and collective identity of the tomb owner, including on more complex decoration inscribed on various façades (chap. 4.5). This auto-representation is also conveyed by intertwined references to preexisting tombs or to ancient or contemporary elite members, studied through the notions of intericonicity and intertextuality, which change the necropolis into a social space (chap. 5). These strategies on the one hand slightly modify this very normatively decorated space in order to produce a support expressing a singular identity, but also, on the other hand, insert the deceased into a community (elite, family, professional group, or community defined by a locality).

In chap. 6 the notion of “ideal beholder” is introduced, in order to consider the relation between the production of the discourse on the façade and its reception. The façade thus provides to the funerary monument the ability to establish a visual contact with passers-by frequenting the necropolis. When the tomb is built, there is a need to think about the accessibility of this space, and more specifically to create an architectural relationship with the pathways of the necropolis (chap. 6.1). In parallel, the façade impresses from a long distance through its monumentality and the “visual potential” (chap. 6.2) of its location, its architectural form, and its decoration. This first contact aims to be extended in order to gradually lead the passer-by to invest in his role of a beholder and then of a visitor, thereby participating in the cult. Various visual and aesthetic strategies are thus displayed through the decoration, provoking an encounter between the deceased and the beholders (chap. 7): the latter are integrated into a dialogue with the monument, which induces a movement from the façade to the inner funerary chapel, in order to realize the funerary cult. This façade area is however dichotomic: as a required passage for stepping into the chapel, it also constitutes a protective space for the cultic place, preventing and filtering access of different types of people attracted to the tomb (chap. 8.1). But it can also create a ritual environment before the chapel, within its own space, in order to suggest to the beholder that he might turn into a funerary priest as soon as he approaches the façade (chap. 8.2).

The conclusion (chap. 9) discusses the main evolutionary trajectory of the decorated façades in the Memphite necropolises of the Old Kingdom and proposes an interpretation of these trends. The main strategies that constitute the façade as a communicational object are also synthetized: at the level of the tomb, the façade appears thus both as a biographical object and a captatio benevolentiae, aiming to integrate the beholder to the ritual functioning of the tomb. Some of the limits of this study are discussed, especially the difficulty of completely apprehending this architectural “ghost” space, with its constantly moving boundaries, and a number of perspectives for developing this research further are suggested. The volume concludes with a table that aggregates the façades on which this study was based, as well as their bibliographic references.



Autor/en Romane Betbeze
Editor: Prof. Dr. Susanne Bickel, Université de Bâle, Prof. Dr. Hanna Jenni, Université de Bâle, Prof. Dr. Philippe Collombert, Université de Genève.
Format: 210 x 297 mm, Hardcover
Verlagsort Basel | Frankfurt a. M.
Jahr: 2024
Sprache/n Français, with English and Arabic summaries
Gewicht 998
Preis (CHF) 68.50 CHF
Preis (EUR) 68.50 EUR
ISBN: 978-3-906897-90-5
DOI: 10.19218/3906897905