The Middle Kingdom pyramids of El Lahun and Hawara aren’t on most travelers’ radars. In fact, the whole Middle Kingdom period (1975-1640 BC) itself often gets largely ignored. The era hasn’t left us with much that can compete with the Old Kingdom pyramids or with the New Kingdom temples of Luxor. Be that as it may, sites like El Lahun and Hawara are surprisingly remarkable if one looks a little beneath the surface – literally!
El Lahun and Hawara, situated near the Fayoum Oasis, can be visited together on the same day with Meidum. Additionally, it’s also worth making a quick stop at Al Lisht, even if those 12th Dynasty pyramids aren’t open to the public. Read more about access and transportation at the end of the article.
The 12th Dynasty
Following the golden age of Egypt’s Old Kingdom era, the country split into multiple pieces. Rulers of the various nomes were at war with one another in what we now call the First Intermediate Period. It was a period of chaos which lasted for around 125 years.
The 11th Dynasty finally managed to unite the country under a single ruler, ushering in the stable Middle Kingdom era. They ruled from Thebes (Luxor), the city that would also serve as capital for most of the New Kingdom era. The 12th Dynasty, however, decided to move the capital to the Itjtawy near the Fayoum Oasis.
The exact location of Itjtawy hasn’t been found, but the Fayoum area still contains several pyramids built by 12th Dynasty rulers.
Nearly a thousand years prior, the legendary 4th Dynasty pharaoh Sneferu had already built in the Fayoum region with his Meidum Pyramid. It’s clear that the 12th Dynasty rulers were big admirers of Sneferu. They not only built near Meidum, but they also built numerous pyramids near his at Dahshur.
While the era known as the Middle Kingdom comprises of four dynasties (11-14), Egypt was at its most stable during the 12th. Its rulers were known for their military might, sending campaigns into Canaan and Nubia.
And at home, in addition to the construction of numerous pyramids, major innovations were made in art. In addition to creating the earliest known colossal pharaonic statues, the 12th Dynasty also came up with the block statue, a type of sculpture that would remain popular for centuries.
Furthermore, some of the most important works of Egyptian literature were composed at this time, namely the ‘Tale of Sinuhe.’ It details the aftermath of the death of Amenemhet I, the dynasty’s first pharaoh.
There are two pyramids next to the modern village of Lisht, though neither are open to the public. You can, at least, get close enough for a fairly good look. As these are the closest to Cairo, either start your day with a brief stop here or do it on the way back.
In any case, the pyramid here by Amenemhet I was the first to be built in the Middle Kingdom. Amenemhat I was the 12th dynasty’s founder, though he was previously the vizier of Mentuhotep IV, the last king of the 11th Dynasty. While details are murky, he was possibly involved in a coup.
Today, a Muslim cemetery spreads out around the foot of the pyramid. While the pyramid itself is more or less just a mound now, you can still see the outlines of its once-massive shape.
It was comprised of a composite of materials, including limestone blocks, mudbrick and even loose sand. Interestingly, blocks from Khufu and Khafre’s pyramid complexes were usurped for parts of the descending passage.
But we shouldn’t confuse this usurpation with the looting and quarrying of later years. The ancient Egyptians often used older stones in newer constructions in hopes of absorbing some of their spiritual power.
While, as mentioned, there’s not much that can be seen at this pyramid, be sure to check out Amenemhat I’s amazing sphinx statues while at the Cairo Museum!
While I didn’t get very close, visitors to Amenemhet I’s pyramid can also get a clear view of its neighboring pyramid in the distance. It was built by his successor, Senusret I. And it was the largest pyramid to have been built since the 5th Dynasty pyramid of Neferirkare at Abu Sir.
Senusret I innovated a new pyramid building technique by first building a series of stone walls within a square. The middle ones cross to form an X, and the walls’ height increase near the center – sort of like a tent.
Additional smaller walls were built in the opening spaces, and then the gaps were filled in with stone and sand. It was an interesting idea, but today the mound doesn’t look any different from Amenemhat’s.
While at the Cairo Museum, you can see a statuette of the pharaoh in addition to a large limestone sculpture of the king as Osiris, both discovered near the pyramid.
Senesret I’s successor, Amenemhat II, would go on to build the White Pyramid at Dahshur. But his grandson’s fascinating pyramid complex is where we’ll be headed next.
El Lahun: The Pyramid of Senusret II
El Lahun is a pyramid complex established by Senusret II, who took the throne around 1878 BC. The pyramid was constructed entirely of mudbrick, while the whole enclosure was also surrounded by a mudbrick wall.
El Lahun gets relatively little attention, but that’s likely because its underground chamber has only been open to the public since 2019. With little information available online before my visit, I wasn’t expecting all that much. But now, looking back, I can easily say that El Lahun was one of the most pleasant surprises of my entire Egypt trip.
What made the experience even more unique was being accompanied by one of the archaeologists who worked on excavating the burial chamber!
El Lahun was first excavated in the 1840s and then much more thoroughly by William Flinders Petrie in the 1880s. Petrie was a legendary archaeologist who also excavated Meidum, Dahshur, Giza and many other sites. Petrie was so thorough in his excavations and measurements that even today, much of our understanding of these places comes from his research.
But in spite of his experience, it took Petrie months and many attempts to locate the pyramid entrance at El Lahun. This is because Senusret II broke with tradition and built the entrance to his chamber on the pyramid’s south side. According to tradition, the ka, or spirit of the king, was believed to leave the pyramid from the north.
During repeated digging in the area in an attempt to find the chamber entrance, Petrie and his men discovered numerous other tombs. One of them, Tomb 8, contained the famed ‘El Lahun Treasures’ which belonged to Princess Sat Hathor.
Many of the findings are currently on display at the Cairo Museum. They include a beautiful golden crown adorned with a uraeus, a Hathor mirror and an intricate pectoral.
The Underground Chamber
The underground chamber at El Lahun is not built into the pyramid itself. Instead, it’s an independent underground tunnel system the extends directly below the pyramid. The most similar thing to it would be the underground tunnels beneath Djoser’s Step Pyramid, built nearly a thousand years prior.
As mentioned, Senusret II broke with tradition by building an entrance to the south. While we don’t know for sure, it was likely to deceive would-be tomb robbers.
The burial chamber, accessible today with a modern metal ladder, is 16.5 meters below ground level. And one of the first areas visitors encounter is a room entirely lined with smooth white limestone.
The rest of the tunnel, in contrast, is considerably rough. Before long, you will see some natural light shining in through a hole in the ceiling. This ‘well’ can also be seen from above ground, but its exact purpose isn’t clear.
The long chamber then continues straight ahead for a few dozen meters. Eventually, you’ll make a sharp turn to the left (west) to reach an antechamber.
Once in the antechamber, straight ahead is the king’s burial chamber, one of the most unique and impressive in all of Egypt – and that’s certainly saying something!
Like the chambers of the Old Kingdom pyramids, it was made entirely from granite. But this one has a spectacular arched ceiling. To my knowledge, this is the only arched granite ceiling in Egypt. And it’s perhaps the only burial chamber with a ceiling in the form of a true arch.
The red granite sarcophagus, meanwhile, is another masterpiece. Even after having admired the amazing precision granite boxes of the pyramids, museums and the Serapeum, it still caught me by surprise. It has a perfectly smooth lid attached to the main body, extending outward over it by several inches.
The box has a polished and smooth finish to it. And looking at it up close, it appears to be as perfectly precise and square as the boxes of Giza or Saqqara. Strangely, though, the whole thing seems to be slanted at an angle. No body was ever found inside, nor any trace of an upper lid.
I asked the archaeologist guide how the Middle Kingdom builders got it in here, and he said that the width of the sarcophagus was just barely smaller than the entrance to the main chamber.
But the chamber also has another door. Over to the right, a small arched opening leads to yet another passageway. There is a sizable walkway here that makes repeated 90-degree angle turns – four in total! Eventually, you will come out of a doorway, only to find yourself in . . . the same antechamber in front of the burial chamber.
In other words, the additional passageway only takes you back to where you started, and it seemingly has no functional purpose. The archaeologist pointed out that the winding corridor has five angles in total, and that it was likely constructed for some kind of symbolic purpose relating to the number five.
It’s also worth noting that this ‘exit’ in the antechamber faces north, allowing the king’s ka to exit in this direction, as per tradition.
It seems as if the 12th Dynasty pharaohs were in a constant state of experimentation when it came to pyramid building. By this time, knowledge of the building techniques used at the Giza plateau was surely lost. Or perhaps copying those construction methods was simply untenable due to cost or labor constraints.
Whatever the case may be, Senusret II was certainly a frugal pharaoh when it came to pyramid construction. Not only was he the first to experiment with making a pyramid completely out of mudbrick, but he built much of it on top an already existing limestone outcrop.
It seems like he reserved much of the planning and labor for the underground portion of his complex instead.
Looking closely, you can see some larger limestone blocks sticking out of the mudbrick. Before the bricks were set, limestone walls were built across the core for added stability. As we’ll go over below, there would’ve been plenty of leftover limestone to go around after the formation of the mastabas.
As with every Egyptian pyramid, the whole thing would’ve originally been cased with smooth limestone. Supposedly, the casing at El Lahun was stripped and carried off by Ramesses II.
The Bedrock Mastabas
Already fascinated by the underground chamber, I was delighted to learn that there were even more unique features to El Lahun. To the north of the pyramid is a set of eight mastabas designated for queens and other royals.
But unlike the traditional stone or brick mastabas one finds elsewhere in Egypt, these were all formed out of the natural limestone bedrock.
While the limestone mastabas are bare today, they were once built over with mudbrick. And the one farthest to the right (east) would’ve formed a small pyramid for the queen.
Today you can see numerous holes that were dug out by Petrie, but he never ended up finding anything inside.
The whole area reminded me of the area in Giza around the Tomb of Khentkaus and the potential ‘Second Sphinx’ just next to it. Curiously, a limestone scarab from the 12th Dynasty was found deep within Khentkaus’s tomb.
Her tomb, of course, was carved entirely out of the natural bedrock, and it’s possible that the El Lahun complex took inspiration from it.
The archaeologist guide also took me to another tomb located a few hundred meters away, known simply as ‘Tomb 4.’ It dates back to the Middle Kingdom era but was also used in Ptolemaic and Roman times.
In front of the tomb area, one can see several burial shafts leading deep into the ground.
Stepping into the main tomb, you can see a wooden coffin of a child lodged into the side of the staircase. The tomb itself, meanwhile, is void of any decoration. There’s a space for a statue and some other pits, but that’s about it.
The general area of El Lahun is also home to some burials from the 1st – 3rd Dynasties. They weren’t open to the public during my visit, but that could change at some point with all the excavations going on.
Hawara: The Pyramid of Amenemhet III
Following the reign of Senusret II, his successor, Senusret III returned to Dahshur. But the next king, Amenemhat III, built TWO pyramids – the Black Pyramid at Dahshur and this one at Hawara, near the Fayoum Oasis.
Amenemhat III was last powerful king of the 12th Dynasty, and arguably of the whole Middle Kingdom era. And as we’ll go over below, his pyramid complex at Hawara had become a thing of legend by Greco-Roman times. The pyramid itself, however, is just another mudbrick construction like at El Lahun.
Approaching the site from the east, visitors will pass by an assortment of stone artifacts dug up in the vicinity. None of the broken fragments here are terribly impressive. But one noteworthy piece belonged to a statue of the crocodile god, Sobek.
Sobek was the prominent deity worshipped in the Fayoum Oasis area. And Amenemhat II’s daughter would even rule under the name Sobekneferu.
In ancient Egypt, crocodiles were both feared and revered. Unsurprisingly, Sobek is commonly associated with death. But there can be no resurrection without death. Accordingly, Sobek was sometimes credited with the sun rising anew each morning.
Hawara was inhabited throughout the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. And during his excavations, Petrie even found copies of the Iliad here.
A couple kilometers south of the pyramid, meanwhile, is the tomb of Amenemhat III’s daughter Neferuptah.
But the real mystique of Hawara lies in its mysterious Labyrinth complex and the elaborate underground tunnel system beneath the pyramid.
In front of the pyramid to the south once stood the Labyrinth. It was named as such by Greco-Roman visitors familiar with the legendary Minoan Labyrinth at Crete. And among those who came to admire it were writers like Herodotus, Strabo and Pliny the Elder.
Herodotus visited the Labyrinth of Hawara around 1,500 years after its construction. But he was so enamored by the place that he even claimed it to be more impressive than the pyramids!
Tragically, due to incessant quarrying from the Roman period onward, the entire site is nothing but a pile of lumps in the sand today.
According to ancient writings, however, the Hawara Labyrinth was an incredibly vast and elaborate series of courtyards, palaces and shrines. Herodotus mentioned at least twelve main courtyards, leading to all sorts of galleries, rooms and additional courts. Furthermore, the whole thing was roofed over and dimly lit.
While perhaps not intentionally designed as a maze, it was surely unnavigable without a guide!
Various stone blocks have been uncovered from beneath the debris that visitors to Hawara can go and check out. There’s nothing especially interesting laying around, but downhill by the river is a stone with Amenemhet III’s cartouche.
Looking across the canal, there are even more impressive blocks on the other side. It seems as if archaeologists have discovered a temple that they’re still in the middle of excavating.
Supposedly, the canal dates back to the 1820s (but strangely, nobody seems to know for sure). If so, we can presume that the original Labyrinth was once connected with what’s now on the other side.
Notably, some original witnesses mentioned underground crypts in dedication to Sobek. They may have even contained live crocodiles!
It’s possible, therefore, that the Labyrinth hasn’t been entirely lost after all. Could there be an entire subterranean portion of the Labyrinth still partially intact?
But even if so, it’s likely to be flooded by now, much like the chamber system beneath the pyramid.
The Flooded Chamber
As at El Lahun, Hawara’s pyramid entrance is on the south, and not the north face of the structure. Unlike at El Lahun, however, the entrance tunnel was built into the pyramid itself.
The pyramid’s underground chamber, though separate from the Labyrinth out front, functioned as something of a maze of its own. It was supposedly one of the most complex and elaborate tunnel systems ever devised in Egypt.
Today, however, the chamber is completely inaccessible. Water from the nearby canal has been leaking into it for years, and everything below ground is totally flooded.
During your visit to Hawara, the local guards will at least take you as far as one’s able to go, which is just several meters in. The toss of a rock into the water reveals how deep it really is.
During Petrie’s time, though, the chamber was only partially flooded and still mostly accessible. Thanks to him and some other writers, we have a fairly clear picture of its layout.
At the end of the sloping entrance tunnel, there’s a small antechamber. To move forward, people had to go through a trap door in the ceiling – the first of three!
Fortunately for Petrie, there was a hole beneath the first trapdoor that he could squeeze through. The other trapdoors, meanwhile, had already been opened by ancient robbers.
After the first trapdoor, the intruder would encounter a passage blocked with large stones. But clearing this away only leads to a dead end. The correct way forward was via another tunnel to the right, which was only blocked by a wooden door. It seems as if a lot of thought was put into confusing unwanted guests!
This next long passage leads to another antechamber with another trap door. It then leads to another long passage followed by the third trap door. The next passage, finally, leads to a large chamber.
Two false wells were dug in the chamber floor to deceive robbers. But a hidden trench filled with masonry led to the real burial chamber. Petrie described this chamber as being massive and built entirely of yellow quartzite monoliths.
The lines were so smooth and flat that he could hardly find the joints. And inside were two sarcophagi, one for the king, and the other possibly for his daughter.
The archaeologist I met at El Lahun said that they finally hope to drain the water from Hawara within the next couple of years. Funds are tight, however, and they’ll have to wait for official approval.
But who knows – within several years, the archaeological sites of the Fayoum could go from being obscure oddities to some of Egypt’s most must-see destinations.
After visiting the pyramid, I took in the views of the lush green field nearby. There are many such fields around the Fayoum area. They suddenly disappear into the desert, resulting in a striking and abrupt contrast.
And then it was finally time to head back to Cairo.
Tickets for El Lahun and Hawara cost 60 EGP each. You should visit these sites together with nearby Meidum, which also costs the same. Ideally, you should start at Meidum and then see El Lahun and Hawara from there. You can also stop for a quick view of the Lisht pyramid on the way, though saving them for the end is probably best
The sites are around 100 km south of central Cairo and no public transport goes there. You’ll either need to hire a private driver or take a private tour. (Frustratingly, there are almost no single-day group tours in Egypt, so you’ll always need to arrange transport on a private basis.)
But something you need to keep in mind before traveling to the Fayoum area is that there is a very heavy military and police presence there. We had no problems getting to Meidum from Giza/Cairo, but once we were about to head onward, the officials at Meidum repeatedly quizzed my driver and me about where we were headed next.
Getting on the highway to head toward El Lahun, we needed a police escort, with one car in front and another behind us! While this has long been a common situation for foreigners traveling to Abydos from Luxor, neither my driver nor I was expecting this to happen in the Fayoum.
We didn’t have an escort the entire way, but we did have to stop through multiple checkpoints throughout the day. And they were calling my driver about every 15 minutes for an update on his location. (I’d later experience something similar at Abydos.)
As I don’t understand Arabic, what I didn’t realize until the very end is that various officers were repeatedly asking my driver for money throughout the day. In total, it added up to around 200 EGP, which I ended up paying back to him.
While not an extreme amount, that’s an extra 200 EGP that I hadn’t expected to pay. So this is something to keep in mind if you want to hire a private driver around the Fayoum area.
Originally, I’d booked a tour I found on Viator. The original price was $75 USD, but it then became $95 by the time I got around to booking. But after finding a driver I liked and trusted, I asked if he’d take me to Meidum, El Lahun and Hawara for $75. After he accepted, I cancelled the tour.
I still don’t regret hiring a private driver for the day, but I think it makes sense for most people to do this trip with an official tour company. They’d surely be aware of the security situation, and the baksheesh money for the officers would already be included in the initial price.
The Greater Cairo Area is home to many of Egypt’s, and the world’s, most impressive sites. The city of Cairo itself, on the other hand, is overwhelming in terms of both traffic and pollution, yet rather underwhelming in regards to tourist attractions. Therefore, I recommend that people stay in Giza and not in Cairo.
I find it puzzling that so many travelers decide to stay in central Cairo and then commute multiple times to reach Giza and Saqqara. For archaeology enthusiasts, it makes much more sense to stay in or near Giza and dedicate 3 or 4 full days to exploring the various pyramid sites. As Saqqara and Dahshur are both south of Giza, which itself is southwest of central Cairo, staying in Giza gives you a big head start for those excursions.
You will want to commute to central Cairo at least once, however, to visit the Egyptian Museum and maybe an additional day for Islamic Cairo.
Staying in Giza, right by the Giza Necropolis, allows you to get there right when the pyramids open at 8:00am. That means you’ll get at least 90 minutes or more with the entire complex all to yourself (as long as you don’t visit on a Friday or Saturday, that is).
While the modern suburb of Giza has a reputation for being dirty and rundown, it’s no worse than the average neighborhood of Cairo. And while there are lots of touts around, they’re not nearly as bad as the East Bank of Luxor.
I took things even further and also stayed for a few nights in the small village of Abu Sir, just north of Saqqara. I then switched to accommodation in Giza for a few nights so that I could visit the pyramids right when they opened.
Later, at the end of my trip, I based myself in downtown Cairo for better access to the historic sites in the city center, not to mention the airport.
In Abu Sir/Saqqara I stayed at the Sakkara Inn. Not only is the hotel situated in an authentic local village, but Mohamed the owner can set you up with reliable drivers for an affordable price. (I even continued to have him arrange drivers for me after checking out, as other places were quoting me much higher.)
In Giza I stayed at Abo Stait Pyramid View Homestay. It’s literally a one-minute walk from the Sphinx entrance of the Giza Necropolis. The family who runs it was very friendly and helpful. And while the bathroom is shared with a few other guests and family members, it wasn’t a big deal.
I’m a budget traveler, but those with more money to spend will find no shortage of accommodation options in the Giza area.