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The Fatimid Cemetery in Aswan


The Islamic Necropolis of Aswan, better known as the Fatimid Cemetery, is the most important group of Islamic tombs in Egypt, dating from the end of the 7th century to the12th century A.D. Since 2006 a team from the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) has been engaged in investigating and documenting the site's development, from its beginning up until today.

The Project Site
Aswan- Islamic Necropolis includes the following sites:

  • Aswan- Fatimid Cemetery
  • Early Islamic Necropolis
  • Islamic Necropolis of Aswan, Egypt
  • Aswan Necropolis

The South Necropolis is located in the urban centre of Aswan, west of the "Unfinished Obelisk" and extends into the park of the Nubian Museum.

The necropolis is located extra muros east of the historic nucleus of Aswan. It is from north to south 2000 metres long and from east to west 500 metres wide at most. According to the site plans drawn up by Ugo Monneret de Villard in the 1920's, the necropolis consisted originally of three zones: a northern, a central, and southern one. Our investigations are limited to the southern zone (South Necropolis), which consists of three parts: The elevated northern part is separated from the other two by a modern road. The central and the southern part occupy the remaining area, but are separated by a narrow ditch.  The northern part contains four mausoleums and several box-shaped tombs. The central part contains some mausoleums surrounded by numerous modest tombs. The southern part contains more than twenty larger and more or less well preserved mausoleums and groups of fenced-in modest tombs. In some places both types are linked together.

In the South Necropolis of Aswan we find evidence of the pharaonic and Graeco-Roman periods, such as quarries and burials. The original necropolis was founded toward the end of the 7th century and has been heavily damaged by modern buildings and infrastructure. During the first half of the twentieth century, U. Monneret de Villard and K.A.C. Creswell documented the tombs and mausoleums of the entire necropolis.

Around two-thirds of the burial grounds of the necropolis, which originally covered about one square kilometre, have been lost, replaced by roads and houses of modern Aswan. Exceptions are two enclosures of mausoleums in the Northern Zone and about half a dozen mausoleums in the Central Zone. Only the Southern Zone shows the historic layout of tombs, although it has been damaged by a modern road and to a lesser extent by a large number of modern burials.

The bedrock of the South Necropolis consists of rose granite and contains a large number of quarries from the pharaonic period and the Greco Roman period, rock inscriptions and remains of the causeway to the Philae temples. But the site was best known for one activity: the quarrying of the precious rose granite used for statues of all sizes and architectural elements especially lintels, sills, door jambs, floor slabs etc.

Tombstones bear testament to the first burials dating back to the end of the 7th century A.D., shortly after the Arab invasion of Aswan, and the last burials dating to the 12th century, during the fall of the Fatimid rulers.


The Project
The comprehensive aim of the project is to present the different historical occupancies of the South Necropolis. This is achieved by means of a multidisciplinary investigation of the territory and its built monuments.

Our research focuses on comprehensive documentation and diachronic investigation of the site of the South Necropolis and its built monuments. It includes over 200 modest graves, which have never been recorded and published before. The aim is to present the local Islamic funerary culture and the development of "Sepulkralkultur" (simple graves and mausoleums).

The cultural and historical significance of the necropolis is explored and recorded by archaeological soundings and analysis of ceramics, as well by as ethnological documentation of death and fertility rites and worship of saints. In addition, different historical sources-mainly Arabic sources and tombstone inscriptions-will be analysed and classified.

  • The use of the site and its development as a quarry zone during the pharaonic and Greco-Roman periods is recorded and analyzed.
  • Simultaneously, investigations of the history of the settlement and its economy are currently being carried out by the Swiss Institute of Archaeology and Ancient Building Research, in cooperation with the Supreme Council of Antiquities.
  • Research into the cultic use of the site during the pharaonic period and its significance as a burial ground during Greco Roman period are expected to complete the history of the necropolis.
  • Pilot restorations of individual monuments as well as a site management proposal complete the scope of the work.

Survey Methods
The site and individual tombs are surveyed by two methods: electronic theodolite, GPS and manual measurements. The dating is done mainly by analysis of ceramics.  

Survey methods are selected in accordance with the specific conditions of the site and the shape or state of the object. These methods consist basically of surveying the site by tachymeter, GPS and level curves are defined by measurement and by pacing. The survey of the buildings (stone by stone or brick by brick) is carried out by total station, or by tachymeter and manual measurement, or sometimes by manual measurement, according to the situation. The elevations of some mausoleums were recorded by photogrammetric methods. A building analysis and a structural assessment of the damaged buildings were established. Information detailing the different mausoleums was registered in an exhaustive database. Traditional ethnographic investigation (observation, interviews) and analysis of historic sources and tomb inscriptions provided substantial data documenting Islamic burial culture. For the restoration of a mausoleum (pilot project) we reverted to local building methods (handmade mud brick, and a vaulting system). A structural engineer was consulted to solve complex static problems.


Work Progress and Results
Since 2006, two survey campaigns per annum have been undertaken, enabling us to finish the topographical survey of the south necropolis as well as to achieve an almost complete documentation of over 330 tombs and 40 mausoleums. Currently the work is focused on classification of data collected so far during the fieldwork, while planning the preservation of the site of the necropolis and its built structures is in progress.    

The majority of the tomb complexes, mausoleums, family tombs, simple burials, and box-shaped tombs are made of mud brick. Four tomb complexes, 36 mausoleums, more than 150 box-shaped tombs, 25 family tombs, and more than 160 simple burials were recorded (by photo, drawing and description).

At the same time, the topographic survey of the South Necropolis, including tombs, as well as quarries and site formations, was completed. The result is a topographic map (scale 1:1000 and 1:500) including contours (level curves) and the exact location of natural objects, quarries, rock inscriptions, and different types of tombs.

Gradually the picture of a spatially defined and condensed necropolis can be reconstructed. {Fig. of the southern part of the South Necropolis}

As a pilot project, one mausoleum was restored. A site management concept was prepared as well. It proposes to divide the area into several user zones: Contemporary burials, tourist zones with special pathways, green areas, and visitor facilities. The cemetery would become part of a visitors' circuit consisting of the quarry of the unfinished obelisk and the Nubian Museum.

An international symposium organized by the German Archaeological Institute was held in Aswan, from 13 to 15 February 2010, focusing on the tombstones of the necropolis that were removed at the end of the 19th century. For fear of theft, the majority was transported to safe storerooms in Cairo and Aswan. A far smaller number is kept in European museums. The purpose of the workshop was to bring scientists together-mainly historians, epigraphers, and computer specialists-in order to clarify the whereabouts of the stelae. At the same time the possibility was discussed of creating a nearly complete electronic register of what is likely to total more than 4000 surviving tombstones.

Currently the most important task is the processing of information gathered on site, the digitalization of drawings, etc. In addition, further conservation and restoration are being considered. Moreover, essential ethnographic research is still to be done on tomb rites and marital and fertility rituals as they are now practised. 

Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Abteilung Kairo
Supreme Council of Antiquities
Institut für Bau- und Stadtbaugeschichte
U. Monneret de Villard, La Necropoli Musulmana di Aswan, Kairo 1930.
E. W. Lane, Description of Egypt, Kairo 2000.
K. A. C. Creswell, Muslim Architecture of Egypt, New York 1978².
N. el-Shohoumi, Aswan Islamische Nekropole (in Vorbereitung)
P. Speiser et. al., Umayyad, Tulunid and Fatimid Tombs in Aswan (im Druck)

Prof. Philipp Speiser
Technische Universität Berlin
Chair of History of Architecture and Urban Design, Secr. A22
Straße des 17. Juni 152, Raum A907


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