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Construction Of Kahun: A look at a planned city in 1895 BC Africa

As of 2018, by some, the continent of Africa is seen as lagging behind, trying to catch up and full of poor countries. In 1895 BC, this wasn't the case. In 1,895 BC, towns and cities could be built up at will and infrastructural projects fully funded. The city of Kahun (a town by modern-day standards) was built overnight and in a planned format 4,000 years ago. It even had a vet. What did it look like?

One of the first ancient Egyptian towns to be ever excavated is the town of Kahun, also known as Lahun. Unlike other towns, Kahun was not meant for the general population and regular life, instead, the town was a temporary site for the workers building the Al-Lahun pyramid. The town, or rather the worker’s village, was built in 1895 BC under the reign of King Senusret II during the Middle Kingdom period of ancient Egypt.

african town planning - pic1 - egyptian cities
A map of ancient Egyptian cities showing  the city of Lahun (Kahun)at the southern region below the river delta

 The town is located in the modern day governorate of El Faiyum. The site which was chosen to build the town on overlooks the lakeside region to which the 12th dynasty kings devoted much attention. The area is a large fertile depression connected with the Nile by a river known as Bahr Yusuf. The town was known at the time by the ancient name, Hat-Hetep-senusret (King Senusret is at peace), but later on it acquired the more contemporary names of “Lahun” and “Kahun”.

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A map showing the location of the Lahun (Kahun) town and temple in relation to the pyramid of Senusret II

Kahun was much larger in size and more intricate when compared to other worker’s villages and pyramid towns. The town contained structures of beamed houses and porticoes and traces of brick walls, and pottery were found. There was also evidence that the Kinvg’s mortuary procedures took place in the town of Kahun, since religious figures and personnel responsible for the king’s mortuary cult were found to live in Kahun.

The village housed many people and contained lavish mansions including quarters that were exclusive for royalty. The fact that Kahun is a worker’s village is proved by the types of excavated artefacts which include tools such as; fishing nets, rakes, hoes, mallets, flints, copper chisels with wooden handles and knives. Nevertheless, Kahun still had a functioning legal and political side. Not only did Kahun have a mayor, but it also had a house of legal proceedings and administrative offices. Land transfer deeds and legal wills are some of the numerous documents that were found are. Along with the legal documents, many other papyri were found including interesting medical papyri which contain passages outlining examined conditions and the treatments used to treat those conditions by the people of Kahun. These medical conditions range from tooth aches to sore muscles and infertility. The discovered Kahun papyri sum up to a total of about 1000 fragments covering both legal and medical matters.

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Fragments of the Kahun Papyrus on veterinary medicine

 The Layout of the Town of Kahun

Covering about 14 hectares (14,0000 m2), the walled town  took a rectangular shape and was rather overpopulated according to an estimate of ancient urban population densities. The houses had one or at most two floors. The town was much smaller than the 4th dynasty settlement at Giza. It was surrounded by a brick wall that extended along the north, west and partly along the east sides.

The town itself was divided into two parts by another wall separating the poor and the rich residential areas. The houses of the rich residential area were about fifty times as big as the houses of the poorer part of the town. All over the town, the streets were laid out in straight lines. The main street was 9 meters wide while the streets and the alleys in the workers districts were as narrow as 1.5 meters. The streets had shallow stones channels running down along the middle for drainage. There wasn’t much space left for gardens within the walls of the city, the entire area was covered with streets and mud-brick buildings.

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A map of Kahun produced by its excavator, Flinders Petrie

 

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Plans of two different types of housing; worker dwellings (left) and Great Houses (right)

  

1. The Acropolis

A major feature of the town is the acropolis, which was the highest spot of the town. It was walled in, with a length of stairs that led up to it and it was protected by a guardhouse.  The presence of column bases in the structure indicates that it was an important building. This part of the town might have been the official residence of the King during his visits, yet it seems to have been abandoned early on and used as a landfill.

2. The Temple Area

As for the temple area, few remains were found of it. The temple, as most temples of the time, was built of stone. It is believed that the temple was taken apart by Ramesses II in the 19th Dynasty and that the stone was reused in building the Heracleopolis temple, which belonged to Ramesses II. The temple’s foundation deposit consisted of pottery, some tools like chisels and knives along with other objects.

3. Storage Area

Located south of the southern Great Houses, the store rooms had a minimal number of common entrances, which made them easily guarded.

4. The West Quarter: Workers’ Dwellings

The workmen houses had two to four rooms on the ground floor (44 and 60 m2). There was access to the flat roof which served as both a living and a storage space. The houses adjoining the inner wall on the eastern side were larger in size, with up to seven rooms.

On the ground floor of some of the dwellings, there were conical granaries. The doorways seem to have been arched over, and some traces of brick barrel-vaulting were found on supporting walls. Most of the roofs were found to be made of wooden planks supported by beams and plastered over with mud. One might wonder, with the scarcity of wood and the abundant supply of mud, why did they not build all roofs as barrel-vaults? One of the reasons could be that in walled cities, the extra space is rather sought after and a second floor doubles the living area. Moreover, with Egypt being rather a hot and rainless country, there was no need to roof it over and after adding a parapet or a railing; it could serve as sleeping quarters for most of the year.

5. The East Quarter: The Great Houses

Covering about 2700 m2 each, the Great Houses served as offices and living quarters for the high officials in charge of the construction work, along with their families.  Those houses contained up to 70 rooms each. Four almost identical houses were found built on the north of the street along with a fifth and a sixth house, but those were differently built. On the south side of the street, another three houses with a completely different design and ground plan were constructed. According to archaeological findings, the different elements of those nine houses can be interpreted as;

  • Small rooms at the house entrance: Most likely to be a porter’s lodge.
  • A set of large rooms: Would be suitable for group activities such as weaving.
  • A set of small, square interconnected rooms: A granary.
  • A series of open spaces close to the granary: Suitable for food production activities such as baking and brewing.
  • A set of rooms close to the granary: Administrative offices to pay close attention to deposits and withdrawals of grains from the granary.
  • A large courtyard at the centre.
  • Two integrated sets of rooms opening on the courtyard: Residential units that contained identifiable bedrooms.

After the construction of the Al-Lahun pyramid was completed, the town was completely abandoned. It was a large working village that somehow seems to have disappeared right after the completion of Senusret’s Pyramid. They left behind their advanced buildings and infrastructure, as well as their legal and periodic texts and medical papyri, which tell us a lot about the city and the lives of the inhabitants of Kahun in the Middle Kingdom.

african town planning construction of kahun 1895 BC Ax00031

Bibliography

  • K. Szpakowska: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt: Recreating Lahun, Malden, Oxford, Carlton 2008 ISBN 978-1-4051-1856-9
  • S. Quirke: Lahun: A Town in Egypt 1800 BC, and the History of Its Landscape, London 2005. ISBN 978-0955025617
  • A.R. David: The Pyramid Builders of Ancient Egypt: A Modern Investigation of Pharaoh’s Workforce, London, Boston en Henley 1986. ISBN 978-0415152921
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