Restoring a Mud-Brick Tribute to a Departed Egyptian King

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Before the great pyramids, ancient Egyptian kings left less grandiose monuments to themselves: fortresslike sanctuaries enclosed by mud-brick walls. Inside these mortuary complexes, people presumably gathered to worship and perpetuate the memory of their departed ruler.

The crumbling, almost vanished remains of such structures, archaeologists say, attest to the political hierarchy and religion of the newly unified Egyptian state, beginning more than 5,000 years ago. As symbols of the early power of kings and their roles in the cosmic order, these mysterious funerary centers are considered ancestral in purpose to the classic pyramids of Giza.

The last and largest of the cult centers — the only major one still standing in clearly recognizable form — was erected for King Khasekhemwy, who ruled in the second dynasty around 2780 B.C. Known today as Shunet el-Zebib, the two-acre enclosure stands on a desert plain at Abydos, 300 miles south of Cairo near the burial grounds of early Egyptian rulers.

Now, in an ambitious effort to preserve this ruin, archaeologists, engineers and teams of artisans and laborers are shoring up the walls and gates of Shunet el-Zebib, ravaged by time and the elements and in danger of imminent collapse.

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