Lara’s Travels: The Mastabas

Those who have played the 1999 game Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation may remember the almost labyrinthine level design of the Giza-based level “The Mastabas”. Gamers not only had to deal with the possibility of getting hopelessly lost within the level’s many tunnels and underground chambers but also avoid falling into excavation pits and deal with wild dogs, deadly scorpions, and the occasional mummy.

Granted, tourists visiting the mastaba tombs of modern-day Egypt won’t have to deal with mischievous monkeys or the walking dead but that doesn’t make the real structures any less fascinating.

The ruins of a mastaba at a Giza Plateau cemetery. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The ruins of a mastaba at a Giza Plateau cemetery. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

So, what is a mastaba? Simply put, it’s a type of ancient Egyptian tomb consisting of a rectangular, flat-roofed mudbrick (or stone) structure built over a burial chamber, which was often carved deep into the bedrock. The name “mastaba” derives from the Arabic word maṣṭaba, meaning “bench”, probably due to the structures’ slanting walls and bench-like appearance when viewed from afar. The ancient Egyptians called these tombs per-djet, which literally means “house of eternity”.

This form of tomb was popular with the elite classes of the Early Dynastic Period and Old Kingdom and evolved from the pit graves of the Predynastic Period. As the elite classes became wealthier, they began to use more durable materials and sturdier structures to protect their loved ones’ remains from scavengers and grave robbers. The Egyptians believed that a person could only be reborn in the afterlife if their body remained intact, so they devised new methods of protecting and preserving bodily remains. This led to the creation of mastabas – and later the pyramids – and the practice of mummification.

The average mastaba consisted of several architectural features that reflected the Egyptians’ religious doctrines and their views on the afterlife. For instance, they all had chapels where rituals could be performed and people could bring offerings for the deceased to enjoy or use in the afterlife. These chapels were often decorated with scenes commemorating the deceased’s life and achievements and idealised scenes of everyday life.

A cross-section view of the average mastaba tomb. The drawing was creating by Elin Rand Nielson and can be found in the archives of the Nationalmuseet in Denmark. The annotations are mine.
A cross-section view of the average mastaba. The drawing was made by Elin Rand Nielson and can be found in the archives of the Nationalmuseet in Denmark. The annotations are mine.

These chapels would also include a “false door”, a portal that marked the threshold between the lands of the living and the dead and allowed the spirit of the deceased to move between these two realms as needed. These false doors were often carved into the west wall – the west was believed to be the domain of the dead – and offerings would often be placed on offering slabs in front of these doors. It was thought that keeping the person’s life force (ka) fed and satisfied would allow them to live on in the afterlife.

Another feature commonly seen in mastabas is the serdab, a sealed chamber which often contained a ka statue of the deceased. These hidden niches had small slits or holes high up in the wall that allowed the sounds and smells of ritual offerings to reach the statues within.

As for the body itself, this was buried deep beneath the mastaba in a burial chamber that could only be reached via a long vertical shaft. This chamber would be sealed off with a stone portcullis once the body had been laid to rest and the shaft would be filled with rubble, preventing would-be tomb raiders from desecrating the body and stealing any precious personal effects that had been buried with the deceased. Of course, these measures were far from effective. Most of the mastabas had been stripped of their contents long before the first archaeologists conducted their research of the Giza necropolis.

Mastabas can be found in other parts of Egypt, especially in the necropolis at Saqqara, but visitors to Egypt will probably be most familiar with the ones seen at Giza. The Giza Plateau is home to over 100 stone and mudbrick mastabas. Most of these can be found in the vicinity of the Great Pyramid – Khufu’s Pyramid – and the majority of them date back to the 4th, 5th, and 6th Dynasties, though some were still in use as late as the Ptolemaic Period.

The door seen in the centre of the wall resembles the "false doors" found in many ancient Egyptian tombs
The door seen in the centre of the wall resembles the “false doors” found in many ancient Egyptian tombs

No two mastabas were alike but you can get a rough idea of their layout and architectural features from Digital Giza’s virtual tour of the mastaba tomb of Queen Meresankh III. In their heyday, these mudbrick tombs would have been something to behold. Vibrant wall paintings and intricate reliefs, the sweet scents of food offerings and burning incense, and the sounds of loved ones coming to pay their respects to their dearly departed.

The mastabas seen in The Last Revelation might not be accurate replicas of the real-life structures found in Giza’s cemeteries but they do have some features in common:

  • Their outer structures are mostly rectangular and made from mud bricks.
  • They are single-storey structures with shafts and stairs leading down to underground chambers.
  • They have doors that resemble the false doors found in many Egyptian tombs.
  • They contain hidden alcoves which can house statues of the deceased or, in this case, quest items and reanimated mummies.

That said, I’m sure Egyptologists could have a field day nitpicking the layout of these mastabas and the art that decorates these chambers’ walls and ceilings. The wall paintings seen in the screenshot below and throughout the level are typical of the art of the New Kingdom (circa 1550 BCE – 1069 BCE). The murals on the walls of Last Revelation‘s mastabas were inspired by the banquet scenes that were commonly seen in the Theban tombs of this era. Like the recurring image of three female musicians, which is modelled after a wall painting found in the tomb of Nakht.

The walls of Last Revelation's mastabas

What’s more, the cartouches seen on either side of the doors actually belong to the 18th Dynasty pharaoh Horemheb. This pharaoh ruled the land between 1319 BCE and 1292 BCE and was born over a thousand years after the construction of the Great Pyramid. The hieroglyphs spell out his throne name “Djeserkheperure” and these cartouches can be found adorning the walls of his tomb (KV57) in the Valley of the Kings, some 500 kilometres south of the Giza Plateau.

But let’s be honest: historical accuracy was never a major priority for the older Tomb Raider games, as you can see from my articles about KV5 and the Tomb of Semerkhet. That said, The Last Revelation‘s foreboding atmosphere, compelling story, and challenging gameplay more than make up for the game’s many anachronisms.

If you’d like to learn more about the real mastabas that inspired this level’s design, check out the articles and videos listed in the “Sources & Further Reading” section below.

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Sources & Further Reading

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About Kelly M

Kelly McGuire is a writer, translator, and gamer who is passionate about archaeology, language learning, travel, and wildlife conservation. She tweets under the username @TRHorizons and is the admin and chief content creator for Tomb Raider Horizons.

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