Abusir in the Third Millennium BC

Abusir, one of the large cemeteries of the Old Kingdom Kings, the famous pyramid builders, is located approximately 30 km to the south of Cairo, on the western bank of the Nile at the very edge of the desert. To the east, the site is delimited by the fertile Nile valley, which swarms with life, to the west by the Libyan Desert which has since antiquity been a symbol of death and forgetfulness, the realm of the dead. The sharp transition between these two extremes is a kind of gate, a link between the world of the living and that of the dead. And precisely here, at this transitory site, Egyptian cemeteries were founded. In the time of the third millennium B.C., the Abusir necropolis was established here, too. A contemporary visitor may reach Abusir in about an hour’s drive from the center of Cairo. Already along the way, he is confronted with evidence of the tight connection of ancient and modern Egypt. He passes the village of Bedrashein, the ancient Egyptian name of which, “Western settlement,” refers to a no longer existing ancient habitation. Directly to the east of Abusir, less than a kilometer as the crow flies, there is now just the small village of Azazieh. According to oral tradition, it was here that Putifar’s wife unsuccessfully tried to seduce the Biblical Joseph and where he was later imprisoned on the base of a false charge.

To the north, Abusir adjoins the area known as Saqqara (the site which contains, beside the pyramids of several Old Kingdom kings, also the oldest Egyptian pyramid – the Step Pyramid of King Djoser) and forms a natural northerly extension of this rich and unique cemetery. Their administrative division is only the result of recent development, and it is probably inspired by the existence of two villages of corresponding names located at the eastern edge of the desert. Nowadays, also thanks to the work of Czech Egyptologists, the opinion that Abusir and Saqqara had in the time of the third millennium B.C. constituted a single site, has found general acceptance. The shared features of this area included – besides the pyramids, monumental royal tombs – also the cemeteries where the officials from the capital from the time of the pyramid builders were buried.

The development of the wider Abusir necropolis was tied to the existence of the ancient capital of the unified Egypt, which was called the White Walls. According to a legend, the city was founded by the legendary King Menes toward the end of the fourth millennium B.C. Originally, there might have stood a fortress with white fortifications, which may have gradually developed into the Old Kingdom capital. It was the centre of the administration of the country, the site of the royal palace, it contained granaries and workshops and concentrated the highest officials of the country. Indirect evidence indicates that the city originally extended to the east of the rock massif of north Saqqara. To the west of this political center of the country, there was a concentration of most pyramids and tombs from the time of the Old Kingdom (the sites of Saqqara and Abusir), beginning with the tombs of the Second Dynasty Kings Raneb and Ninetjer and the Step Pyramid of King Djoser, and ending with the pyramid complexes of Kings Unas and Teti from the late Fifth and early Sixth Dynasties.

The evolution of the necropolis indirectly indicates that in the course of the third millennium B.C., the center of this large cemetery moved first northward (the existence of the Abusir necropolis in the Fifth Dynasty), and later, in the time of the Sixth Dynasty, to the south (the area of the so-called South Saqqara), where the complexes of several rulers were built in the course of the Sixth Dynasty. Another important circumstance influencing the foundation and development of these cemeteries was the existence of water basins, which probably extended along the eastern edge of the necropolis and provided the main access to the individual parts of the necropolis.

The archaeological history of Abusir begins in the time of the Second Dynasty. In the area to the northwest of Saqqara, an early dynastic cemetery was discovered by Hans Bonnet (1887-1972) in the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1980’s, the Egyptian archaeologist Huleil Ghali excavated the the site. The tombs of this cemetery belonged to lesser officials and consisted of a burial chamber accessed by a descending stairway.

The next stage of development of the Abusir necropolis is formed by mastaba tombs of the so-called transitional type. These monuments come from the end of the Third and beginning of the Fourth Dynasty, and their characteristic feature is the presence of both a shaft leading to the burial chamber and a descending, usually winding, stairway.

The designation “mastaba tomb” is generally used to refer to stone or mud brick buildings, which have two parts, a superstructure (above ground) and a substructure (underground). The superstructure is of a rectangular ground plan, it is several meters high and has slightly inclined or vertical walls. It contained a decorated chapel, where the funerary cult of the deceased was performed. The most important component of the chapel was the so-called false door which stood in the western wall of the room. It was a stone or wooden imitation of a true ancient Egyptian door, and according to the religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, the spirit of the deceased used it to enter the chapel in order to take part in the offering rituals organized in his honour, and to return back to the realm of the dead. The substructure was accessible via a shaft, at the bottom of which a short corridor led to the burial chamber, the final resting place of the tomb owner.

Among the most important of these tombs in south Abusir, the tomb of the official and priest Hetepi deserves mentioning. Hetepi was a confidant of the king who took care of his affairs, and he was also a priest of the goddesses Bastet and Hatmehit. His tomb is important above all due to its decoration, which is concentrated in the eastern façade of the chapel, while the inner walls of the chapel were left undecorated. The tomb of Hetepi is contemporary with the tomb of the overseer of the granaries of the royal palace Iti, as well as with the tombs that flank the bank of the Lake of Abusir. The owners of these tombs remain, however, virtually unknown.

The rise of the Fourth Dynasty brought with it several decades of a standstill, when all building works were transferred to Giza. The activity at Abusir was revived first in the beginning of the Fifth Dynasty. The first of the new tomb builders was the official Kaaper, a priest, scribe and soldier of the rank of general, and the overseer of all king’s works. The importance of his tomb lies above all in the fact that it is the first hitherto known evidence of building activities at this site after the Fourth Dynasty. Since the workshops and building guilds of Saqqara had after a long period of inactivity lost continuity, Kaaper brought with him the building tradition of Giza. Thus, in terms of architecture, his tomb represents a typical Giza tomb from the second half of the Fourth Dynasty.

The beginning of the Fifth Dynasty witnessed also the foundation of the royal necropolis of Abusir by King Sahure, the second ruler of the Fifth Dynasty, who reigned for 12 –13 years. His pyramid complex is the best preserved and most illustrative example of the setup of such buildings in the time of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties.

The entrance to the complex was formed by the valley temple, which was accessible from the east and south, where the so-called Lake of Abusir may have been located. An ascending causeway connected the valley temple with the pyramid temple. The causeway was originally roofed and its walls were decorated with mythological and court scenes, dominated by the Egyptian king. The preserved reliefs include numerous representations of the ruler, the bringing of foreign captives, hungry Bedouin, dancing scenes, sea boat journeys, scenes connected with the construction of the pyramid complex, and many others.
The pyramid temple itself was entered via a monumental granite gate, which led to the so-called House of the Great. Its name derives from the fact that the high officials of the country assembled here in order to part with their deceased ruler. This room opened into the corridor running around the columned court and to the court itself. The court was paved with basalt blocks and its roof was supported by altogether 16 red granite columns with palmiform capitals. The black colour of the floor symbolized the resurrection of the king, evoking the way all life in Egypt rose from the fertile layers of black Nile mud. The door at the back of led to the so-called transversal corridor, which divided the outer and inner parts of the pyramid temple.

The inner temple consisted of a room with five niches, which originally contained five statues of the king. The sides of the room contained doorways leading to the northern and southern magazines, where the cultic equipment and offerings for the daily cult of the king were stored. In the westernmost part of the temple, at the very foot of the pyramid, was the chapel, the offering hall of the temple, where priests presented offerings to the spirit of the deceased king. The east-west oriented chapel had an alabaster floor, dado of red granite and walls of limestone blocks covered with relief decoration. The western wall contained the so-called false door, through which the spirit of the king returned from the other world in order to partake on the offering rituals performed in the chapel. The false door was of red granite covered with copper or gold foil. In the southwestern corner of the room was a small niche with a purification basin.

The side of the base of the pyramid of Sahure measured 78 m, and the pyramid itself reached the height of 48 m. The core of the pyramid was originally built in six steps, of which now only five are discernible. The entrance to the pyramid’s substructure was situated at the foot of its northern side, slightly to the east of the north-south axis of the pyramid. A descending corridor opened into a vestibule, which was located directly under the peak of the pyramid. Further west lay the east – west oriented burial chamber with a triple gabled ceiling built of large limestone blocks in order to distribute the weight of the building. The burial chamber may have originally contained a basalt sarcophagus.

The next pyramid builder at Abusir is the possible brother of Sahure, Neferirkare. His pyramid was in the first building stage conceived as a six-stepped one with a base of 72 m. Later, the core was extended to eight steps, the walls were cased smooth and a true pyramid was created. Its side measured 104 m, and its height reached 52 m, which made it the greatest pyramid on the Saqqara necropolis. The substructure of the pyramid of Neferirkare was, just like the other elements of his complex, very similar to those of Sahure.
The pyramid temple of Neferirkare was built in several construction stages and it was finished first after the king’s death. It is also the place of origin of one of the most significant corpora of epigraphic material from the time of the Old Kingdom, the Abusir papyrus archive, which is our major source of information concerning the function of the temple complexes and the royal cult in this period. The ascending causeway of the complex remained unfinished due to the premature death of the king, and it was later reused by his younger son Niuserre.

Neferirkare’s wife was Queen Khentkaus II, whose burial place is located to the south of the pyramid of her husband. Her pyramid was probably built in three steps, and a small pyramid temple adjoined its eastern side.

Neferirkare’s reign was probably directly followed by the short reign of the relatively unknown King Shepseskare. His pyramid complex, the construction of which had hardly strated, is commonly placed to the area between the pyramid of Sahure and the sun temple of Userkaf at Abu Ghurab.

After Shepsekare, Neferirkare’s older son Neferefre ascended to the throne, although he too reigned only for a very short time, perhaps for approximately two years. His pyramid had sides of 65.5 m and it must also have been originally planned as a step pyramid. Due to the early death of the king, the overall conception of the pyramid had to be changed and instead of a pyramid, a mastaba-like structure was built, called iat, hill, by the Egyptians. During the life of the king, his architect managed to finish only the basic components of the pyramid’s substructure – the descending corridor followed by a horizontal corridor leading to the vestibule, which opened to the east – west oriented burial chamber. Neferefre’s sarcophagus was made of red granite and during the excavation of his burial chamber, remains of the mummy of the king were discovered, as well as fragments of his funerary equipment. Similarly, only a small part of the pyramid temple was built during the king’s lifetime. This small original part is built of stone and stands directly at the foot of the pyramid, the rest was quickly built of mud bricks after Neferefre’s death. The ascending causeway and valley temple are missing. Unique, however, was the discovery of the slaughterhouse complex, where the animals sacrificed in the temple were slaughtered, at the southeastern corner of the temple.

The true heyday of the necropolis may be dated to the time of King Niuserre, the younger son of Neferirkare and brother of Neferefre. This king was the last one to have built his funerary complex in Abusir. Besides that, he also arranged the completion of the complexes of his mother Khentkaus II, his father Neferirkare and his brother Neferefre. The time of Niuserre’s reign also witnessed an unprecedented rise of the power of men of non-royal origin. One of them was Ptahshepses, who was the first person outside the royal family to have the right to marry a royal daughter – princess Khamerernebti.

The building stages of the Ptahsepses mastaba, which is located to the northeast of the pyramid of Niuserre, map the gradual rise of this high official, who started his career as a simple royal hairdresser and finally was appointed to the office of vizier.

After the death of Niuserre, the center of the development of the Abusir necropolis moved back to its southernmost part, which is closely connected with the development of central and north Saqqara. One of the oldest and most interesting tombs in this part of the necropolis is the tomb of the official and priest Fetekti, which was partially explored already by the expedition of Lepsius. This tomb became famous above all due to its decoration painted on plaster. Its chief motifs included market scenes and transport of textiles, in both cases, the fine, detailed execution makes these scenes rank among the most important ones of the Old Kingdom.

This tomb became the center of a whole necropolis of officials and priests who were employed in the pyramid complexes of Fifth Dynasty rulers in Abusir and Saqqara. The youngest building from the time of the Old Kingdom in the area of south Abusir is the tomb complex of the vizier Qar and his family. Qar began building his tomb in the western part of the necropolis already while he was still a judge at the royal court. Later, when he was unexpectedly promoted to the rank of vizier, such a final resting place was no longer adequate for him, and he had to extend it. The final building thus has two offering chapels and a further, so-called corridor chapel for the cult of other members of his family. In the immediate vicinity of it, other tombs of the sons of Qar were constructed. The most famous one was situated to the south of the tomb of Qar and belonged to his favourite son Inti. The tombs of other sons of Qar were found to the north of the tomb of the founder of this family: the chapels and burial chambers of Qar junior and Senedjemib were found; so far, we have not discovered the tomb of Qar’s last son, Tjenti.

  Miroslav Bárta

Úvod > Research > Projects > Field projects > Abusir > Abusir in the Third Millennium BC