The necropolis of Memphis, the Old Kingdom’s capital, stretches 30km along the
Nile including Abu-Rawash, Giza, Zawyet el-‘Aryan, Abu Ghurab, Abusir, Dahshur and Saqqara.
Abusir, whose ancient name was Per-Usire or “Place of Osiris”, is the location of
5 pyramids from the 5th Dynasty and of two solar or sun-temples.
The complex is approximately 1.5 kilometer square and sits on a sedimentary
plateau. It would have dominated the Memphis skyline – the current cultivation
demarcates the plain below the complex. The geology was formed during
the Pleistocene Epoch, from sand and gravel cemented together by lithification.
The complex was at the northern apex of the Abusir Lake and the Nile was more eastward than the current channel allowing
the Valley Temples to connect to the lake and for building material to be transported by water. It is possible that the
move to Abusir was necessitated by the Giza complex being ‘full’, Userkaf squeezed his pyramid into a site at Saqqara but
needed a new location for his sun-temple. Verner has proposed that Abusir was the southernmost place that the Heliopolis
temple of Re’s gilded obelisk tip could be seen and further suggested that the southwest corners of the Giza and Abusir
pyramids would intersect at the temple’s benben stone. Abusir demonstrates a change in theological concepts and an increasing
focus on the Heliopolis sun cult. Kings who have pyramids at Abusir have ‘Re’ within their nomen.
Pyramids are significantly smaller than those of the great pyramids
of Giza, for example Sahure’s pyramid has a base of 78.75 meters and a slope of 50°11' compared to Khafre’s 215 meters and
53°10'. Sahure’s complex, which stands on a 20 meter hill, is the best preserved although once the casing was removed the
construction techniques allowed the buildings to deteriorate into mounds of rubble. The use of stone non-indigenous to Abusir
was limited to key architectural features. The funerary temple seems to have gained in importance and is usually quite large,
built with expensive materials and decorated with exquisite bas-reliefs, most of which have unfortunately been lost.
The construction technique was to form a level a base (possibly constructed
from limestone blocks), into which a pit was excavated. A number of inward leaning layers were built from low-quality limestone
blocks, quarried to the west of the complex, with voids filled with mud mortar. A construction gap was left on the north
side, allowing builders to work on the burial chamber in parallel, which was later filled with debris. Tura limestone was
used for the outer casing. Neferirkare’s pyramid had an unfinished girdle of masonry with a red-granite casing and it is
thought Neferirkare originally built a step pyramid and later changed it to be smooth sided.
Internal chambers were accessed from the north side via a pavement level
passageway lined with red-granite and protected with granite portcullis. Later in the period, certainly for Niuser-Re (Possessed
of Re's Power) , a north chapel was added giving access to the passageway. The limestone clad antechamber and burial chamber
had a three-layered gabled roof with huge 90-ton limestone beams and to the east a serdab. A fragment of basalt sarcophagus
was found in Sahure’s chamber and red-granite in Neferef-Re’s. An interesting observation on Sahure’s pyramid is that “the
southeast corner is off by about 1.58 meters and is not entirely square”.
We can determine, from unfinished pyramids such as Neferef-Re, that
construction of the tomb occurred first, then the royal-cult complex
and finally the valley temple and causeway.The surviving structures have a similarity and Sahure’s
can be used to describe the repeated features.
Each part of a King’s
complex was named, for example Sahure’s were:
Sahure’s soul shines
The Rising of the Ba spirit
The Soul of Sahure Comes Forth in Glory
Sahure’s splendor soars up to heaven
Sahure’s offering Field or Field of Re (Sekhet Re)
Prenomen and two-ladies
He who is Close to Re
The pyramids of Sahure and Niuser-Re and the sun-temples of Userkaf
and Niuser-Re have valley temples connected to the royal-cult complex by a causeway.
Neferirkare completed his valley temple and the causeway’s foundations
but Niuser-Re completed the works joining the causeway to his own pyramid.
The valley temple was entered via a ramp that led to a portico or covered
ambulatory. The roof was decorated with gold painted stars on a blue background and the ceiling was supported by granite
palm fond columns (Niuser-Re used papyrus bundles). The floor was of black igneous basalt, the dado of red-granite and above a layer of Tura limestone
– which was decorated with polychrome bas-relief, for example depicting the king in the form of a Sphinx trampling enemies.
A hall with two pillars led to the causeway.
The causeway traversed uneven ground - to keep the processional way
at a constant incline from the valley to the plateau significant buttresses were employed. The 2 meters wide corridor was
illuminated from small openings in the roof and its length was decorated “including scenes of gods leading prisoners taken
from Egypt’s traditional enemies”. The width of the corridor suggests that the king’s body may not have been transported
to the royal-cult temple through the passageway.
The royal-cult temple joined the pyramid’s east side and was significantly
larger than predecessors and is the prototype of subsequent temples. The walls and columns were heavily decorated with reliefs
with a variety of subjects such as hunting, fishing, fowling, soldiers, sea-voyages, courtiers, victories over traditional
enemies, offering bearers and the King’s insignia. In Khentkawes II’s temple square pillars, painted red and inscribed with
her name and titles, were used. Niuser-Re added to Neferef-Re’s (who is also known as Raneferef) royal-cult
temple after the ephemeral ruler’s death. Part of the temple held the first hypostyle hall; its roof was supported by 20
wooden columns in four rows. Uniquely a ‘Sanctuary of the Knife’ was added for ritual slaughter of animals – this has a
possible association with sun-temples.
Deep within the temple is an offering chapel with a false door, statue
of the king and an offering basin. A sophisticated drainage system ran throughout the temple using channels, copper drains
and water spouts. Neferirkare’s temple was finished quickly using mud-brick and wooden columns; this indicates that Neferirkare
died before it was finished and Niuser-Re completed the work.
During this period the temple was laterally ‘divided’ into outer and
inner elements by an internal traverse-hall and the external enclosure wall. The outer part included an entrance hall, an
open court with a colonnade (palm columns) and altar; the inner rooms included magazines, five-niche chapel, an alabaster
floored offering hall or sanctuary and a satellite pyramid that simulated the main tomb. Niuser-Re also included a statue
of a recumbent lion and a square antechamber with a central pillar supporting its roof.
Entrances led into the pyramid enclosure and Neferirkare’s held two
large boat burials. Niuser-Re introduced two huge blocks of masonry on the east side of the complex flanking the royal-cult
temple and joining the enclosure wall. These are “precursors of the great pylons at the front of later Egyptian temples”.
Outside of the complexes were other burials, although the number is considerably less
than at Giza suggesting a reduction in centralised authority by this period. Typically the royal-cult temple’s traverse-hall
has a doorway leading to a cemetery where members of the king’s family and officials were interred. Lepsius XXIV and XXV
suggests that important royal wives were buried in small pyramids and Vizier Ptah-Shepses’s tomb, who was married to Niuser-Re’s
daughter Khamerernebti, is a fine example of a period mastaba. On the southern edge of the plateau is a cemetery for officials
and on the northern edge is one for lower social ranks.
Userkaf was the first to build a sun-temple at Abu Gurob (an extension of Abusir) about
3 kilometers north of his Saqqara pyramid.
Cult complexes for deities
who represent aspects of the sun, including Aten, Atum, Khepri, Harmakhis, Re, Re-Horakhty and others, are attested to from
the 2nd and 3rd Dynasties.
The Abusir Papyri and other documents record the existence of six temples
although only those of Userkaf and Niuser-Re have been discovered. It is possible that only two temples existed and that
each successor re-built and re-named Userkaf’s temple, before Niuser-Re built his own. However, there are indications that
Sahure’s sun-temple could have been over-built by Niuser-Re’s pyramid complex. Additionally Ty’s tomb at Saqqara, records
an association with the sun-temples of Sahure, Neferirkare, Neferef-Re
Schaeffer & Borchardt excavated at Abusir in 1898-01 and Riche in 1955-7
determining that the temples were built in phases and Userkaf’s was added to by Neferirkare and more extensively re-developed
by Niuser-Re. Userkaf’s temple was called Nekhen-Re (Stronghold of Re) which was also the name of the pre-dynastic capital
Hierakonpolis, the primeval sanctuary of the Horus falcon. The sun-temple’s focus was a blunt Obelisk which stood on a step
pyramid of limestone with a red-granite casing similar to Menkaure’s
pyramid at Giza. In a large courtyard in front of the obelisk was an altar constructed of five slabs of calcite, shaped
as the Hetep ()
hieroglyph. Both sun-templesare of similar construction and are
have the characteristics of a pyramid complex; with a “pyramid”, valley temple, causeway, upper temple, enclosure and, in
Niuser-Re’s case, a huge mud-brick boat. Inside Niuser-Re’s upper temple were fine reliefs including Sed-Festival scenes
and in the Chamber of the Seasons depictions of the Akhet, Peret and Shemu seasons.
One of the three sets of Abusir Papyri lists daily offerings brought from
temple to pyramid - it is difficult to resolve the purpose of sun-temples but they were clearly an important part of the
ritual offering to the gods and to the king’s cult. Why their development stopped is equally unclear.