Dahshur Pyramid of Amenemhet III (Black Pyramid)
About 2km to the east of Snefru’s Bent Pyramid at Dahshur is one of a series of three Middle Kingdom pyramids, a dark ruined structure rising from the sand and looking more like a rocky outcrop than the remains of a pyramid. Sometimes called the ‘Black Pyramid’, Amenemhet III’s monument was built with a core of dark unfired mudbrick, but without the stabilising stone framework of other structures of its type. It’s strange shape is mostly due to the effects of weathering after its outer limestone layer was removed by robbers. Amenemhet III Nimaatre, the son and successor of Senwosret III (who had also built a pyramid at Dahshur), was one of the last great rulers of Dynasty XII.
The Black Pyramid was visited by Perring and Lepsius in the mid-1800s and first investigated by Jacques de Morgan and Georges Legrain in 1894-5. It was during an inspection of the Dahshur site by the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation in 1900 that a beautiful dark basalt pyramidion was found on the eastern side of the structure, decorated with hieroglyphic inscriptions on each side (now in Cairo Museum). It is not known whether the pyramidion was ever set in place on the top of the pyramid, though it seems unlikely because of its well preserved condition. The small monument raises important questions because the name of the God Amun has been deleted from the inscriptions – presumably during the reign of Akhenaten, which suggests that it was not at that time in place. The Black Pyramid has been re-investigated in modern times by the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo, directed by Deiter Arnold since 1976.
The substructure of the pyramid has a complex plan differing from other Dynasty XII structures, with two entrances connected by corridors. The first entrance, low on the south-east corner of the eastern side, has a descending staircase leading to a warren of passages, chambers and side-chambers at various levels on the eastern side of the pyramid. The royal burial chamber was oriented east to west with a vaulted roof and like most of the underground chambers was sheathed in fine white limestone. A large empty pink granite sarcophagus was found on the western side of the burial chamber.
The second entrance, on the western side of the pyramid, mirrors the first, and leads to the burial apartments of two of Amenemhet’s queens. The first chamber, reached from the descending corridor belongs to a Queen Aat and although we do not have a name for the owner of the second apartment, it would seem that two queens were buried in the pyramid. In Aat’s chamber a sarcophagus was found, similar in decoration to that of the king, along with a canopic chest and several items of funerary equipment which had been left behind by robbers. A sarcophagus was also found in the second queen’s chamber.
Another series of passageways connects the king’s and queens’ apartments via an underground corridor lying outside the southern side of the pyramid. It has been suggested that this may represent a ‘south tomb’ similar to the dummy tomb built by Djoser at Saqqara.
The pyramid is surrounded by two perimeter walls, built from mudbricks and plastered. The inner wall, which was decorated with niches on its outer sides, bisected a simple mortuary temple on the east, which is now almost completely destroyed. The inner part of the funerary temple consisted of a long offering hall up to the first perimeter wall and the outer part had a large courtyard with a portico supported by 18 papyrus columns.
There may have been a small ‘entrance’ chapel on the pyramid’s northern wall although nothing now remains. Between the inner and outer northern perimeter walls de Morgan discovered a row of ten shaft tombs which were found to belong to members of Amenemhet’s family. The shaft at the eastern end was usurped by a little-known Dynasty XIII king, Hor-Awibre, whose mummy was found in a wooden coffin in the tomb. Other funerary equipment included a wooden ka statue which is one of the treasures of Cairo Museum. A canopic chest which bore the seal of Nimaatre (Amenemhet III) has puzzled Egyptologists, who now suggest that this name may refer to Khendjer, one of Hor-Awibre’s successors. The next tomb belonged to a Princess Nubhotepti-khered.
A wide mudbrick open causeway led eastwards from the mortuary temple to a badly damaged valley temple which consisted of two open courts built on terraces – the first Dynasty XII valley temple to be partially cleared. A limestone model of an unknown Dynasty XIII pyramid’s subterranean chambers was found in Amenemhet’s valley temple, as well as the name of Amenemhet IV. On the northern side of the causeway there are the remains of residential buildings for temple personnel. Although Amenemhet III was not buried in his Dahshur pyramid, there must have been a funerary cult for his queens – fragments of a false door of Queen Aat were found in these buildings.
Amenemhet III seems to have virtually completed then abandoned his Dahshur pyramid at around year 15 of his reign, when he began a new monument at Hawara in which he was buried. It would appear that the construction of the Dahshur pyramid had become too unstable with structural stresses placed on the underground chambers. This was probably partly due to its location on unstable ground too close to the Nile valley floor – a similar mistake previously made by Snefru when he constructed his ‘Bent Pyramid’.
Click here for a description of the Pyramid of Amenemhet III at Hawara.
How to get there
The Dahshur necropolis officially opened in 1996 for the first time, after being occupied as a military zone for many years. The site can be reached from Cairo by taxi (perhaps combined with a visit to nearby Saqqara) or by bus to the modern village of Dahshur.