Mastaba of Shepseskaf
Shepseskaf was the last pharaoh of Dynasty IV and the son of Menkaure. His royal tomb at South Saqqara is known as Mastabat el-Fara’un, an Arabic name which means ‘Pharaoh’s Bench’. Shepseskaf’s huge mastaba, measuring 99.6m on its longest side and 74.4m in width, was described by Perring and first entered by Auguste Mariette in 1858 and has been investigated by many other archaeologists since that time. The identity of its owner was first determined by Gustave Jequier in 1925 after finding a fragment of the pharaoh’s name.
The tomb is constructed of enormous blocks of limestone and was originally sheathed in a finer white Tura limestone casing, with a bottom course of pink granite. Remains of restoration texts of Prince Khaemwaset have been found on some of the casing blocks. The mastaba appears to have been built in two steps and may have been deliberately conceived to take the shape of a Buto-type shrine, a Lower Egyptian form of tomb which was a vaulted shape with straight ends and which Karl Lepsius noted as looking like a giant sarcophagus.
The tomb is entered by a sloping passage on its northern side, about one and a half metres above ground level and very similar to a pyramid entrance. This descends about 20m into a corridor originally blocked by three portcullis slabs and leads to the subterranean antechamber, burial chamber and store-rooms. The antechamber and burial chamber both have ceilings constructed as a false vault, like those in Menkaure’s pyramid and both of the chambers were built with pink granite. The burial chamber contained fragments of Shepseskaf’s dark basalt sarcophagus, but little else. From the antechamber a narrow passage runs to the south and leads to six niches or store-rooms.
The mastaba was enclosed within two mudbrick walls, the first containing Shepseskaf’s mortuary temple on the eastern side. The small temple seems to have been constructed in two phases, the earlier parts in stone with later mudbrick additions. The older parts of the mortuary temple included a paved courtyard with an altar, a T-shaped offering hall with a false door and several chambers which were probably magazines. The later mudbrick parts had a large courtyard built to the east with niches decorating the inner walls.
Shepseskaf’s causeway, constructed from white-painted mudbrick, adjoined the mortuary temple at the south-eastern corner of the courtyard wall. When built, the long causeway resembled a vaulted passage which must have led down to the King’s valley temple but this has not yet been discovered.
The burial monument of Shepsekaf remains a mystery to Egyptologists. It is not clear why this king chose South Saqqara as the site of his tomb rather than Giza, or why he chose to construct a mastaba rather than the traditional pyramid. Jequier suggested that this unusual form of royal tomb was built as a protest against the increasing influence of the priesthood of the sun-god Re – the pyramid form was considered as a sun symbol. As further evidence to his theory he also points out that Shepseskaf did not use the element Re in his name. Or perhaps it was simply that Giza had no appropriate site for another pyramid and the king therefore chose to site his tomb near Dashur where his ancestor Snefru, the founder of Dynasty IV was buried. Shepseskaf reigned for only around four years and was perhaps also limited by economic factors in a time which may well have been unstable, choosing to construct a provisional monument which may have been later intended to become a larger tomb or pyramid.
Access to South Saqqara is often difficult and a special permit may be required from the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation to visit some of the monuments in this area. An off-road vehicle and a good guide is recommended. Mastabat el-Fara’un is located at the southern edge of South Saqqara, close to the pyramid of Pepy II and to the north-west of the Middle Kingdom pyramids in a fairly remote part of the desert.