Pyramid and Mortuary Complex of Userkaf
The pyramid lying immediately to the north-east of Djoser’s Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara, belongs to Userkaf who was the traditional founder of Dynasty V. Today his mortuary monument is known as the ‘Ruined Pyramid’ (el-haram el-makherbish) because of its poor condition – attributed to the removal of the limestone casing in antiquity. The most interesting remains here are the mortuary temple ruins, situated on the south side of the pyramid.
Userkaf’s pyramid was first entered by Perring, through a robbers’ tunnel in 1839, but it was not known at the time who the structure belonged to. The pyramid was later excavated by Cecil Firth in 1928, who discovered the owner’s name, then in the 1950s Jean-Philippe Lauer continued investigations. The entrance to the robbers’ tunnel was completely buried by rubble during an earthquake in 1991.
The pyramid’s original entrance was from a pavement in the court in front of the north face and led to a descending passage running south towards a T-shaped magazine or storeroom, an antechamber and the burial chamber. These rooms were blocked off at the bottom of the passage by a large portcullis of pink granite. The antechamber lies directly under the centre of the pyramid and was lined with white limestone, as was the burial chamber which is about twice the length of the former room. Both chambers have a gabled ceiling of enormous white limestone slabs. Archaeologists found remains of a black basalt sarcophagus, empty and undecorated, set into the floor of the burial chamber.
In a departure from tradition the mortuary temple was situated on the south side of the pyramid – these structures had previously been found on the north or east side of earlier pyramids. Archaeologists suggest several reasons for this departure. It may have been due to the ground on the east being too uneven for building, or perhaps because of a huge trench around Djoser’s pyramid enclosure or even for ideological reasons such as the flourishing of the Heliopolitan sun cult. ‘Solar’ temples began to be introduced around this time. The whole plan of the temple seems to have been untraditional. The usual elements face south, away from, rather than towards the pyramid and the small offering chapel with its false door on the east side of the pyramid (now ruined) is entirely separate from the rest of the temple. The mortuary temple remains are today badly damaged, having been robbed for stone, but also because of the position of a large Saite shaft tomb which was built within the structure.
A valley temple and causeway (still unexcavated) led to the south-east corner of the pyramid complex and into an area of storage chambers, a vestibule, an L-shaped entrance hall and a colonnaded court. The surviving remains suggest that there was a staircase leading to a roof terrace near the entrance. The court contained pink granite pillars on three sides with hieroglyphic inscriptions of Userkaf’s names and titles and the floor was paved with basalt. Remains of the paving can still be seen. Around the sides of the court a basalt dado was beautifully decorated with naturalistic scenes, including birds in a papyrus thicket (in Cairo Museum) and an orchard scene with birds caught in a net. There were also fragments of scenes of a boat with its crew and names of Upper and Lower Egyptian estates. The head of one of the oldest royal colossal statues – Userkaf wearing a memes headdress with uraeus, was found here in the debris of the court and is now on display in the Cairo Museum. The inner parts of the mortuary temple consisted of a hall with eight pink granite columns and a chapel with niches for cult statues of the King.
On the south-west corner of the complex and within the original enclosure wall, stood a small satellite pyramid, 21m square, with a subterranean chamber entered from the northern side. Only the lower two levels of the core remain today. Another small pyramid with its own decorated mortuary temple is situated outside the south enclosure wall and is thought to belong to an unnamed queen. Its underground chambers were a smaller version of those in the King’s pyramid, but without the magazine.
There are still many questions surrounding the location of Userkaf’s pyramid, and the whole history of the beginning of Dynasty V, which perhaps one day could be answered by further excavations at Saqqara, an area which is revealing more information every year.