Pyramid and Mortuary Temple of Unas

Unas (Wenis) reigned at the end of Dynasty V, for a period of up to 30 years. His pyramid at Saqqara, although the smallest of the Old Kingdom pyramids, reflects his long reign in the intricately carved hieroglyphic decoration of the inner chambers – the earliest known example of the ‘Pyramid Texts’. Before his time (with the exception of Djoser’s monuments) all of the known pyramids had been undecorated.

Pyramid of Unas

The pyramid itself looks unremarkable, little more than a large heap of rubble which is dwarfed by its older neighbour, the Step Pyramid of Djoser. The structure was first investigated by Gaston Maspero in 1881 who had been collating a corpus of texts found in other Dynasty V and VI pyramids and he was the first to enter Unas’s subterranean chambers. The pyramid and part of the mortuary temple was excavated by Alexandre Barsanti on behalf of Maspero at the turn of the 20th century, and investigation of the mortuary temple and causeway was later continued by Cecil Firth, Jean-Philippe Lauer and others up to the present time.

The structure’s core of rough limestone blocks diminished in size towards the top of its six layers and had a casing of blocks of fine white limestone (now only remaining on the lowest levels). The entrance to the pyramid was found on the north side, opening at ground level in the pavement of the court beneath a small entrance chapel. A passage slopes down to meet a corridor and horizontal passage which was originally blocked by three granite slabs. The antechamber lies beneath the centre of the pyramid, with a room containing 3 niches to the east and the burial chamber to the west. Following the plan of other pyramids of this period the roof of the burial chamber was gabled – but the ceiling was painted with golden stars on a deep blue background to represent the night sky. White alabaster lined the walls of the burial chamber. This was incised and painted on the west wall, with designs in black, white, yellow, blue and red, intended to imitate the wooden structure covered by reed wall hangings of a royal palace or a niched archaic mastaba. More notably, Unas was the first king to have texts inscribed on the walls of his final resting place.

Pyramid entrance

Columns of beautifully carved blue painted hieroglyphs on the remaining walls of the burial chamber, antechamber and parts of the passages depict 283 ‘spells’ which were part of a body of texts known today as the ‘Pyramid Texts’. These texts, comprising almost 800 known ‘spells’ or ‘utterances’, describe the different stages of royal rebirth and were intended to safeguard his (or her) journey from death to the Netherworld, presumably to be read by the deceased. It is thought that the texts were probably composed by the priests of the Heliopolitan sun cult, but may have had a predynastic origin. No single pyramid contains the whole collection of spells and there was no standard edition. One of the texts in Unas’s pyramid (utterances 273-4) is referred to as the ‘cannibal hymn’, which describes ‘swallowing the spirits of the gods’. It is suggested that this may be a remnant of an extinct funerary practice such as human sacrifice, though there is no evidence for this in Old Kingdom Egypt.

Pyramid Texts have been found in five kings’ pyramids of Dynasties V to VI (Unas, Teti, Pepy I, Merenre and Pepy II) and in the Dynasty VIII pyramid of King Ibi, as well as a few queens’ pyramids. Maspero collected more than 4000 lines of text from the pyramids he investigated. The inscriptions are thought to be the earliest corpus of religious expression from anywhere in the world and were the forerunner to later coffin texts and the texts commonly called the ‘Book of the Dead’ (which include much of the content of the Pyramid Texts) in later royal tombs.

Unas’s sarcophagus of greywacke was sunk into the floor on the western side of the burial chamber, with his canopic chest at its foot. Only a few mummified fragments of bone were found remaining from the burial (now in Cairo Museum), but it is not clear whether they belonged to Unas.

Mortuary temple of Unas

The mortuary temple on the eastern side of Unas’s pyramid is now largely destroyed, but followed the plan of his predecessor Djedkare. The king following Unas was Teti, who built a red granite gateway at the entrance to the temple and commemorated the act by inscribing his name and titles. The entrance hall was paved with alabaster, the walls decorated with offering reliefs and led to an open court with 18 elegant red granite palm-columns depicting the names of the Unas. A transverse corridor had a staircase built into its western wall which would have led to a roof terrace, the corridor dividing the outer and inner parts of the temple. Here was a chapel with 5 statue niches, an antechamber and the cult offering hall with its false door. Traces of the pink granite false door, with an inscription referring to deities protecting the souls of Nekhen and Buto, still remain, but there is little else left of the mortuary temple. Many of the blocks and columns were re-used in later monuments (especially in the Delta) and the temple was also invaded by large shaft tombs of the Late Period, adding to its destruction. A small satellite pyramid was situated on the southern side of the mortuary temple, inside the enclosure wall.

On the southern side of the pyramid is part of an inscription by Khaemwaset, son of Rameses II and priest of Heliopolis, who restored many of the Old Kingdom monuments, including those of Unas, 1000 years after they were built. To the north-east of the pyramid, two queens of Unas, Nebet and Khenut, were buried in mastaba tombs.

Causeway looking east

A causeway links Unas’s mortuary temple to his valley temple and must have been very impressive in its time. It was excavated by Selim Hassan in 1937 and is now the best surviving pyramid causeway. It consisted of a covered passageway, 720m long, its interior surfaces decorated with high quality reliefs depicting a range of colourful scenes. The walls were lit by a slit in the roof of the causeway which ran along the whole of its length. The theme of decoration on the causeway walls progresses from the living world in the east to the land of the dead in the west. It depicts scenes such as the transportation of stone from Aswan, hunting scenes (including giraffes, lions and leopards), agriculture, metalworking and battle scenes, as well as royal rituals and vignettes from heb-sed ceremonies. One haunting representation on the lower part of the causeway was thought to be unique for the time, and portrayed impoverished emaciated foreigners (probably Bedu tribes) who were living a life of famine and hardship. Unfortunately parts of this scene were missing and the explanation has been lost, but in recent years a similar scene was found on older blocks from Sahure’s causeway. The scene appears to show the realities and hardships in Old Kingdom Egypt and may also be connected with the ‘Famine Stela’ on Sehel Island at Aswan, which supposedly documents a 7-year famine during the reign of King Djoser. On the upper part of the causeway a pair of boat-pits, 45m long, were carved out of rock and encased in limestone blocks.

Valley Temple of Unas

The survival of riverside pyramid structures has been poor, often being used for the quarrying of stone for construction of later monuments and Unas’s valley temple is no exception. It probably lay at the side of a lake with a harbour and a quay to give access to the causeway. In the 1970s Ahmad Musa continued the work of former Egyptian archaeologists by excavating the lower parts of the causeway and the valley temple. On a terrace of the temple he found a greywacke sarcophagus, similar in style to those of Menkaure and Shepseskaf, which contained a mummy of an elderly man identified by an inscription on his golden belt as ‘King’s son, Ptahshepses’.

For an interactive map and detailed description of the hieroglyphic texts from the Pyramid of Unas see Vincent Brown’s Pyramid Texts Online.


Unas’s causeway and valley temple has undergone a great deal of reconstruction in recent years and it is possible to walk along the paved causeway towards the mortuary temple and pyramid. The interior of the pyramid has been closed to visitors for several years due to damage to the decoration from moisture. Meanwhile the Pyramid Texts may be seen in Teti’s pyramid. Remains of the valley temple can be seen from the road opposite the ticket office.

~ by Su on February 19, 2009.