Pyramid of Niuserre at Abusir
Niuserre was the sixth king of Dynasty V and built his pyramid complex at Abusir, to the north-east and very close to that of his father Neferirkare. This king had a long reign – at least 10 years but possibly as much as 30 years or more, suggested by heb-sed reliefs in his Abu Ghurob sun-temple. It was probably Niuserre who completed the mortuary monuments of his father Neferirkare, his mother Queen Khentkawes and his brother Neferefre.
Niuserre’s pyramid, called ‘The Places of Niuserre are Established’, was originally constructed in seven steps and encased in fine white limestone. Today it is badly deteriorated, but originally reached a height of around 51.5m. The corners of the structure, which had a base measurement of about 80m, were reinforced and some of the casing blocks still survive on the south-east corner. The entrance to the pyramid is on the northern side at ground level and from here a trench was dug out for the access corridor which descended down to a vestibule and was blocked by three granite portcullis slabs. Beyond the vestibule the passage descended less steeply, turning slightly towards the east and was blocked in the centre by more granite slabs. The passage led into an antechamber with the burial chamber to the west, both with vaulted ceilings of huge limestone blocks.
Lying directly under the pyramid’s vertical axis, and slightly below ground level, the antechamber and burial chamber were robbed for their stone and are now virtually destroyed. Niuserre’s monument was first visited by Perring, Lepsius and then Ludwig Borchardt, who excavated there in the early 1900s but due to the poor condition of the subterranean chambers, found no trace of the burial or funerary goods.
Both the limestone pavement surrounding the pyramid and the king’s mortuary temple are irregularly placed, probably largely due to the restrictions of space and topography. The mortuary temple on the eastern side of the monument was built on a raised foundation because of the sloping ground and is shifted to the south, with only the sanctuary and false door stela in the traditional eastern position. Five statue niches and magazines flanked the offering hall, whose vaulted ceiling was originally decorated with painted reliefs of stars, with scenes and inscriptions on the walls. To the south of the offering hall was a square decorated chamber with a single column in its centre which afterwards became standard in mortuary temples. This led into a five-niched chapel and to the north of these Borchardt found fragments of a granite statue of a recumbent lion (now in Cairo Museum). A transverse hall had steps leading down to another transverse hall and the outer parts of the temple.
The outer area of the temple consisted of a large open courtyard with a pavement of black basalt and surrounded by sixteen granite papyrus columns which supported the ambulatory ceiling. The columns were inscribed with the king’s name and titles and representations of the goddess Wadjet in the northern half and Nekhbet in the southern half. The ceiling slabs were decorated with golden stars on a deep blue background and traditional reliefs of the king decorated the side walls. A long entrance hall, also paved with basalt and decorated with reliefs, had five magazines on either side and a staircase leading to a roof terrace. Only fragments of the rich reliefs from the mortuary temple have been found because this area was also badly damaged by stone robbers.
Two large towers appear at the south-east and north-east corners of the pyramid, innovative structures which appear to be the precursors of pylon gateways which were a major part of all later Egyptian temples. Builders inscriptions from these structures suggest that stone from Sahure’s unfinished sun-temple may have been used in their construction.
Niuserre built a satellite pyramid at the south-east corner inside its own enclosure wall. Borchardt had discovered an unexplained square platform on the north-eastern edge of the king’s pyramid, adjoining one of the ‘pylon’ structures. In excavations nearby during the 1970s the Czech team found a large granite pyramidion which had originally been sheathed in copper and suggested that it may have come from an obelisk for which the platform was a base. This also may have come from Sahure’s sun-temple as it is unique in mortuary temple architecture.
Niuserre usurped the foundations which had been prepared for Neferirkare’s causeway and valley temple. Niuserre’s causeway measures about 365m in length and led from his mortuary temple running first towards the south-east and then towards the east to use Neferirkare’s foundations in the lower half. During Dynasty XII the high base of the upper half of the causeway was used to construct tombs of the priests of Niuserre’s mortuary cult, which Borchardt investigated during his excavations. The valley temple is now completely covered by sand but it was situated, like the other lower temples on the edge of a canal known as ‘Abusir Lake’. The causeway led into the temple which may have contained statues of the king in niches and there have also been other statue fragments found, including an alabaster head of Queen Repetnebu and a large granite lion. A staircase led to the roof and a central portico with eight columns gave entrance to the harbour ramp on the eastern side.
Lepsius recorded two badly destroyed small pyramids to the south of Niuserre’s pyramid (Lepsius XXIV and XXV). In the past few seasons the Czech Institute have carried out consolidation of crumbling masonry and trial diggings at these two badly ruined pyramids. The first (Lepsius XXIV) is thought to belong to a consort of Neferefre or Niuserre. The second pyramid (Lepsius XXV) is also thought to belong to a consort of Niuserre and here remnants of Graeco-Roman burials have been found. Work on these two pyramids is still continuing.
How to get there
The Abusir pyramids are situated to the south of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile, about 12km south of Zawyet el-Aryan. Take the road for Saqqara and turn off to the village of Abusir, from where a track leads to the edge of the desert. It’s not clear whether this site is officially open but on the occasions when visitors are allowed in, tickets are available from the Saqqara ticket office for EGP 20.