The Pyramid of Djedefre at Abu Rawash
Abu Rawash (Abu Roash) is the site of the most northerly pyramid in Egypt (apart from a small mudbrick step pyramid in the vicinity – Lepsius No 1), that of Dynasty IV king Djedefre (sometimes called Radjedef). It is situated about 8km north-east of Giza on the west bank of the Nile, on a rocky outcrop of the desert at the edge of the cultivated area.
When the site was visited by Perring and Vyse in 1839 the pyramid was in a much better condition than it is today, but it has since been used as a quarry for stone. It was briefly investigated by Lepsius and then Petrie, but systematic excavations were not undertaken until various times during the 20th century when it was visited in turn by Emile Chassinat, Pierre Lacau, Pierre Montet and in the 1960s by V Maragioglio and C Rinaldi. Recent excavations by a French-Swiss archaeological team began in 1995 and are still ongoing, currently under the directorship of Michel Valloggia.
Djedefre was a son and successor of Khufu, whose Dynasty IV Giza Great Pyramid is well-known. Djedefre is known to have reigned for only around eight years and it was thought that his Abu Rawash pyramid was unfinished. However, recent studies are beginning to suggest otherwise.
Little remains today of Djedefre’s monument, probably intended to have been around the same size as that of Menkaure at Giza, other than the core of masonry built around its rocky outcrop, now rising to only 9m high. It has long been disputed whether Djedefre intended his structure to be a mastaba or a step pyramid or a true sloping pyramid, but recent findings show that the construction method seems to have been similar to that used in the step pyramids as well as the Bent Pyramid of Snefru.
The first piers of the structure can still be seen, along with an enormous trench which was the descending corridor to the burial chamber and is now open. The rectangular burial chamber was constructed at the end of the descending passage in an open pit – a return to the earlier concept of construction and is now thought to have also contained an antechamber. When Petrie investigated he found a curved fragment thought to be from a pink granite sarcophagus in the burial chamber and the French-Swiss team have recently found a copper axe blade which was part of a foundation deposit.
An outer enclosure wall surrounds the complex, leaving a lot of open space in front of the pyramid. On the eastern side of the pyramid there are remains of a structure built in mudbrick with its axis to the north-east – perhaps intended as a mortuary building, but differing in style to other mortuary buildings. This is puzzling because the causeway does not coincide with this structure, but leads to the northern perimeter wall. The building, consisting of a courtyard and store-rooms appears to have been hastily changed into a mortuary temple at the king’s death. In the courtyard of the ‘mortuary building’ Chassinat found a fragment of a column with Djedefre’s cartouche and fragments of statues of the king’s children as well as a limestone sphinx. Chassinat believed that these statues had been deliberately destroyed, perhaps a hint at a power struggle existing between Khufu’s sons at the time.
A boat-shaped pit, 35m long, was found to the south of this eastern structure and here Chassinat found many fragments of red quartzite statuary (from at least 120 statues), along with three painted heads from statues of the king (now in the Louvre and Cairo Museum). One of these heads is thought to have been from what would have been the earliest known royal sphinx.
The French-Swiss team have recently been excavating around the enclosure wall as well as the pyramid. They have discovered an inner enclosure wall from which a covered corridor emerged at the north-east, leading to the causeway. A cache of votive pottery was found close by, indicating an active cult for the deceased pharaoh. The causeway has an estimated length of 1,700m in order to reach an area where a valley temple would be situated, though no remains of a valley structure have yet been found. Apart from its length it was unusual because it was oriented towards the north-east rather than east to west which was normal. It is possible that a mortuary temple was intended to be constructed on the northern side of the pyramid (like those in Dynasty III) in the open space of the courtyard – but so far nothing has been revealed there.
A satellite pyramid was found during earlier excavations at the south-west corner of Djedefre’s pyramid within the enclosure wall. It was debated whether this was a cult pyramid (which were usually on the south-east) or a queen’s pyramid. The French-Swiss team have discovered in April 2002, the existence of another previously unknown satellite monument at the south-east. In the substructure a shaft leads to a corridor and three chambers, the eastern one containing many fragments of a magnificent limestone sarcophagus. Many other artefacts are currently being recovered from this structure, including a large complete alabaster jar with its lid. There were also fragments of an alabaster plate containing an inscription with Khufu’s Horus name.
There are many inconsistencies in Djedefre’s pyramid which are only now being more thoroughly investigated. Perhaps we will soon learn the true facts of Djedefre’s monument at Abu Rawash. It would appear that the main destruction of the pyramid was done during Roman and Coptic times, and did not begin before the New Kingdom. It is still thought that the pyramid complex was incomplete at the king’s early death, but may have been hastily made suitable for his burial. We must await further news of current excavations to learn more.
Other monuments at Abu Rawash
An earlier presence is indicated at Abu Rawash by objects bearing the names of Dynasty I pharaohs Aha and Den which have been found nearby. A necropolis dating from Dynasty I to Dynasty V is situated 1.5km to the north-east of Djedefre’s pyramid, on the south of the Wadi Qarun and overlooking the valley. The area is located on two hills, with a Thinite (mainly Dynasty I) cemetery on one hill and a Dynasty IV cemetery on the other. While Chassinat opened some of the deep burial pits, Fernand Bisson de la Roque and Charles Kuentz excavated parts of the Dynasty IV cemetery. Since 2001 this area has been re-examined by Michel Baud with the IFAO, who have found that the necropolis is not an elite provincial cemetery but the private part of the royal necropolis of Djedefre. The tomb of one of Djedefre’s sons, a vizir named Hornit, has recently been identified here.
About 2km to the north-east of Djedefre’s complex, Karl Lepsius recorded remains of a small brick-built pyramid, known as Lepsius 1, thought to be one of seven provincial step pyramids found throughout the Nile Valley. Lepsius’ Pyramid 1 was tentatively ascribed to King Huni of Dynasty III by Nabil Swelim when he investigated it in 1985. All that now remains of the Lepsius 1 Pyramid is the rocky knoll on which it stood, with traces of its initial construction. Michel Baud has suggested that the size of the remaining trenches and platform indicates that it was too big to belong to the group of minor provincial pyramids, though the date is still disputed.
Wadi Qarun lies to the north of Djedefre’s pyramid and is suggested as the location of the king’s unexcavated valley temple. On the southern side of the Wadi, hundreds of tombs dating to the Late and Roman Periods have been found, as well as rock-cut galleries which could suggest animal cults of the nearby regional capital, Letopolis.
On the northern side of Wadi Qarun a Coptic monastery, Deir Nayha, was constructed using many blocks from Djedefre’s pyramid. This area was occupied during the Late Period by a sacred precinct, which had previously been identified as a fort. Parts of its massive mudbrick enclosure walls were unearthed by Macramallah during the 1930s and more recently by a team from the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation. Also found in the Wadi was part of a statue of Queen Arsinoe II, sister and wife of Ptolemy II Philadelphus.