Abusir Pyramid of Neferirkare
The Dynasty V pyramid of Neferirkare is the second pyramid at the southern end of Abusir, slightly to the north-east of Neferefre’s unfinished monument. Now the most imposing and the tallest structure at Abusir with an estimated intended height of about 70m (it is even now about 45m) and a base of about 105m each side, the pyramid was built on Abusir’s highest point. The monument’s ancient name was ‘Pyramid of the Ba of Neferirkare’ and it was also unfinished during the king’s lifetime. We are not certain of the length of Neferirkare’s reign and figures between 14 and 24 years have been suggested – he was possibly quite old when he came to the throne. Neither is it known why he succeeded Sahure rather than Sahure’s own son, though it is suggested by some Egyptologists that the two kings could have been brothers. His pyramid complex may have been completed by his successors but we know that part of the causeway and the valley temple were usurped by Niuserre.
There is evidence to suggest that Neferirkare’s pyramid was planned as a step pyramid and today four of the original six steps remain. At some point there was a change in design and the steps were filled with loose masonry and then converted to become a ‘true’ pyramid, enlarged and provided with a casing of red granite. The pyramid’s entrance is in the centre of its northern side and a straight descending passage then took two turns before arriving at the vaulted antechamber and a burial chamber. The substructure was very badly damaged by stone robbers and no trace of a sarcophagus or burial equipment has been found.
A mortuary temple for the king, on the eastern side of the pyramid seems to have been hastily finished, and like that of Neferefre, the original stone offering hall and chapels or statue niches were enlarged and completed in mudbrick and enclosed within large mudbrick walls. The entrance to the mortuary temple led through a vestibule with six pairs of columns to a large central porticoed courtyard which in turn led to the inner areas and magazines.
On the southern side of the pyramid court the Czech team have excavated two large mudbrick boat-pits which would have contained wooden boats, but the remains were already crumbled.
In 1893 portions of rare Dynasty V hieratic papyri texts began to appear on the antiquities market and Ludwig Borchardt subsequently tracked down a few stray texts found by local villagers at Abusir. During excavations of Neferirkare’s mortuary complex, it was discovered that the temple archive, dating mainly to the reign of Djedkare-Isesi, had been stored in administrative buildings here. The collection is known as the ‘Abusir Papyri’ and describes the cult administration, inventories, accounts and records of building work, as well as priestly duties and daily offerings. The archive represents a great deal of important knowledge about the economic history of the Old Kingdom pyramid cults. It was from this record that the pyramid complex of Neferefre, Neferirkare’s eldest son, was discovered, as well as details describing six sun-temples at Abu Ghurob. Neferirkare’s own sun temple had been completed within his lifetime and seems to have been the largest of these structures to the north of Abusir, but so far has not been found.
When Neferirkare died his causeway and valley temple had not been completed and they were usurped by Niuserre later in Dynasty V, who incorporated them into his own burial complex. Neferirkare was the first ruler to write his name in a double cartouche, one with his prenomen Kakai, and the other with a ‘sa-Re’ (‘son of Re’) name, Neferirkare, a custom which was then followed by all Egyptian kings. Nererirkare’s pyramid was first investigated by Lepsius, Perring and then excavated by Ludwig Borchardt in the early 1900s. It was later studied by Maragioglio and Rinaldi in the 1960s and more recently by the Czech Expedition directed by Miroslav Verner since 1975.
The Pyramid of Khentkawes
Close to the south of Neferirkare’s pyramid, the king constructed a small pyramid for his consort Khentkawes. The Queen’s monument was not excavated at the time Ludwig Borchardt first investigated the pyramid of Neferirkare, and was dismissed as a mastaba until the Czech expedition took a closer look in the mid 1970s and discovered the small pyramid was more complicated than it looked.
The pyramid’s remains today are only about 4m high after much damage by stone robbers, and the construction of the three level core and the subterranean chambers was of a simple design, with a descending passage leading from the north wall to a burial chamber. A fragment of a red granite sarcophagus and fragments of mummy wrappings were found in the burial chamber, confirming the evidence of the Queen’s burial. Construction of the Queen’s pyramid was halted, possibly at Neferirkare’s death, and was resumed in Year 10 of an un-named king according to a block from the pyramid, and she is then named as ‘King’s Mother Khentkawes’. It would appear that the pyramid was completed by her son (Neferefre or Niuserre?).
The owner had been named as ‘King’s Wife Khentkawes’ on a graffito found by Perring, and the Czech team confirmed the name of Khentkawes (II) and her titles, which were inscribed on a pillar in her mortuary temple. There was also a relief in the courtyard depicting the Queen seated on a throne, holding a papyrus sceptre and wearing a uraeus – a symbol of kingship at that time. The mortuary temple built on the east side of her pyramid has been found to be quite extensive, although badly damaged. Constructed in two stages, the inner parts were of limestone, with an altar, a granite false door and magazines.
The additions to the mortuary temple were built of mudbrick and included the first example of a cult pyramid in an Old Kingdom queen’s complex, which also had its own enclosure wall, emphasising the lady’s importance. Khentkawes’ name and titles are the same as a Queen Khentkawes (I), possibly a daughter of Menkaure, who owns a large mastaba at Giza and it was originally thought that the two monuments belonged to the same queen – both of whom are depicted wearing the royal uraeus. Egyptologists now suggest that the two ladies may have been related, but must have been separated by one or two generations. They both seemed to have played an important role as a regent to a young king.
In the mortuary temple of Khentkawes another collection of papyrus was found, similar to those from Neferirkare and Neferefre’s temples (the Abusir Papyri), providing more details of the function of the mortuary cult.
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.