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Egypt: History - Pharaonic Dynasty V (Fifth Dynasty)


Fifth Dynasty

Whatever the origin of the Fifth Dynasty, there can be no doubt as to its changed and highly individual character. According to the tale, Reddjede's eldest son was foretold to become high-priest of the sun-god Re', the great city known to the Greeks a Heliopolis and now merely a northern suburb of Cairo. There is neither confirmation nor likelihood that Userkaf, the first king of the dynasty, ever exercised that office, but certain it is that under him the Heliopolitan priesthood began to wield an unprecedented influence. The Palermo Stone has little to record except gifts of land and offerings to the sun-god Re', to his daughter Hathor, and to the problematic beings called bw'Iwnw 'the Souls of On'. It is important to realize, however, that this intensified solar cult was not exclusive like that of Akhenaten over a thousand years later, since among other deities the goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt were also beneficiaries. The dominant position of the sun-god is reflected in a fresh development that now befell the royal titulary. Hitherto the name of Re' had appeared only in the cartouches of Ra'djedef, Chephren, and Mycerinus. In Dynasty V, Re' became a fairly regular element, as will be seen from the enumeration of its nine kings in their well authenticated sequence: Userkaf, Sahrue', Neferirkare' (Kakai), Shepseskare' (Ini), Ra'neferef, Niuserre' (Izi), Menkauhor, Djedkare' (Izezi), and Wenis (Unis). The names here added in brackets were alternative personal names, likewise enclosed in a cartouche and ultimately to become the king's Nomen, while the name with 'Re' became the Prenomen. What is still more important, the epithet zR' Son of Re', first found quite exceptionally with two of the three Dynasty IV Pharaohs above mentioned, now began to be a frequent concomitant either inside or outside the cartouche, in the end obtaining a fixed position between the Prenomen and the Nomen. The final pattern of a royal titulary has been illustrated and explained above.


Far more striking, however, is the evidence from a new type of monument which, so far as is known, was the original invention of Dynasty V and was discontinued after its eighth reign. No doubt these new enthusiasts for the solar cult felt unequal to honoring their chosen god with the magnificence that the Dynasty IV rulers had bestowed upon the glorification of themselves, for they removed the scene of their building activities some miles to the south of Giza, where invidious comparison would be less practicable. A site at Abu Gurab which had long borne the name of the Pyramid of Righa proved, when cleared by the Deutsche Orientgesellschaft under the able direction of the architect L. Borchardt (1898-1901), to have concealed a great sun-temple plausibly supposed to have been copied from the temple of Re'-Atum at Heliopolis. The general lay-out resembled that of a normal pyramid complex, with an entrance building near the valley, a causeway leading to a higher level, and at the top the counterpart of pyramid and funerary main temple. The essential difference lay in the substitution for these latter of a rather squat obelisk perched on a square base like a truncated pyramid. The obelisk recalled a very ancient stone at Heliopolis known as bonbon, etymologically perhaps 'the radiant one', which undoubtedly symbolized a ray or the rays of the sun. Six of the nine kings of Dynasty V are known to have built sun-temples of the kind, each with its own name like "Pleasure of Re', 'Horizon of Re', 'Field of Re'. Of these temples only two have been actually located, that of Userkaf, apparently a poor affair excavated by Borchardt's former pupil H. Ricke, and that of Niuserre', thoroughly investigated by Borchardt himself. Here the sun-god was worshipped under the open sky, as befitted his nature. At the foot of the obelisk and its base is a great raised terrace with a large alabaster altar in its midst. North of the altar is an extensive area where oxen were slaughtered, and north of this again a row of magazines. The platform upon which the obelisk stood was approached by a long covered passage skirting the terrace on the south and adorned with exquisitely sculptured and painted scenes, some representing the seasons with the flora and fauna created by the sun-god, while others depicted the Sed-festival, which was a periodic renewal of the kingship when the gods of the two halves of the country assembled to do honor to the Pharaoh. The ceremonies when the priests emerged from the relative darkness of the corridor into the brilliant sunshine spread abroad by their god must have been sensational. Serious problems are, however, raised by this strange category of monuments. That each king should have aspired to a magnificent sepulcher of his own is comprehensible, even if the modern mind cannot refrain from wondering at the over-ostentation displayed by the pyramids. But it is perplexing to find each successive ruler adding a separate sun-temple of similar dimensions in order to mark his filial relationship to the deity. The strain upon his resources must have been enormous, the more so since there is good evidence that the predecessors' foundations were not abandoned at their demise. It is not surprising that the cumulative responsibility proved too much for Izezi, in whose time such enterprises came to an end. Much careful thought has of late been devoted to this and other questions connected with the sun-temples, but only with limited success through the lack of positive evidence.

Borchardt's exploration of Niuserre's sun-temple was followed by his systematic unearthing of the Dynasty V pyramids clustered together at Abusir about a mile farther to the south; but before discussing these it will be well to say something about the pyramids of three kings of the dynasty who elected to occupy sites still farther south at Saqqara, close to the Step Pyramid. Userkaf's burial-place, unusual in several respects, was found completely ruined and used as both quarry and cemetery in Saite times. It had been furnished with splendid low reliefs, the most striking fragment being part of a fowling scene that may perhaps have served as a model for similar representations in later tombs. But the great prize was the head of a colossal red granite statue of the king now in the Cairo Museum; it is thought that the statue, if seated, will have exceeded 15 feet in height. the two excavators of the pyramid of Djedkare'Izezi, both prematurely defunct, unfortunately left no account of their work. This may well be the neighborhood from which in 1893 came a large number of papyrus fragments still unpublished and distributed among several museums. They are all dated in Izozi's reign, but relate to the funerary property and administration of the earlier king Neferirkare' Kakai. Among the subjects are the daily payments made to the head priests or 'prophets' and to the tenants of the sun-temple. Other things treated are the transfer of revenue to Kakai's pyramid estate, and the offerings made to his statues and to that of the Queen-mother Khantkawes. So rare are such documents at this period that these are of the utmost value, but intensive study will be required to decipher their difficult handwriting and to determine their exact contents. The pyramid of the last king Wenis, smaller than that of any of his predecessors, has been more fruitful in results of interest, the causeway, 730 yards long, being embellished with reliefs of the finest quality. The subjects are very varied and unusual, illustrating, for example, the transport by ship from Aswan of the granite date-palm columns and architraves used in the construction of the funerary temple. There are also scenes of workmen engaged in various crafts, and strangest and least explicable of all, the emaciated figures of people evidently dying of hunger. The internal arrangements of the pyramid are likewise unusual, their main importance to Egyptologists lying in the fact that the walls of the vestibule and burial-chamber are covered with the oldest religious texts that have survived from Ancient Egypt, written in vertical columns of hieroglyphs. These texts, containing spells providing for the welfare of the king in the hereafter, are known as the Pyramid Texts, since they are found not only here but also in the pyramids of four kings of Dynasty VI and elsewhere.

To revert now to the pyramids excavated at Abusir by Borchardt, they are those of Sahure', Neferirkare', and Niuserre'. Of these, the pyramid of Neferirkare' was left unfinished and the lower half of its causeway was adapted by Niuserre' to his own purposes. In the absence of a full publication of the pyramid of Wenis, it is that of Sahure' in which the characteristics of the funerary monuments of Dynasty V can be best realized. In size greatly inferior to those of Cheops and Chephren, in beauty they are at least their equals. Massiveness and rugged simplicity here give place to elegance and artistic perfection; a development analogous to that in our own country from Norman architecture to Gothic. In Dynasty V, plain rectangular pillars are superseded by columns representing papyrus stems bound together or with capitals delicately carved to imitate the leaves of the date-palm. The wealth of sculptured relief adorning all parts of the complex is amazing, in spite of the disappearance of a large portion through the depredations of later generations hungry for the fine limestone that could be used for their own buildings. The brilliance of the general appearance can be imagined from the fact that often the floors were of polished basalt, while the glittering white limestone sculptures rested on dados of red granite. A startling innovation in Sahure's pyramid complex was a copper drain-pipe that ran the whole length of the causeway, a distance of no less than 330 yards. The subjects of the reliefs are varied, and if we possessed them in their entirety they would have illustrated the activities and aspirations of the king and his subjects more vividly than any possible written narrative. Among the less realistic representations there survives one showing the Pharaoh being welcomed by the god Khnum and nursed at the breast of the vulture-goddess of Nekhen (Hieraconpolis), and there are also seen fictitious offering-bearers personifying every aspects of nature such as the sea and corn, or abstract notions such as joy. Strongly contrasted with such purely conceptual themes is a magnificent scene of hunting in the desert and the remains of another depicting the baiting of Hippopotamuses in the river, though even here the subject may already have become conventional. It is impossible to be sure that Sahure' himself was endowed with these sporting proclivities. Reference has been made earlier to the campaign against the Libyans which resulted in so sensational a capture of booty and the submission of the foreign princes and their families. Even more attractive pictorially is a great scene of ships returning from Syria with sailors and Asiatic abroad, their arms uplifted in homage to the Pharaoh. The occasion may well have been an expedition to the Lebanon to fetch the highly prized wood of its forests. The excavations at Byblos by Montet and Dunand have yielded stone vessels bearing the names of many Old Kingdom kings, probably not excluding that of Sahure'. It would be too much to describe Byblos as an Egyptian colony, but at least the Egyptian envoys were always welcome there and this coast-town had a temple of the goddess Hathor identified with the native Semitic Astarte. This picture of ships reminds us that the sole references in the fragments of the Palermo Stone to any secular undertakings of the Dynasty V Pharaohs are two which record voyages to Sinai in quest of its turquoise and to Pwene, the source of incense and various spices. Apart from the Libyan campaign above mentioned and the Asiatic war in which Wenis was the commander-in-chief, all foreign ventures of the Old Kingdom appear to have been utilitarian in aim--journeys to procure to the sovereign the materials wherewith to sate his passion for building, to enhance the luxury of his Court, and to meet the requirements of the deities whom he worshipped.

The present tendency is to assign to Dynasty IV a duration of no more than 160 years and to Dynasty V no more than 140. These figures are small in view of the great works accomplished, but apparently will have to be still further reduced, for there seems no reason to doubt the veracity of a courtier who claimed to have been honored by six kings from Ra'djedef to Sahure', or of a royal prince who enjoyed similar fervor, but starting only with Ra'djedef's successor Chephren. Meanwhile, a striking change had come over the sources from which our knowledge of the period is drawn. The mute and uncommunicative character of the early mastabas had given place to an eagerness unparalleled in any other ancient land to depict and illustrate almost every aspect of daily life. It is not to be imagined, of course, that either the sculptors or their masters had posterity in mind. Apart from the urge to create beauty inherent in all artistic creation, here the incentive was the belief that such pictures could enable the tomb-owner to enjoy after death all the good things that had been his lot upon earth. The development must now be described in somewhat greater detail. In the early Dynasty IV the funerary rites had been performed in small brick chapels leaned up against the north side of the Mastabas, the sole testimony concerning the identity and aspirations of the tomb-owner being a stone stela showing him seated before an offering-table with hieroglyphic legends naming the kinds of food and drink of which he hoped to partake, the qualities of linen intended for his clothing and bedding, and the vessels and furniture needed for his household. But there are some exceptions to this reticence. At Medium there are tombs as early as Snofru with frescoes illustrating occupations on a great nobleman's estate, boat-making, fishing, snaring birds, plowing, slaughtering oxen, and so forth. From about the same time are inscriptions recording the fortunes of a great Delta magnate named Metjen, who informs us how, besides inheriting from his father, he bought much land, built himself a fine house with a large walled garden, and was appointed to many responsible posts. Other hieroglyphic narratives from the next generations deal with different subjects. They remunerate the use of 'soul-servants' for continued funerary service after the tomb-owner's death, a will for the distribution of his lands made by a son of Chephren and the grateful acknowledgment of the Pharaoh's interest in the building of a tomb. Such texts can barely be described as historical, but they cast sidelights upon the civilization of those times. The point here emphasized, however, is that they are exceedingly rare. With the approach of Dynasty V such records, both pictorial and written, greatly increase in number, evidence it would seem of a growing realization that for all the Pharaoh's claims to be a divinity, he was in fact only a man not so far exalted above the heads of his nobles. The many gifts and concessions which had to be made in order to sustain the power of the ruler were already laying the foundations of a feudal state. Interior chambers began to be built within the body of the Mastabas, assimilating them to the mansions of the wealthy; the famous tomb of Tjey, for example, possessed two great columned halls, a fine corridor, a large store-chamber, and an impressive portico. A far greater variety of pursuits was now displayed in the reliefs, hardly any aspect of ordinary life being unrepresented. On the walls of the tombs one can accompany the tomb-owner on his way to inspect bakers, brewers, vintners, cooks, sculptors, carpenters, goldsmiths. We can sit with him to enjoy music and dancing, or join him in a game of draughts. Little humorous details sometimes insinuate themselves into these pictures, such as a monkey ruffling the feathers of a crane or biting the leg of an attendant. And hieroglyphic legends eke out each episode with the snatches of conversation passing between the people engaged, in flat contradiction of the popular preconception which credits the Ancient Egyptians with no thoughts beyond death and mummification. The Egyptologist knows that never was there a race more fond of life, more light-hearted, or more gay. A lovable trait is the evident equality of the sexes. Both in the reliefs and in the statues the wife is seen clasping her husband round the waist, and the little daughter is represented with the same tenderness as the little son.

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Last Updated: June 20th, 2011

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