Pyramids of Abu Sir in Egypt

Abu Sir

Sometime during the Fifth Dynasty a northern extension was made to the Saqqara necropolis in the area called Abu Sir. By this time tombs on the grandiose scale of the Fourth Dynasty were nonexistent, most likely due to the decentralization of power from the pharaoh and the increase in the power of the nobility. Up until then, Abu Sir was not an oft-used royal burial site, though the tomb of the Third Dynasty King Sekhemkhet was unearthed there in the 1950s. Userkaf, the first pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty, built his pyramid at Saqqara, but four of his successors had their tombs at Abu Sir. Yet Userkaf had built at Abu Sir before, not a tomb, but a temple.

King Userkaf's Temple of the Sun is the earliest preserved Sun Temple in Egypt, and one of only two from the Old Kingdom that remain (the other was built by Neuserre at Abu Ghurob). It is the northernmost monument at Abu Sir and its location is somewhat removed from the other structures. Userkaf ruled for only seven years, and thus was unable to complete the construction, though additions were made by his successors. Its design is simple and the lack of relief decoration is a sharp contrast to the lavish temples that came later, but it is no doubt modeled after the Sun Temple at Heliopolis.

Associated with, but separate from, the Sun Temple is a second temple at a lower elevation, commonly called the Valley Temple. It is uncertain what function this temple had, as the Sun Temple appears to have been fairly self-contained. Schott and Ricke have proposed that it was connected with the worship of the goddess Neith (the "Opener-of-the-Ways") whose cult became popular in the Memphis area during the Fifth Dynasty.

Though modest when compared to the mightiness of the Giza monuments, the pyramid complex at Abu Sir must still have been impressive when it was complete. Like the Giza pyramids, the prime building material was the local limestone, but Tura limestone (from the east bank of the Nile) was used for casing stones and for relief work. Additionally, the pathways and pavements were made of black basalt, and the columns and lintels were made of red granite from Aswan. What the Abu Sir pyramids lacked in grandiosity they made up for in aesthetic appeal.

Nearby are the mastabas, the flat tombs of priests, nobles, and prominent citizens. However, rather than being "huddled up" near the base of the pyramids, these are grouped into their own areas, possibly by class or occupation. Though Abu Sir was used only occasionally to bury pharaohs, the wide range of dates for the mastabas indicate that it was a very popular burial site among certain classes, especially the priesthood.

In all, around fourteen pyramids are estimated to be at Abu Sir, but due to a degradation in construction methods, many have crumbled, possibly to the point where they are now indistinguishable from the surrounding rubble. Many remain unfound, but four have been excavated and are being studied closely. Of these four, only the pyramids of Kings Sahure and Neferirkare (pyramid) are in any stable condition. The pyramid of Niuserre has largely collapsed, and that of Neferefre does not appear ever to have been finished. Neferefre's pyramid is not completely without merit, however. Recently, a Czech expedition working to excavate and restore Abu Sir found papyrus fragments in its mortuary temple.

Neferirkare's pyramid no doubt was once very much like the true pyramids of Giza, but poor masonry and vandalism have left it looking more like the Step Pyramid of Zoser. In the Nineteenth Century the famed Abu Sir papyri were discovered nearby. They represented a monumental find, for unlike most discovered papyri which were religious in nature, these were everyday documents detailing finances, temple inventories, taxes, collections, and expenditures. They gave a focused look into the daily life and work of the ancient Egyptians.