Huni, the Last King of Egypt's Third Dynasty

Huni, the Last King of Egypt's Third Dynasty

by Jimmy Dunn

Huni's Royal Cartouch with his name

While there is some confusion over kings and their order of rule near the end of the 3rd Dynasty, it is fairly clear who terminates the period and who also stood on the threshold between ancient Egypt's formative period and the grand courts of the Old Kingdom to follow. Huni paved the way for the great pyramid builders of the 4th Dynasty with his substantial construction projects and the possible restructuring of regional administration.

Yet, we really know very little about this king who ruled during a pivotal point in Egyptian history. The name Huni may be translated as "The Smiter". He is attested on monuments of his time by his nswt-bity name, written in a cartouche. Alternative readings have been suggested for his name, but none have been agreed upon, so he is typically called Huni even though it probably represents a corruption of his original name. He may also be one and the same as Horus Qahedjet, though this is uncertain.

The head of a statue believed by many to be that of Huni

In the late 1960s, a limestone stela of unknown provenance was purchased by the Louvre museum. It was inscribed with the previously unknown Horus name, Qahedjet. The stela was important to Egyptian art historians because it depicts the earliest representation of a god (Horus) embracing the king. Therefore, it received considerable attention. Though the stela is very similar in style to the relief panels of the Step Pyramid of Djoser, the execution of the carving is superior, and the iconography is more developed. Hence, Egyptologists tend to favor a date for the stela at the end of the 3rd Dynasty. Furthermore, the Horus name for the kings who Huni succeeded have been tentatively identified. Therefore, though with no certainty, some scholars believe Qahedjet to be the Huni's Horus name.

The Turin Canon provides a reign for Huni of twenty-four years, and a shorter reign than this would appear unlikely given the scale of his completed building projects. His position as the last king of the 3rd Dynasty and Sneferu's immediate predecessor is confirmed by both the Papyrus Prisse and by the autobiographical inscription in the tomb of Metjen at Saqqara.

Ruins of Huni's small step pyramid at Elephantine

Actually, the most impressive monument which can be relatively clearly attributed to Huni is a small granite step pyramid on the island of Elephantine. It is now thought that a granite cone, bearing the inscription ssd Hwni, meaning "Diadem of Huni", and with the determinative of a palace originally came from Elephantine. It would seem therefore that Huni built either a palace or a building associated with the royal cult on this island. This small pyramid, together with others of similar size and construction located at Seila in the Fayoum, Zawiyet el-Meitin in Middle Egypt, South Abydos, Tukh near Naqada, el-Kula near Hierakonpolis and in south Edfu, appear to be unique, both in their size and purpose. Many Egyptologists believe that, based on the monument at Elephantine, all but the Seila pyramid may be dated to the reign of Huni. Excavations have shown that his successor, Sneferu, was responsible for the pyramid at Seila.

There has been no small amount of debate about the purpose of these pyramids. Almost all of the major pyramids in Egypt, before and after Huni, were royal tombs of some nature. However, these small step pyramids appear to have little to do with funerary practices. Many scholars have suggested, though there is little proof, that they were constructed as cult places of the king or marked royal estates. There was, for example, an administrative building attached to the pyramid at Elephantine. Their locations suggest that there could have been one such pyramid for each nome (ancient Egyptian province), at least in southern Upper Egypt. Some have even suggested that their construction might have been associated with the reorganization of regional government during Huni's reign. Irregardless, their purpose remains unclear without further evidence for their use.

The Maidum Pyramid sometimes ascribed to Huni

We are also very uncertain about Huni's burial. It has been suggested that the pyramid at Maidum may have been his, and many Egyptologists seem certain that it was at least begun by him, though Middle and New Kingdom graffiti from the site credits Sneferu with its construction. However, if Sneferu had a hand in this project, it is probable that he only finished the monument and converted it into a true pyramid. After all, Sneferu built at least two other large pyramids and was buried in one of these. Otherwise, Huni's burial remains a mystery. If he was not buried in the Maidum pyramid, than he may have been buried at Saqqara, though the only obvious location at that site, the unexcavated Ptahhotep enclosure to the west of the Djoser's complex, has no substructure. Hence, it is unlikely to be an unfinished step pyramid complex.

Some scholars theorize that the small step pyramids built by Huni somehow lessened the importance attached to the royal tomb. According to this view, Huni may never have constructed a pyramid tomb complex at all.

Another older view of the Maidum Pyramid

However, the general consensus seem to be that the Maidum Pyramid was indeed his, even though there is no evidence of there ever having been a stone sarcophagus in the subterranean burial chamber and therefore no clear evidence he was ever buried in this pyramid. Another theory suggests that he was actually buried in an unidentified mastaba number 17 on the northeast side of the pyramid, where there is a typical Old Kingdom, uninscribed granite sarcophagus.

Though we traditionally end the 3rd Dynasty with Huni, he was probably the father of the next King. It is though that the mother of Sneferu was probably Meresankh, who was either a lesser wife or concubine of Huni's. If so, Sneferu would have married his half sister, Hetepheres I, who was Huni's daughter. Little else is known about Huni's family relationships.

Huni's memory lived on for some time after his death, for the Palermo Stone lists an estate belonging to his cult during the reign of the 5th Dynasty King Neferirkara some 150 years after his death. This is really no surprise, for the achievements of Huni's reign are impressive, and he clearly ushered in the great culture of Egypt's Old Kingdom. The structure of provincial government recorded in the tomb of Metjen probably signals a definitive break from the Early Dynastic past, and set the stage for the absolute central control of manpower and resources needed for the massive pyramid building of the 4th Dynasty.


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