Egypt: The Sun Temple of Niuserre at Abu Ghurab

The Sun Temple of Niuserre at Abu Ghurab

by Jimmy Dunn

A view over the alter towards the pedestal in the Sun Temple of Niuserre

A few hundred meters to the north of the first sun temple built at Abusir, in a place called Abu Ghurab (an Arabic phrase meaning "Father of Ravens") about six miles southwest of Cairo, lies the ruins of the second sun temple to have been found and investigated archaeologically to-date. It is one of only two sun temples currently known to have survived, though others were probably built and may yet be discovered. Years ago, before the purpose of Niuserre's structure was known, it was called the "Pyramid of Righa" by travelers. Excavations were carried out on the complex between 1898 and 1901 by the German archaeological expedition led by Fredrich Wilhelm von Bissing. Ludwig Borchardt, the architect who would later contribute significantly to the archaeological investigation of the neighboring pyramid cemetery in Abusir was entrusted with the task of documenting and processing this discovery.

Another view of the pedestal with the alter before it

These ruins are those of Niuserre's sun temple, named "Delight of Re." Like that of Userkaf, it was composed of three parts, consisting of a valley temple, a causeway and a temple containing an obelisk. Also like Userkaf's structure, it was not precisely aligned to the cardinal points. Significantly, however, and unlike that of the Userkaf complex, the von Bissing expedition was able to uncover the surrounding ruins of the valley temple. As excavations proceeded, it was demonstrated that the huge stone enclosure wall of a town which had apparently extended far towards the east in the Nile Valley, abutted on the valley temple. Nevertheless, the existence of such a town does not explain the disharmony in the orientation of the valley temple to the cardinal points.

Map of the Sun Temples at Abu Ghauob in Egypt

Niuserre's valley temple differs significantly from that of Userkaf's sun temple, being simpler in layout, and perhaps better seen as a monumental gateway, similar to contemporary pyramid complexes. On the other hand, the valley temple of Userkaf's sun temple, which is situated in boggy ground and has never been properly investigated, was more of a temple in its own right. Consisting of a huge structure made of limestone blocks, it had columned porticos on three sides. The main entrance, approached from the east, was adorned with four palm columns of red granite, while the two side entrances on the northwest and southeast each were decorated with only one pair of these columns.

Drawing of the Sun Temple of Niuserre

The gateway itself led to a causeway that had to overcome technically demanding obstacles, having to overcome a 16 meter vertical difference over a relatively short distance and also over a very uneven terrain. Like the valley temple, the causeway was also built of limestone blocks.

Ground Plan of the Sun Temple of Niuserre

Ground Plan of the Sun Temple of Niuserre

Nevertheless, the hill on which Niuserre's temple with the obelisk stood was comparatively small, and the summit was extended prior to the temple's construction with a system of artificial terraces. The temple has a rectangular layout with an east-west orientation defined by a huge periphery wall which was also built of limestone blocks.

The bowls Borchardt thought were part of the slaughterhouse

About a quarter of the temple was taken up by a large open court in its southeastern sector, while the northeastern quarter consisted of a series of storage chambers and an open space, referred to by Borchardt as the Great Slaughterhouse, because it was here that he unearthed a number of large alabaster basins. They consisted of circular bowls, about 1.18 meters (3 feet, inches) in diameter, carved out of roughly cubed blocks, which were positioned in cascading order, one after the other, so that the blood of sacrificed animals could flow freely down them.

Another view of the bowls with the truncated pyramidal pedestal behind them

Also, the limestone paving of this quarter, raised about 13 centimeters (6 inches) above the level of the surrounding court, contained grooves which could have facilitated the run-off of liquid. In his reconstruction of the structure, Borchardt also thought that there might have been a similar but smaller slaughterhouse in the northwestern corner of the temple.

Unfortunately however, Borchardt may have been entirely wrong in these assumptions. For example, in the "Sanctuary of the Knife" in the precincts of the Neferefre pyramid complex at Abusir, anchored, conical stone blocks equipped with holes to tie down prone beasts before slaughter were present, but there are none of those in either the so-called Great or Small Slaughterhouses at this sun temple.

A view inside one of the bowls

Furthermore, Niuserre's temple has yielded no other kinds of evidence characteristic of slaughterhouses, such as animal bones or flint knives, so it appears that rather than slaughterhouses, these spaces must have actually been used for ritual purification of offerings, which might have then been laid out on the alter to the sun god. Note, however, that there is some disagreement on this matter, with some Egyptologists believing that these facilities were indeed used for sacrificial slaughter.

Another view of the alter

The alter itself, directly in front of (east) of the obelisk, was laid out in the open courtyard approximately in the center of the temple. It is a complex object, made up of five huge alabaster blocks. The central block's upper surface is carved in a 1.8 meter (6 foot) diameter circular form, which may symbolize a rounded offering table or a stylized hieroglyphic sign for Re, the sun god. The four later blocks, each facing cardinal points, have surfaces carved in the form of the hieroglyphic symbol hetep, which means "offering" or "offering table," but might also be translated as "peace" or "satisfied." Hence, the altar might symbolically be read as, 'Re is satisfied' in the four principal directions. This offering table today remains in a good state of preservation, and represents the most beautiful example of its type from all eras of Egyptian history.

Another view of the pedestal

This alter was situated at the eastern foot of an immense stone pedestal some 20 meters high. Surmounting this pedestal was a 36 meter high obelisk. The pedestal itself, built of limestone blocks with red granite casing, took the form of a truncated pyramid.

Southwest of the altar at the south east corner of the pedestal, was an opening into the dedication chapel, which also allowed access to the "chamber of the seasons". Within the T-shaped entrance vestibule of the temple enclosure are five granite lined doorways. Those in the center lead into the courtyard. Those to the side opened into corridors that lead off to the right and left, skirting the courtyard. The right corridor appears to lead around the edge of the courtyard to the storage annexes. On this corridor's east end was a stairway that led to the roof terrace. The corridor to the left (south) lead completely around the courtyard finally providing access first to the "chamber of the seasons" and then the dedication chapel. The "chamber of the seasons" included fine, low relief depictions known as the "Seasons", which portray the changing seasons of inundation and harvest. Doubtless present, but now gone, were reliefs of the third part of the year, the season of emergence (of the fields from the flood or the crops from the ground). However, von Bissing removed these reliefs and transported them to Germany where today they make up one of the most valuable exhibits of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin.

A granite pillar at the site of Niuserre's Sun Temple inscribed with his cartouche

Just in front (east) of the "chamber of the seasons" was a small chapel decorated with scenes of the dedication of the temple. Unfortunately, these reliefs were applied to poor stone enhanced with a coating of lime plaster and were in poor condition. Both the entrance and the outside corridors were decorated with Sed-festival scenes, including some of the earliest that we know of, presumably oriented towards the king and his relationship with Re.

Only small fragments of the actual obelisk have survived. It was not made from one piece of stone, as most other obelisks, but rather of limestone blocks. Regrettably, this facilitated its destruction, making it easy pray for stone quarrying. This masonry structure almost certainly symbolized the benben, a similar device found in the Sun Temple at Heliopolis.

Outside the temple proper and near its southern side, the German expedition also discovered a large building in the shape of a boat. This was a pit, lined with mud bricks which was at one time plastered, whitewashed and colored. This strucutre was augmented with several other elements made from different materials such as wood. This structure is believed to have been purely symbolic, representing a "solar boat" in which the sun god was supposed to have floated across the heavenly ocean.

The structure associated with the solar boat

It is interesting that Ramesses II had this temple restored during the new kingdom, probably at the beckoning of his son, Khaemwese, the High Priest of the Temple of Ptah in Memphis. Khaemwese had taken an interest in traditional building sites in northern Egypt, and after conferring with his father, set about a project to restore such structures. Nevertheless, as mudbrick structures will do, it soon deteriorated once more.