Egypt: Snefru (Snofru, Snefrue), 1st King of Egypt's 4th Dynasty

Snefru, 1st King of Egypt's 4th Dynasty

by Jimmy Dunn

Snefru is credited as being the first pharaoh of Egypt's 4th Dynasty. Snefru (Sneferu, Snofru) was the king's birth name. His Horus name was Nebmaat, but his royal titulary was the first to have his other name, Snefru, enclosed within a cartouche (his name in an upright oval - see Cartouche at right). It was by this "cartouche name" that he and subsequent kings were best known. He enjoyed a very good reputation by later generations of ancient Egyptians. Considered a benign ruler (highly unusual), the Egyptian term, snefer can be translated as "to make beautiful". While the Turin Cannon records the length of his reign as 24 years, graffiti in his northern (Red, and later) pyramid at Dahshur may suggest a longer reign.

Snefru was most likely the son of Huni, his predecessor, though there seems some controversy to this, considering the break in Dynasties. However, his mother may have been Meresankh I, who was probably a lessor wife or concubine and therefore not of royal blood. Hence, this may explain what prompted the ancient historian, Manetho (here, Snefru is known by his Greek name, Soris), to begin a new dynasty with Snefru. However, it should be noted that both the royal canon of Turin and the later Saqqara List both end the previous dynasty with Huni. Snefru was almost certainly married to Hetepheres I, who would have been at least his half sister, probably by a more senior queen, in order to legitimize his rule. She was the mother of his son, Khufu, who became Egypt's best known pyramid builder, responsible for the Great Pyramid at Giza. We believe his must have had at least three other wives who bore him a number of other sons, including his eldest son, Nefermaet, who became a vizier. He probably did not outlive his father, so was denied the Egyptian throne. Other sons include Kanefer, another vizier who apparently continued in this capacity under Khufu (Cheops). We also believe he fathered several other sons, and at least several daughters.

In reality, Snefru may probably be credited with developing the pyramid into its true form. He apparently began by build what was probably a step pyramid at Maidum (Madum)1, which was later converted into a true pyramid. But this effort met with disaster (though probably not a quick one), because of the pyramid's mass and steep slope. He also built the Red and Bent Pyramids at Dahshur. The Bent Pyramid was the first true pyramid planned from the outset, while the Red Pyramid is the first successful true pyramid built in Egypt. The Red and Bent Pyramids are, respectively, the third and fourth largest pyramids known to have been built in Egypt.

In addition, Snefru is credited with at least one of a series of "regional" or provincial pyramids, at Seila. This is a small, step pyramid with no substructure. A number of other similar pyramids dot the Egyptian landscape, as far south as Elephantine Island, and some Egyptologists believe Snefru (or his father) may be responsible for all, or at least some of these. No one is very certain of the purpose of these small pyramids, but they were likely either associated with provincial cult worship of the king, or may have been located near to the king's "rural" palaces.

Above: Limestone Stele from Snefru's Bent Pyramid

In many respects, including the combined scale of building projects and the evolutionary architectural achievements, Snefru must be ranked as one of Egypt's most renowned pyramid builders. In fact, the sheer volume of building work was greater than any other ruler in the Old Kingdom.

However, his achievements in pyramid building extended beyond the pyramid structure itself, and obviously incorporated evolving religious beliefs. During his reign, we see the first real elements of the sun worship that was to follow and reach a culmination over a thousand years later in the reign of Akhenaten.

For the first time in the orientation of the building plan the main axis was oriented from east to west rather than north to south, as were earlier pyramids. This was apparently a move away from the astronomical "star" oriented beliefs, toward the east-west passage of the sun and the worship of Ra. Now, with Snefru, the mortuary temple is on the east rather than than on the north side like in the Djoser Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara. Furthermore, we see the first of the small satellite pyramids placed near the southern face of the main pyramid, a structure that we still do not completely understand today. Furthermore, the pyramid and mortuary temple elements were now linked by a causeway to a valley temple located on the edge of the cultivation closer to the Nile. We believe that the valley temple operated as a monumental gateway to the whole of the pyramid complex.

While the growing importance of the sun worship is obvious in Snefru's reign, the worship of Osiris was probably also beginning to influence Egyptian religion, though little in the way of documented evidence can be supplied.

With all of Snefru's building activities, it is not surprising that he was very active in the quarries. His name has been found attested to in rock inscriptions at the turquoise and copper mines of the Wadi Maghara in the Sinai peninsula, as well as other quarries.

Snefru is also credited with keeping the administrative power of the country within the royal family, As stated above, two of his sons became viziers and it is likely that many other royal children held important posts. By the end of the 6th Dynasty, administrative power within Egypt would be greatly decentralized which is considered at least one of the reasons Egypt fell into the chaos of the First Intermediate Period. Generally, Egypt was most powerful and prosperous when Egyptian rulers maintained a strong central government, like that of Snefru's. In order to further facilitate this centralized power base, he also apparently reorganized land ownership among his nobles, presumably to prevent them from becoming too powerful, but also to stimulate the cultivation of marshlands.

According to the Palermo Stone, he campaigned militarily against the Nubians and Libyans. The expedition to Nubia was a very large campaign. The Palemo Stone records a booty of 7,000 captives and 200,000 head of cattle. The population of Nubia was never very great, so this was perhaps a rather substantial depopulation of the area. Not only were these campaigns against Nubia initiated to obtain raw material and goods, but also to protect Egypt's southern borders as well as the all important African trade routes. The campaign in Libya records 11,000 captives and 13,100 head of cattle.

The Palermo Stone also provides a record of forty ships that brought wood (probably cedar) from an unnamed region, but perhaps Lebanon. Among other building uses, Snefru is credited as has having used some of this wood to build Nile river boats up to about 50 meters (about 170 ft.) in length.

It is interesting to note that Snefru's later deification was perhaps partially due to his status as an "ideal" king, who's deeds were emulated by later kings to justify their legitimacy to the throne. His reputation was no doubt enhanced by the Westcar Papyrus (now in Berlin), probably written during the Hyksos period. Yet, even though considered a warlike king by many, his worship in the Middle Kingdom was just as much fueled by the admiration of common Egyptians (according to traditional history). Ancient literature repeatedly depicts him as a ruler who would address common Egyptians as "my friend", or "my brother". It is also not surprising that during the Middle Kingdom, his cult was particularly strong among the Sinai miners. Because of his massive building projects, considerable resources from Snefru's reign were employed to develop those quarries. Therefore, Snefru became especially associated with this quarry district.

Certainly Snefru had a number of choices for his burial, but we believe he was actually interred in the Red Pyramid at Dahshure. There, in the 1950s, the remains of a mummy were found of a man past middle age, but not much so, suggesting that the king may have come to rule Egypt at a fairly early age.

1. Some Egyptologists continue to attribute the Madium Pyramid to Huni (or more properly, Nysuteh), as well as possibly to Horus Qahedjet (2637-2613 BC). However, even these scholars appear to believe that Snefru finished this pyramid, but it would have been highly unusual for a ruler of Egypt to have made such a substantial contribution to his predecessor's mortuary complex. Still the question of who actually started the construction of this pyramid is a mater for future discovery.



Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Chronicle of the Pharaohs (The Reign-By-Reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt) Clayton, Peter A. 1994 Thames and Hudson Ltd ISBN 0-500-05074-0
History of Ancient Egypt, A Grimal, Nicolas 1988 Blackwell None Stated
Monarchs of the Nile Dodson, Aidan 1995 Rubicon Press ISBN 0-948695-20-x
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2