Egypt: The Sun Temples at Abu Ghurab

The Sun Temples at Abu Ghurab

by Jimmy Dunn

Map of the Sun Temples at Abu Ghauob in Egypt

Most of the 5th Dynasty pharaohs, including six of the first seven, uniquely built sun temples. It reflected a significant change in Egyptian religion. This trend only died out at the end of the dynasty. They were all obviously dedicated to the sun god Re, who inspired much of the rest of these king's religious activities. During this period, Re became the closest equivalent to an Egyptian "state" god. Like pyramid complexes these sun temples had their own agricultural land, received donations on festival days, and had their own temple personnel We know of six such temples because we have found their names written in inscriptions, but alas, only two have actually been discovered. The two we do know of are the sun temples of Niuserre and Userkaf, of which that of Niuserre is the best preserved. However, preserved in this case only implies that we can make out some of its structure from the ruins.

An interesting note should be made at this point. Some Egyptologist now believe that the other "lost" temples may never have existed. Rather, they speculate that the kings who added and built on the two known temples may have, in effect, usurped them, providing the temples with new names after their improvements.

The Sun Temple of Niuserre

Drawing of the Sun Temple of Niuserre

Niuserre' sun temple is located at Abu Ghurob (Abu Ghurab), not far from Abusir where his pyramid is located and many other 5th Dynasty kings built their pyramids as well. Abu Ghurob lies about six miles southwest of Cairo. Years ago, before the purpose of Niuserre's structure was known, it was called the "Pyramid of Righa" by travelers. Niuserre's sun temple was originally excavated by the German archeologists, Ludwig Borchardt and Heinrich Schafer between 1898 and 1901. We believe it was originally made with mudbrick walls forming a grid that was then filled with rubble. Later, these mudbrick "retaining" walls were sheathed in a casing of yellow limestone blocks. It basically had three primary components, consisting of a valley temple a desert or upper temple, and a causeway that connected the two.The name of the sun temple was originally "Delight of Re".

Remains of the Sun Temple

This valley temple was really nothing more than a monumental gateway forming the entrance to the causeway. It was built within an enclosure with thick walls that Borchardt apparently thought were the walls of an ancient town, and so he did not investigate the structure. There is also the problem that very little of it remains, and what does stands in shallow water. However, we do believe that in front, (northeast) between a pylon like facade of fine white limestone, there was a pillared entrance portico with four palm columns. In addition, to either side of the building were apparently porticos that accessed narrow corridors leading into the gateway. The causeway extended to the upper temple, which was built upon a natural platform of rock.

Ground Plan of the Sun Temple of Niuserre

Ground Plan of the Sun Temple of Niuserre

Everything within the upper temple appears to have been built around a huge obelisk like masonry structure that probably symbolized the benben. The benben had a similar relationship religiously to the sun god, representing Re incarnated. It was centered directly behind (west) of the courtyard altar facing it. Within Niuserre's complex, we estimate that the benben structure was about 36 meters (118 feet) tall. It stood on a great pedestal 20 meters (65 feet, 6 inches) high. Both the obelisk and the tapering platform on which it stood were masonry constructions rather than monolithic. The obelisk like structure was built of limestone blocks, while the pedestal is also made of limestone with a red granite base.

Against the obelisk's southern side was built a small, independent structure we call the "chamber of the seasons". It was apparently an important structure within the temple. The reason we call it the "chamber of the seasons" is because it was decorated with numerous relief depicting scenes related to nature, which of course was the realm of the sun god. These included scenes depicting the three seasons of harvest (shemu), inundation (akhet) and unfortunately lost, coming forth (peret). 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. To make matters much worse, many of the reliefs were sent to museums in Germany, where a number of them were destroyed during World War II.

Alabaster Basins in the Sun Temple of Niuserre

In the upper temple, the covered causeway opened up into a large open court flanked on the north by a row of annexes (storage magazines). There was also an area on the north for cattle to be slaughtered as offerings to the sun god. This slaughter area, when discovered, included limestone pavement that had been raised about 13 cm (6 in) above the level of the surrounding court. It had channels cared in the upper surface that probably drained down to a row of nine large alabaster basins about 1.18 m (3 ft, 8 in) in diameter. However, some Egyptologists (Miroslav Verner) believe that this area was not for slaughter, because there were no tethering stones, flint knives or bones found; evidence that has been present at other sites where animals were slaughtered. Another similar, but smaller area is found north of the obelisk, with seven limestone basins that each had three drainage holes. Obviously these areas were either used for slaughter, or some sort of ritual purification involving liquid.

Offering Table in the Sun Temple of Niuserre

Near the center of the courtyard stood the great four sided while alabaster altar formed from four hotep signs oriented towards the cardinal directions and surrounding a large solar disk. The hotep sign means "offering, "satisfied" or "peace", and is commonly found at the bottom of false doors in Old Kingdom tombs. The altar therefore actually says 'Re is satisfied' in the four principal directions.The center element, a cylindrical block of alabaster, has a diameter of 1.8 meters (6 feet). It was centered directly in front of (east) of the Obelisk. Southwest of the altar at the south east corner of the Obelisk 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 to first the "chamber of the seasons" and then the dedication chapel. 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.

Adding to the similarities between the sun temples and particularly the Old Kingdom pyramid complexes, just outside the temple were found a large brick built model of a 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.

The Sun Temple of Userkaf

Userkaf's sun temple is actually about half way between Abusir and Niuserre's sun temple, and is generally referred to as being at Abusir. Yet, his pyramid was located at Saqqara, while most 5th Dynasty kings built theirs at Abusir. It was excavated by Herbert Ricke and Gerhard Haeny in the mid 1950s. Like Niuserre's complex, it sits atop a promontory on the desert's edge. Userkaf's complex is not only the oldest of these two, but was the first of any built and was probably the first royal structure built at Abusir. If there is a precedence to his temple, it might be the 4th Dynasty Great Sphinx Temple at Giza, which appears to haven been dedicated to the sun god and may have involved ritualistic activity similar to that carried out in the 5th Dynasty sun temples. This sun temple is also in a much more ruined state then Niuserre's complex. Furthermore, because of this king's short reign, it was not finished during his lifetime.

Iamge in the Sun Temple of Userkaf

It had the same components as Niuserre's temple, including a valley temple, and upper temple. However, the valley temple was more complex, and appears to have served multiple purposes because within it were at least five ritual chapels and in front of these was an open sixteen pillared courtyard. To an extent, this is very similar to the courtyard and chapel of many pyramids, where a pillared courtyard sits in front of a chapel with five statue niches. There may have been an entrance hall with annexes, but the ruins were such that this part of the temple could not be determined.

The valley temple was surrounded on the sides and back by an enclosure wall that opened on its southwest corner into the causeway. Lehner suggests that oxen may have been led into this area from the open area to the northeast and then funneled down the central lane of the causeway to the upper temple.

The causeway was divided into three lanes by low, thin mudbrick walls. The center lane was rather broad, while the two outside lanes were narrow. Curiously, the causeway was offset from the valley temple and both seem to have been oriented towards Heliopolis. This also relates to the 5th dynasty pyramids at Abusir, several of which together formed a line pointing to Heliopolis, as do the pyramid's at Giza. Ronald Wells believes that the temple may have also been aligned with certain stars that rose from the horizon around 2400 BC. If true, this might also mean that Userkaf's valley temple acted as an astronomical clock for the sacrifices which were made at dawn.

Archaeologists believe that the upper temple was probably built in stages. Originally, rather then an obelisk, it may have had a mast on a raised mound surrounded by a rectangular wall, not unlike the sacred structure at Hierakonpolis, known in ancient Egypt as Nekhen. In fact, the name of Userkaf's complex is Nekhen-re, which means "Stronghold of Re". Hence, it may have been linked in name, form and orientation to the solar Heliopolitan cult of the Old Kingdom.

Three Phases of the Ground plan of the Sun Temple of Userkaf

The upper temple apparently went through four more building phases, some beginning before the previous project was completed. This work was not all performed under the direction of Userkaf. Both Neferirkare and Niuserre appear to have added to the temple, if not others.

In the second phase of construction, Neferirkare erected the granite obelisk. The pedestal clad in quartzite and granite replaced the temple's central mound. It had a winding corridor that led to the roof of the pedestal, and a sacristy. In phase three, the enclosure and the area around the obelisk were completely rebuilt, with additions of an inner enclosure wall and chambers of limestone that had not been completely dressed by the start of phase four work. In phase four, the exterior surfaces were dressed in plastered mudbrick.

In phase five, a mudbrick altar was added to the east side of the pedestal, though there were probably altars prior to this. If animals were slaughtered for sacrifice, there was nevertheless no burnt areas on the altar, even though the Palermo Stone mentions that two Oxen and Two Geese were sacrificed daily in Userkaf's sun temple. The altar was surrounded by a curiously diminutive enclosure wall. In front of the altar (east) and to either side of it were stall like niches.

To the east (towards the front of the temple) of the alter were five benches, or low tables made of mud and broken stone. Ricke thought they were for setting out offerings, or perhaps benches for priests. Priests and laborers were traditionally organized into five phyles and within one of the benches was found a stele labeled Wer ("great") phyle, which might be compelling evidence that the benches were used by priests.






Reference Number

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