Egypt: Unas, Last Ruler of the Fifth Dynasty

Unas, Last Ruler of the Fifth Dynasty

by Jimmy Dunn

Unas was the last king of the 5th Dynasty, and what some believe to be the end of the golden age of the Old Kingdom. The 6th Dynasty would finally be the end of Egypt's grand beginning, as the country would then slip into the troubling First intermediate Period.

Unas had a long rule, but is not well attested and we really know very little about this king despite his fairly well preserved funerary complex at the southwest corner of the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara. Unas was his Birth Name, but he is also referred to as Unis, Ounas and Wenis. His Horus name was Wadj-tawy which means "Horus, the flourishing one of the Two Lands". He probably ruled Egypt between 2375 and 2345 BC and may have been married to two queens named Khenut and Nebit. They were buried in mastaba tombs near Unas' pyramid complex.

We find scenes from his causeway that links his mortuary temple and valley temple depicting the moving by barge of granite columns from the quarries at Aswan to his mortuary temple, but we also find scenes of emaciated people. These latter scenes may show the effects of a famine that might have been the cause of the political decline that ended the Old Kingdom. There are also scenes of Asiatic traders arriving in Egypt by boat, perhaps from Byblos, as well as scenes of markets, hunting in the desert and a small vignette of desert life. We believe that Unas probably pursued a policy of diplomatic contact both with Byblos and Nubia. He also apparently was also responsible for building activities at Elephantine near modern Aswan, as well as Saqqara. At Elephantine, an inscription also shows a giraffe and other exotic animals that were apparently bought to Egypt during his reign. Another drawing found on a discovered vase shows battle scenes during his reign.

Scenes of Emaciated People Possibly Suffering from Famine

Scenes of Exotic Animials

Significantly, while Unas' pyramid is the smallest of the royal pyramids build during the Old Kingdom, it was the first that we know of to have its internal walls inscribed with the various (128) spells making up the Pyramid Text. The texts, meant to aid the pharaoh's soul on its journey to the next world, would adorn the walls of many future pyramids and tombs and is the earliest large religious composition known from ancient Egypt. Unas' pyramid also established the typical plan of the internal chambers for pyramids that would be used through the end of the 6th Dynasty.

In death, King Unas is identified with the gods Ra and Osiris, and referred to as Osiris Unas. E. A. Wallis Budge, in his "The Gods of the Egyptians", also tells us that he was called Unas, the Slayer and Eater of Gods. He was apparently worshipped around Saqqara for many years after his death. Osiris was originally a local deity of the Eastern delta, but sometime around the reign of Unas his worship became much more widespread. We believe Maspero discovered parts of Unas' mummy in 1880, which are now in the Cairo Museum.

We do not believe Unas left an heir, though he may have one time had a son named Ptahshepses, and therefore there was a short period of political instability prior to Teti, the first ruler of the 6th Dynasty, ascent to the throne. Teti's wife, Iput, was possibly a daughter of Unas, and his vizier Kagemni probably also worked under Unas. Furthermore, a pink granite gateway in Unas' mortuary temple bears the inscription of the names and titles of Teti, indicating that part of the temple was completed after Unas's death. This evidence suggests that there may not have been a true break between the 5th and 6th Dynasties.


Title 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
Who Were the Phraohs? (A history of their names with a list of cartouches) Quirke, Stephen 1990 Dover Publications ISBN 0-486-26586-2