Egypt: History - Pharaonic Dynasty IV (Fourth Dynasty)

Fourth Dynasty

Of contemporary remains of Dynasty III, there is nothing more to record save some blocks of a temple built by Djoser at Heliopolis, so that we may now pass to the period which marked the apogee of Egyptian history. If its five great pyramids were all that the Fourth Dynasty had to show by way of accomplishment, these would still have to be viewed as a manifestation of purposeful power and technical genius unsurpassed in any age or clime. The excavations of the last sixty years have brought about an important modification in our conception of a pyramid. So far from this being merely a self-sufficient geometrically shaped tumulus of masonry raised above a royal burial, or, to define it more exactly, a gigantic tomb having a square base and four equal triangular sides meeting at the apex. It now appears rather as the culminating point of a vast funerary area comprising, apart from the pyramid itself, three distinct parts. First, near the desert edge and overlooking the cultivation so as to be accessible by boat in the Inundation season, there was regularly a Valley Chapel of modest, though none the less stately, proportions. Thence a walled-in Causeway often exceeding a quarter of a mile in length led upwards to the Funerary Temple proper, this abutting directly on to the east side of the pyramid, where a 'false door' or stela recessed so as to imitate a doorway enabled the deceased monarch to emerge in order to partake of the lavish fare from the many estates attached to the funerary foundation. The walls of all three elements were apt to be adorned with reliefs and inscriptions illustrating the various activities of the estates, the achievements of the Pharaoh, and the daily and festival ritual celebrated in his honor. Smaller pyramids close to his own were the burial-places of his wives and daughters. The pyramid shape was definitely the prerogative of royalty, both in size and in outward aspect contrasting vividly with the flat-topped mastabas of the related princes, courtiers, and officials which clustered around, and were apt to be laid out in orderly streets like those of a well-planned town. No visual symbol could have better conveyed the awe-inspiring relationship between an all-powerful monarch habitually described as ntr 'the great god' or ntr nfr 'the goodly god' and those who were at once his servants and his worshippers. A feature that has come into increasingly prominence of late is the presence on several sides of the pyramid of a full-sized wooden boat lying within a special roofed-over trench of its own. Examples of such boats have now been found as early as Dynasty I, and they have often been supposed to enable the king to travel across the sky in the train of the sun-god, but since they are found facing towards all four points of the compass, it is probable that they were intended simply to enable the pyramid-owner to voyage wherever he desired, even as he did while living upon earth.

Manetho's Dynasty IV starts with a king whose name is corruptly given as Soris. By this must be meant Snofru, already referred to as the successor of Huni. Since his wife, of whom more hereafter, bore the title 'Daughter of the God' it has been supposed that Huni was her father and that Snofru owed his throne to this connection. However that may be, the importance of what has survived of his activities, as well as the fact of his later deification at the turquoise mines of Sinai, makes it natural to think of him as the initiator of a new era. By a lucky chance the Palermo Stone together with the large Cairo fragment has preserved records of six of his twenty-four or more years of reign; besides the building of many ships and the making of doors and statues for his palace there are recalled a campaign against a Nubian land whence he is asserted to have brought back 7,000 captives and 200,000 head of cattle, and another campaign against the Tjehnyu Libyans which yielded very substantial, although smaller, booty. Even more interesting is the already mentioned arrival, doubtless from Byblos at the foot of the Lebanon, of forty vessels laden with cedar-wood. Any other achievements of the kind that there may have been would, however, doubtless pale against the mighty memorials of himself still to be seen at Dahshur, 4 miles south of Saqqara. It cannot but seem extraordinary that one and the same king should have built for himself two pyramids of vast dimensions at no great distance from one another, but the fact is vouched for by a decree of the time of Piopi I exempting their personnel from certain services to which less fortunate subjects of the Pharaoh were liable. The stele bearing this decree was found in what may well have been the Valley Chapel of the Northern Stone Pyramid of Dahshur, which therefore almost certainly belongs to Snofru. Recent excavations have proved that the second stone pyramid 2 miles farther south likewise belonged to him, and since it is hard to imagine that he erected three pyramids, the one at Maidum is now tentatively ascribed to Huni, though Snofru may have been responsible for its completion. The balance of evidence, however, seems to point to the unpalatable conclusion that Snofru did possess three pyramids. The southern of the two Dahshur pyramids is known as the Bent or Rhomboidal Pyramid on account of the conspicuously lower angle of its upper half. Its northern neighbor displays practically the same decrease throughout its whole slope, and consequently may be the later of the two. Both exceed 310 feet in height, and internally show the further resemblance of possessing very lofty corbelled burial-chambers. The excavations by Ahmed Fakhry at the Bent Pyramid have brought to light in its Valley Chapel admirable reliefs depicting female offering-bearers personifying Snofru's funerary estates in the various nomes of Upper Egypt, these presented in the order that subsequently became stereotyped. There had also been a Lower Egyptian series, but of this only a tiny scrap has been preserved. These scenes are of great importance as showing that already at this early date there had come into existence the broad administrative pattern which was to survive right down into Graeco-Roman times.

Snofru left behind him the reputation of an ideally beneficent and good-humored monarch. After him the line of pyramids moved north to Giza almost opposite Cairo, and with only a single exception they move consistently southwards. To describe the Giza pyramids as among the Seven Wonders of the World might even seem an understatement, since the Great Pyramid surpasses in bulk every building known to have been raised by the enterprise of man, its height (481 ft.) being exceeded in monuments made entirely of stone only by the tower of Ulm Cathedral. As already mentioned, the names of the creators of the three architectural giants stretching diagonally across the desert plateau at Giza are given by Herodotus as Cheops, Chephren, and Mycerinus respectively, and though in these forms they are far from correct, their familiarity justifies their continued use. The Great Pyramid has been described elsewhere so fully and so well that no more need here be said than that its internal arrangements exhibit two complete changes of plan, the last of which involved the construction of the marvelous Grand Gallery slanting upwards to the actual burial-place, a stately hall of granite now known as the King's Chamber. Three small pyramids at the base of the eastern side were destined for the royal builder's wives, while large mastabas in front of these were reserved for his principal sons. The funerary temple is now completely destroyed, but some blocks with sculptured reliefs are believed to have come from the causeway. Little is known of the author's career apart from this material testimony to his autocratic power. His cartouche, giving the name Khufwey or more fully Khnomkhufwey, is found in various quarries, in the tombs of his kinsfolk and his nobles, and in certain writings of later date. But among these many mentions no contemporary record can claim genuine historical value except that connected with the burial of his mother Hetephras. In February 1925 the Harvard expedition directed by Dr. Reisner was investigating the area immediately in front of the east side of the Great Pyramid when it hit upon the carefully concealed entrance to a tomb-shaft at the bottom of which was discovered the collapsed, but entire, burial outfit of this wife of Snofru and mother of Khufwey. The reconstruction of the furniture required many years of patient effort, but the result was the acquisition by the Cairo Museum of a collection of objects unrivaled for their chaste beauty and lovely proportions . This is not the place to expatiate upon the gold-cased and inlaid bed, carrying-chair, curtain box, and other treasures of this unique find, but we need to dwell a little upon the enigma which it presents. Though the wrapped viscera of the queen were found stored away in an alabaster box of the kind already at this period sometimes used for the purpose, not a trace of her mummified body was to be seen when the lid of the sarcophagus was raised. The dark romance reconstructed by Reisner to explain so strange a circumstance must be read in his own words. All that seems appropriate to be said in the present statement of facts being that there had clearly been a reburial carried out with the utmost secrecy and in such a way as to guard against any further molestation. It must be added that the family relationships of Khufwey's wives and children have been reconstructed by Reisner and his assistant Stevenson Smith with the utmost skill and ingenuity, but are too speculative to be discussed here. Nor is there any sound criterion upon which to base a decision as to Khufwey's length of reign. This the Turin Canon states as Twenty-three years, while Manetho, perhaps only guessing, accords to him no less than sixty-three.

The like may well apply to the sixty-six years which Manetho allows to Khufwey's second successor, the builder of the Second Pyramid. We have seen that the name given to him by Herodotus was Chephren. On the strength of this Egyptologists have been generally agreed to read his cartouche a Kha'fre', but not long ago Ranke produced strong reasons for inverting the two elements of the compound name and for reading it as Ra'kha'ef. If this be correct, we must suppose that the true pronunciation was later forgotten and replaced by another reflecting the written order of the two elements. Since, however, Ranke's surmise has not yet received the hall-mark of Egyptological acceptance, it is best to adhere to the time-honored appellation Chephren. The magnitude of Chephren's achievement as a pyramid-builder has been unduly over-shadowed by that of his father Khufwey, since alike in area and in height there is no great difference between their two monuments, and owing to the Second Pyramid's position on higher ground it actually appears the larger. The broken sarcophagus of polished granite still stands in its place in the burial-chamber, but the robbers left no trace of its original occupant. Substantial remains of the three parts of a normal pyramid establishment are still to be seen. The outstanding feature in Chephren's Funerary Temple is the immense size of the limestone blocks used in its construction, larger than any elsewhere known from Ancient Egypt. Whatever sculptured reliefs there may have been here and in the Causeway have perished, save perhaps one or two fragments. Neither have any been found in the Valley Chapel, where such decoration could only have detracted from the beauty of the plain red granite walls. As it still survives, this Valley Chapel , formerly miscalled the Temple of the Sphinx, is among the most awe-inspiring sights of the Giza area. The spacious halls with their austere square pillars reflect the simple, but for that reason all the more impressive, aesthetic standards of those early times. Here too, among other statues of Chephren, was found that marvelous diorite figure which is surely among the greatest masterpieces of statuary that have survived for antiquity.

Immediately to the north-east is the Sphinx, in the popular fancy of all ages the embodiment of unsolved mystery and recondite truth. Now that this colossal image of a human-headed lion has been completely disengaged from the surrounding sand, much of its cryptic charm has disappeared. But the riddle of its origin remains. The most probable view seems to be that it was fashioned by Chephren out of the knoll of rock close to his Causeway and so conveniently inviting portrayal of himself in the combined aspect of a man and a lion. The model doubtless did not start with him, and was fated to become a commonplace not only of Egyptian architectural adornment, but also as a decorative motif throughout the entire world. The Egyptians themselves were not interested in the historical origin of this particular specimen. For them the Giza Sphinx was a god whom they named Har-em-akhe 'Horus in the horizon', in Greek Harmachis. But it is certain that it was also regarded as a likeness of the king. There is much plausibility in the late Professor Gunn's suggestion that the word ssp'nh 'living image', a phrase properly requiring the addition 'of the Lord of the Universe' or 'of (the god) Atum' that is sometimes found. It is strange that Herodotus completely ignored the Sphinx, and that Pliny was the only classical author to mention it.

Concerning the events of Chephren's reign there is no more to be told than in the case of Cheops. The tradition preserved by Herodotus that both these kings were cruel and impious tyrants was perhaps only a deduction from the immense labors that they imposed upon their unfortunate subjects. The lie is given to the charge of impiety by large granite blocks from Mubastis bearing their names and evidently belonging to a temple. The reigns of the two kings were separated from one another by that of RA'djedef, whose tenure of the throne lasted only eight years. For some mysterious reason he selected for his pyramid a site a few miles to the north-west of Giza, and there, at Abu Roash, its unfinished remains have been excavated. Another short reign or even two may have intervened between Chephren and Mycerinus, if the figure of 18 (or 28?) years in the Turin Canon is to be assigned to the latter. To Mycerinus or Menkaure', to give his name a pronunciation in better accord with the hieroglyphic writing, belongs the Third Pyramid at Giza, a much smaller structure which would have vied with its gigantic neighbors in magnificence if the plan of coating the whole of it in red granite could have been carried out. The work was, however, left unfinished, and the use of crude brick for much of the Causeway and the Valley Chapel bears witness to its owner's unexpected demise. There is no means of telling how this came about, nor is it possible to say what credence should be given to Herodotus's statement that Mycerinus was a pious and beneficent king, in glaring contrast to his two great predecessors. The thoroughgoing investigation of his pyramid site by Reisner and his assistants was rewarded by the discovery of much splendid statuary. Of this perhaps the finest piece is the life-size slate group of Mycerinus and his queen which is among the principal treasures of the Boston Museum. There was also a series of much smaller slate triads representing Mycerinus between the goddess Hathor and one or other of the deities of the nomes; of these there may originally have been as many as forty-two, but only four have survived intact.

After Mycerinus the fortunes of the dynasty rapidly fell to pieces. His pyramid was hastily completed and equipped by Shepseskaf, the only other king of Dynasty IV recognized as legitimate by contemporaries and the Table of Abydos, though the Saqqara king-list added three more whose names are lost and consequently cannot be checked with those given by Manetho. That something went amiss about this time is suggested by the fact that Shepseskaf chose South Saqqara as his burial-ground and caused to be built there for himself, not a pyramid, but a tomb shaped, except for its sloping walls, like a typical sarcophagus of the period with beveled roof and straight upstanding ends. This tomb, known to natives of the district as the Mastabat el-Fara'un, was shortly afterwards imitated at Giza in a monument sometimes called the Unfinished or Fourth Pyramid. Excavations have shown that this monument between the causeways of Chephren and Mycerinus belonged to a King's Mother named Khantkawes whose cult was assiduously kept up throughout Dynasty V. Controversy has arisen over the inscription upon her huge false door, Junker believing it to show that she actually arrogated to herself the title 'King of Upper and Lower Egypt', a claim made by only three other women throughout the entire course of Egyptian history. There is, however, an alternative translation which is philological tenable, and which describes her as the mother of two kings, not only of one. In any case, it seems agreed that Khantkawes was the ancestress of Dynasty V, though that opinion is in conflict with the tradition preserved in a story of the late Middle Kingdom, according to which the first three kings of Dynasty V were the triplet sons of the wife of a simple priest of Re' in the Delta town of Sakhebu.

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Last Updated: June 20th, 2011