Saqqara, pyramids of the 5th and 6th Dynasties To Saqqara, Serapeum and animal necropolis (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)

Saqqara, pyramids of the 5th and 6th Dynasties

Like their predecessors in the 4th Dynasty, the kings of the 5th Dynasty espoused the solar theology, symbolized in the form of the pyramid. For their burials, they too built pyramids on the limestone plateau to the west of the Nile but south of Giza. The pyramid of Weserkaf, the first king of the 5th Dynasty, is at Saqqara (29°50′ N, 31°13′ E), near the famous Step Pyramid of Zoser (beginning of the 3rd Dynasty) that inaugurated large-scale building in stone. However, Weserkaf’s successors, Sahure, Neferirkare, Neferefre and Nyusserre, built their funerary monuments at Abusir, halfway between Giza and Saqqara and not far from their sun temples. Today their pyramids are in ruin, having lost most of their limestone casing stones. It was not until late in the 5th Dynasty that Djedkare-Isesi and Unas, the last king of this dynasty, brought royal tomb building back to Saqqara.

Djedkare-Isesi’s pyramid is in the middle of the necropolis. Its ruins were given the name "Haram el-Shawwaf" ("the watchman’s pyramid") because they are located at the edge of the valley. After the Second World War, the Egyptian Antiquities Organization (EAO) began but unfortunately never finished or published the excavations of this pyramid complex.

"Complex" is the correct term because each of the pyramids is only a part of a group of structures, including a "valley temple," a walled causeway ascending the plateau, and a mortuary temple, just to the east of the pyramid, with outer and inner areas. The outer temple included a vast court, paved with alabaster and surrounded by pillars with granite bases, and large storerooms for the temple’s provisions and equipment. A stairway led to an upper story.

Two cubits (slightly longer than 1m) above the level of the outer temple was the inner one, with the chamber of the "five niches," or small chapels, each containing a statue.

Behind these was a complex passage of corridors and chambers which led to the "offering chamber," just in front of the pyramid. Next to the pyramid’s base was an enormous, upright, granite stela. To the north and south of the offering room were narrow deep storerooms, each with a second story. At the southeast corner of the pyramid, and inside a thick wall that surrounded it and the mortuary temple, was a much smaller pyramid, the function of which is greatly disputed. The existence of two pyramids is perhaps a vestige of the double burial, symbolic of the double nature of the king, who was Lord of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Such an arrangement is seen in the pattern setting design of Unas’s pyramid complex, and the later complexes of a sequence of kings of the 6th Dynasty: Teti, Pepi I, Merenre and Pepi II. Since antiquity all of these pyramids and their mortuary temples have suffered intense damage and their designs have only been determined after long and difficult investigations. In the early nineteenth century, when the French Egyptologist Jean-Frangois Champollion was working at Saqqara, the entire plateau was nothing but a great expanse of sand, stones and pebbles. The temples had been a source of building blocks for the stone masons who built Islamic Cairo across the river and the pyramids were barely recognizable as mounds.

The French Archaeological Mission at Saqqara has only recently begun to study the mortuary temples of Unas and Teti. The French also oversaw the excavation of the vast temple of Pepi I, which took twenty years of fieldwork and is still being published, and the temple of Merenre, which still requires more investigations. In the 1930s, the Swiss archaeologist Gustave Jequier explored and published the mortuary temple of Pepi II, the last ruler of the 6th Dynasty, to the south of Saqqara.

Near the kings’ pyramids are the tombs of their principal queens. The rectangular superstructures (mastabas) under which Unas’s queens, Nebet and Khenut, are buried, although simple, contain chambers richly decorated in relief. They were discovered long ago, but their publications are only appearing now. King Teti’s two queens, Khuit and Apuit I, each had a small tomb complex. The outlines of these were uncovered at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and they are now being investigated by a joint Franco-Egyptian mission (directed by A.Labrousse). In the area of Pepi I’s complex, excavations on the south side of the king’s pyramid have been in progress for a decade, and five other pyramids have been located. These have revealed the names of two queens, Nubunet and Inenek/Inti, who were previously unknown. In the course of his research in the 1930s, Jequier discovered the tombs of three of Pepi II’s wives: Neith, Apuit II and Udjebten.

Beginning with the pyramid of Unas and those of the kings of the 6th Dynasty, funerary texts known as the Pyramid Texts are inscribed on the walls of the royal burial chambers. The discovery of these texts, and the recognition of their fundamental interest to the study of Egyptian religion, are the accomplishments of the French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero. When he had just arrived in Egypt in 1882, bedouin showed him some fragmentary inscriptions, which he believed were hieroglyphs from the royal pyramids. The severely ailing Director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, Auguste Mariette, proclaimed that such finds were impossible, but a few hours before his death he finally admitted that this discovery was genuine.

Because of the destruction of the burial chambers in the pyramids with texts, Maspero could proceed only by hasty and incomplete excavations. In spite of the difficulties, he copied the accessible inscriptions of Unas, Teti, Pepi I, Merenre and Pepi II. He then quickly edited the texts, published them in one volume in 1894, and fearlessly offered a translation. Considering that he was without any of the references that now facilitate translation, his performance was amazing. With Maspero’s rubbings, Kurt Sethe, a major German Egyptologist, was then able in 1908 to publish the Pyramid Texts. Within a system of topics grouping sequences of paragraphs, he arranged in parallel the versions of texts from the five pyramids then known and produced a translation with copious commentary. Sethe’s publication of the Pyramid Texts is still used today.

During his research in the 1930s, Jequier excavated Pepi II’s burial chamber and passageway, and discovered many additional texts. He also found the nearby tombs of three queens, which contained still more. As a result Pierre Lacau, who was Director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service for many years, decided in the 1950s to reopen the excavations of Teti’s pyramid. Jean-Philippe Lauer and J.Sainte-Fare Garnot found more fragmentary texts, but the political difficulties of the period hindered their work.

In 1963 Jean Leclant resumed the work at Saqqara, with the help of the newly formed French Archaeological Mission to Saqqara. In 1966, the systematic unearthing of Pepi I’s burial chamber and passageway was undertaken. During five excavation seasons, thousands of blocks were discovered which yielded new texts. The same kind of fieldwork was conducted inside the pyramid of Merenre. In all the pyramids it was necessary to fortify the enormous blocks, especially those covering the burial chambers. The fragmentary texts had to be catalogued, copied and photographed, and then pieced together. The publication of this epigraphic material is now in progress.

The results considerably advance our knowledge of Egyptian writing. On the whole the signs are very clearly engraved, particularly the ones from the pyramid of Pepi I, which are painted in a striking green made of ground malachite and gum arabic. This is the color known in Egyptian as wadj, symbolic of renewal and germination.

The Pyramid Texts are concerned with the king’s survival in the afterlife. In all of these inscriptions, however, there is no historical information about any of the kings. The auspicious formula of resurrection, "No, you were not dead when you departed, O King; you were alive when you departed," is systematically found engraved on the feet of the kings’ sarcophagi. The king could be reborn like the god Osiris, but he could also follow the sun’s daily course, or perhaps join the movements of the circumpolar stars which turn forever around the world’s axis.

Because of the recent studies of these 6th Dynasty kings and queens, their mortuary temples and the interiors of their tombs, we now have a better understanding of the religion of the late Old Kingdom.

Saqqara, pyramids of the 13 th Dynasty

Only a few funerary complexes are known for the many kings of the 13th Dynasty, most of whom seem to have been ephemeral. Apart from the royal tombs at Mazghuna and two smaller structures in the Dahshur region, the most important pyramid complexes of that time are found at South Saqqara (29°50′ N, 31°13′ E), approximately 1km southeast of the 4th Dynasty tomb of King Shepseskaf, known as the "Mastaba Faraun." When Richard Lepsius visited the site during his expedition in the early 1840s, he already suspected that the mounds of limestone chips covering the desert surface might be the remains of pyramids, but it was not until 1929 that Gustave Jequier began excavations, which continued until 1931.

Jequier uncovered the remains of two royal funerary complexes some 80m apart. The smaller northern one belonged to the seventeenth king of the 13th Dynasty, Weserkare Khendjer. His name appears on several fragments of relief from the pyramid’s mortuary temple as well as on the pyramidion, which was found smashed in the debris on the north side of the pyramid and is now displayed in the Cairo Museum.

Despite the deplorable state of Khendjer’s pyramid complex, Jequier was able to determine its plan, which generally follows the traditions of the 12th Dynasty pyramids. The pyramid measures circa 52m (100 cubits) square at the base and consists of a mudbrick core in a limestone casing. It is at the center of the precinct, surrounded by two enclosure walls. A causeway, which seems to have remained unfinished, connected the precinct with a valley temple. The temple should be located at the edge of the cultivation, but it has not yet been found. A reconstruction of the plan of the mortuary temple is not possible as only parts of the sub-foundations and some fragments of relief have been found. Fragments of papyri-form columns found in the debris, however, indicate the existence of a pillared hall or court. In the center of the northern court, a foundation trench and some fragments of reliefs and a false door are evidence of a northern chapel. The entrance to the burial apartment is hidden beneath the casing of the pyramid’s western side. Apart from the fact that the sarcophagus is cut from a single block of quartzite, which entirely occupies the burial chamber as in other 13th Dynasty pyramids, the general plan is similar to the innovative design of the burial apartment of Amenemhat III’s pyramid at Hawara (12th Dynasty).

The function of the small pyramid found in the northeastern corner of the outer court remains obscure. It contains two burial chambers with quartzite sarcophagi which were found open and apparently unused, although the blocking stones (portcullises) of the corridor were in place. It is not possible to determine whether the pyramid was intended for burials of members of the royal family or as the ka pyramid (for the king’s ka).

With a base length of more than 90m, the southern pyramid at South Saqqara is almost double the size of its northern neighbor and closely corresponds in size to the 12 th Dynasty pyramids. Unfortunately, the whole complex remained unfinished and the owner is unknown. The complex is generally dated to the 13th Dynasty, but there is no evidence to ascribe it to a certain king. No remains of a causeway, mortuary temple or northern chapel were found. The pyramid consists of the usual mudbrick core with limestone casing, but it was only surrounded by a single sinuous wall, which was probably intended to be replaced by another enclosure. Apart from slight differences in the arrangement of the corridor, the burial apartment differs only slightly from that in the pyramid of Khendjer. The most surprising change is the existence of a second burial chamber, which opens from the north wall of the antechamber. This secondary burial chamber was probably intended for a member of the royal family, but its sarcophagus was found open and apparently was never used.

Saqqara, Serapeum and animal necropolis

The sacred animal necropolis at Saqqara comprises several separate sites, the best documented of which lie in two groups: (1) north of the Step Pyramid of Zoser, and (2) east of the pyramids of Teti and Weserkaf. The first group includes the Serapeum (burials of the Apis bulls), the tombs of the Isis cows (mothers of Apis bulls) with the adjacent catacombs of ibises and baboons of Thoth, and falcons of Horus. The second group contains the burials of cats of Bastet and dogs/jackals of Anubis in the escarpment overlooking the Nile Valley at the site of the city of Memphis. Each of these burial sites was an important element in a temple complex dedicated to the deity for whom the particular creature was a symbol. Papyri and ostraca speak of a Memphite cult of the Ram of Mendes, whose undiscovered burials must be at Saqqara; rams’ horns found north of the Serapeum and at the unfinished funerary complex of Sekhemkhet may indicate the site. A cemetery of lions is also mentioned in a papyrus from the same area. At South Saqqara, snake burials found near the pyramid of Djedkare-Isesi remain an isolated discovery in that area, indicating that animal cemeteries are not restricted to the most thoroughly explored region of the Memphite necropolis.

In 1851, Auguste Mariette began digging at Saqqara with the express purpose of finding the Serapeum, known at that time only from the classical writers. Inspired by Strabo’s description of the dromos lined with sphinxes buried in sand, Mariette proceeded to uncover the processional way leading from Memphis, across the desert from the east, to the entrance of the underground burial vaults of the Apis bulls. The importance of Mariette’s discovery of the Serapeum was immediately recognized and continues to influence research. He had found a monument that had played a major role in the religious life not only of Memphis, but of all Egypt and much of the Hellenistic world. The quantity of portable finds retrieved, statues, inscribed stonework, bronzes and stelae was extraordinary. Most went to the Louvre in two ships sent from France specifically to transport them; much of this important material still remains unpublished.

Map of the sacred animal necropolis, Saqqara

Figure 100 Map of the sacred animal necropolis, Saqqara

Of the objects Mariette recovered, the Serapeum stelae comprise the single most important group. Many are simple, humble petitions from workmen and minor officials involved with the burial procedures for the bulls, while others are royal monuments dated by the contemporary rulers’ names. The latter frequently provide a dated account of a bull’s birth, installation in the temple of Ptah at Memphis, its life, death and burial. The stelae attest to deep personal devotion, to royal patronage and to the scale of the funerary rites observed for the Apis bulls, especially from the Late period onward, when the god was laid to rest accompanied by national mourning. Together, the stelae form one of the most important archives of historical and social documents recovered from Egypt, being an almost continuous literary record from one place spanning over a millennium from the reign of Ramesses II to the end of the Ptolemaic period.

In 1965 Walter B.Emery, working among the Archaic and Old Kingdom mastabas of North Saqqara, found the catacombs containing the remains of the cows (mothers of Apis bulls), the ibises, falcons and baboons, together with the 30th Dynasty temple terraces and shrines that stood before them. More recently Alain Zivie, investigating New Kingdom rock tombs in the escarpment facing the remains of the Bubasteion (temple of Bastet) on the east edge of the Saqqara plateau, found thousands of mummified cats which had been buried there in later times.

The underground burial chambers of the Apis bulls developed in three stages: (1) individual tombs; (2) galleries known as the Lesser Vaults; and then (3) the Greater Vaults. The earliest burials were in isolated tombs with decorated chapels above. Eight burials are known from the reign of Amenhotep III to year 30 of Ramesses II. The last was a double interment with the previously deceased bull which had died in year 16 of Ramesses II. This tomb contained the only Apis burial to have survived unplundered from antiquity. In it, Mariette found two massive black wooden sarcophagi with gilded designs. Inside each was a bituminous lump containing fragmentary bones without any trace of a head. Gold jewelry among the contents bearing the names of Ramesses II and his son Prince Khaemwaset attest to their integrity.

In year 55 of Ramesses II the Lesser Vaults were begun, remaining in use until the reign of Psamtik I. This was a subterranean gallery which grew in size as burials were made in specially cut niches on either side of the corridor. They contained wooden sarcophagi datable mainly from the stelae found in the niches and carved on the walls, from Ramesses II to Ramesses IX, and from Osorkon II to Psamtik I. No burials of the 21st and early 22nd Dynasties have been identified. In the center of the Lesser Vaults, the ceiling collapsed in antiquity. Beneath the rock blocking the corridor lay the burial of Prince Khaemwaset comprising the lower part of his gilded coffin containing an intact mummy wearing a gold mask and various items of jewelry, with shawabtis and a collection of human-headed statuettes inscribed for Osiris-Apis. The presence of the prince’s burial inside the Serapeum vault has never been satisfactorily explained. It is possible, however, that as the gallery was progressively enlarged, laborers accidentally broke into the burial chamber of Khaemwaset’s tomb. The resulting weakness of the already brittle rock could have caused the roof to fall. Nevertheless, there was a special association between Khaemwaset and Apis. A large granite stela of Khaemwaset was found at the entrance to the Serapeum.

The Greater Vaults of the Serapeum were inaugurated with an Apis burial in year 52 of Psamtik I (612 BC), possibly coinciding with new buildings at the precinct of Apis in Memphis. These galleries lead off the Lesser Vaults, but are executed on a grander scale; this is the part of the Serapeum now accessible to visitors. On either side of a long corridor a total of twenty-eight burial niches were excavated, of which twenty-four contain a granite or basalt sarcophagus. All had been opened and their contents destroyed in antiquity. One sarcophagus remains today in a side passage where it was abandoned during its installation; a lid, from burial 41, inscribed for an Apis bull under Amasis, was found just inside the entrance corridor. Only two sarcophagi bear datable inscriptions, that of Amasis and another of year 2 of Khababash (circa 336 BC), which by its small size appears to have contained a calf. According to the stelae, the Greater Vaults were in use until the end of the Ptolemaic period, probably the reign of Cleopatra VII.

The Serapeum Way did not come into use until about the 26th Dynasty. It scaled the desert escarpment overlooking the Nile Valley, perhaps by means of stairs or a causeway, and passed by the earlier tombs north of the pyramids of Teti and Weserkaf, arriving finally at the Serapeum. In the 30th Dynasty this route was lined with the 134 limestone sphinxes found by Mariette. Under both Nectanebo I and II an impressive new funerary temple was built in an enclosure around the entrance to the underground Serapeum vaults, now known as Ka-Kome, possibly replacing a 26th Dynasty structure. The temple pylon was guarded by a pair of limestone lions. A quartzite stela of Nectanebo II, found reused in the monastery of Apa Jeremias, records his official generosity to Apis.

Under the Ptolemies the final stretch of the Serapeum Way contained a hemicycle of eleven Hellenistic statues of Greek philosophers and writers. The avenue led thence directly to the temple enclosure between statues of Dionysos riding a lion, Dionysos riding a Cerberus, peacocks draped with bunches of grapes and Hellenistic female sphinxes. A similar temple dromos was found at Medinet Madi in the Fayum. Explicit imagery of Dionysos demonstrates the European identification of the Egyptian Osiris cult, with whom Apis had become closely connected, with the mysteries of Dionysos, as recorded by Herodotus.

The sacred animal cults enjoyed their greatest popularity in the Saite period (26th Dynasty) and later. There is evidence that during the second Persian period the sacred animal cults may have suffered from neglect or even aggression. The extensive building program of Ptolemy I and II in the Serapeum area and Anubieion suggests that the 30th Dynasty structures had either been left unfinished or had been damaged. No burial of a mother of Apis is recorded between year 9 of Nectanebo II (351 BC) and year 3 of Alexander the Great (329 BC). Furthermore, a cache of broken and burnt temple equipment dating from the 18th to 30th Dynasties discovered outside the north wall of the sacred animal necropolis temple precinct may indicate the ravages of this period.

With the Ptolemaic revival burials resumed. The mothers of Apis bulls were interred continuously down to year 11 of Cleopatra VII (40 BC); the smaller animals and bird burials numbered millions. An important deposit of Demotic ostraca known as the "Archive of Hor [a priest of Sebennytos]" was found in front of the new ibis galleries. Hor addresses Ptolemy VI about the mismanagement of the ibis cult. In order to establish his credentials, Hor relates his gift for interpreting dreams, including one foretelling the withdrawal from Egypt of the Seleucid Antiochus IV on July 30, 168 BC. Other valuable historical information includes the embassy of Noumenios to Rome and the proclamation of Philometor’s son, Ptolemy Eupator, as crown prince in October, 158 BC.

The sacred precincts supported a vast community of workers and attendants. These included the shrine openers (pastophoroi) and dream interpreters (oneirokritai), and the writers of oracle petitions, astrologers and magicians, for which Egypt became increasingly famous. Others were the katochoi, people who were summoned by Apis to remain in his service within the temple where they would dedicate themselves to divine contemplation in seclusion, often for many years, until they experienced the god’s release. There were also facilities for housing pilgrims (katalumata), possibly represented by mudbrick buildings unearthed north of the Serapeum.

Plan of the Serapeum, Saqqara

Figure 101 Plan of the Serapeum, Saqqara

For the devotees who came in such numbers to dedicate mummified creatures, the significance of the sacred animal cults may be partly reconstructed from the discovery of numerous votive phallic figurines, which combine representations of Bes and Harpocrates. Large numbers came from the courts of the sacred animal necropolis. They may be associated with a procession in which a phallic image of Osiris was paraded. A close connection emerges between the animal cults (really animal burial cults) and concerns about procreation, generation and regeneration in which funerary rituals played a major part. Chambers lined with figures of Bes molded in plaster on the walls were found in the Anubis enclosure, adjacent to the mortuary temple of the pyramid of Teti. They may have been incubation cells where pilgrims would spend the night hoping to experience healing dreams; numerous phallic figurines were also found there.

Archaeological excavation has revealed only part of the complex remains of this phase of the history of Saqqara. It is known, for example, that the Serapeum Way entered the temple area through the Anubieion. However, it has so far proved impossible to trace its course farther east, to link the necropolis with the temple of Ptah and the Apis precinct in Memphis, which lie a considerable distance south of the Anubieion. Furthermore, Apis burials predating the reign of Amenhotep III may await discovery near the Serapeum.

Other animal cemeteries may even be present beneath the unexplored sands between the New Kingdom necropolis south of the pyramid of Unas and the pyramids of South Saqqara.

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