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111 | 2012
Annuaire du Collège de France 2010-2011
Résumé des cours et travaux 111e année
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Miroslav Verner
p. 897-900

Texte intégral

The Rise and Decline of a Royal Necropolis

1Until now, it has not been quite clear what were the reasons which once determined the choice of a place for the foundation of a pyramid necropolis: the vicinity of a quarry with adequate building materials, the convenient geological subsoil, the presence of an important religious cult place, or other reasons. One of the most mysterious places in this respect is the pyramid necropolis at Abusir and circumstances of its founding. Recent archaeological and geophysical exploration seems to offer an interesting explanation for this question.

2Though lying in the heart of the pyramid fields, the necropolis of Abusir had for a long time been neglected by Egyptologists, doubtless due to its archaeologically more attractive neighbouring sites of Giza and Saqqara. Abusir was considered to be only a short-lived cemetery with the pyramid complexes of three kings of the Fifth Dynasty – Sahure, Neferirkare and Niuserre – and, moreover, its archaeological potential seemed to have been exhausted by a German expedition’s work among these pyramids at the beginning of the 20th century.

3However, a systematic exploration by the Czech team since the early 1960s, and the use of modern archaeological methods ranging from geoinformatics up to paleoecology, have basically changed the archaeological and historical picture of the Abusir necropolis. A large portion of the Abusir pyramid field, left by the German expedition unexamined, has been explored, including the hitherto unknown pyramid complexes of the King Raneferef, the Queen Khentkaus II and an anonymous 5th Dynasty queen. In addition to that, three large cemeteries of noblemen – one dating from the late Fifth Dynasty, the second from the Third up to the Sixth Dynasties and the third from the late Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period – were archaeologically identified and have been under a systematic, long-standing exploration.

4The first floruit of the Abusir necropolis in the old Kingdom was followed by a break that lasted for nearly two millenia. The discovery by the Czech team of a cemetery with large shaft tombs of high officials dating from the Saite-Persian Period has finally changed the said picture of Abusir. Among these officials was e.g. Udjahorresnet, the famous chancellor of the first Persian rulers of Egypt. Importantly, one of the shaft tombs, Iufaa’s, was discovered unrobbed. These tombs relate to the second floruit of the Abusir necropolis, a period linked with the emergence of the adjacent north-west cemetery in Saqqara as a major religious center of animal cults in Egypt’s later ancient history. At that time, the cemetery in southern Abusir became an integral part of a large Necropolis of Sacred Animals, and its thriving animal cults spread out towards the underground galleries of Serapeum in North Saqqara, the burial ground of sacred bulls Apis that lasted until Graeco-Roman times.

The Royal Family of the Fifth Dynasty

5Due to the shortage of direct evidence, the transition between the Fourth and the Fifth Dynasty presents us with major problems in our efforts to reconstruct the history of the Old Kingdom. The discussion about this period and its protagonists is fraught with a number of theories and speculations and the factual material is either ambiguous or missing. Moreover, discussion concerning the emergence of the Fifth Dynasty has, for a long time, been influenced and, unfortunately, obscured by an important literary source namely, the Papyrus Westcar and its story about the divine birth of the kings of this dynasty.

6Until recently, the aforesaid discussion was also largely influenced by the exploration of the stepped tomb of the Queen Khentkaus I in Giza. In the early 1930s the tomb’s owner, due to her extraordinary title “Mother of two Kings of Upper and Lower Egypt”, was understood to be the “mother” of the Fifth Dynasty. Archaeological explorations in the Abusir necropolis by the Czech archaeological team, and an unexpected discovery of the pyramid of Khentkaus II, however, showed that the problem of the transition between the Fourth and Fifth Dynasty was much more complex than had at first appeared. New and invaluable information relating to this problem brought an unexpected discovery made by an Egyptian archaeological team during the reconstruction of Sahure’s pyramid causeway in Abusir. The previously unknown blocks discovered by the Egyptian team revealed historically important scenes and inscriptions and propelled our knowledge forwards at a remarkable pace. These discoveries have enabled us to reconsider the said problems and suggest a new reconstruction of historical events at the end of the Fourth and the beginning of the Fifth Dynasty.

7Moreover, rich archaeological and epigraphic evidence revealed during the exploration of the pyramid complex of Khentkaus II and, especially, the pyramid complex of Raneferef enable us to tackle some other historical problems pertaining to the Fifth Dynasty. One of these latter concerns the king Shepseskare, the mysterious king of the mid Fifth Dynasty of whom, except for few fragments of clay sealings, no other contemporaneous evidence remained. Very probably, his short-lived reign is inseparably linked with the troubled times which must have followed the unexpectedly early death of Raneferef.

8Another open and often-mentioned question surrounding the Abusir cemetery is related to its decline as a royal necropolis after the end of the reign of Raneferef’s younger brother Niuserre. The latter king’s successors built their pyramid complexes in Saqqara. Was the abandonment of Abusir by these kings motivated by e.g. religious reasons or a conflict within the royal family as suggested by some scholars? To this discussion also the archaeological exploration of Abusir has brought further new ideas.

The Abusir Papyri: an archaeological perspective

9Among the present, rather scant collection of Old Kingdom hieratic documents, the Abusir papyri undoubtedly occupy a very prominent position. At a first sight, these fragmentary records of the Abusir pyramid temple administration and economy might seem without appeal. However, their meaning, especially for ancient Egyptian history, is invaluable. Moreover, the intriguing circumstances of their initial discovery in Neferirkare’s pyramid temple in 1893, and the tricks which fate played upon them make the Abusir papyri an apt subject for a thrilling tale. Eventually, the Abusir papyri ended up in museums in London, Berlin, Paris and also, of course, in Cairo. Nearly a century later, further sets of papyri revealed at Abusir, a small collection found in the pyramid temple of Khentkaus II and a larger one in Raneferef’s pyramid temple, were added to the set discovered in Neferirkare’s pyramid temple. The edition of all these sets of the Abusir papyri we owe to the decades long work of the French scholar Paule Posener-Kriéger.

10Now, after their publication, the Abusir papyri represent a major source of our knowledge about the organization of royal funerary cults in the Old Kingdom pyramid complexes. They inform us about the structure of the funerary priesthood and its division into five basic groups, the so-called phylai, they reveal some of the rosters of priestly duties, religious festivals celebrated in the pyramid complexes, inventory lists of the internal furnishings and equipment of the pyramid complexes and their regular controls, etc. Of particular importance are accounting documents, records on the supplies of various products, royal decrees granting provisions to the different categories of priests and other documents helping us understand the complex redistribution system of that time.

11However, there is yet one very significant and so far underestimated, archaeological aspect of the papyri found to date in Abusir. First of all, some of the documents contain pieces of topographical information referring to different parts of the pyramid complex and their names which enable us better understanding of the meaning and function of these monuments. Some other documents provide us with information about different monuments outside the Abusir necropolis, for instance the Residence and its departments – the major administrative and redistribution center of that time which had not yet been archaeologically identified. Moreover, the Abusir papyri also explicitly mention edifices which once must have existed in both the Abusir necropolis and its vicinity and which have not yet been revealed by archaeology – such as the sun temple of Neferirkare, the “Southern Sanctuary”, the palace “Sahure’s-splendour-soars-to-the-sky”, and others. It is not necessary to emphasize what an enormous archaeological challenge these pieces of evidence represent.

Czech archaeological exploration of the Western Desert

12Under the pressure of increasing threats of plundering, the historical heritage in Egyptian desert areas by robbers using modern technologies, such as GPS navigation systems and heavy-duty off-road vehicles, Egyptian authorities appealed to the international Egyptological community in the year 2000 with a request for help with the exploration and rescue of immediately threatened monuments located in the high desert. The Czech archaeological team responded to the appeal and was assigned a concession for the exploration of the oasis of el-Hayez in the Western Desert. This are consist of about 40 square kilometers, and the large, and archaeologically nearly untouched el-Hayez Oasis lies in the heart of the so-called Black Desert, ca 400 km south-west of Cairo. Dominated by the ruins of a late Roman fortress and an early Christian basilica of St. Bartholomew, a very summary archaeological survey of the oasis was carried out about seventy years ago by Ahmad Fakhry.

13In the first stage, the Czech team conducted a thorough archaeological survey of the oasis by means of modern methods of geoinformatics using, among other things, satellite photos. The survey seasons resulted in the making of an archaeological map of el-Hayez which records the main archaeological sites and monuments. The monuments come from various periods, but above all from prehistory and late Roman – early Christian periods but, surprisingly, also an Old Kingdom caravan station was discovered in the oasis.

14Following the archaeological survey, a late Roman – early Christian village in the site called Bir Shawish in the western part of the oasis was chosen for a thorough exploration. The excavation of the village and its adjacent cemetery revealed rich evidence about the life at the fringe of the southern limes romanus and the gradual transition of the inhabitants of Bir Shawish to Christianity. Undoubtedly, one of the greatest discoveries in the el-Hayez oasis is that of a series of large manawars – a branching network of big underground tunnels serving to collect the rare rain water and conduct it to underground water tanks, from which it was distributed to the local fields and gardens.

15Inspired by the discovery of the aforesaid Old Kingdom caravan station in el-Hayez, and with a plan to explore the ancient caravan routes in the desert west of el-Hayez, the Czech archaeological team made an expedition to the area of the Grand Sand Sea and Gilf Kebir lying close to the Egyptian - Libyan border. A thorough examination of local rock drawings, especially in the famous Cave of Swimmers, has lead us to reinterpretation of these drawings and to some new insights into the rock art of the Western Desert.

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Référence papier

Cours et travaux du Collège de France. Annuaire 111e année, Collège de France, Paris, avril 2012, p. 897-900. ISBN 978-2-7226-0156-7

Référence électronique

Miroslav Verner, « Abusir », L’annuaire du Collège de France [En ligne], 111 | 2012, mis en ligne le 22 novembre 2013, consulté le 21 février 2018. URL :

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Miroslav Verner

Professeur à l’Université Charles de Prague (République Tchèque)

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Droits d’auteur

Collège de France

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