Mirages from Heliopolis

Since I started thinking about the "Giza diagonal'' facing Heliopolis, I had the impression that something was eluding me. For a long time I was unable to identify what was actually "wrong" however, until, one day, I stopped "looking without seeing'' and then I understood (or at least, I think I did).

The fourth-dynasty pyramids were built in places, such as Giza, that were visible from Heliopolis, so they would appear to have been built to be seen from Heliopolis. But that is not the case for the second Giza pyramid. If we approach Heliopolis and look towards Giza along the famous "diagonal" we can only see one pyramid, Khufu's, because the second is hidden from sight by the gigantic mass of the Great Pyramid.

Today it is utterly impossible to check this ""mirage'' from the centre of Cairo, owing to the buildings and smog. However, if we extend the diagonal in the opposite direction, towards south-west, we find ourselves in the middle of the desert, where the Fayum highway passes. Here the view is quite clear, and stopping at the roadside, it is possible to see the ""opposite'' mirage, that is, see the mass of the Great Pyramid vanish behind the second (of course the third pyramid—which would disappear as well if looking from Heliopolis—is in this case in the foreground). Why?

Why would Khafre, who was evidently as well-off as his father and could select a place and/or position anywhere he wanted, decided to build his pyramid in such a way that, although enormous, it was invisible from Heliopolis because his father's pyramid was stuck in the middle?

It seems to me to be far more logical to suppose that it was initially Khufu who wanted to show he was ""owner of the horizon'' with his double monument, named accordingly ""Khufu's Horizon''. At that time he also resolved to lay out the pyramids so that they were "reduced to just one'', only when seen from a specifically chosen site, Heliopolis, as a sign of respect for the Sun God (Magli 2008).

My hypothesis, actually, can be developed quite beyond than that, and leads to new elements in the interpretation of the whole "sacred topography" of the Memphite area. Indeed, I maintain that Khufu actually inaugurated a way of interpreting and modeling the sacred landscape which ruled all the placements of the pyramids up to the end of the V dynasty. This model, which I will call the "symbolic invisibility" model, requires that the funerary monuments of the pharaohs have to be built along what I will continue to call, for simplicity, a "diagonal" but, more precisely, is a straight line of sight which connects a chosen element of the layout of the pyramids of dynastically-related pharaohs, ending in the location of the temple of

Figure 19.9: A satellite image of the Memphite area: H Heliopolis; 1 Abu Roash diagonal; 2 Giza diagonal; 3 Abusir diagonal. The heaviest solid line close to line 3 is the last (going south) inter-visibility line between the west bank of the Nile and Heliopolis, and corresponds to the Userkaf sun temple.

Figure 19.9: A satellite image of the Memphite area: H Heliopolis; 1 Abu Roash diagonal; 2 Giza diagonal; 3 Abusir diagonal. The heaviest solid line close to line 3 is the last (going south) inter-visibility line between the west bank of the Nile and Heliopolis, and corresponds to the Userkaf sun temple.

Heliopolis. Interestingly, although of "topographical" origin, these "diagonals" had also to include astronomical significance, as we shall soon see.

The first to conform to the "symbolic invisibility" concept was Djedefre, Khufu's son. Indeed, when we plot the line which connects Heliopolis with his pyramid's south-west corner, we see that it crosses near the south-west corner of another pyramid, the so called Lepsius 1, which sits at the easternmost end of the Abu Roash hills. Rather than forming an Akhet sign (as has been recently suggested, see Shaltout at al. 2008) these two pyramids thus form a "Abu Roash diagonal" oriented ~ 28° south of west. As we have already seen, this is a astronomically relevant direction which points quite precisely to the winter solstice sunset and, less precisely, to the setting of Sirius (the attribution of Lepsius 1 is unknown and it may even belong to a double project conceived by Djedefre; today, only the inner structure of the monument, excavated in the rocky plateau, remains).

After, Khafre decided to conform himself to the model returning to Giza, so he probably appropriated and finished the construction of the second pyramid (in any case, he attached "modestly" his tomb to a pre-existing project). Next, Menkaure arranged the layout of his funerary complex in order to harmonize with the pre-existing one. The dynastic lineage of Khufu was thus actualized at Giza by the "symbolic invisibility" ; perhaps all this had something to do with a passage of the Pyramid Text (PT 307) where it is said "my father is an Onite, and I myself am an Onite, born in On when Ra was ruler'' (On stands for Heliopolis in Faulkner's translation). (Plate 31).

As we have seen, the direction of sight from Heliopolis on the Giza "diagonal" is oriented ~45° south of west. Once again, this is an astronomically relevant direction. In the period of the pyramids' construction this direction was indeed pointing to the setting of the brightest part of the Milky Way. Actually, at those times, an observer looking from Heliopolis would have seen the stars of the Southern Cross, followed by the very bright stars of Centaurus, "flow" together with the great celestial river and disappear from view behind the apex of the Great Pyramid.

Menkaure was succeeded by his son Shepsekaf. For some unknown reasons, to this pharaoh corresponds a break in the tradition consolidated after Khufu. Indeed (as mentioned in chapter 16) he choose to build his tomb as a sort of giant Mastaba at Saqqara; the decision of going far away, and completely out of sight from Heliopolis appears to be reflected also in the pharaoh's name, which does not bring the "solar" suffix.

After him, to the throne ascended Userkaf, probably a grandson of Djedefre. With Userkaf we see something which looks like to a return to the tradition. First, he built a pyramid, not a Mastaba, and his pyramid was located as close as possible to the external wall of the first pyramid ever constructed, the Djoser pyramid in Saqqara. Interestingly, in this way he also initiated a new "diagonal" which was to be continued in much later times, starting from the end of the V dynasty, apparently for pure "imitation'' of the Giza one. Indeed, this "Saqqara diagonal'' is directed as the Giza diagonal ~45° south of west, and therefore of course it does not point to Heliopolis (since Saqqara is many kilometers south of Giza). This diagonal connects the north-west corner of the Teti pyramid, the south-west corner of the Userkaf pyramid, the south-west corner of the Djoser pyramid, the diagonal of the Unas pyramid and the north-west corner of the Sekhemkhet pyramid (Lehner 1985b). In any case, as far as what concerns us here, the most interesting point is that the return to the tradition was exemplified by Userkaf also with the construction of the first solar temple. Such a temple, as we have seen in Chapter 16, was a monument conceived in a way similar to the pyramid complex, consisting of a building set lower down, a

Ancient Greece Village Layout
Figure 19.7: The pyramids of the "Saqqara diagonal" highlighted in the original Lepsius map (numbering of the monuments is in chronological order): 1 Djoser; 2 Sekhemnet; 3 Userkaf; 4 Unas; 5-Teti.

monumental access ramp sloping upwards, and a monumental area centered in an high obelisk and accessed from the ramp. Curiously, also the ramp of the sun temples is oriented ~45° south of west and again, since the temples are located more south than Giza, it does not point to Heliopolis; perhaps by chance, its direction indicated the raising of the bright star Deneb (of our constellation Cygnus) during the V dynasty. What concerns most us here is anyway the fact that the Userkaf temple is constructed in the southernmost available point of the west bank of the Nile from which Heliopolis is visible. Moving a few tens meters more south indeed, the area of Heliopolis becomes invisible due to the presence of the outcrop on which today is situated the Cairo citadel (after having noticed this fact I became aware that the German Egyptologists Werner Kaiser had already suggested that it may have influenced the choice of the site).

The pharaoh thus choose to stress his return to the tradition of the preceding dynasties building his pyramid as close as possible to the III dynasty pyramids of Djoser and Sekhemkhet (and inaugurating a "diagonal" with them) and building a temple dedicated to the Sun god in view from Heliopolis, as the IV dynasty pyramids are.

The successor was his son Sahure, the second king of the 5th Dynasty. With Sahure, whose name means "Close to Re", we definitively return to "solarised" kings. Thus, the natural choice for Sahure's pyramid would have been Giza, with the construction of a fourth monument aligned along the "Giza diagonal''. However, building a pyramid complex even farther away in the desert than that of Menkaure's would have been nearly impossible. Thus, at least in my opinion, the Sahure architect had to find a new idea to allow his king to conform to the ""symbolic invisibility'' model. This idea was to place the pyramid of Sahure in the first available location in the south from which Heliopolis is not visible: Abu Sir. Immediately after, Neferirkare inaugurated a new "diagonal'' in this place (Verner 2002). This "Abusir diagonal'' connects the north-west corners of the pyramids built by Sahure, by his brother and successor Neferirkare and by Neferefre, son of Neferirkare (this last pyramid is unfinished) and points to the— invisible—Heliopolis; any person in Heliopolis however would have been aware, looking at the western horizon, that the brilliant obelisk of the Userkaf sun temple indicated the beginning of the sacred area, were the kings of the V dynasty decided to be buried, and that their pyramids were actually disposed along a ""diagonal'' pointing to Heliopolis although— modestly—in an invisible way. In this case, the obstacle to the view is due to the outcrop of the Cairo citadel which perhaps, in ancient times, may have hosted a temple as well.

Also this "diagonal''—inclined ~71° south of west— had an astronomical significance, since it was (roughly) pointing to the setting of the very bright star Canopus as seen from Heliopolis. We thus have three ""diagonals''—Abu Roash, Giza, Abusir—and three very bright stars or groups of stars—Sirius, Crux-Centaurus, and Canopus—which respectively sat in (approximate) alignment with them. Interestingly, such stars all belong to the lists of the Decanal stars (Chapter 14); the first examples of such lists we are aware of were completed one or two centuries later the construction of these pyramids. After Neferefre reigned Shepseskare (but it should be said that, according to some scholar, Shepseskare reigned before Neferefre). His reign was probably very short, since only the base his pyramid was laid out. In any case, he had to confront to the same problem which faced Sahure, namely, it was impossible to ""attach'' the pyramid to the pre-existing "diagonal''—in this case the Abusir one—without going very far in the desert. Thus, the architect of the pharaoh planned the pyramid in the small space left between Userkaf's sun temple and Sahure pyramid, remaining in this way not just invisible, but ""symbolically invisible'' from Heliopolis. The problem of finding an adequate place for a pyramid then became even more difficult for Niuserre. The planners of his monument

Lavell Edwards Offense Diagram

Figure 19.8: Map of the Abusir area (numbering of the monuments is in chronological order): 1 Userkaf Sun temple; 2/3/4 Pyramids of Sahure, Neferirkare, Neferefre; 5 unfinished pyramid of Shepseskare; 6a Niuserre Pyramid, 6b Mastaba of Ptahshepses, 6c Niuserre Sun temple.

Figure 19.8: Map of the Abusir area (numbering of the monuments is in chronological order): 1 Userkaf Sun temple; 2/3/4 Pyramids of Sahure, Neferirkare, Neferefre; 5 unfinished pyramid of Shepseskare; 6a Niuserre Pyramid, 6b Mastaba of Ptahshepses, 6c Niuserre Sun temple.

found no other way than placing his pyramid to the east side of an existing one, that of Neferirkare, a quite unique example of "intrusive" design for the Old Kingdom. In this way, they also managed to inaugurate a second "Abusir diagonal" which connects the south-east corners of the pyramids of Neferefre, Neferirkare and Niuserre and prolongs also to the corner of the huge Mastaba of Ptahshepses, a very important personage who became a son-in-law of Niuserre. However, clearly such a "new diagonal" was not pointing to Heliopolis, and perhaps for this reason Niuserre ordered the construction of his own sun temple located north of Userkaf's one and therefore in plain view from the sacred city. As we have mentioned in Chapter 17, however, according to existing texts of the epoch also Sahure, Neferefre and Neferirkare constructed a sun temple which have never been found. In my view, it is almost impossible that three (or perhaps four, since also a sun temple of the successor of Niuserre may exist) such huge monuments safely escaped to the archaeological investigation of the very restricted area in which they might have been located (since—again—it is obvious that they had to be in view from Heliopolis). Therefore, the present approach strongly supports the idea, already proposed by some scholars, that the abovementioned inscriptions refer to restorations or renewals of the existing temples, and that only the two already known V dynasty sun temples actually existed.

Niuserre was the last king to build his complex in Abu Sir, as the last three kings of the V dynasty will return to Saqqara. The time of the solar kings, the owners of the horizon, was thus, finally, at the end. However, although almost 4600 years have lasted, the relatively short period of the kings who were "close to the Sun God'' as the name of Sahure has it, stands as what many, myself included, consider one of the greatest seasons of human civilization. From this epoch, not only wonderful monuments that "frighten the time'' remain to us, but also invisible lines that speak about their religion, lineage, and astronomical knowledge. The sacred space they span and design is still so alive, that anyone looking at the western horizon—today just as 4600 years ago—will be in absolutely no doubt.

The horizon belongs to Khufu.

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