The End of the Age of the Pyramids

After Menkaure's pyramid, dozens of others were built, both during the reigns of the last dynasties of the Old Kingdom and during the Middle Kingdom. But none of these remotely compares with the five pyramids of the fourth dynasty at Giza and Dashour.

It is thought that Menkaure's successor, Shepsekaf, had his tomb (a large mastaba) built at Saqquara, though the attribution of this building is somewhat doubtful. The fourth dynasty ended with this ruler. There followed the nine kings of the fifth dynasty: Userkaf, Sahure, Neferirkare, Shepseskare, Neferefre, Niuserre, Menkauhor, Djedkare, and Unas. The first six each commissioned a monument usually called Sun Temple, since it was undoubtedly a place of worship of the Sun God, Re. We have some information about these temples, including their names (Userkaf's is "Court of Offerings to Re"; Sahure's is "Possession of Re"), but only two have been

Pyramid Giza Easter Island

found and only one has been studied in depth: that of Niuserre. The temple is situated in Abu Gurob, south of Giza, and is structured as follows: the complex was analogous to that of the fourth dynasty pyramids, consisting of a building set lower down, a monumental access ramp sloping upward, and a monumental area fenced in by a wall, accessed from the ramp. The center was marked by a truncated pyramid of limestone blocks, on which there apparently stood a nonmonolithic obelisk (i.e., constructed with superimposed blocks of stone). In the adjacent clearing was (and is) a large alabaster altar oriented to the cardinal points.

It is unclear why the pharaohs built these temples. We know only that in the funerary cult there existed cohabitation, perhaps with different phases, between a "stellar" and a "solar" component, which was to be codified in the pyramid texts (see Chapter 17). The start of the construction of the sun temples should fit into this context, since at the same time as the temples the pharaohs commissioned their pyramids, which, excluding the first pharaoh, Userkaf, who opted for Saqquara (his pyramid is near the northeast corner of Djoser's), were built very near Abu Gurob, on the Abu Sir plateau that overlooks the area of the sun temples from about 1 kilometer south.

Menkauhor, who ceased building the sun temples, returned to Saqquara; with his successor Unas we find the appearance of the pyramid texts in the sepulchral chamber, and these would continue to be a feature of the pyramids of the sixth dynasty too.

The Old Kingdom can be considered to end with the death of Pepi II, the last pharaoh of the sixth dynasty, and this marked the definitive demise of the age of the stone pyramids. Pyramids would be built in the future, but of brick, not stone, and not until the time of the pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom. To discuss in brief the fifth and sixth dynasty pyramids, we start observing that the Plateau of Giza offers a breathtaking view. Three massive pyramids, still as intact as when they were built 4500 years ago, stand out on the horizon. They are pyramids that even time itself fears, as the famous Arab saying has it. But if you contemplate the Abu Sir plateau, you want to avert your gaze. It looks as if someone was playing a joke: three pathetic piles of ruins, feebly trying to imitate the great pyramids of Giza. One might almost say that they are an unsuccessful replica of an already existent sacred landscape. They are the Sahure, Neferirkare, and Niuserre pyramids.

In contrast with their immediate predecessors, the fifth and sixth dynasty pyramids can be characterized as follows:

1. The projects were much less ambitious. The base side (about 100 meters) of the largest pyramid, that of Neferirkare, was roughly similar to Menkaure's.

2. The building technique was more "slovenly,'' with smaller-sized blocks often quite coarsely hewn. The structure was based on huge steps, as with the third dynasty, and then was integrated with a casing, with the result that the building turned out less stable and more susceptible to atmospheric erosion, earthquakes, and looting. The lack of care (in comparison to that taken by previous dynasties, that is), at both the planning and implementation stages is obvious in every aspect, including the orientation of the sides.

3. The internal apartments are never above ground; often also the underground access is simply from external ground level or from the very first courses of the north wall, without any effort being made to create passageways in the structure.

4. To create subterranean chambers, enormous, curiously oversized inverse-V structures made of blocks of granite or large blocks of limestone were often used.

5. Stunning architectural flourishes, such as columns shaped like papyrus-plants, altars, and delicately engraved granite slabs appear, almost as if the inadequacies of the size have to be compensated for by fine artistic embellishments.

Egypt Map Black And White
Figure 16.20: The pyramids of Giza
Figure 16.21: The Abu Sir pyramids of Sahure, Neferirkare and Niuserre

It has been argued that by the time of the fifth dynasty, the Egyptians had forgotten how to build on a very large scale, which might be seen as comparable, as mentioned in Chapter 13, to our "forgetting" how to travel to the moon in the 40 years that have passed since the Apollo era in spacecraft. As with the time of the conquest of the moon, but for unknown reasons— possibly economic, social, or political—the age of the great pyramids lasted an incredibly short time, and this very brevity makes the subject all the more difficult to investigate but no less intriguing.

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