Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 January 2003
Issue No. 619
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The missing sun temples

Six Pharaohs of the Fifth Dynasty built massive sun temples at Abu Sir in addition to their pyramids, but only two have so far been found.Jill Kamil talks to the head of the Czech archaeological mission


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The largest group of administrative documents known from the Old Kingdom was found in 1980 in Pharaoh Neferirkare's mortuary temple
In a presentation on Abu Sir given at the American University in Cairo last week head of the Czech mission Miroslav Verner told the audience that his team had recently been focusing on the "vast and remarkable monuments", the sun temples raised by the Pharaohs of the Fifth Dynasty who ruled from 2494 to 2345 BC.

"Their plan (main structure, causeway and valley temple) was purposely designed to reflect the same uniformity as the pyramid complexes, which indicates that there was a generally accepted architectural concept," Verner said.

"We have been excavating at Abu Sir for the last 40 years, and our excavations have revealed that the history of this necropolis was longer than hitherto supposed, and more challenging than originally anticipated; in fact our discoveries continue to raise more questions than can satisfactorily be answered,."

He went on to explain that, in place of the bulk of the pyramidal structure (in the shape of the sacred benben stone associated with the sun-god Re of Iunu [Heliopolis]), the sun temples feature large, somewhat squat, but not monolithic, obelisks perched on top of vast bases of hewn stone.

Although the pyramids of the Fifth-Dynasty Pharaohs are inferior, both in size and structure, to the great Fourth-Dynasty pyramids at Giza, their sun temples were built and decorated on a massive scale. From this it would appear that the labour force trained under the earlier Pharaohs was released from large- scale pyramid construction, and those resources that previously went into the building of funerary monuments were channelled into the construction of the sun temples. These bore such names as Pleasure of Re, Horizon of Re, and Field of Re, and are located on the west bank of the Nile, in the middle of the Giza/Memphite necropolis with pyramids and mortuary temples that, Verner said, relate to the royal mortuary cult and the afterlife. "Their decoration stresses the influence of the sun-god, especially during ritual celebrations like the Sed, a jubilee festival sanctioned by the Pharaoh," he added.

There have been many theories about the purpose of the temples and their specific function. "But only two of the six sun temples, known from literary texts like the Abu Sir Papyri, have so far been found, so our information is incomplete," Verner said. "There are gaps in our knowledge that have not yet been bridged, so ideas must remain hypothetical until more evidence comes to light -- we hope this will be the discovery of the four missing sun temples!"

The surviving two sun temples at Abu Sir are those of Userkhaf and Niuserre, and the latter shows that these monuments were adorned with reliefs along the corridors opening from the entrance hall and running along the sides of the court, and also in small chambers. The quality of the limestone used was such that both raised and sunken reliefs could be executed with great precision. "The scenes that show the flora and fauna throughout the three seasons of the agricultural year are especially noteworthy," Verner pointed out.

Suggestions about the reason why Pharaohs started building sun temples in addition to their pyramids have been numerous. It has been proposed they were mortuary complexes for the sun-god Re, whose main temple at Heliopolis was probably constructed at the same time; that they were places where communion between the Pharaoh and the sun could be made to ensure the welfare of the land; and, a more recent hypothesis, "that the temples may have been closely linked with the royal cemetery at Abu Sir, one of the reasons for their construction being for the reorganisation of royal cults as revealed by temple archives discovered in the mid-1980s," Werner suggests. "There is strong indication that the sun temples were closely linked to the royal cemeteries for the redistribution of offerings."

The bureaucratic records to which he referred were found in the mortuary temple of Neferirkare. The 2000-odd pieces of papyrus found there, taken together with similar finds in neighbouring temples, provide a wealth of information: state archives, registers, royal edicts, lists, instructions, letters, and schedules for religious sacrifices as well as deliveries between sun temples, the "great house" (i.e. royal residence), and funerary complexes.

"The Pharaohs of the Fifth Dynasty built pyramid and mortuary complexes for themselves, and sun temples for the worship of the state god Re, thus stressing the relationship between god and ruler," Verner said. "Userkhaf, who built his pyramid near the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, was the first to build a sun temple at Abu Sir, about three kilometres north of his pyramid. The reason for this choice of site is not yet known, but his decision led to the establishment of a new royal necropolis at Abu Sir, in which subsequent rulers build their tomb complexes and sun temples."

Both these monuments were state property and carefully guarded. There were workshops in the sun temples, and the lists of donations to them were extremely large. Cylinder seals bearing incised hieroglyphics were rolled across the clay that sealed documents, wooden chests, doorways of storehouses, and even sacks and jars. Regular inspection of all seals was carried out, administrative records kept, and columns left blank for observations of theft or any other disorder. On the occasion of Niuserre's Sed festival in the 13th year of his reign the list of items included 100,600 meals of bread, beer and cakes. Thirty thousand meals were recorded for another festival.

"Our ideas concerning the purpose of what were thought to be huge slaughterhouses at the sun temples is being revised," Verner said. "At first it was thought that this was where offerings were made by the Pharaoh to the sun-god -- that the alabaster altar with four hetep signs was the place where bulls were laid before being sacrificed. We now no longer think that it was a slaughterhouse that was discovered, or that the great alabaster vessels were collecting the spurting blood; we see that the altar was for the ritual purification of meat and vegetable offerings before being placed on the altar, and the vessels collected the sacred water."

As for the location of the missing sun temples," Verner said, "a theory originally presented by the German scholar Werner Kaiser is gaining currency. He suggested that there was a direct visual connection between the sun temples at Abu Sir and the centre of the sun cult at Heliopolis (see map). This idea is supported by the British archaeologist David Geoffreys, who points out that the visual line between Heliopolis and Abu Sir is broken at south Abu Sir by the Muqattam Hills on the eastern bank of the Nile. Therefore," Verner concluded, "if we are to look for the four missing sun temples -- which represented the real centre of the Pharaoh's mortuary ritual where supplies were brought daily by temple priests -- it would be logical to look, not to the south, but to the north of Abu Sir." That is to say, between Abu Sir and Giza. An interesting concept and one that will doubtless be pursued in the coming years.

Recommended reading

Abusir: The Realm of Osiris, Miroslav Verner, 2002; The Pyramids: The Mystery, Culture, and Science of Egypt's Great Monuments , Miroslav Verner, 2002; The Complete Pyramids, Mark Lehner, 1997; Guide to the Pyramids of Egypt, Alberto Siliotti, 1997.

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