The pyramid of Neferirkare was built for the Fifth Dynasty pharaoh Neferirkare Kakai in the 25th century BC. It was the tallest structure on the highest site at the necropolis of Abusir, found between Giza and Saqqara, and still towers over the necropolis. The pyramid is also significant because its excavation led to the discovery of the Abusir Papyri.
The Fifth Dynasty marked the end of the significant pyramid constructions during the Old Kingdom. Pyramids of the era were smaller and becoming more standardized, though intricate relief decoration also proliferated. Neferirkare’s pyramid deviated from convention as it was initially built as a step pyramid: a design that had been antiquated after the Third Dynasty (26th or 27th century BC). This was then encased in a second-step pyramid with alterations intended to convert it into a true pyramid; However, the pharaoh’s death left the work to be completed by his successors. The remaining pieces were completed in haste, using cheaper building materials.
Because of the circumstances, Neferirkare‘s monument lacked several essential elements of a pyramid complex: a valley temple, a causeway, and a cult pyramid. Though their construction began under different rulers, all four of these monuments were completed during the reign of Nyuserre. Instead, these were replaced by a small settlement of mudbrick houses south of the monument. Cult priests could conduct daily activities rather than in the pyramid town near the valley temple. The discovery of the Abusir papyri in the 1890s is owed to this. Usually, the papyrus archives would have been contained in the pyramid town, where their destruction would have been assured. The pyramid became part of a more remarkable family cemetery. The monuments to Neferirkare’s consort, Khentkaus II; and his sons, Neferefre and Nyuserre Ini, are found in the surrounds.
The pyramid of Neferirkare is situated on the necropolis at Abusir, between Saqqara and the Giza Plateau. Abusir assumed great import in the Fifth Dynasty after Userkaf, the first ruler, built his sun temple and his successor, Sahure inaugurated a royal necropolis with his funerary monument. Sahure’s successor, his son Neferirkare, was the second ruler to be interred in the necropolis. The Egyptologist Jaromír Krejčí proposes several hypotheses for the position of Neferirkare’s complex concerning Sahure’s complex:
- (1) that Neferirkare was motivated to distance himself from Sahure and thus chose to found a new cemetery and redesign the mortuary temple plan to differentiate it from Sahure’s;
- (2) that geomorphological pressures – particularly the slope between Neferirkare’s and Sahure’s complexes – required Neferirkare to situate his complex elsewhere;
- (3) based on the site being the highest point, Neferirkare may have selected it to ensure his complex dominated the surrounding area and;
- (4) that the site may have been intentionally selected to build the pyramid in line with Heliopolis.
The Abusir diagonal is a figurative line connecting the northwest corners of the pyramids of Neferirkare, Sahure and Neferefre. It is similar to the Giza axis, which connects the southeast corners of the Giza pyramids, and converges with the Abusir diagonal to a point in Heliopolis.
The location of the complex affected the construction process. The Egyptologist Miroslav Bárta said the site was chosen partly because of its relation to the administrative capital[e] of the Old Kingdom, Inbu-Hedj, known today as Memphis. Providing that the location of ancient Memphis is accurately known, the Abusir necropolis would have been no further than 4 km (2.5 mi) from the city centre. The benefit of the site being close to the city was the increased access to resources and human resources. South-west of Abusir, workers, could exploit a limestone quarry to gather resources to manufacture masonry blocks used in the pyramid’s construction. The limestone there was particularly easy to quarry considering that gravel, sand, and tafl layers sandwiched the limestone into thin segments of between 0.60 m (2.0 ft) and 0.80 m (2 ft 7 in) thick, making it easier to dislodge from its matrix.
In 1838, John Shae Perring, an engineer working under Colonel Howard Vyse, cleared the entrances to the pyramids of Sahure, Neferirkare and Nyuserre. Five years later, the Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius, sponsored by King Frederick William IV of Prussia, explored the Abusir necropolis and catalogued Neferirkare’s pyramid as XXI. Lepsius proposed the theory that the accretion layer construction method was applied to the pyramids of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasty. One significant development was the discovery of the Abusir papyri, found in the temple of Neferirkare during illicit excavations in 1893. In 1902–1908, the Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt, working for the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft or German Oriental Society, resurveyed those same pyramids and had their adjoining temples and causeways excavated. Borchardt was the first and only other major expedition carried out at the Abusir necropolis and contributed significantly to archaeological investigation at the site. His findings were published in Das Grabdenkmal des Königs Nefer-Ir-Ke-Re (1909). The Czech Institute of Egyptology has had a long-term excavation project in the area since the 1960s.
Pyramid construction techniques underwent a transition in the Fifth Dynasty. The pyramids’ monumentality diminished, the mortuary temples’ design changed, and the pyramid’s substructure became standardized. By contrast, relief decoration proliferated, and the temples were enriched with greater storeroom complexes.
These two conceptual changes had developed at the latest time of Sahure’s reign. Sahure’s mortuary complex indicates that symbolic expression through decoration became favoured over sheer magnitude. For example, the Fourth Dynasty pharaoh Khufu’s complex had 100 linear metres (330 linear feet) reserved for decoration, while Sahure’s temple had around 370 linear metres (1,200 linear feet) dedicated to relief decorations. Bárta identifies that storage space in mortuary temples expanded consistently from Neferirkare’s reign. This resulted from the combined centralization of administrative focus on the funerary cult, the increase in the numbers of priests and officials involved in the maintenance of the cult, and the increase in their revenues. The discovery of considerable remains of stone vessels – mostly broken or otherwise incomplete – in the pyramid temples of Sahure, Neferirkare, and Neferefre bears testament to this development.
Old Kingdom mortuary complexes consisted of five essential components:
- (1) a valley temple;
- (2) a causeway;
- (3) a mortuary temple;
- (4) a cult pyramid;
- and (5) the main pyramid.
Neferirkare’s mortuary complex had only two basic elements: a mortuary temple hastily constructed from cheap mudbrick and wood; and the most significant main pyramid at the site. The valley temple and causeway that were initially intended for Neferirkare‘s monument were co-opted by Nyuserre for his mortuary complex. Conversely, a cult pyramid never entered construction due to the rush to complete the monument upon Neferirkare’s death. Its replacement was a small settlement and lodgings constructed from mudbrick to the south of the complex where the priests would live. An enormous brick enclosure wall was built around the perimeter of the pyramid and mortuary temple to complete Neferirkare’s funerary monument.
The monument was intended as a step pyramid, an unusual choice for a Fifth Dynasty king, given that the era of step pyramids ended with the Third Dynasty (26th or 27th century BC) centuries prior, depending on the scholar and source. The reasoning behind this choice is not understood. The Egyptologist Miroslav Verner considers a speculative connection between the Turin Canon’s listing him “as the founder of a new dynasty” and the original project. However, he also thinks of the possibility of religious reasons and power politics. The first build contained six carefully laid steps of high-quality limestone blocks reaching a height of 52 m (171 ft; 99 cu). A white limestone casing was to be applied to the structure, but after minimal work on this was completed – extending only to the first step – the pyramid was redesigned to form a “true pyramid”. Verner describes the architecture of a Fifth Dynasty pyramid:
The outer face of the first step of the pyramid core was formed by a frame made of huge blocks of dark grey limestone up to 5 m long and well bound together. Similarly, there was an inner frame built of smaller blocks and made up the walls of the rectangular trench destined for the underground chambers of the tomb. Between the two frames, pieces of poor-quality limestone had been packed, sometimes “dry” and sometimes stuck together with clay mortar and sand. … The core was indeed modelled into steps. Still, these were built in horizontal layers, and only the stone blocks making up the outer surface were of high quality and well joined together. The inner part of the core was filled up with only partially joined rough stones of varying quality and size.
To convert the step into a genuine pyramid, the whole structure was extended outwards by about 10 m (33 ft; 19 cu) and raised two steps in height. This expansion project was completed in rough order with small stone fragments intended to be cased in red granite. The king’s premature death halted the project after only the casing’s lowest level(s) had been completed. The resultant base of the structure measured 105 m (344 ft; 200 cu) on each side, and, had the project been completed, the pyramid would have reached approximately 72 m (236 ft; 137 cu) in height with an inclination from base to the tip of about 54°. Despite the incompleteness of the structure, the pyramid – comparable to Menkaure’s pyramid at Giza – dominates its surroundings due to its site standing on a hill some 33 m (108 ft) above the Nile delta.
The descending corridor near the middle of the pyramid’s north face serves as the entry into the substructure of Neferirkare‘s pyramid. The corridor begins approximately 2 m (6 ft 7 in) above ground level and ends at a similar depth below ground level. It has proportions of 1.87 m (6 ft 2 in) in height and 1.27 m (4 ft 2 in) in width. It is reinforced at the entrance and exit points with granite casing. The corridor breaks out into a vestibule leading to a long corridor guarded by a portcullis. This second corridor has two turns but maintains a generally eastward direction and ends in an antechamber offset from the burial chamber. The corridor roof is unique: the flat roof has a second gabled roof made of limestone on top of it, which has a third roof made from a layer of reeds.
The burial and ante chamber ceilings were constructed with three gabled layers of limestone. The beams disperse weight from the superstructure onto either side of the passageway, preventing collapse. Thieves have ransacked the chambers of its limestone, making it impossible to reconstruct, though some details can still be adequately discerned. Namely, that (1) both rooms were oriented along an east-west axis, (2) both chambers were the same width; the antechamber was shorter of the two, and (3) both chambers had the same style roof and were missing one layer of limestone.
Overall, the substructure is badly damaged: the collapse of a layer of the limestone beams has covered the burial chamber. No trace of the mummy, sarcophagus, or burial equipment has been found inside. The severity of the damage to the substructure prevents further excavation.
The mortuary temple is located at the base of the pyramid’s Eastern face. It is larger than is typical for the period. Archaeological evidence suggests that it was unfinished at Neferirkare’s death and was completed by Neferefre and Nyuserre. For example, while the inner temple and statue niches were built from stone, much of the temple, including the court and entrance hall, was hastily completed using cheap mudbrick and wood. This left large portions of the mortuary temple susceptible to erosion from rain and wind, where stone would have given it significant durability. The site was less aesthetically impressive, although its basic layout and features remained roughly analogous to Sahure’s temple. Its enlarged size can be attributed to a design decision to build the complex without a valley temple or a causeway. Instead, the causeway and temple, whose foundations had been constructed, were diverted to Nyuserre’s complex.
The temple was entered through the columned portico and entrance hall, which terminates into a sizeable columned courtyard. The columns of the hall and courtyard are made from wood arranged in the form of lotus stalks and buds. The courtyard is adorned with thirty-seven such columns; these columns are asymmetrically positioned. The archaeologist Herbert Ricke hypothesized that columns near the altar may have been damaged by fire and removed. A papyrus fragment from the temple archives corroborates this story. A low stepped ramp in the courtyard’s west leads to a transverse (north-south) corridor, which leads south into storerooms and north into another smaller corridor containing six wooden columns through which the open courtyard of the main pyramid can be accessed. It is in the southern storerooms that the Abusir papyri were discovered by graverobbers in the 1890s. Beyond the storerooms is a gate which has another access point to the main pyramid’s courtyard and through which a second excavated south-western gate leads to Khentkaus II’s complex. Finally, traversing the corridor leads directly into the inner sanctuary or temple.