Pyramid of Sahure

Pyramid of Sahure

The pyramid of Sahure is a pyramid complex built in the late 26th to 25th century BC for the Egyptian pharaoh Sahure of the Fifth Dynasty. It introduced a period of pyramid building by Sahure’s successors in Abusir, on an earlier used by Userkaf for his sun temple. Ludwig Borchardt first excavated the site between March 1907 and 1908 and wrote the standard work Das Grabdenkmal des Königs Sahu-Re (The Funerary Monument of King Sahure) between 1910 and 1913.

The pyramid complex’s layout was adopted by succeeding kings of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, marking a milestone in pyramid complex construction. Compared to the preceding Fourth Dynasty, the immensity of the buildings was dramatically reduced, but, in tandem, the decorative programme increased, and temples were augmented by enlarged storeroom complexes. The complex is estimated to have had 10,000 m2 (110,000 sq ft) of finely carved relief adorning its walls, of which 150 m2 (1,600 sq ft) has been preserved. Some of these reliefs are considered unparalleled in Egyptian art, such as the 8 m (26 ft) by 3 m (9.8 ft) (4.2 × 1.6 royal cubits) hunting scene from the mortuary temple.[b] For comparison, Sahure’s temple contained 370 running metres (1,214 running feet) of such relief decoration, while the temple of Khufu’s Great Pyramid contained 100 running metres (328 running feet). The complex is also remarkable for the array of valuable materials – such as granite, alabaster and basalt – used extensively in its construction.

The main pyramid was built from roughly hewn limestone blocks bound with mud mortar and encased with fine white Tura limestone. It had a base of about 78.5 m (258 ft; 149.8 cu) to 78.75 m (258.4 ft; 150.29 cu) long, converging at either 50°11′40″ or 50°30′ towards the apex between 47 m (154 ft; 90 cu) and 48 m (157 ft; 92 cu) high. The architects made an error in restricting the pyramid base, extending it too far east. The pyramid’s internal chambers were devastated by stone thieves, rendering an accurate reconstruction impossible. Stone fragments believed to belong to the king’s basalt sarcophagus are the only remains of the burial that have been found. The mortuary temple adjacent to the pyramid’s east face comprises an entrance hall, an open courtyard, a five-niche statue chapel, an offering hall, and storerooms. These elements had appeared in mortuary temples since the reign of Khafre. South of the temple is the enclosure with the cult pyramid, employing the same construction method used in the main pyramid but on a reduced scale, with a base length of 15.7 m (52 ft; 30.0 cu) converging at 56° to a peak 11.6 m (38 ft; 22.1 cu) high. The complex’s two temples are linked by a 235 m (771 ft; 448 cu) long intricately decorated and well-illuminated causeway. The valley temple is situated on Abusir lake and is unusual for having two entrances: the main on its east side and a secondary one on its south. It remains unclear why a second entry point was built, though it may have been connected to a pyramid town to its south.

Sahure’s mortuary temple became the object of a cult of Sekhmet around the Eighteenth Dynasty. The cult was active through to the Ptolemaic Kingdom, though its influence began to wane following the reign of Ramesses II. This period heralded the first wave of destruction on the Abusir monuments, whilst Sahure’s escaped the dismantlement, possibly due to the cult’s presence. The monuments stirred interest again in the Twenty-Fifth to Twenty-Sixth Dynasties, which is shown by the copying of reliefs from the mortuary temples of Sahure, Nyuserre and Pepi II by the pharaoh Taharqa for the temple of Kawa in Nubia. The second wave of destruction of the Abusir monuments took place in the Twenty-Seventh Dynasty, but Sahure’s temple was spared again, the cult still being present. With the onset of the Roman period, the Abusir monuments, including Sahure’s, were subjected to the third wave of destruction. At the beginning of the Christian era, Sahure’s temple became the site of a Coptic shrine, as evidenced by the recovery of pottery and graffiti dating to between the 4th and 7th century AD. After that, until the late 19th century, the monuments were periodically quarried for limestone.

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Sahure chose a site near Abusir for his funerary monument, thus constructing the first pyramid in the region. Earlier, Userkaf, founder of the Fifth Dynasty, chose Abusir for his sun temple. It is unclear why Userkaf sought such a remote site. It may have been significant for the nearby cult of Ra or, in the opinion of the Egyptologist Werner Kaiser, the southernmost point from which the gilded pyramidion of the pillar-like structure in the temple of Ra in Heliopolis could be seen. However, his decision influenced the history of Abusir, including Sahure’s decision to build his monument there. Three of the Abusir pyramids–Sahure, Neferirkare and Neferefre– are linked at the northwest corners by an imaginary line running to Heliopolis (Iunu). The diagonal was broken by Nyuserre, who positioned his complex between those of Neferirkare and Sahure. 


Early excavators did not perform thorough investigations of Sahure’s monument, perhaps discouraged by its ruined state. In 1838, John Shae Perring, an engineer working under Colonel Howard Vyse, cleared the entrances to the Sahure, Neferirkare and Nyuserre pyramids. Perring was the first to enter the substructure of Sahure’s pyramid in modern times. Five years later, Karl Richard Lepsius, sponsored by King Frederick William IV of Prussia, explored the Abusir necropolis and catalogued Sahure’s pyramid as XVIII. Jacques de Morgan also re-entered the pyramid but did not investigate further. No further investigations were performed for the next fifty years until the Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt visited the site. 

From 1902 to 1908, Borchardt, working for the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft (German Oriental Society), had the Abusir pyramids resurveyed and their adjoining temples and causeways excavated. From March 1907 to March 1908, Borchardt had Sahure’s pyramid thoroughly investigated and had trial digs conducted at nearby sites, including Neferefre’s unfinished pyramid. He published his findings in the two-volume study Das Grabdenkmal des Königs Sahu-re (1910–13), which remains the standard work on the complex. 

In 1994, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities opened the Abusir necropolis to tourism. In preparation, restorative works were conducted at Sahure’s pyramid. The archaeologist Zahi Hawass had a segment of Sahure’s causeway cleaned and reconstructed, during which sizeable relief-decorated limestone blocks buried in the sand were uncovered. The reliefs found on these blocks were thematically and artistically unique and shed new light on the decorative programme of the complex.