The Greek name Busiris originates from the ancient Egyptian phrase “pr wsir” (“the house of Osiris), which relates to the temple of Osiris. Abusir is the Arab name given to the Greek town of Busiris and the Old Kingdom necropolis in its vicinity. There are, in fact, several small villages in Upper and Lower Egypt with the name Abusir or Busiri.
Location of Abusir Necropolis
Abusir exists in Al Badrashen, Giza governorate, Egypt. It is located several kilometres north of Saqqara and served as one of the leading elite cemeteries for the ancient Egyptian capital city of Memphis.
Abusir is the name given to an Egyptian archaeological locality – precisely, an extensive necropolis of the Old Kingdom period and later additions – near Cairo‘s modern capital. The name is also that of a neighbouring village in the Nile Valley, whence the site takes its name. Several other villages in northern and southern Egypt have Abusir or Busiri names. Abusir is one relatively small segment of the extensive “pyramid field” from north Giza to Saqqara. The locality of Abusir took its turn as the focus of the prestigious western burial rites operating out of the then-capital of Memphis during the Old Kingdom 5th Dynasty. As an elite cemetery, neighbouring Giza had “filled up” with the massive pyramids and other monuments of the 4th Dynasty, leading the 5th Dynasty pharaohs to seek sites elsewhere for their funerary monuments.
History of the Abusir Necropolis
Abusir was the origin of the most significant find of Old Kingdom papyri to date — the Abusir Papyri. In the late nineteenth century, several Western museums acquired collections of fragmentary papyri from the administrative temple records of one Abusir funerary cult, that of king Neferirkare Kakai. This discovery was supplemented in the late twentieth century when a Czech expedition excavated papyri from two other cult complexes, that of the pharaoh Neferefre (also read Raneferef) and the king’s mother Khentkaus II.
The Czech Institute of Egyptology of the Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, has been conducting excavations at Abusir since 1976. Miroslav Bárta presently directs them.
The Heptanomite Busiris was a hamlet standing at one extremity of the necropolis of Memphis. There are considerable catacombs near the ancient town of Busiris. To the south of Busiris, one great cemetery appears to have stretched over the plain.
Necropolis of Abusir
The necropolis of Abusir was the primary burial site for the pharaohs of the fifth Dynasty of ancient Egypt. It lies across the Nile from the ancient city of Memphis (“mn nfr”) to the south of Giza and north of Saqqara. The site was probably chosen because the necropolises of Giza and Saqqara were already littered with pyramids and tombs. Also, Abusir Lake linked the site to the river and made it easier to deliver supplies to the site by boat.
There is a marked reduction in the quality and grandeur of the pyramids compared with those of their illustrious predecessors of the Fourth Dynasty. Comparing it to the pyramids of Giza, including the Great Pyramid and the Step Pyramid of Djoser, may suggest a waning of royal power. Alternatively, it implies that these pharaohs had less disposable wealth or other pressing concerns, which diverted their resources from the pyramid building. They are primarily constructed in local stone, which is of poorer quality than the large blocks transported for miles to construct the pyramids of Giza and Saqqara.
Pyramids in Abusir Necropolis
Fourteen pyramids at this site served as the main royal necropolis during the Fifth Dynasty. The quality of construction of the Abusir pyramids is inferior to those of the Fourth Dynasty, perhaps signalling a decrease in royal power or a less vibrant economy. They are smaller than their predecessors and of low-quality local stone. All of the major pyramids at Abusir were built as step pyramids. However, the largest of them- the Pyramid of Neferirkare– was initially built as a step pyramid some seventy metres in height. Then later, builders transformed it into a regular pyramid by filling its steps with loose masonry.
The first pharaoh to build at Abusir was Userkaf, the first ruler of the fifth Dynasty. He constructed the first known example of a solar temple at the site. Many of his successors also built solar temples at Abusir. However, they chose to make their burial pyramids there. In comparison, Userkaf built his pyramid beside the enclosure wall of the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara. Menkauhor constructed the last solar temple there, although this monument still stands to date. It would also appear that, like Userkaf, he chose to build his pyramid elsewhere at Dashur. After his rule, the pharaohs abandoned the necropolis at Abusir, but it remained popular with Egyptian nobles throughout pharaonic history.
There were fourteen pyramids in the necropolis of Abusir. However, only four are still in recognizable condition: the pyramids of Sahure, Neferirkare, Niuserre (which are in the best shape), and the unfinished pyramid of Neferefre. Some smaller pyramids and mastabas at the site have collapsed mainly into rubble (including a pyramid dedicated to Khentkaus II – the wife of Neferirkare) and a tomb devoted to Ptah-Cepses (which is in poor condition). There is also an unfinished pyramid that generally belonged to Shepseskare. There are many Sun Temples to the north at Abu Ghurab, also constructed by the pharaohs of the fifth Dynasty.
The Unfinished Pyramids of Sahure, Neferirkare and Neferefre, are all aligned to Heliopolis (“Iwnw”), a cult centre for the sun god Ra. All of the pyramids of Abusir are step pyramids, unlike the pyramids of Giza and Saqqara. There is some evidence that the pyramid of Neferirkare was adapted from a step pyramid into a true pyramid when the steps were filled in with loose masonry. Nevertheless, Niuserre chose not to follow this pattern but instead placed his pyramid between Sahure and Neferirkare. Thus, this pharaoh adopted the unfinished causeway and valley temple, initially built for the pyramid of Neferirkare.
The three major pyramids are as follows:
- The Pyramid of Neferirkare Kakai, the tallest pyramid at the site
- The Pyramid of Niuserre, the most intact pyramid at the site
- Also, the Pyramid of Sahure known for its finely carved reliefs
- Incomplete Pyramid of Neferefre
- Pyramid of Queen Khentkaus II, wife of Neferirkare and mother of Neferefre and Niuserre
- Unfinished pyramid of Shepseskare
- Lepsius Pyramid no. 24 — The pyramid belonged to a woman, likely a queen. The vizier Ptahshepses appears among builders’ marks, dating the pyramid to Pharaoh Nyuserre.
- Also, Lepsius Pyramid no. 25 — Likely the queen’s pyramid from the Fifth Dynasty.
Mastabas of courtiers
The tombs of several high officials and family members stand in the direct vicinity of their king’s pyramid:
- The mastaba of Ptahshepses (vizier under Nyuserre)
- Also, the mastaba of Prince Nakhtkare (son of Raneferef or Nyuserre)
Directly north of Saqqara is a cemetery of lower-ranking officials of the Old Kingdom, including the following tombs:
- Tomb of Ity (Third Dynasty)
- Tomb of Hetepi (priest, beginning of Third Dynasty)
- And the tomb of Kaaper (architect and priest, Fourth Dynasty)
- Tomb of Rahotep (priest, end of Fifth Dynasty)
- Tomb of Fetekti (priest, end of Fifth Dynasty)
- And the tomb of Qar and his sons (vizier, Sixth Dynasty)
- Also, the rock-cut tomb of Nakhtmin (charioteer)
On a small hill directly south of the pyramid of Neferefre is a cemetery of tombs from the Saite period:
- Tomb of Udjahorresnet
- Tomb of Iufaa
- And the tomb of Menekhibneko
- Tomb of Padihor
- Also, tomb R3
Ramesses II Temple
Also found at Abusir were substantial remains of a Ramesside temple, perhaps built by Ramses II. The temple lies about 500 meters southeast of the pyramids, close to the cultivation in the desert. Ancient builders used limestone for the main building of the temple. Also, there were three cellars, a small hall with four columns and a courtyard with mudbrick walls with ten limestone columns. Ancient Egyptians placed the limestone building with pylon and magazines within a larger complex made of mud bricks.
In 2017 the Egyptian-Czech mission uncovered the Temple of Ramesses II. Scientists recovered fragments of polychrome reliefs and numerous examples of the titles of Ramesses II. The temple is around thirty-two meters long, with a large court behind it and two long storage rooms flanking it. Egyptologists have concluded that blue mudbrick walls enclosed the court, and stone columns lined the side walls. A staircase leads to an elevated stone sanctuary divided into three chambers at the back of the court. The temple seems to have been dedicated to the solar cult, particularly Ra, Amun, and Nekhbet.