Abu Ghurab is best known for the solar temple of King Nyuserre Ini, the largest and best-preserved solar temple, and the solar temple of Userkaf, both built in the 25th century BCE during the Old Kingdom Period. Evidence suggests that six solar temples were constructed during the 5th Dynasty. However, only the previously mentioned temples (Nyussere’s and Userkaf’s) have been excavated. Abu Gorab is also the site of an Early Dynastic burial ground dating back to the First Dynasty.
Location of Abu Ghurab Necropolis
Abu Gorab, also known as Abu Gurab, Abu Ghurab) is a locality in Egypt situated 15 km (9.3 mi) south of Cairo, between Saqqarah and Al-Jīzah, about 1 km (0.62 mi) north of Abusir, on the edge of the desert plateau on the western bank of the Nile.
Early Dynastic Necropolis
North of Nyuserre’s sun temple is a cemetery dating back to Egypt’s First Dynasty (c. 3100–2900 BCE), where people belonging to the middle ranks of the Ancient Egyptian society were buried. The area was primarily used as a burial site during the 5th Dynasty and became nearly obsolete as a necropolis after the fifth Dynasty.
Sun temple of Nyuserre Ini
The Sun Temple of Nyuserre was excavated by Egyptologists Ludwig Borchardt and Friedrich Willhelm von Bissing sometime between 1898 and 1901 on behalf of the Berlin Museum. The sun temple is situated near Memphis and is closely linked with the Abusir necropolis, both geographically and functionally.
The temple was constructed by Nyuserre Ini, the sixth king of the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt. The exact dates of his reign are unknown, but it is estimated that he came to the throne early in the second half of the 25th century BCE. The temple was probably constructed late during Nyuserre’s reign. It was built in honour of the Egyptian Sun god Ra and named (Ssp-ib-R’), meaning “Re’s Favorite Place” or “Joy of Re.” Nyuserre also built a pyramid complex in the royal cemetery, 1 km (0.62 mi) south of Abu Ghurab necropolis in Abusir.
The temple consists of a rectangular walled enclosure, 100 by 76 meters, with an entrance on the eastern face. The complex is primarily built out of mudbrick covered with limestone and is located on the shores of the ancient Abusir lake bed. The main temple was built on a natural hill that had been enhanced. Artificial terraces on this hill were created, serving as the foundation for the temple. Entrance to the temple is gained through a small structure called the Valley Temple, on the eastern edge of the complex. It is partially submerged and has suffered extensive damage. It is known that an entrance corridor ran from the portico through the building and led to a causeway on the opposite side.
Altar at Solar Temple of Nyuserre
Inside the temple is a large, open courtyard. At the western end of the courtyard lie the ruins of a colossal stone obelisk. The obelisk had a red-granite pedestal, sloping sides, and a square top. However, the obelisk was constructed out of irregularly shaped limestone blocks. Estimates of the obelisk and base’s combined height vary, although the obelisk was most likely between thirty-five and fifty meters tall. An altar is located in the centre of the courtyard, near the eastern face of the obelisk. It was constructed from five large blocks of alabaster, which are arranged to form a symbol that has been translated as “May Ra be satisfied”. Records from Userkaf’s sun temple suggest that each day, two oxen and two geese were sacrificed. Several storerooms on the north side of the courtyard may have been where the sacrificial animals were slaughtered.
Along the east wall of the courtyard are a set of nine circular alabaster basins. It has been theorized that there have initially been ten basins. Some scholars believe these basins were used to collect blood from animal sacrifice. To support this hypothesis, they point to evidence of grooves cut into the stone floor of the courtyard that may have been used to drain away the blood. Other researchers, however, think that the basins were probably only symbolic or decorative since no knives or other equipment related to sacrifice have been discovered in the area. It has also been hypothesized that these basins were used as levelling devices for large areas, linked together and filled with water to provide a common reference point. Further examination, however, is required to determine the exact role of the alabaster bins.
A large, 30 x 10 m brick-built sun barque buried in a mudbrick chamber was excavated south of the temple.
In the covered corridor, on the east and southern edges of the temple, there were carved reliefs along the interior walls. The passageway was decorated with relief scenes depicting the sed-festival, an essential Ancient Egyptian ritual of renewal. These carvings highlight Re’s benevolent attitude towards Nyuserre’s reign through episodes of the sed-festival. Such depictions represent the most detailed display of this theme from the Old Kingdom. Similar sed-festival scenes also appear in the chapel towards the southern edge of the chapel.
Additionally, in the short passageway connecting to the obelisk platform from the south, known as the Room of the Seasons, are detailed painted reliefs in limestone depicting two of the three Egyptian seasons, akhet (inundation) and shemu (harvest). These scenes illustrate seasonal activities (i.e. netting fish, trapping birds, making papyrus boats, and phases of the agricultural cycle). The Room of the Season reliefs demonstrates the sun’s life-giving and sustaining role in nature, particularly during spring and summer. The earliest extensive corpus of such scenes is the vast illustrations of animal and plant life and human engagement with nature. King Nyuserre himself likely commissioned the artwork.
Although the reliefs do not reflect typical royal funerary decoration scenes during The Old Kingdom, and although skilfully designed, they are not as carefully executed as similar carvings from the 4th and early fifth dynasties.
The image to the right shows a fragmented relief from the temple. The carving portrays Egyptians trapping birds in a clap net. The clap net is missing, but six men are shown in the lower register holding the rope to pull the net shut. In the upper right register, two figures are shown caging two birds that have already been caught, while in the upper left corner, a cow and her calf make up the remnants of a much larger animal husbandry scene.
Nearly all reliefs at the site were removed, primarily to German collections, and many perished during World War II. Unfortunately, as a result, today, nearly all reliefs have been either destroyed or severely fragmented.
Other ruins in Abu Ghurab Necropolis
The German archaeological expedition under Friedrich Wilhelm von Bissing uncovered the ruins of large buildings of mudbricks beneath the sun temple of Nyuserre in Abu Ghurab necropolis. These may represent the remains of the sun temple of Neferefre, called Ra Hotep, “Ra’s offering table”, although this is still conjectural.