Journal: Thursday 16 January 2003
When we first came to Cairo Sam and I had asked at the SCA for special permission to visit the pyramids at Abusir and we were told that the site was open and we didn’t need special permission. When we arrived there this morning however, the guard told us that the site is closed – hasn’t been open for years and we couldn’t go in. We waved our papers from the SCA and explained to him that we were told we could visit, but to no avail, he was adamant. It was only when Sam, pretty annoyed by this time, took out her mobile phone and said she was going to ring Zahi Hawass’s office, that the gafir relented and said OK. Just as well because her phone had no reception here anyway.
We walked up the track to the pyramid of Sahure and here the guard left us to wander on our own. This pyramid, the first to be built here, was constructed for the second king of Dynasty V. It stands on a little hill, far to the north of Saqqara, where Sahure’s predecessors built their monuments. Although the pyramid itself is now in fairly poor condition, the mortuary temple on the eastern side of the pyramid fared better and there are two lovely restored palm columns still surviving in the courtyard. The pink granite columns bear the names and titles of the king and depict the cobra goddesses Nekhbet and Wadjet. A large granite architrave which would have supported pillars in the court, is inscribed with the cartouche of Sahure, still with some of its original green paint and can be seen lying on the ground. The mortuary temple was built from granite and basalt, which is probably why it has been preserved so well and many good-quality reliefs have been found here. The causeway too is still well-defined and leads to the valley temple which is now mostly destroyed, but we walked down to have a look anyway.
Next we walked over to the pyramids of Niuserre & Neferirkare a short distance away to the south. Neferirkare’s pyramid was the second to be built at Abusir and is the largest, dwarfing its close neighbour, the pyramid of Niuserre. There is evidence to suggest that Neferirkare’s pyramid was planned as a step pyramid and today four of the original six steps remain. At some point there was a change in design and the steps were filled with loose masonry and then converted to become a ‘true’ pyramid, enlarged and provided with a casing of red granite. We also saw remains of the King’s extensive mortuary temple on the eastern side, where an archive known as the ‘Abusir Papyri’, which documents temple administration and building work, was discovered in the 1890s. Close to Neferirkare’s pyramid, the king constructed a small pyramid for his consort Khentkawes. Once thought to be just a mastaba of an official, the Queen’s monument was only found to be what it is when the Czech expedition took a closer look in the mid 1970s and discovered the small pyramid was more complicated than it looked. The height is now only around metres, though the mortuary temple on the eastern side of the complex was once quite extensive. Khentkawes is named here as ‘King’s Wife’ (of Neferirkare) as well as ‘King’s Mother’ (of Neferefre or Niuserre).
The huge mastaba tomb of Ptahshepses, second only in size to that of Mereruka at Saqqara, was our last visit here on the way back to the site entrance. As a prince and an important high official in Sahure’s court, his tomb is impressive with its tall stone columns which once supported a roof and with many fragments of inscribed blocks lying about. The tomb itself was locked up, but we were able to see the two boat-shaped pits, unusual in a private tomb, that were probably intended to represent solar boats. There were also the remains of the sarcophagi of Ptahshepses and his wife still in situ in the open funerary chamber. When we got back to the guard house a couple of hours later we were in trouble. The Abusir antiquities inspector had arrived to find that the gafir had let us onto the site and was very angry. Whether he had calmed down by then or was just being polite, he was very nice to us and insisted we have a cup of tea in the office with him, during which time he grilled us about our interest in Abusir and by the time we left he had given us permission to visit Abu Ghurob, which had also previously been closed and sent his gafir to go with us.
The drive to Abu Ghurob was short, only about 1km away from the Abusir pyramids. It became a custom during Dynasty V for pharaohs to dedicate separate temples to the Heliopolitan sun-god Re, in addition to the construction of their pyramids. At Abu Ghurob there are remains of two sun-temples built by Userkhaf and Niuserre of Dynasty V, although the Abusir Papyri documents the names of six temples here. Only traces of Userkaf’s temple now remain and we spent most of our time looking around the better-preserved sun temple of Niuserre. This temple is on the eastern side of a mound once thought to be a pyramid, but is now known to be a flat-topped pyramid-shaped base of an obelisk. In the courtyard there is a large and beautiful altar, 6m in diameter, which was constructed from five blocks of sparkling white alabaster and is still in its original position. This is carved in deep relief with a circle at its centre and four ‘hotep’ symbols on the sides (the hieroglyphic sign representing ‘offerings’, ‘peace’ or ‘satisfied’). At the north-east corner of the enclosure is a series of ten large alabaster basins (nine still surviving) thought to be used in sacrificial rites, either for water or blood. There were many interesting archaeological bits and pieces at this site. As well as the large stone basins, we saw drainage channels cut into stone and a tall block with the cartouche of Niuserre. Outside the upper temple enclosure walls a boat-shaped pit lined with mudbricks can still be seen on the southern side and which is another reminder of the elements of the pyramid complex. I really loved the atmosphere at this site.
Once more we were driving back into Cairo during the afternoon rush-hour, cars and trucks nose-to-tail all along the Pyramids Road and all of the drivers leaning on their horns, as if that would get them anywhere faster. On the way back we stopped at the Cairo Mall which has six floors of shops, including a Metro supermarket that sells all sorts of food I’ve never seen before in Egypt. We bought nibbles and essentials to take back to the hotel and then stopped in a cafe for a lovely cool delicious farawla – fresh strawberry juice. Back at the Ciao there was a pile of freshly laundered clothes waiting on my bed with a bill for 10LE, which worked out at about £1 for ten items. Wish I had this service at home. We rounded off the day with dinner at Hatay, the local Egyptian restaurant around the corner and once more had a delicious meal, followed by coffee in a pavement coffee shop to watch the evening crowds parading up and down.
For more pictures from Abusir and Abu Ghurob see: Flickr