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King Sahure. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain.

King Sahure and His Beautiful Pyramid: A Rare Peaceful Pharaoh?

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Sahure was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh who lived during the Old Kingdom period. He was a ruler of the 5th Dynasty, and his reign was marked by peace and prosperity. Amongst other things, Sahure traded with foreign lands, developed a navy, and opened up mines.

Sahure is also well-known for the pyramid complex that he constructed for himself. The Pyramid of Sahure is located in Abusir, near Cairo in Egypt, and Sahure’s successors followed in his footsteps by building their pyramids in that area as well.

On the one hand, the Pyramid of Sahure is much smaller than the earlier three main pyramids in Giza, which may be interpreted as a decline in pyramid building. On the other hand, this pyramid complex is notable for the quality of the stones used in its construction, and the rich relief decorations of its mortuary temple. This suggests that size should not be the sole criterion when considering the quality of these ancient Egyptian pyramids.

“He Who Is Close To Re”

Sahure, whose name means “He who is close to Re”, was born around middle of the 3rd millennium BC. His father is generally thought to have been Userkaf, the founder of the 5th Dynasty. During Userkaf’s reign, the cult of Re, or Ra, the Egyptian sun god, rose in importance. The name of his son, “Sahure” may be a reflection of the emphasis placed by Userkaf of this solar deity.

The identity of Sahure’s mother, on the other hand, is a bit of a mystery. Userkaf is believed to have been a descendant of Redjedef, the third pharaoh of the 4th Dynasty. As time went by, rival branches emerged, causing dynastic struggles.

In order to strengthen his position, Userkaf, married Khentkaues, who, unlike her husband, was a descendant of the main branch of the royal family. This ended the dynastic struggles, and allowed Userkaf to establish a new dynasty.

Therefore, it has been traditionally assumed that Sahure’s mother was Khentkaues. Additionally, Khentkaues is identified as “Redjedet”, a character in the collection of miracle stories known as the Westcar Papyrus.

Copy of the Westcar Papyrus (Keith Schengili-Roberts / CC BY-SA 2.5)

The text read as follows: according to the magician Djedi, Redjedet was destined to give birth to the children of Re, who would become the first pharaohs of the 5th Dynasty. Furthermore, in Khentkaues’ tomb in Giza, she is referred to as the ’mother of two kings’, one of whom, presumably, was Sahure.

Incidentally, in the tomb, Khentkaues is depicted with the royal uraeus (the upright cobra found on the foreheads of Pharaohs) and beard, suggesting that she may have served as Sahure’s regent. It does not appear she was his mother though: when excavations were carried out at the causeway of Sahure’s pyramid, reliefs were found indicating that the pharaoh’s mother was Neferhetepes, another of Userkaf’s wives.

Sahure as Pharaoh

Sahure succeeded Userkaf as pharaoh around 2,487 BC. According to the Turin King List, Sahure reigned for a total of 12 years. The Palermo Stone, on the other hand, records that Sahure ruled Egypt for a total of 13 years.

In any event, during Sahure’s reign, his kingdom enjoyed peace and prosperity. This was extended to neighboring peoples as well. For instance, trade was carried out between Egypt and its neighbors, which benefitted both parties. 

Trade ships depicted on Sahure’s mortuary temple (Miguel Hermoso Cuesta / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Scenes of trade activities can be found on the reliefs decorating the pharaoh’s mortuary temple. In one scene, for instance, Egyptian ships are shown returning home from the coastal town of Byblos, in present day Lebanon. The ships, which were loaded with the famed cedar trees of Lebanon, is depicted as carrying both Egyptians and Asiatics.

Collaborating evidence can be seen in artefacts from Lebanon. These include stone vessels stamped with the Sahure’s cartouche, as well as a thin piece of gold stamped to a chair which also bore the cartouche of the pharaoh.

The Land of Punt

Apart from Lebanon, Sahure is also recorded to have sent a trade mission to the land of Punt. Indeed, this is the first documented Egyptian expedition to Punt. From this fabled land, the Egyptians obtained various previous commodities not available in their own land. The most precious of these being myrrh, 80,000 measures of which was brought back by the expedition.

Apart from that, the expedition brought back 23,030 staves of wood, and 6,000 measures of electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver. In addition to the significance of Sahure’s expedition to Punt in terms of trade, this episode is also regarded as the establishment of an ancient Egyptian navy, for which the pharaoh is given credit.  

Sahure’s expedition to Punt also had another long-term effect, as it set a precedent for subsequent pharaohs. During the Middle Kingdom, for instance, expeditions were mounted by various pharaohs to the land of Punt.

By then, the scale of the expeditions had increased tremendously. For instance, one expedition, conducted in 1,985 BC, claimed that 3,000 men were involved. Another, carried out 50 years later, boasted the participation of 3,700 men.

Hatshepsut’s famous relief depicting the expedition to Punt (Σταύρος / CC BY 2.0)

The most famous expedition to Punt, however, was the one mounted by the New Kingdom pharaoh Hatshepsut. This was the largest, and best-documented expedition that we know of. No doubt, all these expeditions would have drawn inspiration from Sahure’s, and served to showcase the prosperity of each organizer's reign.

Sahure In Battle?

Although Sahure’s expedition to Punt was for the purpose of trade, and therefore a peaceful one, it seems that the pharaoh may have conducted military campaigns overseas as well. There are relief scenes portraying a raid by the Egyptians on the neighboring Libyans.

From this raid, the victorious Egyptians brought back the livestock of their enemies, as well as prisoners. In one scene, the pharaoh is portrayed as about to smite the Libyan captives, who are crouching before him in fear. 

Captives depicted in Sahure’s pyramid complex (ArchaiOptix / CC BY-SA 4.0)

On the one hand, the depiction of the military campaign against the Libyans is regarded as a historical event. In this case, it might be said that Sahure’s reign was not so peaceful after all. On the other hand, it has been argued that the reliefs might not be depicting a real event, and that it merely shows a sort of “ritual”.

Alternatively, it is suggested that Sahure was copying the achievement of one of his predecessors. It has been pointed out that the same scene of the pharaoh about to smite his enemies can be found in a relief from the mortuary temple of Pepi II (a 6th Dynasty pharaoh), and the Kawa Temple of Taharqa (a 25th Dynasty pharaoh). It is argued, therefore, if these later pharaohs copied this scene from Sahure, it is also possible that the latter in turn copied it also from one of his predecessors.

Sahure’s Mines And Their Lost Treasures

Closer to home, Sahure is reported to have opened mines. In the Sinai peninsula, for instance, turquoise mines were opened. It is speculated that these are located in the Wadi Maghara, and the Wadi Kharit.

Over to the south, in Nubia, diorite mines were opened. The stones from these mines were often used in the construction of monumental buildings, and indeed Sahure is known to have constructed several monuments.

One of the monuments that the pharaoh constructed was a sun temple. As the cult of Re, the sun god, became predominant during the 5th Dynasty, it is only natural for its pharaohs to built temples dedicated to this god.

Like most of the pharaohs of this dynasty, Sahure also built a temple to Re. We know that this temple was called Sekhet-re, meaning ‘Field of Re’. Unfortunately, the location of the temple has been lost to history, and might never be identified.

Another monument built by Sahure that we know of is his palace, which is called Uetjesneferusahure, meaning ‘Sahure’s Splendor Soars up to Heaven’. This name was found inscribed on ordinary tallow containers recently unearthed in the mortuary temple of Neferefre, one of Sahure’s successors. Like Sahure’s sun temple, the location of the palace is also unknown, though it is speculated that it might have been in Abusir.

Pyramids And Sun Temples

Fortunately, one of Sahure’s monumental building projects that has survived till this day is the pharaoh’s pyramid complex in Abusir. This name is the Arab version of the Greek Busiris, which in turn is derived from the ancient Egyptian ‘Pr-wsir’, meaning ‘House of Osiris’. This indicates that the site was related to a temple dedicated to Osiris.

Ruins of Sahure’s pyramid complex at Abusir (John Bodsworth / Public Domain)

Abusir is located between two other necropolises: Giza to the north, and Saqqara to the south. Sahure was the first pharaoh to build a pyramid complex at this site.

It is thought that a new necropolis was established at Abusir because Giza and Saqqara were already full of pyramids and tombs. In addition, the site was linked to the Nile River via Abusir Lake, which made it easier to transport building materials to the new necropolis by boat. 

Although Sahure was the first pharaoh to build a pyramid complex at Abusir, he was not the first to build a monument there. In fact, this achievement belongs to his predecessor, Userkaf.

The first monument built at Abusir by a pharaoh was the Sun Temple of Userkaf, known to the ancient Egyptians as Nekhen-re, meaning ‘Stronghold of Re’. This is the first known sun temple at Abusir, but unlike Sahure’s Sekhet-re, the location of Userkaf’s sun temple has been identified by modern archaeologists.

Incidentally, Userkaf did not build his own pyramid complex at Abusir. Instead he chose a site beside the enclosure wall of the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara. 

The Necropolis At Abusir

The 5th Dynasty pharaohs who succeeded Sahure continued to build pyramids at Abusir, thereby turning it into the main royal necropolis of this dynasty. It is believed that at one time, there were as many as 14 pyramids at Abusir. Today, however, only four pyramids (those of Sahure, Neferirkare, Niuserre, and Neferefre) are still recognizable as such.

In addition, the pharaohs of the 5th Dynasty built other sun temples at Abusir, the last of which being constructed during the reign of Menkauhor, the dynasty’s seventh ruler. Interestingly, like Userkaf, Menkauhor also built his pyramid outside Abusir, at nearby Dashur. After Menkauhor’s reign, Abusir was abandoned by the pharaohs, but remained popular amongst the ancient Egyptian nobility. 

The Pyramid Of Sahure

The Pyramid of Sahure is relatively small in size, especially when compared to the three main pyramids at Giza. The base of Sahure’s pyramid measures 78 m (255.9 ft.) on one side, and rises to a height of 47 m (154 ft.).

Internal construction of the pyramid (Ludwig Borchardt / Public Domain)

Due to a design flaw, however, the base of the pyramid is not completely square. As a comparison, the Pyramid of Menkaure, the smallest of the three main pyramids at Giza, has a base of 108.5 m (356 ft.), and an original height of 65.5 m (215 ft.). Whilst the Pyramid of Sahure may be smaller than its counterparts in Giza, it has been observed that the stones used to build it are of a higher quality, and more diverse. 

It is believed that the pyramid rest on a foundation of at least two layers of limestone. This, however, is only an assumption, as this foundation has not been excavated. The core of the pyramid consists of six steps of limestones held together by mud mortar. A casing of white limestone from Maasara covers the core, thereby turning the step pyramid into a ‘true’ pyramid.

The entrance to the pyramid is located on the north side of the structure. This is connected to a short passage that descends to a small hallway, the area after which is guarded by a pink granite portcullis. Beyond this is a corridor lined with granite, which rises to the antechamber.

Behind the antechamber is the burial chamber, which had a gabled roof supported by limestone beams. Unfortunately, the antechamber and burial chamber have suffered much damage, and only a fragment of a basalt sarcophagus was found in the latter.

A Peaceful Trader And Builder Of Wonders

In addition to the pyramid itself, Sahure’s pyramid complex also included a mortuary temple, a valley temple, a satellite temple, and a causeway. These structures are decorated with reliefs, another feature that attests to the quality of Sahure’s pyramid complex.

Reconstruction of Sahure’s pyramid complex. Entrance to the complex was by river (Vincent Brown / CC BY 2.0)

The reliefs depict various scenes, including, as mentioned earlier, an expedition to Punt, and a military campaign against the Libyans. Other scenes include Sahure fishing and hunting, a symbol of the pharaoh’s sacred duty to show mastery over nature. There are also scenes depicting bears, probably imported from Syria, another sign of Sahure’s foreign relations.

To conclude, Sahure, though not the best-known of pharaohs, was important in his own right. As indicated by the records, his reign was marked by peace and prosperity, and trade with foreign lands flourished.

As a builder, Sahure constructed several monumental buildings, though only his pyramid complex survived till this day. Though smaller in size than the main pyramids at Giza, Sahure’s pyramid complex was made of higher quality stone, and decorated more elaborately with reliefs.

Top image: King Sahure. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain.

By Wu Mingren      


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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