The golden age of the pyramids of Egypt

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The golden age of the pyramids of Egypt


The golden age of the pyramids is a period in the history of Egypt that took place during the 5th Dynasty. It is estimated that it ranges from -2460 to -2320, during the reign of 14 pharaohs, for a total of 16 pyramids.

These pyramids will be built on several necropolises, Giza, Abusir, Saqqara, but especially Abousir, a site north of Saqqara that was previously untouched by any royal tomb. One of their characteristics is the construction of a funerary complex in a necropolis, but also a temple called "solar", always Abousir. Solar temples are buildings based on the model of the Temple of Heliopolis, the reference with respect to the worship of the God Ra, the Sun God.


A period that fits into a certain logic

It was during the ancient empire that the pharaohs began to build pyramid-based funerary complexes. There was first a phase of discovery of the techniques, which generated the phase step pyramids, followed by the provincial pyramids, small step pyramids. Then there was a phase during which Pharaoh Snefrou tried, without success, to make pyramids with smooth faces before reaching it, which generated the period of the giant pyramids.

Of course, this period could not last and it was smaller pyramids that followed. We are then at the very beginning of the 5th Dynasty and there will be a sort of normalization of funeral complexes that will all come with the same type of buildings, identical roles and roughly equal dimensions. This rather long period during which Pharaohs built similar pyramids is called the Golden Age of the Pyramids. It will be followed by the period of pyramids with texts, characterized by the hieroglyphic texts written on the interior walls.


An evolution of Egyptian society

If the fifth dynasty inaugurates a new era, architecturally speaking, it is because there is a notable evolution in the Egyptian society of the time, as well in the beliefs as in the administration.

Regarding the administration, we must know that we are in a prosperous period, with a good territorial extension. Prosperity calls for population growth, and the need for an administration all the stronger that it must be exercised in remote places, difficult to access for the power that was hitherto highly centralized. So appear a new nobility that naturally takes power over the population it directs. This regionalization will generate new funeral practices specific to these administrators, between the power of the pharaoh and the people. Splendid mastabas are built for them, their graves are more and more complex. In comparison, the funerary complex of the pharaoh, more modest than in previous generations, seems simple. The two types of tombs are getting closer, initiating a feeling that Pharaoh is not as powerful as he was before.

The fifth dynasty thus introduces an important event, the feeling that the authority of the pharaoh is not so solid as it transmitted through different administrative layers and more directly administered. The provinces, called "nomes", develop nomarchs who gradually take their independence, announcing the future breakup of the old empire.


The standardization of the pyramids

The golden age of the pyramids as well as the following period, that of the pyramids with text, sees arriving the standardization of the architecture of the royal pyramid. Its shape, its dimension become standardized according to the following ribs: A pyramid of 150 cubits of side (78,6m) for a height of 100 cubits (52,4m). They are all designed in the same way, with a central core of 6 or 7 degrees covered with fine limestone extracted from the quarries of Tourah, a site east of Cairo. This limestone coating has been removed over time to be reused in the construction of "modern" buildings for each era, the pyramids have partially collapsed, to varying degrees, so that we do not have today of complete pyramids of these periods.


The first solar pyramids

The first pyramid inaugurating this new period is the famous pyramid of Menkaure on the Giza plateau. It is often believed that the proximity of the three pyramids of Khufu, Khafra and Menkaure is a continuity, but it is false. Not only these three pharaohs do not belong to the same architectural period, but they are not grandfather, father and son. Menkaure is the first to make a pyramid smaller than the previous ones, but it remains in the architectural logic of the previous ones, with the same types of buildings.

Learn more about Pyramid of Menkaure.


The next pharaoh, Shepseskaf, built a mastaba and not a pyramid. The reasons for this choice are unknown, but its burial can not enter the pyramids of Egypt. His successor, Khentkaous, was still a member of the Fourth Dynasty. Its pyramid is almost anecdotal in terms of volume: On a base of 45m side, it measures only 17m high. It does not mean that it is not important, but its small size and the little information we have about this pharaoh means that there have been no major studies of this pyramid. There is also another pyramid, without being sure of its chronology. It is called the Pyramid of Lepsius No. 50 because we do not know anything about it, except that it has been documented in the list of archaeologist Lepsius. It is with Uskakaf, the next pharaoh, that the age of the golden age of the pyramids really begins.


Userkaf and his successors

Userkaf is the first pharaoh of the 5th dynasty. He decides that his burial will be at Saqqara and build a funeral complex with a 50m pyramid for a base of 73m. He is also the first to build a solar temple he places at the necropolis of Abusir. He will be the precursor of this new way of predicting his immortality and will be followed by several pharaohs who will also build a complex and a temple in different places.

Of course, the interest of such constructions and put forward the divine nature of the pharaoh's function. The solar temple went hand in hand with the title of "Son of Ra" (Ra is the Sun-God), a title that was initiated by Djedefrê during the IVth Dynasty. If this association between the Sun God and the Pharaoh is new, the worship of the Sun, it was not. It appeared during the Second Dynasty but spread more prominently during the Third Dynasty. Djoser, who was the first pharaoh of the Third Dynasty, had a solar complex equipped with large solar altars. In the same way pharaoh Khaphren, who built the Sphinx, also built a solar temple. This is the famous Temple of the Sphinx, which is actually not related to the Sphinx but to the Sun. So the Sun is a central element of Pharaoh's life, but during the 5th Dynasty we move to a higher level of association between the Egyptian ruler and the God.

The successor of Userkaf was Neferhetepes who did not stay in the story. Its pyramid was very modest, it is only 17m high for a square base of 26m side. If it is anecdotal, it is not the case of that of Sahourê, who had himself built a burial comparable to that of Userkaf. He too had a solar temple built in Abousir, but the archaeologists still have not found his location. Her pyramid, she climbed to 47m for a base of 79m. It is largely collapsed due to the loss of its coating, used during the Middle Ages for other types of construction.

The successors of Userkaf followed his idea and were buried in a pyramidal tomb with a solar temple. However, it was not an intangible rule, and some of them only received the tomb. Moreover most of these tombs were, with some exceptions (Userkaf, Neferhetepes, Menkahouor and Djedkâré Isesi, built in the necropolis of Abusir.

The successor to Userkaf was Neferhetepes. Little is known about this pharaoh who rests under one of the smallest pyramids of the old empire: Only 17m for a 26m base. The next pharaoh, Sahure was the first to inaugurate the new necropolis of Abousir. He built himself a pyramid with his temple high (along the east face) which was connected, as was always the case, to a low temple located at the end of 235m of roadway. The pyramid was the spearhead of its funerary complex, it measured 79m high initially but it is nowadays partially collapsed, the fault with the recovery of the calcareous stones which clad it and which weakened the building. The next pharaoh, Neferikarê, also built his pyramid at Abusir, but he died before the end of his reign, so his complex was never completed. Part of the causeway and most of the low temple are missing. One of the peculiarities of this burial is that there were found papyri giving interesting information on the life of the Egyptian society at that time, towards the XXIVe century before JC. The funerary complex of Khentkaous II lies between the two previous pyramids, it was searched only in the 70s. It must be said that the site was of less interest to archaeologists than the others, the pyramid being almost completely collapsed and the whole of the site having almost disappeared (It was a small pyramid, 17m high only). Khentkaous II was the queen of Neferikare, she took the regency of the kingdom while waiting for the majority of these sons who succeeded her.

The successors of Userkaf followed his idea and were buried in a pyramidal tomb with a solar temple. However, it was not an intangible rule, and some of them only received the tomb. Moreover most of these tombs were, with some exceptions (Userkaf, Neferhetepes, Menkahouor and Djedkâré Isesi, built in the necropolis of Abusir.

His first son, Néférefrê died very young. His funeral complex had barely begun, and a mastaba had to be built urgently on the basis of the foundations of his pyramid, which had barely begun. The causeway and the low temple were not even started. When his brother Niouserrê took the throne he had his funeral complex built next to his brother and his parents, in Abousir. He reigned 30 years, which allowed him not only to complete his burial, but also to finish those of his ancestors. The whole of the necropolis of Abusir received at this time a great activity, for not only were these sites completed, but others were begun, with the construction of cemeteries of dignitaries who built magnificent mastabas there. but there are also simpler cemeteries for workmen and craftsmen. Niousserê was a pharaoh builder, he also owes a temple to Abu Ghorah. He was the last to have his tomb built at Abousir.

The next pharaoh was Djedkarê-Isesi, he chose to return to Saqqara for his life in the afterlife, near the pyramid of Chepseskaf. There are some remains of his pyramid whose low temple and part of the road are taken under the modern agglomeration.



See also:

The differents phases of pyramids

The biographies




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