Abusir necropolis

Abusir is the Arab name given to the Greek town of Busiris and the Old Kingdom necropolis in its vicinity. The Greek name Busiris is derived from the ancient Egyptian phrase "pr wsir" ("the house of Osiris) which relates to the temple of Osiris. There are in fact a number of small villages in Upper and Lower Egypt with the name Abusir or Busiri.

abusir necropolis: pyramids of Niuserre, Neferirkare and the temple and pyramid of Sahure abusir necropolis: artist impression by Ludwig Borchardt

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 and 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 when compared with those of their illustrious predecessors of the fourth dynasty - in particular the pyramids of Giza (including the Great Pyramid) and the Step Pyramid of Djoser. They are largely constructed in local stone which is itself of poorer quality than the large blocks which were transported for miles to construct the pyramids of Giza and Saqqara. This may suggest a waning of royal power or imply that these pharaohs had less disposable wealth or other pressing concerns which diverted their resources away from pyramid building.

abusir necropolis map
  1. Niuserre Sun Temple
  2. Userkaf Sun Temple
  3. Unfinished pyramid
  4. Pyramid of Sahure
  5. Ptahshepse mastaba
  6. Pyramid of Niuserre
  7. Pyramid of Neferirkare
  8. Pyramid of Khentkaus II
  9. Pyramid of Neferefre
  10. Lepsius XXIV (24)
  11. Lepsius XXV (25)
  12. necropolis
  13. shaft tomb

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. A number of his successors also built solar temples at Abusir, but also chose to construct their burial pyramids there (whereas Userkaf built his pyramid beside the enclosure wall of the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara). The last solar temple to be built there was apparently constructed by Menkauhor, although this monument has not been located 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.

It is though that there were at one time fourteen pyramids in the necropolis of Abusir although only four are still in recognizable condition: the pyramids of Sahure, Neferirkare, Niuserre (which is in the best condition), and pyramid of Neferefre (unfinished). There are a number of smaller pyramids and mastabas at the site which have largely collapsed into rubble (including a pyramid dedicated to Khentkaus II - the wife of Neferirkare) and a tomb dedicated to Ptah-Cepses (which is in poor condition). There is also an unfinished pyramid which is generally attributed to Shepseskare. There are a number of Sun Temples to the north at Abu Gurab which were also constructed by the pharaohs of the fifth dynasty.

All of the pyramids of Abusir are step pyramids (unlike the "true" pyramids of Giza and Saqqara) although 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. The pyramids of Sahure, Neferirkare (unfinished) and Neferefre are all aligned to Heliopolis ("Iwnw"), a cult centre for the sun god Re. However, Niuserre chose not to follow this pattern but instead placed his pyramid between those of Sahure and Neferirkare thus adopting the unfinished causeway and valley temple which were initially built for the pyramid of Neferirkare.

The site now open to the public although it is generally not included in a standard tour of Egypt.

copyright J Hill 2010
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