Dashur: Bent Pyramid of Sneferu

Bent Pyramid - Sneferu is Shining, Sneferu is rising, Sneferu appears Bent Pyramid - Sneferu is Shining in the South, Sneferu rises in the south, Sneferu appears in the south

The first pyramid to be built at Dashur was the pyramid that we now know as the "Bent" Pyramid of Sneferu. The lower courses of the pyramid were built at an angle of 54 to 55 degrees, but the upper courses at a lower angle of 43 degrees, giving it the unique shape which has led to its modern name. When it was constructed it was called "Sneferu is shining in the south" (or "Sneferu is shining") because it was clad in polished Tura limestone.

Bent Pyramid and satellite pyramid from www.egyptarchive.co.uk

It is thought that it was built in three discrete stages. First the structure was intended to have a slope of nearly 60 degrees. This was reduced to 55 degrees and the base was enlarged. Finally, when the pyramid was almost forty-five meters high, the slope was reduced again to forty-five degrees. There are two main theories regarding the change in angle of the slope of the pyramid.

The first theory suggests that the angle was reduced when Sneferu realised that his pyramid at meidum was already beginning to collapse and decided that this was because the angle was too steep. The second theory is that Sneferu decided that building works were taking too long, perhaps due to his advancing age, and he decided to reduce the angle to reduce the quantity of masonry required to finish the pyramid. The fact that Sneferu went on to build at least one more pyramid (the Red Pyramid) after the Bent Pyramid make this latter theory unlikely. However, it is sometimes proposed that the unique design of the pyramid was planned from the start for some yet unknown religious purpose, but this theory is rejected by most experts.

The pyramid complex was surrounded by an enclosure wall formed from yellowish-grey local limestone. Within this wall sit the main pyramid, a satellite pyramid, a small mortuary temple and a small courtyard from which the causeway led out towards the valley temple.

map of the Bent Pyramid complex
  1. Main pyramid
  2. Enclosure wall
  3. Satellite Pyramid
  4. Eastern Mortuary Temple
  5. Causeway
  6. Valley temple

Pyramid layout

The Bent Pyramid is unique in having two entrances. The first entrance is on the north face around twelve meters above ground level. From there a passage descends to a horizontal passage leading to a large antechamber lined with huge limestone slabs and featuring a corbelled roof. At the far end of the antechamber a steep stairway (or ladder) leads up to the main burial chamber which also has a corbelled roof. A short corridor leads out of the burial chamber to the south west where it meets a vertical shaft (known as the "chimney") which is aligned with the vertical axis of the pyramid.

The second entrance is on the west face around one meter marginally above ground level. A descending corridor with two portcullis barriers leads to a corbelled upper chamber which is cut into the masonry of the pyramid itself. The remains of large cedar beams were found in openings in the south wall of this chamber and part of the chamber was filled with rough masonry some of which was bound with mortar. The purpose of the beams and the masonry is unclear but it is speculated that they may have formed a base or cover for the sarcophagus or they may have been intended to shore up the walls to prevent the monument subsiding. The cartouche of Sneferu appears in crude red ink on blocks in this chamber but experts do not agree on whether Sneferu was buried in this chamber. A connecting passageway joins the upper chamber with the chambers connected to the north entrance.

It is proposed by some that the passage connecting the upper chamber and the lower chambers represented an attempt to merge the traditional stellar theology in which rooms are organised on a north-south axis and the newer solar theology in which orientation is east-west. It is also proposed that the western structures have the same purpose as the southern tomb of the step pyramid of Djoser. Other experts speculate that there may be more chambers hidden within the body of the pyramid.

Satellite Pyramid

There is a small satellite pyramid to the south of the main pyramid in which the courses have been laid horizontally and the masonry cut to form the slope (rather than the older method in which casing blocks were laid at the angle of the slope). There are a number of patches in the masonry where large flakes of stone were dislodged during cutting and repairs have to be effected. However, the outer casing is in very good condition and largely intact.

From the entrance in the north face, a descending passage connects with a short horizontal corridor which in turn leads to an ascending passage terminating in a small chamber with a vaulted corbelled roof which some have suggested formed the inspiration for the Grand Gallery of the Great Pyramid of Giza built by his son Khufu. The chamber at the end of this ascending passage is too small for a human burial, so although the satellite is commonly known as the queen's pyramid it is more likely to have been of ritual significance.

There is another small shrine on the east face of the satellite pyramid which features an alabaster altar with large stele bearing the names of Sneferu.

Mortuary Temple

Temple on the east side of the Bent Pyramid from www.egyptarchive.co.uk

The pyramid complex includes a small temple on the east side of the pyramid which was originally constructed in Tura limestone and later enlarged with mudbricks. The altar of this temple was formed from two large stele and three large blocks of limestone resembling the hieroglyph "htp" ("hotep" - offering) Little of this temple remains, but stumps of the two stele situated behind the temple can still be seen.

Causeway

A causeway runs from the north east of the courtyard surrounding the main pyramid and connects the pyramid with the valley temple. The causeway did not have a roof but was paved with limestone blocks and had a low limestone wall on each side which was slightly curved at its top. There may have been a second causeway linking the complex with the docks, but no trace of this has been recovered to date.

Valley temple

This valley temple may be the first of its kind (no valley temple has been found attached to the pyramid of Sneferu at Meidum) but from this point on the valley temple was a standard element of the pyramid complex. The layout of the temple has elements normally associated with valley temples and elements more often associated with mortuary temples.

The temple was rectangular with three main sections of roughly equal size. The entrance in the south face was framed by wooden pillars and flanked by four storage chambers. During the Middle Kingdom a limestone stele from the tomb of Netjeraperef (one of Sneferu's sons) was added to the doorway. The walls were decorated with depictions of the personified nomes: the nomes of Upper Egypt on the east wall and the nomes of Lower Egypt on the west wall.

In the northern part of the temple there was a courtyard with ten limestone pillars. The pillars were painted red and the walls decorated with scenes from the Heb Sed Festival of Sneferu. Behind the courtyard there were six niches which would have held statues of Sneferu. these were originally fitted with wooden doors.

The valley temple was surrounded by a large mudbrick wall. The priests of the mortuary cult (which was active well into the Middle Kingdom) built their houses against this wall.

copyright J Hill 2010
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