Ancient Egypt - Pharaoh Unas & The Pyramid Texts


The reign of Unas was a time of change in Ancient Egyptian religion and in the ideology of kingship. This involved the lessening of the power of the kingship in conjunction with that of the administration and the priesthood. Meanwhile, the cult of Osiris was becoming more important with this god replacing the king as the

guarantor of life after death for the pharaoh's subjects. For an Egyptian of the time:


"The ...afterlife no longer depended on the relationship between the

individual mortal and the king, ...instead it was linked to his ethical

position in direct relation to Osiris". -The German Egyptologist Hartwig Altenmüller


In contrast, the cult of the sun god Ra was in apparent decline, even though Ra was still the most important deity of the Egyptian pantheon. The Pyramid Texts found in Unas' pyramid demonstrate the importance of Osiris as almost an equal to Ra in ancient Egyptian religion at the time. Both gods were believed to play the key roles in accessing the afterlife, with Ra as the source of life and Osiris as the force through which the next life would be attained.



Little is known of Unas' activities during his reign, which was a time of economic decline. Egypt maintained trade relations with the Levantine coast and Nubia, and military action may have taken place in southern Canaan. With Unas, however, we find decorated burial chambers inside the pyramid for the first time!


The Pyramid of Unas

The Pyramid of Unas was excavated by Gaston Maspero in 1881. The carved reliefs on the walls inside revealed scenes of hunting, sailing, and desert life. This artwork was not unlike those found on the mastaba tombs of the nobles who had been doing this for quite some time. Created in North Saqqara, between the pyramid of Sekhemkhet and the southwestern corner of the pyramid complex of Djoser, Unas had workers level and cover older tombs in the area in order to complete his pyramid.

The pyramid of Unas is the smallest of the pyramids completed during the Old Kingdom, having a square base of only 189 ft × 189 ft at 141 ft high.


The Mortuary Temple

The pyramid of Unas was part of a larger mortuary complex built around it. It was approached via an ancient lake on the shores of which Unas' valley temple was located. This temple received the provisions for the cult of the king and the offerings to be made were prepared there. At the back of the valley temple was the beginning of a 700-meter causeway, equaled only to that of Khufu, and leading to an upper temple adjacent to the pyramid. A thin slit in the roof of the causeway allowed the light to illuminate its walls which were covered, for their entire length, in painted reliefs. These depicted the Egyptian seasons, processions of people from the nomes of Egypt, craftsmen at work, offering bearers, battle scenes and the transport of granite columns for the construction of the pyramid complex.


At the end of the causeway was a large hall leading to a pillared open court surrounded by magazine chambers. The court led into the mortuary temple proper which housed statues of the king and were where the offerings to the deceased took place. At the southeast corner of the enclosure was a small satellite pyramid for the Ka of the king. As mentioned, the Ka was basically the soul of the king.


The Pyramid Texts

The most important discovery was the pyramid texts, These comprised of 228 spells designated to ensure that the pharaoh completed his journey to the next world, some of which may have been recited during the burial ceremony. Unas' pyramid was the first to feature such texts, but the tradition was quickly established to become the norm in the next dynasty.


No complete series exists in any of the pyramids, but a total of 400 have been compiled from the pyramid of Unas and his 6th Dynasty successors. These texts will eventually evolve into the coffin texts of the Middle Kingdom and later into the famous 'Book of the Dead' during the New Kingdom.


The burial chamber housed nothing but a black basalt sarcophagus sunk into the floor and a canopic chest. The sarcophagus proved to contain scattered bones, but whether these belonged to Unas is uncertain.



The pyramid texts were intended to protect the body of the pharaoh in three different stages as it laid in the burial chamber. First, the spells were written to make sure the body of the pharaoh remained undisturbed in its sarcophagus until it was ready for the big journey. The second set of spells were for when the pharaoh traveled across the sky to the west. This would take place in a solar barge and these spells were to make sure that the journey was without trouble; that the journey was safe. The third and final set of spells was to make sure the pharaoh would be accepted into the next world. These spells represented the belief that “if you say it, it will happen.”


The funerary cult of Unas continued until the end of the Old Kingdom and may have survived during the chaotic First Intermediate Period. The cult was still in existence or revived during the later Middle Kingdom (c. 2050–c. 1650 B.C.). This did not prevent Amenemhat I and Senusret I from partially dismantling the mortuary complex of Unas for its materials. In parallel to the official cult, Unas may have received proper veneration as a local god of the Saqqara necropolis until the Late Period (664–332 B.C.), nearly 2,000 years after his death. His statues have never been found.

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