Ancient Egypt - Pharaoh Userkaf

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

Userkaf, the first of the 5th Dynasty Sun Kings, was the grandson of Djedefre who built a pyramid just outside the northeast corner of Djoser's enclosure wall. Userkaf's pyramid is part of a larger mortuary complex comprising of a mortuary temple, an offering chapel and a cult pyramid as well as a separate pyramid and mortuary temple for Userkaf's Queen. The entire pyramid complex is terribly ruined and the interior of the pyramid is inaccessible.

The Pyramid of Userkaf

The pyramid was originally around 161 ft high with an inclination of 53° identical to that of Khufu's great pyramid. The core of the pyramid was built of small, roughly-hewn blocks of local limestone disposed in horizontal layers. This meant a considerable saving of labor as compared to the large and more accurately-hewn stone cores of 4th Dynasty pyramids. However, as the outer casing of Userkaf's

pyramid fell victim to stone robbers throughout the millennia, the loosely assembled core material was progressively exposed and fared much worse over time than that of the older pyramids. This explains the current ruined state of the pyramid.

The pyramid core was created in a step-like structure, a construction technique similar to that of the 4th dynasty, although the building material was of a significantly lower quality. The outer casing of the pyramid was made of fine Tura limestone.

The pyramid, itself, does not have any internal chambers, as all the chambers for this pyramid were located underground. These were constructed in a deep open ditch dug before the pyramid was created. The entrance to the underground chambers was located north of the pyramid from a pavement in the

court in front of the pyramid face. This is different from the 4th dynasty pyramids for which the entrance to the internal chambers was located on the pyramid side itself. The entrance was hewn into the bedrock and floored and roofed with large slabs of white limestone, most of which have been removed in modern times.

From the entrance, a 61 ft long, southward descending passage leads to a horizontal tunnel, some 26 ft below the pyramid base. The first few meters of this tunnel were roofed and floored with red granite. The tunnel was blocked by two large stones of red granite, the first one still having traces of the gypsum plaster used to seal it.

Behind the granite barrier, the corridor branched eastward to a T-shaped magazine chamber which probably contained Userkaf's funerary equipment. The presence of such a magazine chamber, located under the base of a pyramid, is unique of all the 5th and 6th dynasty pyramids.

At the south end of the corridor lies an antechamber, which was located directly under the tip of the pyramid. The antechamber was oriented on the east–west axis and led west to the king's burial chamber which had the same height and width as the antechamber, but was longer. At the western end of the burial chamber, fragments of an empty black basalt sarcophagus was discovered which had been originally placed in a slight depression as well as a canopic chest. The chambers were protected from the pyramid weight by a gabled ceiling made of two large Tura limestone blocks, an architecture common to all pyramids of the 5th and 6th dynasties. The chambers were lined with the same material, while the floor pavement was lost to stone robbers.

The Mortuary Temple

Userkaf's mortuary temple layout and architecture is difficult to establish with certainty. Not only was it extensively quarried for stone throughout the millennia, but a large Saite period shaft tomb was also dug in the middle of it, thus damaging it further.

The walls of the courtyard were adorned with fine reliefs of high workmanship depicting scenes of life in a papyrus thicket, a boat with its crew and names of Upper and Lower Egyptian estates connected to the cult of the king.

Two doors at the south-east and south-west corners of the courtyard led to a small hypostyle hall with four pairs of red granite pillars. Beyond this were storage chambers and statue niches. It is interesting to note that the mortuary temple of Userkaf's pyramid was located on the south side of the pyramid, instead of the usual east. This most likely occurred because the temple was bathed in the sun's rays throughout the day from the south.

The Portraits of the Pharaoh

An impressive and much larger than life size head of Userkaf was found in the temple courtyard. Made of pink Aswan granite, it is the largest remaining Old Kingdom portrait head, if one excludes the Great Sphinx. Another fine portrait of the king was discovered in the valley temple of Abu-Gurob. This is particularly important because it is one of the few sculptures from the Old Kingdom that shows the pharaoh wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt.

The Sun Temple of Userkaf

The first of the 'Solar Kings' or 'Sun Kings', Userkaf constructed the first of five sun temples just south of Saqqara, at Abu-Gurob. These Solar Temples were something not seen before in Egypt and were the forerunners to the later obelisks of the New Kingdom. In front of the obelisk was a sun altar which was later adopted by Akhenaten and his temple to the Aten during the later 18th Dynasty. A causeway led

north to south to a valley temple, and to the south, was a boat of Ra constructed of mud-brick.

We lack specific details, but it is believed that the construction of the sun temples mark a shift from the royal cult, especially prevalent during the 4th Dynasty, to the cult of the sun god Ra. With this shift, the king was no longer revered directly as a god, but rather as the son of Ra, thus changing the royal mortuary cult. This sun cult appears to have been building during the end of the 4th Dynasty, when King Djedefre first began using the royal title 'Son of Ra'. After Userkaf, the pharaohs take on unique names that praise the sun god Re (or Ra). We get names like Sahure, Neferirkare, Nyuserre, Djedkare.

The successors of Userkaf constructed their own sun temples in a row, just to the northwest of the original. Now little remains of these, other than mounds and scattered stone. This goes for their pyramid complexes as well, which were slightly further south of Userkaf's pyramid. The last kings of the dynasty moved back to Saqqara for their burial place. From the beginning of this dynasty on, we also note an increase in the number of high officials. Contrary to the 4th Dynasty, high offices were now no longer restricted to members of the royal family. Government and administration were reformed which resulted in a far more efficient bureaucracy.

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