Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Pyramid of
Unas at Saqqara

The Pyramid of Unas at Saqqara, even though the smallest of the Old Kingdom Royal pyramids, is considerably more famous and better known then the king who built it. This is because, for the first time that we know of, the 128 magical spells of the Pyramid Text appear on the walls of its subterranean chambers. It was once called "Beautiful are the (cult) Places of Unas", but today it is little more then a pile of rubble that, sitting next to the famous Step Pyramid, seems hardly noticeable.

Viewed of the south face

Unas' pyramid did not go unnoticed by Perring and shortly afterwards, of Lepsius, who numbered it 35 on his archaeological map. But its significance was not known until after Maspero, already having found parts of the Pyramid Text in Pepi I and Merenre I's pyramids, decided to reexamine Unas' pyramid in 1881. In 1899, at Maspero's request, Alexandre Barsanti began an investigation, that unfortunately was not all that systematic, of the pyramid that would last until 1901. He also partially excavated Unas' mortuary temple, as well as other nearby structures. Firth continued the excavation of the temple in 1929, but he regrettably died in 1931. His work was taken up by Lauer from 1936 until 1939, and then by Hassain, Goneim and Hussan, all Egyptian archaeologists. They continued to excavate the site until 1949. In the 1970s, Ahmad Musa, another Egyptian, excavated the lower half of the causeway and the valley temple.

The causeway is not straight, making two turns in order to probably avoid uneven ground or even other buildings. In fact, material from older buildings was used in the causeway's underpaving. In the 1970s the Egyptian archaeologist, Mousa, reconstructed the "tomb of the two brothers", Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep", which is now a popular tourist stop, mostly from blocks found in Unas' causeway. Polychrome bas-relief scenes adorn the walls of the causeway. They show men hunting for lions, leopards and giraffes, boats transporting granite palm columns from Aswan, battles with Asian enemies, the transport of prisoners, and of course, the well known scene of starving natives. However, the meaning of this last scene is, if anything, less clear today then ever. It was originally believed that the scenes record the decline of this period, but new theories counter this assumption. Just south of the upper part of the causeway were two forty-five foot white limestone structures that at one time probably held long, slender wooden boats.

Scenes of Emaciated People Possibly Suffering from Famine

Scenes of Exotic Animals

Passing through the pink granite gateway that bears the name and title of Teti, one first enters the alabaster paved entrance hall. Here, one finds relief scenes depicting offering goods being delivered. After the entrance hall is the open courtyard. The ambulatory was supported by eighteen pink granite columns shaped as palms. These columns are no longer here, but some have survived by being reused in the Delta at modern Tanis, and in the Louvre and British Museums. Many of the reliefs are also gone, at least one showing up in Amenemhet I's pyramid complex in Lisht. To either side of the entrance hall and courtyard are storage annexes, where in the Late Period, large shaft tombs were also dug.

Ground Plan of the Pyramid of Unas (Unis) at Saqqara in Egypt

From here, several entrances led past the small cult pyramid and into the inner temple and a five niche chapel, though nothing remains of this. Also destroyed is the antechamber which led into the offering hall. But aside from a pink granite false door, little else remains of the offering hall. On the false door, a block of which is also in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo, are inscriptions referring to the tutelary divinities protecting the residents of Nekhen and Buto. Around the offering hall are more storage annexes.

Unas had a long reign, perhaps as long as thirty years. Therefore, he had time to build a larger pyramid, but we believe that it was probably a time of decreasing wealth, so he limited the size of this building project. Around the whole pyramid, and a smaller cult pyramid, there was once a massive stone wall that was at least seven meters high. The core of the pyramid consists of six layers, with rough blocks of local limestone decreasing in size as the builders reached the top layer. The casing was of fine, white limestone, some of which remains on the very lowest levels. The plan of the substructure, as well as Unas' mortuary temple, is very similar to the Djedkare complex, with the original entrance under the north chapel.

The north chapel is now all but gone. It is a single room, and on its south wall next to the pyramid itself, there was an altar shaped in the hieroglyphic sign for a hetep (offering table). Behind the altar was a stela.

Inside, there are corridors leading to an antechamber and burial chamber, both of which originally had gabled ceilings. Corridors, the antechamber and burial chamber all painted on their ceilings yellow stars on a blue background. In both of the chambers, the Pyramid Text was written in bas-relief painted in a blue green on all but the west wall of the burial chamber. This color signifies the morning and the belief in rebirth. The west wall of the burial chamber was coated with a layer of alabaster that was painted white, black, yellow, blue and red, the five colors of the royal palace facade.
Little was found within the pyramid. There was once a canopic chest in the floor on the southeast corner of the sarcophagus. Bits and pieces of the king's mummy was found and parts of two small knives used during the Opening of the Mouth ceremony.


Original name: Perfect are the sites of Unas.
Original height: 43 m / 143 ft.
Base length: 57.5 m / 192 ft.
Angle of inclination: 56° 18' 35".
Date of construction: 5th dynasty.


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