Pharaoh Userkaf is one of the many Egyptian kings who have left very few clues regarding his biography and reign. Well, he did leave a pyramid and a few temples from which we have been able to extract a couple of details.
Actually, these structures contain some intriguing clues about Userkaf and his times, and a shadow of things to come.
Userkaf, whose name means “his soul (Ka) is powerful,” was the first king of the Fifth Dynasty. His reign was short, about seven years, around the time of 2504 to 2496 BC. We do not know who Userkaf’s father was, but his grandfather was King Djedefre, and Neferhetepes, previously thought to be his mother, was more likely one of his wives. This confusing set of trivia is about all we know of his biography, but fortunately, his monuments suggest a bit more.
The solar cult of Ra, based in Heliopolis, had steadily grown in power and influence throughout the Fourth Dynasty, and was beginning to exert some of that influence over the nobility. We know that Userkaf built a temple dedicated to the growing religion in Abusir, and that other Fifth Dynasty kings would follow his example.
This may have been a political move intended to curry favor with this increasing constituency, with the unintended effect of undermining his own authority as the primary divinity of the Egyptian people. The Fifth Dynasty would be a transitional period where the wealth and power of lesser, more local, nobility is on the increase, and the new cult was an additional subtle drain on the supremacy of the Pharaoh.
Little remains of Userkaf’s pyramid besides a pile of rubble. The construction, which may have been cosmetically attractive at the time, seems nevertheless to be a throwback to the days before Snefru. It had a limestone casing that would have given it the appearance of a smooth-sided pyramid. But the casing was stripped away in antiquity, and the core seems to have had little tolerance for erosion. Fortunately, there is still enough of Userkaf’s complex left to note some other interesting deviations from long-established standards.
Userkaf’s pyramid complex has all of the elements of previous complexes—a valley temple on the river with a causeway leading up to a mortuary temple adjacent to the pyramid, and a smaller enclosed cult pyramid. But the layout may reflect the influence of the Ra cult.
The mortuary temple is built to the south of the pyramid, rather than the east, and is oriented away from the pyramid itself. This southward orientation maximizes the hours of direct sunlight on the funerary complex. It has also been suggested that the decision to build the mortuary temple to the south may have been due to unfavorable terrain to the east, or the proximity of Djoser’s complex, but this fails to explain why the orientation of the temple is reversed.
Userkaf’s choice to build his pyramid so close to that of Djoser also represents a shift. Pyramid building in the northern end of the Memphis Necropolis, particularly in the area of Giza, had been in vogue since the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty. Userkaf’s predecessor, Shepseskaf, had broken with this tradition by moving back to Saqqara. But Userkaf chose not only to return to Saqqara, but to build his pyramid to the immediate north-east of Djoser’s complex.
These anomalies and reversals may not tell us much of Pharaoh Userkaf as an individual, but they certainly point to a time of changing conventions and emerging powers. There is a pronounced movement away from the ways of the Fourth Dynasty, where the absolute rule of the pharaoh was unquestioned. His decision to move away from the monuments of the Fourth Dynasty and back to those of the Third Dynasty is reflected in the construction of his pyramid, which was a clear devolution.
Times were quietly changing, and not for the better.
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