In every recession there are winners and losers. Meet Chief Justice and Vizier Mereruka, one of the winners. Even as the kings during his lifetime were building ever-smaller and cheaper pyramids, this officer of the royal court built the Taj Mahal of the Sixth Dynasty.
Ok, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But Mereruka stands out as an excellent example how the power dynamics were shifting as the Old Kingdom entered its twilight years.
Mereruka, whose name is often shortened to Meri, was the Chief Justice and Vizier of King Teti, the first pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty. He succeeded Vizier Kagemni, whose tomb lies to the east of Mereruka’s.
Mereruka came to power during a unique phase of the Old Kingdom when a shrewd court officer could garner power and wealth previously unheard of. King Teti had come to the throne through indirect means, by virtue of his marriage to Queen Iput I, the eldest daughter of King Unas. This, combined with the growing power of provincial leaders and nobility, fostered an urgency to consolidate his own base as much as possible, and creating a reliable ally of Mereruka was certainly a step in the right direction.
King Teti sought to build loyalty by retaining much of Unas’ royal cabinet and by being generous with granting promotions and ceremonial titles, but he lavished especial attention on Mereruka. The Vizier’s list of titles reads like the obituary of a French duke. But the crowning jewel, so to speak, was the marriage of his own daughter, Seshseshet (also called Watetkhethor) to Mereruka. After all, such an arrangement had brought Teti to power in the first place.
The arrangement seems to have been mutually beneficial. Pharaoh Teti had a relatively stable twenty-year reign—although Manetho claims he was assassinated by his own guards–and Mereruka died a wealthy man, as his tomb shall attest. Mereruka was an appreciative officer of the royal court, naming his son Meriteti, which means Beloved of Teti, and serving as the High Priest of Teti’s funerary cult.
The Mastaba of Mereruka
Mereruka’s tomb is emblematic of the changes occurring in Egypt at the dawn of the Sixth Dynasty, a tipping point which would culminate in the First Intermediate Period. The previous dynasty had seen increased immigration even as Egypt’s own crops were failing. Provincial leaders were becoming more independent. The rise of the Heliopolitan Priesthood of Ra, while not necessarily causative of a decline of pharaonic power, nonetheless represented another faction to be appeased during a time of diminishing resources. It was a bad time to be king…
But a great time to be an influential court officer.
Mereruka’s tomb is the largest in Egypt, having 31 rooms—21 for Mereruka and his funerary cult, and five each set aside for his wife and son. Situated to the north of Teti’s Pyramid, and to the west of Kagemni’s mastaba, the size and luxury of Mereruka’s tomb make an unmistakable statement. Pyramids were in decline in both size and quality beginning in the Fifth Dynasty, and although there was a clear emphasis on temple building, the kings clearly had to prioritize the royal budget while officials such as Mereruka were living, well, like kings.
Even before entering the mastaba, the entrance to Mereruka’s tomb suggests a place where life and the afterlife were celebrated rather than mourned. Relief images of Mereruka greet the visitor at both sides of the entrance, accompanied by his wife, Seshseshet, in miniature, and his many titles are listed along the frame. Although in truth his images are holding staves, his upraised arms seem to beckon friend, family, and supplicant alike.
The tomb is entered from the south, and the vestibule does little to discourage the celebratory mood. More reliefs of the vizier and his family adorn the walls within, along with depictions of a lush marshland with all manner of fish and fowl, and scenes of agricultural bounty. One scene portrays Mereruka sitting at an easel painting scenes of the changing seasons while apparently looking out the mastaba door. One is left with the impression of a kindly benefactor appreciating the continuation of life from the Beyond.
One of the more interesting rooms lies to the east, and suggests that the southern entrance may not have been the original vestibule. The second largest in the mastaba, this room has four large square pillars, each bearing its own depiction of the vizier, across from what appear to be four more pillars that have been incorporated into the eastern wall. There are a number of reasons for thinking this may have been the original vestibule.
First, there is the location. Entrances to mastabas were traditionally located in the east, where the second set of pillars in this room appears to have been walled in. The current vestibule is to the south. Second, there is the size—this room is considerably grander than the current vestibule. Third, the room is richly decorated, with scenes of servants and attendants, while serving no apparent function.
We can only speculate as to why an eastern vestibule may have been walled off. It may have been due to the proximity of Kagemni’s tomb, which might have been expanded westward. It may also have reflected a change in religious conventions. As the cult of Ra grew in influence, kings began shifting their mortuary complexes from an eastern orientation toward the south. For a much more in-depth exploration of this room, check the link for Osirisnet in the Further Reading section below.
The largest room in the mastaba is the mortuary chapel, where Mereruka’s priests and family would come to pay homage to the deceased vizier. The room is entered from the south, and directly opposite of the doorway a statue of Mereruka seems to step forward from a false doorway to greet the living.
The false doorway represents Mereruka’s portal between worlds. Four small steps ascend the base of his shrine to an alabaster altar where offerings of food, incense, and the devotion of the living would be made. While the face of Mereruka’s statue may have suffered the indignities of time (and vandals), there is no denying the expression of serenity.
There are two other doorways exiting this room. One leads to a suite of storage rooms, and the other leads to the burial chambers of his son, Meriteti. This latter door appears to have been a later addition, but its location and relatively small size seem to have been efforts to minimize the damage to the reliefs decorating the walls of Mereruka’s chapel.
The true damage is a result of the passage of the millennia, but plenty remains to bespeak of the comfort Mereruka and his family enjoyed while circumstances elsewhere grew increasingly dire. The scene depicted below is as good a passing as one could ask of those days. Mereruka is seated in a chair on the deck, and the caption reads “A good road toward the beautiful West, in peace.” Those last words, em hotep—in peace—would ring increasingly hollow in the years to come.
The Ancient Egypt Site
Copyright by Keith Payne, 2009, all rights reserved