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Ancient Egyptian royal burials

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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Early Dynastic era

The First and Second Dynasties were characterized by funerary Enclosures (mainly Abydos)

The earliest sacral buildings related to the burials of Egyptian kings are the funerary enclosures at Abydos. The actual burials were about one mile southwest. From Narmer onward, all the Dynasty 1 kings had their funerary enclosures built at Abydos. The early Dynasty 2 kings (Hetepsekhemwy, Raneb and Ninetjer) built their funerary enclosures at سقارة Saqqara instead; the remaining Dynasty 2 kings (besides Sekhemib, whose enclosure remains unidentified) built their enclosures at Abydos. No funerary enclosures postdate Dynasty 2. Funerary enclosures were monumental mud brick constructions reaching 10 m tall and 65 x 122 m in dimension. Their north, west and south exteriors had niches; the main east side had elaborate panels. These paneled walls are called palace façades. The main entrances were in the north wall (east end) and east wall (south end). The large interior courtyard was empty besides a small brick building with a paneled façade (the so-called palace) behind the southeast entrance.

Funerary architecture was modeled after architecture of this world. Funerary enclosures are most reminiscent of fortresses of the gods. In early Egypt, there were many local deities who had not yet taken their familiar later forms; these powers were known as followers of Horus (the king). Represented by standards and flags, they would all sail to the fortresses of the gods to convene and delivery offerings (taxes) to Horus, who sat upon a 'primeval' mound in the large courtyard as either a standard or the king himself. Thus the contract of the deities as followers of Horus was renewed. A palace-like temporary residence may have existed for the king by an entrance. Also, the fortress of the gods was the site of the Sed-festival. This was ideally carried out every thirty years, whereupon gods convened and the aging king ceremonially died and was reborn, thus regenerating his life and reign in this world and the next. Even as late as Senwosret I, the Sed-festival was celebrated in a forrtress of the gods.

First Dynasty

Narmerأم القعااب
Umm el-Qa'ab
Ahaأم القعااب
Umm el-Qa'ab
Djerأم القعااب
Umm el-Qa'ab
Djetأم القعااب
Umm el-Qa'ab
Meritneithأم القعااب
Umm el-Qa'ab
Den/Udimuأم القعاب
Umm el-Qa'ab
Semerkhetأم القعاب
Umm el-Qa'ab
Adjibأم القعاب
Umm el-Qa'ab
Qa'aأم القعاب
Umm el-Qa'ab

Second Dynasty

Hetepsekhemwyسقراة Saqqara
Ranebسقراة Saqqara
Ninetjerسقراة Saqqara
Peribsenأم القعاب
Umm el-Qa'ab
Khasekhemwyأم القعاب
Umm el-Qa'ab
Also a fort at Hierakonpolis.

Old Kingdom

Third Dynasty

Djoserسقراة Saqqara
Djosertetiسقراة Saqqara
Horus KhabaZawiyat al-AryanLayer pyramid at Zawiyat al-Aryan, halfway between Giza and سقراة Saqqara.

Djoser Complex (سقارة Saqqara)

Djoser was the first Dynasty 3 king and built the Djoser Complex at سقارة Saqqara, famous as the first stone Egyptian funerary monument and for the first pyramid, the Step Pyramid. Designed by the architect Imphotep, the Djoser Complex united Upper and Lower Egypt architecture; this pastiche was simplified and then abandoned altogether by subsequent rulers. The Djoser Complex is surrounded by a 277 x 544 m stone enclosure like Abydene and Memphite funerary enclosures. There are fourteen mock gates distributed along all four walls, with one true gate on the east wall (south end). There are two royal tombs, an important example of multiple burials. The tombs have galleries with reed motifs of green tile, recalling prehistoric architecture. Both tombs were originally beneath mastabas, but only the north tomb mastaba was built up to form a stepped pyramid.

In addition to the pyramids are dummy buildings, real buildings and various courtyards. Attached to the north side of the pyramid is the largest and most complicated structure, considered a replica of a royal cult palace. There are also two buildings next to each other but in very different styles, thought to be replicas of shrines of Nekhbet and Wadjit, goddesses of the Upper and Lower Egyptian crowns. There are also dozens of shrines for divinities, all around a Sed-festival court, recalling the sparse Abydene funerary enclosures which likely stood for fortresses of the gods. There is also a monumental platform that supported a double throne, a key element of the Sed-festival. Seven statues of the king found in the court would have contributed to the Sed-festival requirements. There are many other statues of the king, thought to represent him living in his funerary residence.

The Djoser Complex united Abydene funerary architecture with Memphite traditions. The enclosure wall represents the fortress of the gods style enclosure from Abydene and Memphite tombs. The paneled brick building near Abydene enclosures' entrances is reduced to a paneled stone chapel. The south tomb represents the royal Abydene tomb; the main tomb recalls Memphite style. The north and south buildings recall the shrines for the goddesses of the Upper and Lower Egyptian crowns. Djosers' short-lived structures kept only the stepped pyramid, southern tomb and enclosure in their funerary complexes.

Fourth Dynasty

Snefruميدوم Meidum;
دهشور Dahshur
Meidum Pyramid, Bent Pyramid, Red/Northern Pyramid, Pyramid of Seila.
NebkaZawiyet al-Aryan
Shepseskafسقراة SaqqaraMastabat el-Fara'um

King Snefru and the True Pyramids (ميدوم Meidum; دهشور Dahshur; الجيزة Giza Plateau)

Dynasty 4 was marked by four landmarks: true pyramids enclosed by small, nearly empty courts; a switch to an east-west axis; and a pillared court with adjacent offering place, which was repeated until the Late Period.

Djoser's organic stepped pyramid was a prototype for the heavenly and abstract true pyramid. King Snefru built three pyramids: the Meidum Pyramid at ميدوم Meidum, the first true pyramid though its exterior collapsed; the Bent Pyramid at دهشور Dashur, whose incline changed midway to avoid collapse; and the Red Pyramid at دهشور Dashur, the first true accomplished pyramid.

The Djoser Complex housed a clutter of replicas of non-funerary architecture involved in cementing royal power. In contrast, Snefru's complexes were organized and symmetrical with a single gargantuan focus -- the pyramid.

Snefru's ميدوم Meidum Pyramid towered over a small, rectangular and nearly empty court; this was a sharp departure from the numerous buildings of the Djoser Complex.

Another radical development was the court's east-west axis, as opposed to the north-south axis of early dynasties. This may have reflected the growing importance of the sun cult. Another landmark was the pyramid temple on the pyramid's east side. This was the first cult chapel attached to a royal burial. No earlier funerary complexes had altars or offering places. Also, the Bent Pyramid was the first to have a causeway from the pyramid temple to a statue/valley temple by a canal. This recalled a fortress of the gods, which had to accomodate arriving barques; of note, later King Khafre's pyramid temple had boat-size storage rooms.

This new architecture reflected a major, even revolutionary, change in the concept of the royal afterlife. The king was no longer just a manifestation of Horus. Pyramid Texts of Dynasty 6 explain that deep inside the pyramid, without priests or rituals, the king united with the ba of the sun god and thus joined the daily cycle of death and resurrection. This justifies the new east-west axis and the implementation of a few simple cult places instead of the myriad of the Djoser Complex.

The first statue/valley temple was built with the Bent Pyramid. This temple was 27 x 48 m with an open court with pillared portico, and at the rear were statue shrines with sculptures of Snefru wearing the red, white and double crowns. Contemporary private mastabas began to include statue cults, where ceremonies were performed in the first real cult chambers. The statue temple and mortuary temple were linked by a narrow enclosed monumental causeway, keeping the connection clean and pure.

The statue/valley temple at the ميدوم Meidum Pyramid was not only the first such temple, but also had the earliest preserved aboveground royal funerary architecture reliefs (some earlier private tomb reliefs exist). The reliefs depict the divine king accompanied by gods, performing ceremonies and receiving offerings from the nomes (like at a fortress of the god). The developed content presupposes older prototypes, but its clumsy composition indicates a recent origin.

Shepseskaf (سقارة Saqqara)

At his funeral complex in سقارة Saqqara, Shepseskaf (the last Dynasty 4 king) did not build a pyramid in which to become divine like his predecessors.

Instead, he had a gigantic mastaba-like building with a paneled base, recalling an ancient-style funerary palace surrounded by the enclosure wall of a fortress of the gods. Another radical development was the funerary chapel attached directly to the east side of the building. This revealed the humanity of the king, as he was a mortal requiring sustenance.

None of the reliefs from Shepseskaf's building survive, but subsequent reliefs dealt mainly with offerings and he likely had these as well. After Shespeskaf, rulers returned to the pyramid tradition but kept a funerary chapel to obtain sustenance.

Fifth Dynasty

Userkafسقراة Saqqara
Djedkare-Isesiسقراة SaqqaraIn the south of سقراة Saqqara.
Unas (Weni)سقراة Saqqara

Userkaf (سقارة Saqqara)

King Userkaf, the first Dynasty 5 king, returned to the pyramid tradition but built a funerary chapel on the east side of his pyramid.

The statue cult temple was moved from the east to the south side of the pyramid. For the pyramid temple, a per-weru (entrance) hall led to a door niche, which was separated from the court by a straight wall, an innovation kept by all later pyramid temples. Userkaf's pyramid complex is the first since Khufu with proven reliefs.

Located in the pyramid temple, the motifs drew from the per-weru, causeway and other decorative programs. Also, Userkaf's complex was the first with a separate sun temple near the royal cult complex, reflecting the growing importance of solar aspects in kingship.

Sahure and the Standardized Pyramid Complexes

Under King Sahure, priests and architects designed a new pharaonic cult complex that served as the template for most kings of Dynasties 5 and 6. Pyramid temple plans and decorations, and the ideas and practices surrounding them, reached the height of their complexity and development. The turbulent evolution of earlier periods slowed. For the first time there was a standardized pyramid complex and decorative program copied by successive kings.

Like in earlier periods, there was still a lower temple connected to an upper temple by a causeway. Beginning with Sahure (or possible Userkaf) the causeway walls were richly decorated. Themes of protection (lions, griffins and royal victories) and offerings (processions; ships arriving with building materials; and market scenes). The arrival of offerings recalled the fortress of the gods; ample store rooms by the funerary temple indicate they were actually brought.

The standardized upper/pyramid temple had certain key elements. First is the per-weru (entrance) hall, a vaulted, decorated passage 5 m wide and 20 m long. It lacked columns nor pillars, instead focusing on wall space for decorations depicting hunts and triumphs. Continuing beyond the per-weru, one found the central court and the traditional columns along all its walls. The walls in the central court of Sahure's pyramid temple depicted four military triumphs and four collections of booty.

After the central court was a narrow corridor along a transversal north-south axis. This corridor typically had reliefs of triumphs, expeditions and other assertions of kingly power; sadly, few traces remain of Sed-festival depictions. Continuing through the corridor, one encountered a wide door niche with steps leading to a statue sanctuary with the five royal statues. Walking beyond the statue sanctuary were one or two rooms with reliefs of the king smiting enemies and sacrificing animals.

Next was the square antechamber with a central column. Its walls depicted the Sed-festival, with 50 Upper and 48 Lower Egyptian gods standing in front of their individual chapels. In the lowest register, the gods bow before the king and declare, We give you millions of Sed-festivals. Walking through the square antechamber, one would enter the offering hall. Attached to the offering hall and sometimes the rooms preceding the antechamber were storerooms to hold the surely numerous grave goods.

In addition to the pyramid, upper/pyramid temple, lower temple and causeway, the standard pyramid complex had a north/entrance chapel and a smaller pyramid. The northern chapel was a small sanctuary in the center of the north side of the pyramid over the pyramid entrance. These had false doors and similar decorations as the pyramid temple's offering hall, suggesting they were like a miniature offering hall. Another important structure was the satellite pyramid, much smaller than the main pyramid. Generally with no cult chapel and a burial chamber too small for any sort of burial, they were likely used only for ritual purposes.

An important landmark was King Unas's (late Dynasty 5) inclusion of Pyramid Texts into his pyramid chambers. These texts illuminate the burial of the king, his existence in the tomb and his participation in the daily journey of the sun. According to these texts, the deceased entered his crypt as the god Re-Atum (evening sun) and spent his night in the tomb (which represents the netherworld) where he was united with Osiris in the form of the king's own mummy. At sunrise, the king is reborn and leaves his sarcophagus as the young sun god Khepri, departing through the antechamber to start a new cycle of life and ascend to the sun as Ra (mid-day sun).

The pyramid complex was not deserted after the king's burial. The Abusir Papyri (archival remians from the mortuary temples of Neferirkare and Neferefre) describe special festivals, inventories, letters, daily rituals and passports for the staff to enter. Neither the Abusiry Papyri nor the wall decorations mention the burial of the king; they only describe the events after the king's burial. The temples were meant o sustain the buried deceased king, and the funeral itself happened elsewhere. Offerings were provided every morning and evening, and daily the five shrines for the statues of the king (three depicting him as Osiris) were opened and the Opening of the Mouth was performed, allowing the statues to partake of the offerings.

Upper/Pyramid TempleConsisted of a per-weru/entrance hall, main court, doorway, one or two rooms of reliefs, square antechamber, offering hall and storerooms)
Lower/Statue Temple
North ChapelSomewhat of a miniaturized offering hall at the center of the north side of the pyramid, over the pyramid entrance.
Satellite Pyramid

Sixth Dynasty

Tetiسقراة Saqqara
Depi I Merireسقراة SaqqaraIn the south of سقراة Saqqara.
Merenreسقراة SaqqaraIn the south of سقراة Saqqara.
Pepi II Neferkareسقراة SaqqaraIn the south of سقراة Saqqara.

Eleventh Dynasty

Nomarchs built within their provinces. Theban rulers built near Thebes of course; similarly, Memphite rulers built near Memphis.
Mentuhotep IIدير البحري
Deir el-Bahri

Eleventh Dynasty: Local Theban Rulers (الطارف el-Tarif) and Mentuhotep II (دير البحري Deir el-Bahri)

Local Theban rulers built so-called saff-tombs at الطارف el-Tarif, the northern end of the Theban necropolis. Saff-tombs were constructed as oversized local private tombs and did not contain dedicated cult structures. The earliest true Middle Kingdom royal cult complex was that of Mentuhotep II at دير البحري Deir el-Bahri. It differed from the preceding royal saff-tombs in that it had no formal similarity to the Old Kingdom temples. Within a large court is a high platform atop which is an 11m high core building dedicated to Montu-Re, and a temple. Behind the temple is a large hall of 82 octagonal pillars, with releifs continuing the tradition of an offering hall. Behind this is the entrance to the tomb passage. Mentuhotep II's burial complex at دير البحري Deir el-Bahri had two landmark developments: the king's cultus was united with a god's; and the king was no longer depicted as innately immortal.

At the rear of Mentohotep II's temple are reliefs of him at an offering table with an offering list and offering bearers. Nearer the front of the temple is a sanctuary for the Sed-festival. Within it is a royal offering statue, but remarkably this statue bears an image of Amun-Re. The temple was no longer just dedicated to the king -- it was a joint cultus where the king and the god were united into the same statue. Within this same sanctuary is the second landmark -- the king is shown enthroned with Nekhbet, Seth, Horus and Wadjit (chief gods of Upper and Lower Egypt) as usual, but they present him with bundles of palms branches (endless years. Old Kingdom kings were the lords of their pyramid complexes, but Mentuhotep II was a human ruler. He was not even innately immortal; by the gods' goodwill, immortality was bestowed upon him. This motif would later spread to any structure related to the king's cult.

Twelfth Dynasty

Amenemhat IQurna;
اللشط Lisht
First tomb at Qurna. Pyramid at اللشط Lisht.
Senwosret Iاللشط LishtPyramid
Amenemhat IIدهشور DahshurPyramid
Senwosret IIIllahunPyramid
Senwosret IIIدهشور DahshurPyramid
Amenemhat IIIدهشور Dahshur; HawaraFirst pyramid at دهشور Dahshur. Second pyramid at Hawara, the site of his famous Labyrinth.

Amenemhat I and the Return to Memphite Traditions

Amenemhat I moved the royal residence from Thebes back to the Memphite area, founding a new capital Itj-tawy ('Seizer of the Two Lands') near modern اللشط Lisht. Amenemhat I renounced the provincial Theban tomb tradition in favor of a pyramid complex in the Dynasty 6 Memphite style. There were several key changes -- a vertical shaft connected the sloping entrance passage to the burial chamber; and the pyramid temple was not built against the pyramid, but on a lower level against the pyramid platform.

Relative to the Old Kingdom, this new pyramid temple was much smaller. Amenemhat I's successor Senwosret I's pyramid temple survived enough that its ground plan can be reconstructed and reliefs pieced together. The square antechamber contains fragments of large figures of the king, standing before deities and receiving the homage of court officials. The court's limestone pillars showed the king in the embrace of deities, showing the pyramid temple remained a meeting point for gods and the king.

Senwosret III and New Landmarks

The presence of Life-size Osiride statues attest to continuity of function for royal cult complexes. These adorned the Sed-festival court of the Djoser Complex; reappeared at Mentuhotep II's royal cult complex; and seven hundred years after their first appearance, Senwosret I lined his causeway with them, likely for his own Sed-festival. They would continue to appear during the New Kingdom. It was not until Senwosret III that significant new developments occurred. Senwosret III originally built a conventional cult complex at دهشور Dahshur, with a square enclosure, royal pyramid and modest pyramid temple at the east side. Later, the enclosure was extended at its north and south ends and a secondary entrance was implemented in the east wall (south end). The new south court held a huge stone temple that is not well understood.

Senwosret III was also the first king since Dynasty 2 to build a large cult complex at Abydos. It had a funerary enclosure, valley temple and enormous underground rock tomb. There is no indication that the king was buried here, though his temple at دهشور Dahshur seems to have been unused. Senwosret III's successor Amenehmhat III continued this innovation. After his cult complex at دهشور Dahshur was left unfinished when the apartments beneath the pyramid collapsed; the enclosure was finished and a small cult temple was placed east of the temple. Senwosret III compensated greatly by building a huge cult complex at Hawara in he Faiyum. This roughly corresponded to his south temple and featured the famous Labyrinth. Later, Amenemhat III added a pyramid. Sadly, the Labyrinth and cult complex are hopelessly ruined.

Amenemhat III's complex at Hawara was described by Pliny as being organized into sections, one each for the 21 nomes of Egypt. Each section had a vast hall. Furthermore, there were temples of all the Egyptian gods. The notion of convening all the gods from all the provinces was meant to recall the ages-old Sed-festival. The similarities to the Djoser Complex were not just indirect; column fragments found are exact replicas of those from the Djoser Complex. Also, triads were found with the king standing between two gods. These strongly recall the triads of Menkaure from his temple at الجزة Giza.


Dieter, Arnold. Temples of Ancient Egypt.