The pyramid field of Abu Sir is situated in the desert between Giza and Saqqara and right next to the modern village of the same name. The Abu Sir pyramids are synonymous with the 5th Dynasty – a group of rulers who tried, but couldn’t quite recapture the splendor of their predecessors. Be that as it may, the mysterious site has plenty of surprises in store for those who manage to arrange a visit.
Several pyramids were initiated at Abu Sir (‘Place of Osiris’), but only three remain standing. Despite postdating the pyramids of Giza by several decades, the Abu Sir pyramids look like mounds of rubble in comparison. Perhaps it’s unfair, though, to judge a site that’s been victim to constant looting and quarrying since its foundation in the 25th century BC.
Pyramids aside, Abu Sir is home to the most elaborate and unique mastaba ever built for a non-royal in the Old Kingdom. The pharaohs’ funerary temples, meanwhile, demonstrate some impressive and highly advanced stoneworking techniques. And fascinatingly, as we’ll go over below, the entire site was laid out in careful alignment with the Sun Temple of Heliopolis.
The Origins of the 5th Dynasty
Those familiar with the pyramids of Giza will know that each one is credited to a different king of the 4th Dynasty. And the last and smallest of the pyramids was built by a pharaoh named Menkaure.
Menkaure, however, wasn’t quite the last king of his line. A pharaoh named Shepseskaf succeeded him, but he didn’t even build a pyramid. Instead, he only constructed a flat mastaba-style tomb for himself in the southern part of Saqqara. And that marked the end of what’s arguably Egypt’s greatest ever dynasty.
But before moving on, it’s worth noting that the numbered dynasty system we use today was first conceived of by priest and historian Manetho in the 3rd century BC. He looked back at Egyptian history and divided it up based on major cultural shifts or technological innovations. Unlike the dynasties of China, for example, most of the Egyptian dynasties were of the same royal bloodline.
Userkaf, the ‘founder’ of the 5th Dynasty, therefore, was directly related to the builders of Giza and would’ve considered himself their direct descendant (he was possibly one of Menkaure’s sons). But rather than build at Giza, he founded a brand new site. In addition to his pyramid at Saqqara, he also built a Sun Temple in the empty desert of Abu Sir.
This was likely done to strengthen his link with Egypt’s most prominent center of Sun worship at the time, Heliopolis (now situated in the Al Matariyyah district in northern Cairo).
Interestingly, his temple in Abu Sir was at the southernmost point on the Nile’s west bank that would’ve been directly visible from Heliopolis. Furthermore, when viewed from Heliopolis, Abu Sir is where the star Canopus could be seen setting over the horizon.
While Userkaf did not build a pyramid at Abu Sir, his successors would continue to use the site for their various construction projects over the next several generations. It wasn’t until the reign of the last 5th Dynasty king, Unas, that focus would shift back to Saqqara.
The Pyramid of Sahure
The closest pyramid to the entrance of Abu Sir is Pharaoh Sahure’s. It’s also the first pyramid built here but, as mentioned, Userkaf’s Sun Temple to the north precedes it.
As the Sun cult grew increasingly prominent during the 5th Dynasty, all pharaohs who built pyramids at Abu Sir incorporated ‘Re’ into their names.
And Re’s (also spelled Ra) main center of worship was the Sun Temple of Heliopolis, located some 40 km north of Memphis. Over the generations, the builders at Abu Sir would work hard to align their constructions with this temple.
Though largely in ruins today, Sahure’s pyramid had a long causeway stretching from its eastern end all the way to Abu Sir Lake – long since dried up.
Back in the 25th century BC, the causeway would’ve been entirely lined on either side with carved reliefs – possibly up to 10,000 square meters of them!
Much of what survives, however, is now kept at museums in foreign countries. But that may be for the best, as the entire Abu Sir complex was incessantly plundered by local villagers for its limestone for many years. The Tura limestone was burnt and the lime was then used in cement and fertilizer.
The closest likeness to Sahure’s causeway would be the Unas Causeway in nearby Saqqara, though not a whole lot remains there, either.
Reaching the end of the causeway, visitors enter Sahure’s mortuary temple. By the entrance are two beautiful pillars of rose granite which still stand after thousands of years. In total, there were originally sixteen of them, all carved to resemble palm trees.
Over to the right is a long slab of granite on which you can spot the royal name of Sahure encircled in a cartouche.
The floor, meanwhile, consists of irregularly shaped slabs of basalt. As we can also see at Giza, basalt was commonly used in the floors of these funerary temples. But overall, Sahure used a wide variety of stone at his complex, including granite, limestone and alabaster.
Though today it might just appear as rubble, archaeologists who’ve reconstructed the original building plans on paper have determined the temple to be an architectural masterpiece.
Not only were the carved reliefs (now missing) stunning, but the harmonic proportions of the temple would’ve had a profound visual impact. As such, Shaure’s mortuary complex set the standard for the remainder of the 5th and 6th Dynasties.
The original temple would’ve had altars and other areas to place all sorts of ceremonial offerings, in addition to drainage pipes for the holy water.
Also notice the small alabaster stairway, which supposedly led to a room in which statues of the king were placed in niches. There was also a small satellite pyramid placed at the southeast corner, though it’s hardly detectable today.
But what about the pyramid itself? Despite the extravagance of the mortuary temple, it’s clear at first glance that from the 5th Dynasty onward, the pharaohs had to cut corners when it came to pyramid building. Were they short of material or labor? Or did the engineering techniques of Giza somehow get lost in just a few generations?
Sahure’s pyramid consists of limestone blocks significantly smaller than those used at Giza. With the outer casing has been stripped away, we can see that the pyramid’s core is a five-tiered step pyramid held together with mud mortar.
The pyramid’s entrance is on its north side. While inaccessible today, the interior consists of a straight entrance tunnel leading directly to the burial chamber in the pyramid’s center.
The chamber was lined with massive limestone blocks, some weighing as much as 275 tons! Clearly, despite the relatively shoddy construction of the main pyramid, the pharaohs didn’t hold back when it came to their burial chambers.
Unfortunately, most of these stones are broken, possibly due to an earthquake. And nothing but a single fragment was found of the original basalt sarcophagus.
The Mastaba of Ptahshepses
In addition to its pyramids, Abu Sir is also known for having one of the most elaborate and unique mastabas of the Old Kingdom. Notably, it wasn’t even constructed for royalty, but for a highly respected vizier of the 5th Dynasty named Ptahshepses.
In addition to being vizier to Nyussere (more on his pyramid below), Ptashepses also married the pharaoh’s daughter. Moreover, he was also the barber and manicurist of the king – a highly coveted position because only a trusted few could get so physically close.
In front of the entrance are two large columns resembling lotuses. This may be the very first example of this style of column in ancient Egypt – one that would be used for the next few thousand years. The columns have recently been restored, but the originals were carved from a single piece of limestone.
Inside the door are a series of chapels with various painted reliefs of Ptahshepeses and his family. But this section was inaccessible during my visit, and so my explorations started from the back.
The far western section of the mastaba was once home to a collection of treasuries and granaries. These storerooms were repeatedly plundered long ago, perhaps as early as the New Kingdom era. Today, nothing but some piles of rocks remain.
One of the most peculiar aspects of the mastaba is what’s known as the ‘Boat Chamber’ in the southwestern section. In ancient Egypt, royalty was commonly buried near a boat which was symbolic of the soul’s resurrection. The soul of the deceased, it was believed, rode on a barque to navigate through the netherworld before (ideally) ascending to the sky.
There are not only a couple of boat pits outside of Ptahshepses’ tomb, but the ‘Boat Chamber’ within the mastaba resembles a boat itself. This is highly unusual considering Ptahshepses’ non-royal status.
Though not yet a major issue in the 5th Dynasty, it was the gradual rise in status of non-royals in Old Kingdom Egypt that eventually led to the period’s decline.
Next, I walked over to the central courtyard. While the entire mastaba is open to the elements now, this area was designed that way from the beginning.
There are twenty limestone pillars in total, with Ptahshepses portrayed on each of them. Supposedly, there would’ve been an altar in the middle so that relatives could come and make offerings to the deceased.
Around the room, I also noticed some large slabs laying around, entirely covered in hieroglyphs.
One of the most unique aspects of the tomb is its burial chamber. While it’s located at a lower level, you can get a clear view of it from the ground floor, almost as if you were looking over a balcony.
Originally, of course, the burial chamber would’ve been closed to the elements and also separated from the higher levels.
The chamber is accessible by crawling down a steep and narrow tunnel. Once you make it down, you’ll encounter two granite sarcophagi. The larger one belongs to Ptahshepses himself and remains in great condition. The smaller one, with its lid destroyed, belongs to his wife.
Peculiarly, it seems as if there is an additional interior layer of stone within the princess’s sarcophagus – made not of granite but limestone. (It’s a real shame, by the way, to find trash in just about every deserted tomb in Egypt. Though after several days you become somewhat desensitized to it.)
The Pyramids of Nyussere & Neferirkare
There are two other major pyramids still standing at Abu Sir that were built after Sahure’s. Let’s start by looking at that of Neferirkare, Sahure’s immediate successor.
We’ll cover the mortuary temples of both further down below. They were originally situated just next to each other, and given the temples’ ruined state, it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
Pyramid of Neferirkare
Neferirkare ruled for 20 years, from around 2446-2426 BC, and his pyramid is the largest at Abu Sir. It originally stood at 70 meters high, making it slightly taller than Menkaure’s pyramid at Giza (65 meters). But today the ruined pyramid only stands at around 52 meters.
The exposed core reveals a six-tiered step pyramid – one higher than that of Sahure’s. It bears a striking resemblance to Djoser’s Step Pyramid, which is clearly visible across the desert (see below). In any case, the builders eventually filled it in to make a ‘true’ pyramid.
Neferirkare’s pyramid is situated southwest of Sahure’s, and for a very deliberate reason. As the southeast corners of the three Giza pyramids align to form a direct line pointing at Heliopolis, the 5th Dynasty rulers attempted something similar.
At Abu Sir, the northwest corners of Sahure and Neferirkare’s pyramids also line up to point straight at Heliopolis. The trend would continue with the next ruler, Raneferef, who’d build another pyramid further southwest of Neferirkare’s. But his pyramid was never finished and is hardly even discernible today (more below).
For more info on the alignments of the pyramids along with some helpful diagrams, check out this fascinating research by archaeoastronomer Giulio Magli.
Pyramid of Nyussere
What’s especially notable about Nyussere’s pyramid is that it wasn’t built along the ‘Abu Sir diagonal’ established by his predecessors. Instead, it was constructed southeast of his father’s pyramid. But careful study reveals that Nyussere didn’t choose this location at random.
Nyussere’s pyramid may not be aligned with Heliopolis. He built it in such a way, however, that the southeast corner of his pyramid aligned perfectly with the southeast corners his predecessor’s pyramids, Neferirkare and Raneferef.
It’s also possible that Nyussere compensated for his pyramid’s lack of alignment with Heliopolis by building a brand new Sun Temple to the north at Abu Gorab. This temple would’ve been visible from Heliopolis at the time.
What’s more is that the Sun Temple of Abu Gorab, when aligned with the southeast corner of Nyussere’s pyramid, forms a straight line which passes right through the original Sun Temple of Userkaf!
Abu Sir provides us with a fascinating glimpse into the sacred geography of the ancient Egyptians. And the great lengths that they’d go to link new constructions with already existing ones. We’ll be covering Nyussere’s Sun Temple at Abu Gorab in a future article.
The Funerary Complexes
As mentioned, the funerary temples of Neferirkare and Nyussere are situated just next to one another. And as they appear today, one blends seamlessly into the next. There’s even evidence that Nyussere took over Neferirkare’s unfinished causeway and valley temple.
As with Sahure’s mortuary temple, these are fascinating to visit and in spite of their ruined state, reveal a high level of stoneworking technology.
Walking around the area, you’ll find floors of both alabaster and basalt. Rather uniquely, the walls of Nyussere’s causeway were also lined on either side with basalt.
It’s also possible that the large blocks of stone in front of Nyussere’s pyramid could be precursors to the pylons of later Egyptian temples. There are also many pits dug into the ground, though it’s unclear what their original purpose or function was.
There’s really a lot to see here, especially for old stone enthusiasts. Lots of imagination is required, however, to picture how this area might’ve originally looked.
Interestingly, in contrast to the wide variety of stone used throughout the temples, the court and entrance hall in front of Neferirkare’s pyramid are comprised of mudbrick.
Elsewhere Around Abu Sir
The Abu Sir pyramids and Mastaba of Ptahshepses are undoubtedly the highlights of the area. But thousands of years ago, there would’ve been a lot more standing here. Archaeological excavations are still being carried out regularly, and it’s been determined that Abu Sir was once home to quite a few more tombs and even additional pyramids.
The Southern Necropolis
As much of the southern portion of Abu Sir is currently being excavated, I only viewed it from a distance. But numerous important members of the royal household were once buried here.
One of the notable constructions is the former pyramid and mortuary temple of Khentkaus. Not only does she bear the same name as the Khentkaus of Giza, but the official titles were exactly the same as well!
Archaeologists originally thought that it must be the same woman, but the timelines don’t match up. This one, now commonly referred to as Khentkaus II, was likely Neferirkare’s wife.
Above, we went over the great lengths to which the Egyptians would go to align new monuments with older ones. Egyptologist Mark Lehner points out that the Pyramid of Khentkaus II forms a straight line when connected with the satellite pyramid of Dahshur to the south and with Queens’ Pyramids at Giza!
Also around here is the above-mentioned Pyramid of Raneferef, situated southwest of Neferirkare’s pyramid. While likely never finished, its northwest corner aligns with Neferirkare and Sahure’s pyramids to point straight at Heliopolis.
There’s a whole lot more currently being uncovered by the Czech Institute of Egyptology, which you can learn more about in this lecture.
Another highlight of Abu Sir’s southern area is the clear view of Djoser’s Step Pyramid from across the desert. Likewise, Saqqara, especially the area near the Serapeum, offers great views of Abu Sir from a distance.
Around the North
Just as Djoser’s Step Pyramid can be seen by looking south from Abu Sir, the northern area offers clear views of the Giza pyramids. And from here, one can’t help but notice the glaring contrasts between the 4th and 5th Dynasty pyramids.
As discussed, the 5th Dynasty kings were of the same bloodline as Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. But strangely, it seems as if the pyramid construction techniques were not passed down from one era to the next. Egyptian art and temple architecture, on the other hand, would carry on unhindered throughout the dynasties.
Exploring the western area in between the pyramids of Neferirkare and Sahure, I came across this construction of limestone and mudbrick. I’m not entirely sure what it is and it doesn’t appear on any maps. But it just goes to show how much there is to discover around Abu Sir.
Northeast of Sahure’s pyramid, there’s supposed to be the ruins of yet another unfinished pyramid, though hardly any stone remains.
The Sun Temple of Userkaf
Even further northeast is a rather unremarkable pile of stones, but this is where it all began: Userkaf’s Sun Temple.
And by walking even further north through the desert, one eventually arrives at a site called Abu Gorab, home to the Sun Temple of Nyussere. Thankfully, it remains in a much better state of preservation. But that’s a landmark we will save for another time.
While we almost always cover locations that are accessible to the general public, this is a rare exception. Despite Abu Sir mysteriously appearing on the government’s official price list, the site is officially closed to the public. And it’s been that way for quite a few years, apparently.
There are a few ways you can gain entry, however. One would be to apply for official permission through the Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism, but expect to pay a hefty fee.
Recently, more and more group tours are including Abu Sir on their itineraries, so try booking one if you can afford it. Some of these special tours also take attendees to other off-limits sites like Abu Gorab and Abu Rawash.
But if you can’t afford a tour, there’s also a rumor that you can arrange a visit if you establish a local connection in the nearby village.
Even if you’re unable to enter the site, it’s worth having your driver stop by on your way to or from Saqqara or Dahshur. You can get a pretty clear view of the three main pyramids from the nearest public road.
The Greater Cairo Area is home to many of Egypt’s, and the world’s, most impressive sites. The city of Cairo itself, on the other hand, is overwhelming in terms of both traffic and pollution, yet rather underwhelming in regards to tourist attractions. Therefore, I recommend that people stay in Giza and not in Cairo.
I find it puzzling that so many travelers decide to stay in central Cairo and then commute multiple times to reach Giza and Saqqara. For archaeology enthusiasts, it makes much more sense to stay in or near Giza and dedicate 3 or 4 full days to exploring the various pyramid sites. As Saqqara and Dahshur are both south of Giza, which itself is southwest of central Cairo, staying in Giza gives you a big head start for those excursions.
You will want to commute to central Cairo at least once, however, to visit the Egyptian Museum and maybe an additional day for Islamic Cairo.
Staying in Giza, right by the Giza Necropolis, allows you to get there right when the pyramids open at 8:00am. That means you’ll get at least 90 minutes or more with the entire complex all to yourself (as long as you don’t visit on a Friday or Saturday, that is).
While the modern suburb of Giza has a reputation for being dirty and rundown, it’s no worse than the average neighborhood of Cairo. And while there are lots of touts around, they’re not nearly as bad as the East Bank of Luxor.
I took things even further and also stayed for a few nights in the small village of Abu Sir, just north of Saqqara. I then switched to accommodation in Giza for a few nights so that I could visit the pyramids right when they opened.
Later, at the end of my trip, I based myself in downtown Cairo for better access to the historic sites in the city center, not to mention the airport.
In Abu Sir/Saqqara I stayed at the Sakkara Inn. Not only is the hotel situated in an authentic local village, but Mohamed the owner can set you up with reliable drivers for an affordable price. (I even continued to have him arrange drivers for me after checking out, as other places were quoting me much higher.)
In Giza I stayed at Abo Stait Pyramid View Homestay. It’s literally a one-minute walk from the Sphinx entrance of the Giza Necropolis. The family who runs it was very friendly and helpful. And while the bathroom is shared with a few other guests and family members, it wasn’t a big deal.
I’m a budget traveler, but those with more money to spend will find no shortage of accommodation options in the Giza area.