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Dahshur Pyramid of Senwosret III

Although his father Senwosret II built a pyramid at el-Lahun, Senwosret III chose a site to the north at Dahshur, to the north-east of Snefru’s Red Pyramid, where the necropolis borders South Saqqara. Although the ancient name of this monument is not known, it is the largest of the Dynasty XII pyramids as would befit one of the most important Middle Kingdom rulers.

Pyramid of Senwosret III

The mudbrick stepped core of this pyramid was once covered with blocks of fine Tura limestone, which have now almost completely disappeared and the remains of the monument now consist of a massive pile of rubble rising to around 30m from the desert surface. Originally its height was thought to be about 61.25m and its base length is 105m. Of the early explorers, Perring and Vyse first visited the pyramid in 1839 and it was later excavated by Jacques de Morgan, who was the first to enter the structure in 1895 via an ancient robbers tunnel. The pyramid’s original entrance was concealed beneath the pavement of the courtyard to the north-west of the western side and a small ‘entrance’ chapel constructed on the northern side was obviously intended to deceive robbers.

A vertical shaft led eastwards from the pavement to a descending corridor before turning south into two chambers, magazines to the east and the antechamber and the burial chamber to the west. The plastered and whitewashed granite walls of the burial chamber were supported by a false ceiling of granite which concealed a vaulted roof consisting of five pairs of huge limestone beams. A false door, also of limestone, was painted red to simulate granite. At the western end of the burial chamber a huge empty granite sarcophagus was found, decorated with a motif of fifteen niches and near the southern wall a niche which would have been intended to contain a canopic chest was also empty. Some archaeologists have voiced doubts about whether the king was ever buried in his Dahshur pyramid, suggesting that he may have been interred instead in his complex funerary monument at Abydos. His empty and unusually-positioned burial chamber at Dahshur lends support to this hypothesis, but if it is true then we still do not know the reasons for Senwosret’s decision.

De Morgan discovered a second shaft to the north-east of the pyramid which is connected to a complex of four tombs for royal ladies. Above the ground the superstructures of the tombs resembled small pyramids which covered shafts giving access to two galleries. The gallery at the lower level had eight niches containing mostly plundered burials of royal princesses – but in two of these, inscribed sarcophagi were found naming princesses Menet and Seneb-senebty. The remains of the burial of Princess Sithathor, a daughter of Senwosret II, were also found and although her coffin lay empty, a canopic chest with four alabaster lidded jars remained, along with a hidden chest containing the princess’s jewellery and other funerary goods. De Morgan also found another empty coffin and a collection of jewellery belonging to Queen Meret, wife of Senwosret III. These treasures are now on display in Cairo Museum.

On the southern side of Senwosret’s monument de Morgan found three more mastabas, which have recently been found to be small pyramids, also belonging to royal women. While two of these were entered by de Morgan, the third entrance was not discovered until 1994 when the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art Expedition, directed by Dieter Arnold, was excavating the area. This shaft, known as ‘Mastaba 9’, leads to the burial chamber of Queen Khnemet-nefer-heget, known as Weret, wife of Senwosret II and mother of Senwosret III. The Met Expedition found the Queen’s sarcophagus, canopic jars and another rich cache of jewellery.

The king’s pyramid complex, which included the pyramids of the royal ladies, was enclosed by a square perimeter wall decorated on the outside with niches. A small mortuary temple, now destroyed, lay at the centre of the eastern side of the pyramid. In a second phase of construction the perimeter wall was extended to north and south and another larger ‘southern temple’ was constructed, with a courtyard and causeway. The causeway has not yet been investigated and a valley temple has never been found, but to the south-west of the complex a mudbrick vaulted structure was found buried by sand. Close to this was a crypt containing the burial of six wooden funerary boats, each 6m long.

How to get there

The Dahshur necropolis officially opened in 1996 for the first time, after being occupied as a military zone for many years. The site can be reached from Cairo by taxi (perhaps combined with a visit to nearby Saqqara) or by bus to the modern village of Dahshur. The Pyramid of Senwosret III is situated behind the modern Gupco plant on the right-hand side of the road going towards the Red Pyramid, but it is impossible to get close to it because of the oil refinery.

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