Dahshur Pyramid of Snefru (Bent Pyramid)

Dahshur is the area bordering on the necropolis of South Saqqara, where several pharaohs chose to site their pyramids. Until recently this important pyramid field was little visited, being part of an Egyptian military zone with no admittance to the public, but was opened to tourism in October 1996. Its importance is in representing evolutionary phases in pyramid building, beginning with the monuments of Snefru, the ‘Horus Nebmaat’, founder of Dynasty IV. Snefru was the father of Khufu, whose ‘Great Pyramid’ at Giza is one of the ancient wonders of the world.

Snefru's Bent Pyramid

Snefru probably began his career in pyramid building by attempting to complete the monument of his father Huni at Meidum. He seems to have abandoned this for a time and his workforce was relocated to Dahshur, where he began to build another pyramid, named ‘Snefru is shining in the south’ and which we now know as the ‘Bent Pyramid’ because of its shape. It is located about 3km west of the modern village of Dahshur on the desert plateau.

Snefru’s had grand ideas for his second attempt at pyramid building, which, if it had been completed according to plan, would have been the largest pyramid in Egypt. The base length of the structure was around 189m, with an original height of 105m. During the construction of the pyramid the plan was changed when architects appear to have realised that the angle of slope was too steep, so at almost half way up, the inclination was reduced, effectively reducing both the projected height of the pyramid and the weight of stone in its upper courses. This experimentation is understandable – there was no prototype for a ‘true pyramid’, which Snefru’s project was intended to be from the beginning.

There are many theories as to why the plan was changed. The foundation beneath the structure was not stable and it is possible that there may have been signs of collapse in the internal chambers, making it necessary to lighten the volume of stone above the axis. Or perhaps there was a religious or political motive in the change of angle which has produced the curious bend.

South-east corner and pyramid entrance

The Bent Pyramid is unique in having two entrances, one on the northern side about 12m above ground level and the second in the western face, about 30m above the base. It is often suggested that this may be evidence of structural collapse and that one of the passages was considered unsafe and was blocked up. From the northern entrance a steep passage descends to the lower of the three underground chambers and opens into a high narrow room with a corbelled ceiling of large limestone slabs. A short vertical passage leads to a second chamber, directly beneath the pyramid’s axis and which is now partly destroyed.

The entrance passage on the western side of the pyramid takes a gentler slope and after being blocked by two portcullis slabs continues horizontally to a third chamber on a higher level. This chamber also has a high corbelled roof and there is evidence of it having possibly been shored up by huge beams of cedar wood. It was on the roughly hewn blocks in this chamber that Snefru’s name was first found in a crude inscription written in red pigment and including the cartouche of the king.

The upper and lower chambers were linked by a connecting tunnel which was hacked through the masonry at some time after the chambers were built. It has been suggested that this was an attempt to replicate the traditional ‘South Tomb’ of Djoser’s complex at Saqqara and to correct the contradictory orientation of the substructure.

Funerary Temple on the eastern side

At the centre of the eastern side of the pyramid was a small funerary temple built from mudbrick. An initial cult chapel similar to that at Meidum, consisted of a limestone offering table in the form of the ‘hetep’ symbol, flanked by two round-topped monolithic stelae, 9m high, on which Snefru’s names and titles were inscribed. Remains of the upper part of one of the stelae can be seen in Cairo Museum, while the stumps remain in situ. The simple chapel was then extended with mudbrick walls.

Snefru’s pyramid had a small cult pyramid on its southern side within the huge yellow limestone enclosure walls of the monument. The satellite pyramid also had a small cult chapel with two stelae bearing the kings names and titles and a small altar. An open limestone causeway ran from the north-eastern corner of the enclosure in a north-easterly direction towards an imposing rectangular limestone valley temple, (though it was not situated in the Nile valley).

Snefru's satellite pyramid

The valley temple was excavated in the 1950s by Egyptian archaeologist Ahmed Fakhry (who also investigated the pyramid) and it was found to have been divided into three parts – a vestibule with store-rooms, a central courtyard and a columned portico which contained six chapels or niches. These are elements found in later mortuary temples. The walls and pillars in the temple were decorated with very high quality funerary scenes and reliefs, including Snefru’s ‘heb-sed’ and in the niches were large limestone stelae on which the king appeared in half-sculpture.

Bent Pyramid causeway

The mortuary cult of Snefru seems to have long continued, at least into the Middle Kingdom even though it was probably not the king’s burial place. Residences of the mortuary priests were found between the valley temple and its large mudbrick wall.

For details and photographs of the pyramid interior see Guardians Bent Pyramid.

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. Monument tickets at Dahshur cost EGP 30 and include entrance to the Red and Bent Pyramids. The Bent Pyramid is due to be open in the Spring 2009 for the first time in many years.

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