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The Wrong Question (or: The Myth of the Mystery of the Missing Messages)

This article looks at the claims made by alternative writers regarding the lack of decoration in the Giza Pyramids and concludes that if they are taken as part of a greater complex there is plenty of evidence that they were decorated.

A common theme in alternative or fringe writings on Ancient Egypt is the contention that pyramids (primarily Giza, but sometimes including other fourth dynasty pyramids, or pyramids in general) weren’t intended for funerary purposes. A primary piece of their evidence is the lack of interior decoration – primarily inscriptional. The reasoning is that some (later) pyramids had the so-called pyramid texts inscribed in their internal chambers and the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings were usually lavishly decorated. These are accepted as tombs so, therefore, all royal tombs are decorated and inscribed. It therefore follows that uninscribed structures (such as the Giza pyramids) weren’t tombs so they can cue the little green men (ancient astronauts) or the guys with the open toed sandals, white robes and rucksack full of sacred scrolls (refugees from the Lost Civilisation) to enter stage left.

As is so often the case when starting from a predetermined answer, the point is completely missed and totally the wrong question is being asked !

There is decoration in the third pyramid at Giza; that of Menkaure: 

A descending passage slopes down……to a horizontal chamber, where there is a series of panels carved with a repeated very tall and stylised false door motif……The lintel spanning the entrance to the horizontal passage is carved as a drum roll representing the rolled up reed-mat curtain. [1]

Apart from that, between the Step Pyramid of Djoser at the start of the third dynasty and that of Unas at the end of the fifth dynasty no pyramid has interior chambers that are, in any way, decorated; that’s almost three whole dynasties ! It should be noted that Djoser’s structure was initially conceived as a mastaba and their decorative practices were different.

Prior to that, at Saqqara:

… there are two large sets of underground galleries, over 130 m (427 ft) long and entered by passages from the north. On the basis of seal impressions found within them they are considered to be the tombs of the first and third kings of the 2nd dynasty – Hetepsekhemwy and Ninetjer… [2]

No decorated and inscribed burial chambers there….

Something that the fringe overlook, either due to ignorance or deliberately, is that the pyramid must be seen as part of a much larger complex which developed throughout the period of Old Kingdom pyramid building. Adjacent to the pyramid was the mortuary temple, subsidiary pyramids, boat pits, etc and this was connected to a valley temple by a causeway.

Whilst it is common to emphasize the mortuary character of pyramids and to see them primarily as tombs with temples ancillary to them, the way in which they were in fact organized and referred to suggests that the emphasis should be reversed, and they be regarded first and foremost as temples for the royal statues with a royal tomb attached to each, which, acting as a huge reliquary, gave enormous authority to what was, in essence, an ancestor cult…… [3]


The king’s family and followers were often buried near him, particularly in the Fourth Dynasty, when Kheops laid out street after street of stone mastabas to create a very real ‘city of the dead’ around his pyramid. [4]

H. Junker, who excavated a part of the western cemetery, has aptly remarked that the Egyptian conception of the dead ruler continuing in the after-life to be surrounded by his relatives and loyal followers has never found so vivid an expression as in the arrangement of the tombs in this necropolis. It may be claimed, with equal truth, that the difference between the divine majesty of the ruler and his mortal subjects was never more strongly emphasized than in the contrast between the towering pyramid and the simple flat-topped mastabas. [5]

It is an unfortunate fact that historic sites consisting of quarried stone tend to be “reused” by later generations:

We know hardly anything about the Great Pyramid during the Middle Kingdom, and it is not clear whether the building remained intact or whether a pious king cared to close it. We do know that the Egyptians of that time paid little respect to the temples of the pyramids. They used those of Giza as quarries for the northern pyramid of Lisht, which dates from the early years of the Twelfth Dynasty. Excavations by the Metropolitan Museum of New York revealed many decorated and inscribed blocks, and probably many more still lie embedded in its walls. Some of the blocks had belonged to the walls of Old Kingdom tombs, but a great many undoubtedly came from the temples and causeways of the pyramids of Giza. [6]

Subsequently, it [the Great Pyramid] became a copious and convenient quarry, providing the stone required for bridges over irrigation canals, houses, walls, and other buildings in the neighbourhood of Giza and Cairo. [7]

These buildings and structures were normally decorated with reliefs and statuary of the highest quality, but little has survived to the present day, save tantalizing scraps of offering, hunting and other scenes, plus a few statues, for example those of Khephren and Mykerinos from Giza. [8]

Ludwig Borchardt……estimated that the area of wall-surface covered by reliefs in Sahure’s complex alone amounted to about 10,000 square metres. Unfortunately, later inhabitants of the neighbourhood discovered that the fine Tura limestone of the reliefs produced the best lime, with the result that of the original total only about 150 square metres, broken into innumerable fragments, survived their depredations. [9]

There is sufficient surviving from the very beginning of the fourth dynasty onwards to give an idea – although little more than a glimpse through a keyhole – of the high quality decorative schemes with which the early Old Kingdom pyramid complexes were adorned.

“Bent” Pyramid – Valley Temple

In contrast with the extreme simplicity of the mortuary temple, this building was monumental in size and, although it suffered systematic destruction at a time which cannot yet be determined, enough has been preserved of the decoration to show that it would have borne comparison with anything now known of its kind dating from the Old Kingdom. ……Scenes were carved in bold relief on the walls of the entrance hall, on the rectangular monolithic pillars and on the side-walls of the portico and at least the two westernmost shrines. Statues of the king, larger than life-size, were attached to niches in the back walls of some, and possibly all, of the shrines; they were thus in the nature of figures carved in very high relief and not free-standing sculptures like the seated statue of Zoser in the serdab of the Step Pyramid. Some idea of the destruction wrought in later times to these sculptures may be gained from the bare fact that more than 1,400 decorated fragments were recovered in the course of excavation but very few pieces of sufficient size to enable their scenes to be interpreted in detail. [10]

The frieze on the west depicts the royal estates in Upper Egypt; they are personified as women, and identified with the names of the districts, or nomes in which they were situated. On the eastern wall, a similar frieze, much destroyed had figures representing the king’s estates in Lower Egypt. Most of the walls above the friezes have disappeared, but enough remains to show that they were sculptured in relief and painted with scenes representing the king in the presence of the gods. [11]

The mortuary temple was demolished down to bedrock over the centuries. ……What remains is some black basalt pavement of an open court, sockets for the granite pillars of the surrounding colonnade and western recessed bay, and the bedrock cuttings for the outer wall. The walls were of fine limestone carved in relief. [12]

Khufu’s Pyramid – Causeway

Today many blocks of the causeway road remain in situ, a testimony to the vastness and solidity of the structure. Excavations ……in front of the Great Pyramid……brought to light a few blocks, adorned with reliefs, from the upper end of the passage. [13]

Pyramid of Khufu

Khafre’s Pyramid – Mortuary Temple

Broad piers built of blocks of red granite supported the curved roof of the cloister.……A single band of hieroglyphic inscription, giving the kings names and titles, was engraved around the openings between the piers, and above each statue was carved a pair of vultures with open wings representing the protecting goddess Nekhbet. The inner walls of the cloister, above a granite dado, were decorated with limestone reliefs, one fragment of which, showing part of a bound Asiatic captive, was excavated by Hölscher… [14]

The Pyramid of Khafre at Giza

Khafre’s Pyramid – Valley Temple

Outside the east wall probably stood a stone kiosk containing a statue of the king. Two doorways in this wall, which may originally have been flanked by sphinxes, give entrance to the building from a terrace cut in the rock. Around each doorway was carved a band of hieroglyphic inscription giving the name and titles of the king, but only the last words, ‘beloved of [the goddess] Bastet’ and ‘beloved of [the goddess] Hathor’, are preserved… [15]

Menkaure’s Pyramid – Mortuary Temple

The Mortuary Temple was designed on a large and magnificent scale, but Menkaure died before the casing of the pyramid was completed, so his successor, Shepseskaf, had to finish the monuments. He skimped on his father’s pyramid complex, building it of mud brick, and did not try to build a large pyramid for himself. [16]

The only real evidence of the splendid scale on which this building was designed is furnished by the granite portions of the construction, especially the black granite walls of the northern corridor. [17]

Menkaure’s Pyramid – Valley Temple

Pyramid of Menkaure

The temple is built of mud brick, with the column bases and parts of the pavements and thresholds in limestone. [18]

It was in the room to the south that Reisner found the beautiful schist triads of Menkaure, as well as fragments of other statues. [19]

Userkaf – Mortuary Temple

Excavators also discovered many reliefs and architectural elements which indicated the great care taken in the temple’s construction. The beautiful reliefs depict subjects which are more or less familiar in the tombs of the period. [20]

A cloister with rectangular columns of granite was built on three sides of the court, no doubt for the protection of sculptured scenes on the walls, some fragments of which, showing the king fowling in the marshes of the Delta, were discovered in the course of excavation. [21]

Sahure – Valley Temple

Each of the two entrances leads to a hall, which had palmiform granite pillars and walls richly decorated with painted reliefs. [22]

Sahure – Causeway

…the lower part of the causeway……is fairly well preserved. From it we have an interesting series of reliefs depicting events of the king’s reign and religious subjects. [23]

Sahure – Mortuary Temple

The pavement was of black basalt, and the walls of fine limestone adorned with coloured reliefs. One of the scenes……depicts King Sahure defeating the Libyans. He is seen grasping the Libyan chief by the hair, about to brain the cowering wretch with his stone-headed mace. A Libyan woman, doubtless the chieftain’s wife, and two of his sons raise their arms to the Pharaoh to implore his mercy.

Surrounding the colonnaded court is a wide corridor, which also has basalt paving and limestone walls decorated with reliefs. Most of the scenes here show the king hunting and offering to the gods. These reliefs survived the general destruction of the temple because of a curious accident. In one, the king is seen presenting offerings to the cat-headed goddess Bastet, who later seems to have become confused with the lioness-headed Sekhmet. Sekhmet, as the wife of Ptah, had her cult centre in nearby Memphis. At the time of the New Kingdom, the corridor with the relief of Bastet was roofed and walled and transformed into a sanctuary for a local cult of Sekhmet, where she was worshipped under the name of “Sekhmet of Sahure”. [24]

The Pyramid Mortuary Temple

Although there were individual differences in size, configuration, decoration, etc there were certain common elements.

Five standard features of later mortuary temples were first found in Khafre’s:

1. an entrance hall;
2. a broad columned court;
3. five niches for statues of the king;
4. five storage chambers
5. an inner sanctuary – a pair of stelae, a false door or a combination of both. [25]

Khufu’s mortuary temple is unfortunately too badly damaged to determine its detailed features.

There was an inner sanctuary and storage rooms, but it is not known whether the five statue niches and false door that became standard later were already part of the plan. [26]

We even know something about how the mortuary temples and their associated cults functioned and interrelated due to the survival of papyri from the fifth dynasty.

The Neferirkara archive reveals a world of detailed and very professional administration. Elaborate tables provide monthly rosters of duty: for guarding the temple, for fetching the daily income (or ‘offerings’) and for performing ceremonies including those on the statues, with a special roster for the important Feast of Seker. Similar tables list the temple equipment, item by item and grouped by materials, with details of damage noted at a monthly inspection. Other records of inspection relate to doors and rooms in the temple building. The presentation of monthly income is broken down by substance, source and daily amount. The commodities are chiefly types of bread and beer, meat and fowl, corn and fruit. The sources are listed as: r-š-estates of Neferirkara and of the long-dead King Khufu, pr-estates of the deceased Queen Khentkawes and a princess Irenra, possibly some establishments of Kings Neferefra and Djedefra, the palace, the nearby solar temple of Neferirkare, and the towns of Iushedefwi and Djed-Sneferu. This multiplicity of elements in the supporting pious foundations, involving sharing with other establishments, seems typical of Egypt at this and other periods. [27]

There is nothing to suggest that undecorated and uninscribed internal chambers in pyramids are in any way unusual and plenty of evidence to demonstrate that, when seen correctly as part of a larger mortuary complex, the decorative scheme was high quality and lavish.

And the correct question ?

Why did Unas, at the end of the fifth dynasty, decide to have the, so-called, pyramid texts inscribed on the walls of the chambers inside his pyramid ?

(1) M.Lehner, The Complete Pyramids, Thames and Hudson, 1997, p 135
(2) ibid, p 82
(3) B.G. Trigger, B.J. Kemp, D. O’Connor, A.B. Lloyd, Ancient Egypt, A Social History, Cambridge University Press, 1998 (1983), p 85
(4) A. Dodson, After the Pyramids, Rubicon, 2000, p 5
(5) I.E.S.Edwards, The Pyramids of Egypt, Penguin, 1993, pp 120-1
(6) A.Fakhry, The Pyramids, University of Chicago Press, 1975, pp 99-101
(7) I.E.S.Edwards, The Pyramids of Egypt, Penguin, 1993, p 99
(8) A Dodson, After the Pyramids, Rubicon, 2000, p 5
(9) I.E.S.Edwards, The Pyramids of Egypt, Penguin, 1993, pp 160
(10) ibid, pp 87-8
(11) A. Fakhry, The Pyramids, University of Chicago Press, 1975, p 81-3
(12) M. Lehner, The Complete Pyramids, Thames and Hudson, 1997, p 109
(13) A. Fakhry, The Pyramids, University of Chicago Press, 1975, p 104
(14) I.E.S. Edwards, The Pyramids of Egypt, Penguin, 1993, p 131
(15) ibid, pp 124-5
(16) A. Fakhry, The Pyramids, University of Chicago Press, 1975, p 139
(17) ibid, p 145
(18) ibid, p 139
(19) ibid, p 140
(20) ibid, p 170
(21) I.E.S.Edwards, ‘The Pyramids of Egypt’, Penguin, 1993, p 158
(22) A.Fakhry, “The Pyramids”, University of Chicago Press, 1975, p 171
(23) ibid, pp 171-3
(24) ibid, p 173
(25) M.Lehner, ‘The Complete Pyramids’, Thames and Hudson, 1997, p 125
(26) ibid, p 109
(27) B.G.Trigger, B.J.Kemp, D.O’Connor, A.B.Lloyd, ‘Ancient Egypt, A Social History’, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp 89-90

Photographs by Jon Bodsworth’s Egypt Archive