The Egyptian Royal Funerary Complexes

The Egyptian Royal Funerary Complexes
© Photograph by Joe Josephs

The royal funerary complexes constituted an indispensable part of the ancient Egyptian state of the Old Kingdom. The pyramids of course feature among the symbols of ancient Egypt but their significance reaches far beyond tourist attractions. The funerary complexes which besides the pyramid also included a pyramid temple, a causeway and a valley temple, were at the same time burial places of kings and places of perpetuating or maintaining the kings’ funerary cults — they were created for one primary reason: the resurrection of the deceased ruler.

The administration of a royal funerary complex included two main aspects. The project of the construction of the pyramid complex represented one of the major tasks for every king who ascended the Egyptian throne and required the efforts of a whole army of administrators throughout the lifetime of the king.

A large part of the country’s resources and workforce were used in one way or another on this project, in the hope that resurrection and a happy afterlife would be secured for all. The other aspect of a royal funerary complex occurred at the time of the ruler’s death when his body was placed in the sarcophagus in the burial chamber, rites were performed for the king to reach safely his place in heaven, and the whole complex started to serve its function — perpetuating the funerary cult of the deceased king which was to last for decades or centuries after his death. The maintenance of the royal cults constituted an integral part of the state organisation and economy.

When a new king began his royal career, one of his first tasks was to start the construction of his own funerary complex. The form of the monument could change in the course of time from a mastaba-shaped tomb of the Archaic Period to the sophisticated step pyramid complex of the Third Dynasty and the true pyramid complex of the rest of the Old Kingdom (and also the Middle Kingdom and later).

A core team of constructors working for the new king bore responsibility for the project. It included high-ranking officials who undoubtedly had experience from the previous construction projects of the royal predecessors. They were headed by the “overseer of all the king’s works” (jmj-r¡ k¡t nbt (nt) nzwt) who ranked among the highest officials in the state since at least the early Fourth Dynasty.

The title was held by both viziers and non-viziers during most of the Old Kingdom, and the contemporaneous holders of the office were most likely in charge of different projects perhaps in different geographical regions.

Until the early Fifth Dynasty, the holders of such high offices were the kings’ sons or other members of the royal family while the later holders were of non-royal origin. Three contemporaneous holders sometimes occurred during the Fifth Dynasty, one of them associated with a restricted version of the title, “overseer of the king’s works” (jmj-r¡ k¡t (nt) nzwt).

In the Sixth Dynasty, a reduction in the number of the titles associated with the organisation of labour appeared, and since the reign of Pepy I the title was given exclusively to men who were (or were to become) viziers. At the same time, these important officials were granted high-ranking positions in the organisation of the pyramid complexes of their kings.

It is assumed that the project of the construction of the royal funerary complex was in the hands of the vizier holding the title of overseer of all the king’s works. His responsibility comprised organising and commissioning the works, including the expeditions and the construction, while it was his subordinates who made sure that the orders were carried out.

The overseer of all the king’s works delegated the tasks to the officials who were responsible for delivering the construction materials, the economic side of the construction, the labour, and other aspects of the project. Chosen officials led expeditions to desert quarries, assisted by soldiers, scribes and followed by hundreds or even thousands of workers. In the meantime, the work proceeded on the site. The choice of the place for the king’s complex observed certain principles or patterns. It could be situated at a relatively new place, near the older tombs of famous ancestors, or in the vicinity of the direct predecessors, which was a very practical solution because it allowed the king to take over the construction and administrative background of the previous project.

For the needs of the construction, the produce of many agricultural domains all over the country had to be collected, and even some new estates were established by the king and his team for this purpose. We find hundreds of these funerary domains listed on the walls of the royal complexes and they were given names incorporating the name of the king, such as, e.g. “Satisfaction of (king’s name)” (Ḥtpt S¡ḥw-Rʿ) or “Great of Provision is (king’s name)” (ʿ¡-d̠f¡ S¡ḥw-Rʿ). It was the administrators of the project who controlled the large economic input of agricultural produce and looked after its distribution according to the needs of the construction project. The participation on a royal project implied not only great responsibility but also certain profit.

The project of the construction of a funerary complex was subject to many calculations, measurements and astronomical observations. Both the practical and the religious side of the project were overseen by a team of planners that included architects and priests who at the same time executed other offices in the state administration.

The priests were undoubtedly of particular importance because essential rituals needed to be performed before and during the construction of the monument. Numerous assistants worked for the priests and the architects, together with scribes, surveyors, craftsmen, and a large number of labourers who were called to the construction site from different parts of the country and were supervised and controlled by armed forces. Evidence of the necessary background in the form of settlement structures comprising houses, workshops, storerooms, food production places and offices have been traced in archaeology, above all in Giza. Even though only a small part of the settlements has been explored, it can give us a general idea of the size and organisation of such cities at a period when gigantic pyramids were built for the kings.

The structure employed to organise the mass of workers who participated in the construction of the royal monument is reflected in many hieratic inscriptions on the pyramids themselves. Many of them come from the limestone blocks in the core and casing of the Fourth Dynasty monuments and even the blocks in their temples, but examples are also known from the Fifth and Sixth Dynasty pyramid complexes in Abusir and Saqqara. Some of the identifying inscriptions can be found even on working tools. The organisational structure probably underwent certain changes during the centuries of the Old Kingdom period, reflecting the specific requirements of the gigantic structures or the later smaller-sized pyramids.

The evidence on the organisation of the workforce and the system’s development during the period of the Old Kingdom indicates that in the Fourth Dynasty the working crews consisted of two gangs (ʿprw) whose names comprised the name of the ruling king. It has been presumed that each ʿpr-gang consisted of four phyles (s¡). But the phyles could actually be placed above the ʿpr-gangs in the work-hierarchy and the priests in the phyles administered the workers of the ʿpr-gangs, who performed the heavy labour. Each phyle was further divided into four divisions (in the time of Menkaure). There exists some evidence that a phyle-division could have been headed by an “overseer of the ten” (jmj-r¡ 10). The system of phyles shows certain similarities to the nautical organisation.

The work on the construction site at the Giza pyramids seems to have been divided geographically among the crews and phyles which served temporarily in a system of rotation. Between the late Fourth and early Fifth Dynasties, the system changed due to a reduction in the size of the pyramids as well as the size of the stone blocks. The reduction in the workforce resulted in a rearrangement of the system into a form which was similar to the rotation of the phyles in the funerary temples. It has been suggested previously that the ʿpr-gangs no longer existed in the system since the Fifth Dynasty, as their names appear no more in the masons’ marks in the temples even though they still continued to occur in the royal reliefs. This suggestion was, however, influenced by the lack of published material from the Fifth and the Sixth Dynasties. The recently published masons’ inscriptions on the blocks in the pyramid of Neferefre in Abusir did contain names of several gangs, and in addition to that other evidence from Abusir indicates that gangs bearing the same names served different kings in the necropolis.

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