The Ancient Names Of The Pyramids
Ancient Egypt|March / April 2021
We know Egypt’s pyramids by names such as the ‘Bent Pyramid’, ‘Red Pyramid’ and ‘Meidum Pyramid’ but their ancient names are far more poetic, as revealed by Andrew Fulton.
Andrew Fulton

To the ancient Egyptians, a name was important. The name of a person formed part of their existence both in life and in the afterlife, while the multiplicity of names and epithets for the pharaohs were highly significant, encapsulating the king’s ‘mission statement’ and allegiance to a particular god (see AE82 and AE83). What is perhaps less well known is that the pyramids also had their own names which incorporated the name of the pharaoh who built them. Not all of these names have survived, but the names we do know are always preceded by the name of the pharaoh and end with the hieroglyph for a pyramid or, in the case of Shepseskaf, a mastaba.

Fourth Dynasty c. 2613-2494 BC

Sneferu

Sneferu Endures

The earliest pyramid names to survive are those of the Fourth Dynasty pharaoh Sneferu. Sneferu built several pyramids, with one at Meidum and two at Dahshur. There are also a number of small step pyramids dotted across Upper Egypt which were probably built by Sneferu, but whose purpose remains a mystery. The one at Seila has definitely been identified as belonging to him. The pyramid at Meidum (Sneferu Endures) was the first, built originally as a step pyramid but later converted into a true pyramid and which today (see opposite, top) is in a collapsed state. It is known locally as Haram el-Kaddeb or the False Pyramid. The next two are at Dahshur:

Sneferu Appears/Shines – Pyramid of the South

Sneferu Appears/Shines – Two Pyramids

Our knowledge of these names comes from a decree of Pepy I (Sixth Dynasty) who referred to Sneferu’s pyramid town in Dahshur as “the city of the two pyramids”. This must refer to the aptly-named (in modern times) Red and Bent Pyramids based respectively on colour and shape (see opposite, bottom). The Red Pyramid is also known locally as the Bat Pyramid (el-Haram el-Watwat) but in ancient times both were called Sneferu Appears/Shines (the hieroglyph can mean both these words). We assume that the Bent Pyramid’s name has the added hieroglyph for the south as it is about three miles south of the Red Pyramid. We can say with certainty that Sneferu does shine as the builder of three large pyramids, although there is a great deal of debate as to which one contained his burial and why so many were built!

Khufu Khufu’s Horizon

The son of Sneferu needs no introduction as the builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza: a rather bland title for the Great Pyramid, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. ‘Horizon’ (akht) also means tomb, so the name states exactly what it is!

Djedefra

Djedefra is a Morning Star

Djedefra’s pyramid at Abu Rowash has a more interesting name. Verner translates this as ‘Starry Sky’ but I prefer ‘Morning Star’ as being more specific and an astronomical reference associated with Venus, Sirius (appearing just before dawn during Dog Days), and Mercury (which also appears just before dawn). There have been various associations for the morning star in world mythologies and religions. These include Phosphorus in Greek mythology, Lucifer or Satan, Jesus (referred to as a bright and morning star in Revelation 22:16), John the Baptist in the Eastern Orthodox Church; and in Aztec myths there was a god of the morning star.

Khafra

Khafra (is) Great

The pyramid is certainly great and appears larger than that of his neighbour Khufu at Giza, as it stands in a more elevated position (see page 13).

Menkaura

Menkaura is Divine

Divinity was, however, no protection as this pyramid (the smallest of the three at Giza) has been vandalised and much of its casing and granite blocks removed (see page 13).

Shepseskaf

Shepseskaf (is) Pure/Purified

In Arabic this is called Mastabat Fara’un (Bench of the Pharaoh), due to its resemblance to the bench often found outside people’s houses in Egypt(see above). It is located in South Saqqara.

Fifth Dynasty c. 2494-2345 BC

We now move into the Fifth Dynasty which saw the introduction of sun temples in addition to traditional pyramids. Only two sun temples have been found – those of Userkaf and Niuserra – although six are mentioned by name in the Abusir Papyrus. The names, unsurprisingly, always included reference to Ra.

Userkaf

Pure/Purified Places of Userkaf

Userkaf founded the Fifth Dynasty. His pyramid (above) is situated close to the Step Pyramid of Djoser and is known locally as el-Haram elMakherbish, the Ruined Pyramid. This is not surprising, given its current state.

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