The Sun Temples at Abu Gurob

This week I thought I would do something a little different and have a look into something I have really only heard about in passing and have been a bit curious about. That being the Sun temples at Abu Gurob and how they connect to two iconic structures from ancient Egypt- the obelisk and the pyramid.

Abu Gurob

Abu Gurob is located on the west bank of the Nile between Giza and Saqqara and originally was known to travellers as the ‘Pyramid of Rihga’, although pyramids do not dominate the landscape here but the sun temple of the 5th Dynasty King Niuserre [1]. Ludwig Borchardt led the initial excavations at the site from 1898-1905 and is most well known as the man who discovered the bust of Nefertiti, now in Berlin. His career started with the excavation at Abu Gurob of the sun temple of Niuserre.[2]  The temple of Niuserre is the most well-preserved example at Abu Gurob with another example belonging to Userkaf is located south at Abusir. Although documents record that six sun temples were built by the kings of the 5th(Figure 1). Until recently the remains of only two of these temples were found but last year a team from the Polish Academy of Sciences discovered that underneath the remains of the Niuserre temple there was evidence of a mud brick earlier temple that had been built on top of[3]. The mud brick makes the passage of time more savage on the earlier temples whilst the second was made of stone resulting it in being more well preserved and identifiable. But in general, the layout of the two temples are similar.  

Who built these temples?

As I have said Sun temples are a building phenomenon restricted to the 5th Dynasty. But who were these so-called Sun Kings? The 5th dynasty starts at around c. 2465 and continues until c. 2325 BCE. The Heliopolis connection to the sun was important in the religious ideology of the kings belonging to the 5th Dynasty as it has been suggested that these kings did possess a pure royal lineage.

The dynasty’s founder, Userkaf (r. ca. 2465–2458 B.C.), instituted the practice of building solar temples. There is some evidence in later texts that the 5th Dynasty pharaohs had good reason to cement their legitimacy. The Westcar Papyrus, from the Middle Kingdom suggests that the rulers may have part non-royal origins, making them keen to prove their divine right to rule. The document tells us that the first two 5th Dynasty pharaohs, Userkaf and Sahure were sons of the god Ra[4]. Because their royal lineage is not clearly stated within texts some say this points to an origin of non-royal stock, which would have made their connection to Ra even more important in asserting their powers as gods on Earth. All the kings of the 5th Dynasty but one took regnal names that linked their power to Ra, testifying to their special connection to the god of the sun for example Niuserre’s name can be translated as “possessed of Ra’s power”(Figure 2)[5].  The first two kings of the 5th dynasty, Userkaf and Sahure, were sons of Khentkaues, who was a member of the 4th-dynasty royal family. The third king, Neferirkare, may also have been her son. A story dating to the Middle Kingdom makes them all sons of a priest of Re may derive from a tradition that they were true worshipers of the sun god and implies, probably falsely, that the 4th-dynasty kings were not.[6]

A lot has been written on the topic of Sun temples but their true form and function seems to illude use. However, there are two main schools of thought when it comes to these temples. The first, which is followed by most scholars, is that these temples possess a clear funerary connotation. The location of these temples on the West Bank is in line with funerary structure and proximity to the pyramids of the 5th dynasty kings bolsters this theory[7]. On the other hand, another interpretation has suggested that these temples weren’t intended for the king’s funerary cult but of the daily cult of the sun god. With the king being ordained by the Sun god the building of such a temple would form part of a building programme connected to the legitimisation of the King. This could make sense if the founder of a new dynasty wanted to add some credence to his rule. But proponents of this theory say that they do not believe that to be the whole picture.[8]

Figure 3:

But what is a sun temple?

This temple’s main feature was a large squat monument which appearance-wise is halfway between a Ben Ben stone and a true obelisk (Figure 3). A ben ben stone is the sacred stone at Heliopolis that symbolized the primaeval mound that the world began from[9]. Sacred to Heliopolis the Ben ben stone was also believed to be the point at which the rising rays of the sun first fell and is connected to the Benu-bir the prototype of the phoenix[10](Figure4).  

This squat stone and tapering platform on which it stood were masonry constructions rather than a singular piece of stone which would make it an obelisk [11]. The stone of Niuserre’s temple when first erected stood 36 meters tall.  In front of that monument is a large open court, and in the centre of this open area is massive travertine alter consisting of a disc surrounded on each side by four carved examples of the htp sign[12] (Figure 5). Offerings for all the royal mortuary complexes were first taken to these temples, where they were “solarized,” or exposed to the sun for a set period of time to absorb its power [13]. North of this there were outer buildings and temple storage magazines. Referred to by Borchardt as the Great Slaughterhouse, because it was here that he unearthed a number of large alabaster basins. These basins measure 1.18 meters in diameter and are carved out of roughly cubed blocks, which were positioned in cascading order, one after the other, so that the blood of sacrificed animals could flow freely down them[14](Figure 6). However, Borchardt in this assumption had the wrong end of the stick, as there is no evidence of butchery and livestock keeping at the site. For example, in the “Sanctuary of the Knife” in the precincts of the Neferefre pyramid complex at Abusir, anchored, conical stone blocks equipped with holes to tie down prone beasts before slaughter were present, but there are none of those in either the so-called Great or Small Slaughterhouses at this sun temple.[15] However, the idea of butcher houses attached to temples is not uncommon with wider estates encompassing different trades and manufacturers.

The entrance to the temple is linked with a ‘valley building’ by a covered causeway (Figure 7). This covered causeway upon reaching the temple becomes a corridor that runs down the eastern side of the courtyard and along the south side. This corridor is decorated with reliefs of the sed festival and leads to a room referred to as the ‘room of seasons’ which showed, as the name suggests showed images of the Egyptian year, all of this ending in a chapel[16].  

the sun-temple of Niuserre, plan
Figure 7: Plan of the Sun Temple of king Niuserre

But as the 5th Dynasty and the cult of Osiris began to rise in prominence the last two kings of the 5th dynasty Djedkare Isesi and Unas did not build solar temples and the royal cemetery was moved from Abusir back to the site of Saqqara. The final 5th Dynasty pharaoh, Unas was the only pharaoh of the 5th dynasty not to take a regnal name linked to the god Ra, perhaps further illustrating that Osiris had begun to eclipse the sun god in importance.[17]

So, I do not really have an easy way to wrap up this topic as excavations continue at the site of Abu Gurob as archaeologists are on the hunt for more information about the mysterious phenomenon of a small group of kings’ Sun Temples.  


[1] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 10








[9] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 58

[10] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 58

[11] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 10

[12] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 10




[16] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 10


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