Question: What new discovery in Giza revealed an unusual job title that has Egyptologists royally stumped?
Answer: A 5th-dynasty cemetery
The shifting sands of Egypt have long allowed ancient history to disappear and then reappear centuries (even millennia) later. As Egypt keeps uncovering lost treasures and previously unknown structures, its past remains an exciting, ever-changing part of its present. That was the case in May of this year, when a 4,500-year-old cemetery was unearthed near the Pyramids of Giza. Excavators were surprised by the good condition of the objects found within, including a pair of perfectly intact sarcophagi.
The men contained within the coffins were members of the royal entourage in the 5th Dynasty, a 150-year reign that included a temple-building boom and increased trade with neighboring lands (see below). The sarcophagi are each labeled, one for a man named Behnui-Ka and the other for his compatriot, Nwi. Their titles are inscribed as well, with Behnui-Ka’s roles including judge, priest, and court justice. Nwi served as Chief of State and settlements coordinator. The two men had only one title in common: both served as Purifier of the King.
This title, which is not inscribed elsewhere, has led to spirited debate among Egyptologists. It is agreed by all that cultic worship during the Old Kingdom (which drew to a close with this dynasty) treated Pharaohs like conduits to the deities. Pharaohs had priests to conduct worship but were themselves present at the most important rituals. Scholars think the Purifiers were priests who prepared their kings to enter sacred spaces and to be worthy of the gods. But how was this accomplished?
Reliefs that depict priestly duties show the men carrying figurines of deities, pouring water at temple doors, and swinging incense. Others show figures playing music, singing, and dancing. None show what any of these functionaries might do to “purify” the Pharaoh personally. But clues emerge in several paintings that contain the same image of a Pharaoh being greeted by the gods Horus and Thoth, who pour water from inscribed vases over his kingly head.
Some scholars argue that these images are not metaphors, but factual depictions of holy rites in which a pair of priests—such as Behnui-Ka and Nwi—covered their heads with masks of the gods to purify the Pharaoh before worship. For now, that is only a tantalizing conjecture, the actual facts still buried beneath the sands of time.
14 Facts About the 9 Pharaohs of the 5th Dynasty
- The first Pharaoh of the dynasty was Userkaf, and he was big on the god Ra, promoting the cult of Ra to the equivalent of a state religion.
- Userkaf built a sun temple, the Nekhenre, where ritual “funerals” were held for Ra at sunset, and a pyramid for himself that was modest in size but incredibly lavish inside.
- Assumedly the son of Userkaf, Sahure was focused on trade relations, launched naval expeditions, and was known for gardening (a hobby immortalized in the only relief of a Pharaoh tending his plants).
- Sahure’s pyramid was covered with 110,00 all of Egypt.
- His son Neferirkare Kakai was best known for kindness and often intervened when his staff was treated poorly, which may be attributed to the fac0 square feet of reliefs and was the first to feature columns carved with palm leaves at the top, which set a trend fort that his consort was originally a commoner.
- Neferirkare Kakai reportedly built his own massive temple to Ra, the largest ever on record, but despite contemporaneous descriptions of its existence, it has not yet been found.
- The fourth or fifth Pharaoh (a matter of debate), was Shepsekare, who was recorded by some Egyptian historians as ruling for seven years, but his barely started pyramid and a complete lack of any evidence of his reign has later scholars arguing that he reigned only a few weeks—and some say those weeks followed the reign of Neferirkare Kakai’s son Neferefre Isi.
- Whether he was fourth of fifth, what is known about Neferefre Isi is that he immediately started building his own pyramid; this was a good call, as he died in his 20s, less three years after taking the throne.
- His younger brother Nyuserre Ini had better luck reigning for three decades, during which he built three pyramids for himself and his wives, as well as one each for his dead father, mother, and brother, along with a trio of temples.
- Nyuserre Ini presided over peacetime, with no military action, and an emphasis on better ties to the people, which he encouraged by requiring the governors to all live in their respective provinces for the first time in Egypt’s history.
- Nobody knows how Menkauhor Kaiu was chosen to succeed Nyuserre Ini, but he made his mark in nine years by pursuing copper and turquoise mining in the Sinai, and building Egypt’s last sun temple to Ra.
- Unlike his predecessors, Djedkare Isesi ascended the throne in his teens and ruled for more than 40 decades, long enough to sunset the cult of Ra and promote his favored deity, Osiris.
- His forces mined gold in Nubia, sought incense on the Horn of Africa, and raided Canaan to quell rebellions, while enforcing a quasi-feudal system that heightened tension between elites and workers.
- The dynasty’s final Pharaoh, Unas, oversaw a period of economic decline, and a weakening administrative system that led to the collapse of the Old Kingdom—yet somehow was still venerated as a god at Saqqara for 2,000 years after the 5th dynasty was gone.
A never-ending stream of history awaits during Ancient Egypt & the Nile River.