The third dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Egypt saw an extraordinary development of building techniques, from the simple structures of mud brick at the end of the second dynasty to the towering pyramids of the fourth dynasty. Just how these massive structures were built has long been a matter of conjecture, but history is made up of the lives and actions of individuals; kings and architects, scribes and priests, soldiers and artisans, even common labourers, and so the story of the Pyramid Builders unfolded over the course of more than a century. This is that story…
Djedefre becomes king, with his brother Hordjedef his principal adviser. Breaking with tradition, the king appoints Rait as his architect, gambling that she will be up to the task of building a pyramid. An earthquake damages the Sphinx, and is seen as an omen of the gods’ disfavour, but the king makes a decision that might avert disaster, though many view it as added blasphemy. Concerned for the future, those close to the king plot to remove him.
The king’s heir is put aside, and a struggle for power breaks out, leading to deadly strife between the brothers Baka and Setka. Death and exile follow, with consequences that threaten Egypt’s future.
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I am king.
His coronation was unlike anything he had ever experienced. From the moment his father’s tomb had been sealed and Djedefre made his way back to the palace in Inebu-hedj, the world around him took on an air of unreality. People spoke in muted tones, bowing and moving aside deferentially as he approached, while his thoughts churned around the idea that he was king. Brother Kauab was always going to be king and it was only his unexpected death that precipitated this great change in his life.
I am king.
Colours were brighter as he entered the city, the people having stripped away the black banners that symbolised death and rebirth that had draped every important building since the king’s death. Now, the people rejoiced in their new, youthful king, displaying the vibrant colours of life and vitality. Blue and green, yellow and white, and even splashes of red, even though that eye-catching colour represented blood and violence. Predominant, though, were banners of gold and sun-yellow, welcoming the god Re into the life of the new king.
I am king.
People cheered his passage through the streets, men and women flocking to see the youth that would reign over them. Curiosity was tinged with greed, inevitably, as the heir to the throne had promised that all would share in the feast celebrating his ascension to the throne. Great bonfires had been built on street corners, bakers had been hard at work grinding grain and creating the delicious golden-crusted bread, while brewers produced beer in quantities that rivalled the Great River itself. From the outskirts of the city could be heard the bellowing of herds of the king’s cattle as they were slaughtered and prepared and as soon as Djedefre had walked past, people’s attentions turned to the coming feast.
I am king.
Within the palace, all was in readiness for an immediate coronation. Djedefre bathed and donned fresh garments, never worn before, for the holy ceremonies. He wore no jewellery, no cosmetics; presenting himself solely as the man he had been up to the moment he became a man-god, a son of the great sun god Re. Joined by his brothers, his father’s Tjaty, and a bevy of priests, he made his way through the streets once more to the temple of Re, where the ceremony would take place. Other kings before him had chosen other gods as their protective deity and Khufu, when he became king, acknowledged Khnum. He had since embraced other gods and later on had singled out Re as pre-eminent, even going so far as to name his sons Djedefre and Khafre for that god. Djedefre would now ascend the throne as a son of that god, and would be the first to call himself Sa-Re–Son of Re.
The Hem-netjer of Re met Djedefre at the entrance to the public court of the temple and escorted him to a great stone basin filled with water. Here, the youth stripped off his clothing and was ritually washed by the priests of Re, while priests of the other gods intoned prayers and recited hymns of praise. Washed and dressed once more in virgin linen, Djedefre moved deeper into the temple, there to greet his heavenly father and secure his blessing. First the Hem-netjer of Re, and then the other high-ranking priests anointed Djedefre’s body with holy oil and pure water; reciting the names by which he would be known.
“Bikju-nebu, the most golden falcon; Kheper-im-nebti, Embodied in the Two Ladies; Hor-Kheper, Embodiment of Heru; Sa-Re Djedefre, Son of Re, He who endures like Re.”
The priests led the new king out into the public court once more and presented him to the waiting dignitaries, the court officials and family members, who cheered him, their cries of joy being taken up by the people jamming the streets outside the temple, hoping for a glimpse of their youthful new king. Djedefre grinned, looking more like a mischievous boy than a semi-divine king, but on this day nobody took any notice of that. He strode out through the temple pylon into the street, escorted by an honour guard of palace soldiers. People pressed close, all wanting to see their king, but the soldiers pushed them back, allowing Djedefre to walk among them.
I am king.
It was starting to feel real. The ceremonies, the anointing, the adulation of the crowds and the way men hurried to do his bidding, all fed his good mood. He looked around as he walked and saw the bold looks of young women in the crowd, which excited him. Behind him, he saw his brother Khafre frown, and that made him laugh out loud. Khafre was too serious. This was a joyous occasion and Djedefre was determined to make the most of it. He did not care in the slightest what Khafre deemed proper; he was the king and his will prevailed.
“I am king!”
The people cheered his exultant shout, and the rush of excitement that rippled through the crowds energised him as he returned to the palace and made his first pronouncement as king.
“I confirm my uncle Ankhhaf as my Tjaty,” he declared. “He has performed well in that office under my father, and I desire he continues to do so.”
A great feast followed, with all the court officials, nobles of Inebu-hedj and as many dignitaries from other parts of the kingdoms as could be packed into the palace, celebrating the new king’s accession. The feasting went far into the night, and as darkness fell over the city, great bonfires blazed on the corners of the principal streets where the populace could cook free meat to eat with their bread and wash it down with draughts of beer. Music played and people danced, praising the new king, and the drunken celebrations lasted through into the next day.
At the height of the feasting, Djedefre shouted above the hubbub for silence, and when the conversation died away, made an announcement.
“You have all become accustomed to the glory of the Two Kingdoms under my blessed father Khufu, and I know many of you think his reign was the pinnacle of Kemetu achievement, but you have seen nothing yet.”
Djedefre raised another cup of strong wine and drank deeply before continuing. Those closest to him could see the effect of so much wine on him, but nobody dared say anything.
“My reign will be even more glorious than that of my father. Kemet is the richest kingdom on earth, and I will make its glories talked about by every nation upon which the sun shines down. I will build temples throughout the kingdoms, my tomb will be larger and more magnificent than that of Khufu and… and all men will praise my name.”
Djedefre stood swaying gently as he looked around for the wine carrier. The young man hurried forward to fill the king’s cup as cheering from the drunker guests echoed off the walls of the chamber. Lifting his cup high, the king grinned as he realised that as king, he could do anything he pleased.
“One more thing… I am taking my sister Hetepheres to be my wife, and I will make her my queen, sowing sons in her belly to reign after me.”
Ribald jokes filled the air as the younger men took the lead from their king, but Hetepheres herself, sitting with the women, frowned. Khentetka, the king’s wife and mother of his sons, looked furious, but knew better than to say anything at the feast. Both women sat with their closest friends and confidants, whispering about the king’s words.
Tjaty Ankhhaf and Khafre looked at each other, their faces impassive, but each knew what the other man was thinking. Djedefre was doing himself no favours by making drunken pronouncements at his accession feast. Decisions on the kingdoms’ future and of a more personal nature should have been the subject of discussion beforehand, with wiser, more experienced men offering their advice.
The feasting and drinking continued throughout the night, though Djedefre retired in the early hours of the morning. He awoke the next day in a foul mood, his head pounding, whereupon he promptly vomited. Servants washed him and clothed him, sending for the physician who administered a tonic to relieve the symptoms of drunken excess. He ate sparingly, not being able to face heavier fare, and send for his Tjaty.
“What did I say last night?” Djedefre demanded. “Khentetka gives me poisonous looks.”
“You announced that you were marrying Princess Hetepheres…”
“That was always going to happen. I am the king; it is expected.”
“You also said you would make her queen, Son of Re.”
Djedefre held his head in one hand, massaging his temples. “Say that again.”
“You said you would make Princess Hetepheres your queen.”
“Not that bit; the other thing.”
Ankhhaf frowned. “What other thing?”
“What you called me… Son of Re.”
Ankhhaf bowed. “Son of Re.”
Djedefre nodded, wincing at the movement. “Yes, I am, aren’t I? Well, what did she expect? I cannot very well raise up my sister and deny her that title.”
“Of course not, Son of Re.”
“What does she want?”
“No, Khentetka. She knows I have to do this, so why is she disturbing my peace?”
“I do not pretend to know the mind of your wife, Son of Re, but perhaps she is concerned that she will become less in your eyes. Remember that she is only the daughter of Nub-Hor, the Hem-netjer of Heru, whilst Hetepheres is the daughter of a king. Raise your sister Hetepheres to the rank of queen and what is she to become? In her mind you are making her a secondary wife.”
Djedefre groaned. “She is the mother of my heir, Hornit.”
“Perhaps you need to reassure her on that point, Son of Re. After all, once Princess Hetepheres is your queen, she will expect that her son will become your heir. You must make your wishes known to both women as soon as possible.”
“I will think of something,” Djedefre said. “Was that all I said last night?”
“You said you were going to glorify Kemet.”
“That is easy enough to do. Just being king will accomplish that.” Djedefre grinned and then thought better of it, stifling a groan as pain lanced through his head again.
“Son of Re, you swore to build a bigger, more magnificent tomb than your father.”
“And so I will. I rule Kemet; I can order anything done, can’t I?”
“Yes, Son of Re… except…”
“You can order it, Son of Re, but whether it actually happens depends on the state of the treasury. Men must be paid, food and clothing bought, materials supplied. If these things do not happen, then orders are useless.”
“Why should these things not happen?” Djedefre demanded.
“You should hear this from the lips of your treasurer, Son of Re.”
“Then send for him.”
Treasurer Minkare bowed before glancing nervously at Tjaty Ankhhaf. “You sent for me, Son of Re?”
“Tjaty Ankhhaf tells me I cannot afford to do everything I want to do. I want you to tell me the true state of the treasury.”
“My lord… Son of Re…” Minkare licked his lips and looked at Ankhhaf.
Ankhhaf shrugged. “Tell the king what you told me,” he growled. “It is not your fault, so do not fear retribution.”
Minkare bowed again. “Son of Re, the royal treasury is in a parlous state. Your royal father spent gold freely and…and there is little left.”
Minkare told him, but Djedefre just shrugged.
“That figure is meaningless. Put it into a context I can understand.”
“Yes, Son of Re.” Minkare thought for a moment. “If your father was still building his great mer, I do not think he could afford more than another two years…maybe three. Less if his expenses were great elsewhere.”
“How did this happen?”
“Building a mer of such enormous proportions is an expensive business, Son of Re.”
“But the kingdoms are productive,” Djedefre protested. “Wealth is always flowing in from the sepatu in the way of taxes.”
“For several years, expenditure has exceeded income,” Minkare said.
“What about the gold mines of Wawat?”
“They help, Son of Re, but insufficiently.”
“Then more gold must be mined,” Djedefre said. “More from the existing mines or find new ones. How am I to do what I want without wealth?”
The king gave orders to Ankhhaf that more wealth was to be generated, whether by increasing taxation or by mining more gold, and all the Tjaty could do was agree to find ways. He also tried to dissuade the king from committing to major expenditure.
“I have already announced that I will build a mer greater than that of my father,” Djedefre replied. “Would you have me go back on my word?”
“You are a young man, Son of Re, with a long life stretching out before you. You can afford to wait a few years before starting work. Do other things in the meantime that do not call for wealth you do not have.”
“Marry your sister Hetepheres and make her your queen. Such a move would be very popular and would cost very little.”
Ankhhaf met opposition from one of Djedefre’s brothers. Hordjedef was a youth and sought out a way to make a name for himself. Lacking any obvious natural abilities, save that of being a close relative of the king, he tried to use his position to acquire wealth and power. He had lived his life within the palace, observing the interactions of his older brothers Kauab, Djedefre and Khafre. From childhood, he recognised that he would never be able to influence righteous Kauab or serious-minded Khafre, but Djedefre was another matter. Hordjedef had a selfish nature and realised that making friends with an older brother who similarly did not hold others in high regard was a good way of furthering his ambitions. He lacked opportunities as long as Kauab was heir, but limitless possibilities opened up once Djedefre became king.
“You are king, my brother,” Hordjedef said softly. “No one can tell you what to do, and equally, no one can tell you what you cannot do. As king, you can do anything.”
“That is true,” Djedefre agreed, “but I still need wealth.”
“You own Kemet,” Hordjedef pointed out. “Everything in the kingdoms is yours by right. You only allow others to make use of your property. If you need wealth, take it.”
Djedefre frowned. “I already tax the people.”
“Increase taxes. Make your nobles give a portion of their wealth to you; it is only fair. Why should they enjoy the good things of life while you make do on scraps?”
“They would not like it.”
“Why should you care; you are the king. Have every man declare his personal wealth and then have him forfeit a tenth part. No one can say a tenth part will force them into poverty, but a tenth part of everything will yield much wealth. You can build your great mer, and anything else you desire.”
“Son of Re, you have a responsibility to rule well,” Ankhhaf protested when he heard of Hordjedef’s plan to increase the king’s wealth. “Actions like these will upset the ma’at of the kingdoms.”
“But I own everything anyway, don’t I?”
“Yes, my lord, but a wise king rewards his loyal followers by gifting them land and gold. Taking everything from them is not wise.”
“I am not taking everything. Hordjedef says I should tax them a tenth part, but I think one part in five would be better. It will enable me to start building that much sooner.”
Ankhhaf appealed to Khafre to support him in limiting the king’s actions, but Khafre just shook his head.
“The king will do as he pleases,” Khafre said. “As a prince he never listened to sense, so why would he start now?”
“You will just let him extort taxes from the nobles? They will not like it, and you know that he will squander what good will he has.”
“He is the king,” Khafre said. “I warned our father of the consequences of making him heir, but he would not listen. I can do no more.”
“Once ma’at is disturbed, who knows what will follow? Will you allow Kemet to fall into chaos?”
“What would you have me do?” Khafre demanded. “He is the king.”
Ankhhaf grimaced. “I say nothing of what might be done, my lord, but Kemet would not face this uncertain future had Khufu named you heir.”
Khafre looked round to see if they could be overheard. There were no servants nearby, but he lowered his voice anyway. “That is dangerous talk at any time, uncle, but more so when it concerns my brother. Refrain from pursuing that subject.”
“I pursue nothing. I only state what any right-thinking man already knows; some men are more suited to be king than others. If you see yourself as such a man, you are not alone.”
“It was Khufu’s decision,” Khafre said. “Right or wrong, it was his to make, and I will not try to undo it. Now let that be an end to it.”
“As you will,” Ankhhaf murmured. “I pray that you will see what must be done before the kingdoms descend into open rebellion.”
“Enough!” Khafre snapped. “I will hear no more.”
Djedefre taxed the nobles within Inebu-hedj at first, and then within the sepatu throughout the kingdoms. He did not go so far as to extract a fifth or a tenth of their wealth, losing his nerve at the last minute. Instead, he taxed the number of cattle each man owned, reminding them that a cattle tax had not been applied for many years. There was some grumbling, but gold flowed into the treasury coffers, and Minkare was pleased to carry the good news to the king.
“There is enough to build my mer?” Djedefre asked.
“No, Son of Re, but it is a start,” the treasurer said.
“Then we must find a way to apply other taxes,” the king said.
“Perhaps there is another way,” Hordjedef mused. “Son of Re, you desire a tomb worthy of your greatness, that will be favourably compared to the vast edifice built by our father, but why build next to him?”
“What do you mean?”
“People can judge the size of your mer only if it is built next to our father’s mer. Build it somewhere else and they cannot judge between you, even if yours is smaller.”
“Why would I want to build a smaller one?”
“You can afford a smaller one,” Hordjedef said patiently. “Build your mer somewhere else so nobody can compare yours to Khufu’s.”
Djedefre frowned and turned away, thinking. “How much smaller?”
Hordjedef shrugged. “I have no idea, Son of Re. That would be a matter for your architects, but if they could find a good building site, then possibly not too much smaller. You already have the workers and a plan. Any construction you start now must surely be able to be completed in a shorter time.”
“Send for my architects, Hordjedef. I will pursue this idea further.”
Djer was nominally the king’s architect, but as he was not of the nobility, Hemiunu was also summoned, and the two men listened as Hordjedef explained the king’s thinking on the subject. He told them that Djedefre required a tomb that would be a magnificent structure, but that must cost less. The king would not contend with his father as to which tomb was the greatest, Hordjedef said, so a site must be found where a tomb could be displayed to the best advantage.
“Are there any other requirements, my lord?” Djer asked.
Djedefre frowned, and then, without looking at Djer, spoke to Hemiunu. “Find a place where my tomb can be dedicated to the sun god Re, and plan one that will compare favourably to that of my father.”
The two architects bowed and left the presence of the king and his brother, remaining silent until they were alone.
“He has given you an impossible task,” Hemiunu said.
“Given us one, you mean,” Djer said. “He spoke to you, not me.”
“Do not take it to heart, my friend. Neither of us can help who our fathers were. We just have to do the best we can.”
Djer shrugged. “Where do we look, then? Rostau is out, and unless we are going to build something monumental, we cannot put it anywhere within sight of Sneferu’s meru.”
“I think we need to look to the north,” Hemiunu mused. “The king styles himself Son of Re and he wants his tomb dedicated to Re, so what is more natural than building where the worship of the sun god is centred?”
“Iunu? You think we should build near that city?”
“It cannot hurt to look.”