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…
The kings of Egypt are turning from the worship of all gods to raising the sun god Re above them all. Rather than a stepped pyramid for the spirit of the king to ascend to the undying stars, they seek a representation of the beneficent rays of the sun in a smooth-sided pyramid. This brings with it a host of new problems to be overcome by the king’s architects. Meanwhile, the king takes several wives and has many sons who vie for power, using murder to achieve their ends.
Den is old and passes the title of architect on to his son Khepankh and grandson Djer, but they make mistakes as they try to learn new techniques of building massive pyramids. Their mistakes threaten to be their undoing, but they find a way to build true and strong, and a new talent arises from a union between Den’s family and the heir to the throne.
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Senefer, sister to the king’s wife, left the presence of Neferka shaking with anger and muttering to herself under her breath. She pushed past servants and almost ran through the corridors and passageways of the palace of Inebu-hedj, as if she could no longer bear to be there.
“I cannot let my sister remain married to that man,” she muttered, unaware of the presence of servants. “She thinks she loves him, but she is deluded. He will never honour her as he should by making her his Queen, so she would be better off with him dead.”
She left the palace and made her way to the house she had once shared with her sister, thinking hard about how she could kill King Sneferu.
Kagemni, Tjaty of Kemet under the king’s recently deceased father, entered the throne room, threaded his way through the assembled officials, and bowed low before the youth on the raised throne.
“My lord king, Bik-nebu, Golden Falcon, Nisut Bity Nebma’at Nebty, Lord of the Two Kingdoms, He of the Two Ladies, Lord of the Ma’at. Hor-Nebma’at Sneferu, Heru, Lord of Ma’at, has perfected me. May you live forever. Health, Prosperity, Life!”
The courtiers that packed the throne room for this, the new king’s first official audience, cheered and stamped their feet, shouting out their well wishes to King Sneferu.
“Health, Prosperity, Life!”
Sneferu grinned, looking more like a boy and less like a king, as he waited for the hubbub to die down. He raised a hand and the last sounds cut off abruptly.
“My first acts as king are to confirm Lord Kagemni as Tjaty over my kingdoms, second only to me, and Den as Overseer of the King’s Building Works. Both men gave faithful service to my father and I look forward to their loyal service for many years to come.”
Sneferu went on to name other officials of his father’s court, confirming most of them in their positions, though he rewarded a few friends with titles and riches as well. After an hour, he dismissed the assembled court, bidding Kagemni and Den remain. When everyone but these two had filed out, the king stretched and got up from his throne, handing the double crown and regalia of his kingdoms to one of the ever-present servants.
“That was rather more enjoyable than I thought it was going to be,” Sneferu said.
“Proper governance is a great responsibility, my lord,” Kagemni said. “It is as well that you enjoy it.”
“I suspect that the day-to-day running of the kingdoms and attendance in the law courts will be more onerous, but that is why I have you, Tjaty Kagemni.”
“My duty is to do anything I can do to relieve you of your burden, my lord.”
“I will keep you busy, Kagemni. I intend to do great things during my reign, and that is where you will come in, Overseer Den.”
Den bowed. “My lord king?”
“I want you to build me a mer greater than any that have gone before.”
Den waited before saying anything, certain that the king would say more. After all, there had only ever been one great mer built before–that of Djoser–so the king must be going to add something.
“Well?” Sneferu demanded, when Den did not reply. “Do you have nothing to say?”
“My apologies, my lord king,” Den said hurriedly. “Of course I will do exactly as you wish… but… er, is this in addition to the mer ordered by your father? The one at Hut-Nen-Nesut?”
“No. I was the one who persuaded my father to create one there, so you will continue with it in my name alone. Just make certain it will be bigger than that of King Djoser.”
“Yes, my lord,” Den said, bowing.
“I would like to see the plans,” Sneferu said.
“I will bring you a copy, my lord.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Well, off you go then. I have no doubt you will need to discuss things with Tjaty Kagemni. He has the authority to grant you anything you need.”
Both men bowed and left the presence of the king. They sought out the sanctuary of the Tjaty’s offices, where Kagemni ordered wine to be brought for them. When both men were settled with a cup of fine wine from the king’s vineyards, Kagemni smiled and raised his cup to salute Den.
“We have come a long way, father-uncle. Did you ever think we would move in such exalted company?”
“I always knew you had the ability,” Den said, “but fortune smiled on you as well. If Lord Huni had not taken you on as a personal assistant all those years ago, he may never have recognised your worth.”
“If I am worthy, it is because I owe everything to you,” Kagemni said. “You took me in hand when my father rejected me, adopted me and brought me into your household, teaching me and raising me up to be a scribe. Without your love and guidance, I would be nothing.”
Den smiled and embraced his brother’s son. “I gave you an opportunity. What you made of it was all your own work.”
Kagemni nodded. “And now I am Tjaty of all Kemet, second only to the king, while you are Overseer of the entire Building Works of the king. Now we are tasked with building the greatest mer the world has seen, greater even than that of King Djoser, which is known as the wonder of all Kemet. That task is enough to make me tremble.”
Den smiled and shook his head. “You only have to give the orders, my lord Tjaty. It is people like me who have to carry out those orders.”
“We are both under orders and neither of us wants to disappoint our king… so… are you satisfied that the design you have drawn up for this mer at Hut-Nen-Nesut will achieve this great intention?”
“I have no reason to doubt it will,” Den declared.
“Tell me what you plan.”
“Very well. It will be square, measuring two hundred and seventy-five mehi on a side and one hundred and seventy-five mehi tall with a seked slope of five and a half palms.” Den smiled at the look of astonishment on Kagemni’s face. “Seven peru-djet, stacked one on top of the other, with a descending passage leading down from the first level to beneath the bedrock, then a shaft rising to a burial chamber within the structure of the mer itself.”
“You have given this much thought,” Kagemni said. He thought about what Den had said, before asking, “What is a seked? That was really the only part of what you said that I did not know. I suppose it is some construction term?”
“A seked is the ratio of the base of a mer to its height.”
Kagemni shook his head. “I recognise the individual words, but not the manner in which you combine them. I am a trained scribe, but not a builder. Can you explain it for me?”
Den thought for a moment. “You know of the unit of length we call a mehi? Well, the width of a man’s palm fits into a mehi seven times, and a finger width fits into a palm four times…” He frowned and took a scrap of papyrus from Kagemni’s desk, sketching on it with a thin stick of charcoal. “Look, this is a right-angled triangle and the horizontal and vertical sides are both seven palms or one mehi in length. If we take the vertical as being one mehi, we can alter the length of the horizontal to create seked angles to fit any construction we want. This mer of King Sneferu is to have a seked slope of five palms and two fingers…see here?” Den marked off the length on the horizontal and drew a line up from it to meet the vertical one. “This is the angle of the slope on the planned mer.”
Kagemni frowned as he studied the sketch. “Your builders all understand these seked measurements?”
“They do not have to. As far as they are concerned, all they need to know is that if the height is seven units, then the base is eleven units…”
“Not five and a half?”
“Twice that is eleven; the base of the whole mer, not just half of it.” Den added the other part to his sketch.
“But the mer is going to be a stepped one like Djoser’s rather than smooth sided like your sketch?”
Now it was Den’s turn to frown as he recognised the implications of the question. “Of course,” he said. “How could it be otherwise? The king’s spirit ascends the staircase of his tomb to reach the undying stars. He would not be able to climb a smooth sided structure.”
Kagemni thought that a spirit, lacking the physical body that remained in the tomb’s burial chamber might be capable of such a feat, but recognising the possible heretical nature of his thought, he said nothing.
“Anyway, I suppose I had better go home and start drawing up some detailed plans for the king. He will want to see something tremendous.”
Kagemni arose and accompanied his father-uncle to the palace entrance. “How is the rest of the family?” he asked as they walked. “I am so busy; I scarcely get to see anyone.”
“Henut will have told you about her love for my grandson Djer?”
Kagemni grimaced. “She is only fifteen, but…” he shrugged, “if she loves him and he loves her, then I will not stand in their way. So tell me about others in our interrelated families that I might not know about.”
“There is my daughter Neferka…”
“The king’s wife? Yes, I know all about her, so stop teasing me.”
Den chuckled. “Our forebears may be humble scribes, but our children are descended from royalty. The great Imhotep, himself the son of a king, was my wife’s father, and you married my daughter Merit, so the blood of kings flows in them.” He shook his head. “I might wish they had made more of themselves, but that is fate.”
“Your children have had success,” Kagemni said.
“Some have,” Den conceded. “Khepankh will follow me as Overseer of Building, I do not doubt, and Merit has made a good match. Neferka too…”
“Her son Nefermaat will be king one day.”
“If it is the will of the gods, but for every success, there are others who have made questionable decisions and one who shamed me…or perhaps I just failed him in some way.”
“Khawy was always a problem,” Kagemni said. “I suffered at his hands, as did his brothers and sisters. It was not your fault that something was never quite right with him, and it was definitely not your fault that he died in a drunken fight. Besides, he did not pass on his failings. His sons are men in good standing, I hear.”
“Djetenre is an embalmer’s scribe, which is honest work at least,” Den said. “Baka though…he gets wealthy through trade, and rather faster than is seemly.”
“He is dishonest?”
“Not that I know,” Den admitted, “but he is a scribe so how does he get wealthy at his age? He is only nineteen.”
Kagemni shrugged. “I do not know, but there are honest ways of gaining wealth. Hard work and investing your wages in trading ventures, maybe?”
“You could be right and I pray that you are. My son Khamose is a trader too, and he has gained wealth.”
“There you go then,” Kagemni said. “Getting rich must be a family trait. We have been successful, as has Khepankh and Neferka. Why not Khamose and Baka too?”
Den nodded, stopping on the upper steps of the palace entrance. “I will leave you here. No doubt you will be with the king when I return with my drawings and plans.”
Kagemni turned away and paused. “There is one other matter…and it is somewhat delicate as it concerns your twin daughters.”
“It could scarcely be about Neferka as she is wife of our king, so what has Senefer done now?”
“I hoped you could tell me.”
“Me? How would I know what she is up to?”
“She is your daughter.”
“So they tell me,” Den said with a grimace. “I gave them an allowance when they were younger, but they have always been outside my control. I was just very fortunate that Neferka met and married Prince Sneferu.” He smiled wryly. “Maybe Senefer will also meet a handsome prince.”
“From what I know of her, that is extremely unlikely,” Kagemni said. “She hates men.”
“I think ‘hate’ is a little strong,” Den said. “She has little desire to get married, but that might be just that she has not met the right man.”
“Neferka is upset that the king will marry his sister Hetepheres and make her Queen. She has voiced that concern to Senefer in the hearing of her maidservants and Senefer has been overheard making remarks elsewhere to the effect that she will rid her sister of the king her husband.”
“Overheard by whom?”
“A servant in the palace. She came to me with it and I have contained the problem for the moment.”
“No one will believe a servant,” Den scoffed.
“Maybe not, but do you want to risk it? You could lose everything if a family member committed treason.”
“What did this servant overhear…or say she overheard?”
“A maidservant heard Senefer tell Neferka that he must make her his queen, which is innocent enough, but as she went away, she spoke in anger and was overheard by a servant within the palace halls. This servant said that Senefer muttered that if the king would not make Neferka his queen, then he must die.”
“How close was she that she could overhear this?”
“A pace or two only. You know how ubiquitous servants can be. They are always in attendance and we seldom notice them. She said she heard Senefer clearly.”
Den shook his head. “I cannot believe this of her. I will speak to her and find out the truth of it.”
“Please do,” Kagemni said, “and quickly. I cannot hide this from the king for long, but I do not want to tell tales if it was all some honest mistake or a lie.”
Den was greatly troubled as he left the palace and made his way into the city. The revelation of his daughter’s indiscretion had driven all thoughts of his scribal duties from his mind, and his feet guided him to Senefer’s house. She was at home and answered his knock, eschewing the employment of servants.
“Father, I am surprised to see you here. Is mother well?”
“She is, but I must talk with you on a matter of some importance.”
Senefer showed her father to an inner room and poured him wine.
“Can we be overheard here?” Den asked.
“I have few servants, father. A woman comes in every other day to clean and do laundry, and she is not here today. Neither is her husband, who is my gardener and handyman.” Senefer looked quizzically at her father. “Why should the presence of servants be so intimidating?”
Den drank some wine before answering. “You have been indiscreet, daughter. You were heard to say you wanted the king dead.”
Senefer stared and then shook her head. “Who is supposed to have overheard me?”
“A palace servant.”
“And you believe him?”
“Her. It does not matter what I believe; only that she has taken her tale to Tjaty Kagemni, and it is his duty to investigate it. Out of our kinship and friendship, he spoke to me first, wanting to know if there was any truth to the accusation.” Den looked at his daughter. “Is there any truth in it?”
Senefer could not meet her father’s gaze, but looked away. “The king dishonours my sister. What would you have me do?”
“Dishonours her how? I have heard nothing of this. Neferka is happily married to the king.”
“He will take his sister Hetepheres as his wife and make her his queen. Neferka will be relegated to the status of a secondary wife.”
“It is customary for a king to marry his sister,” Den said. “Hetepheres is the daughter of a king and a royal princess besides. Of course she will be made queen; but Neferka will remain as a wife of the king, which is a great honour. Remember that we are not royal.”
“Maybe you are not, father, but our mother Ranefert is daughter of Imhotep, who was son of King Khasekhemwy. Neferka is the great-granddaughter of a king.”
Den grimaced, but nodded. “You are right, but ultimately, it is the king who decides. He will raise up Hetepheres, I am sure, but Neferka has already borne him three sons, and the eldest, Nefermaat is his heir. In time, Neferka will have the title of Mut-nisut, ‘King’s Mother’ and that is a high honour indeed.”
“She would still be better off without him,” Senefer said stubbornly.
“So you admit that you did say that?” Den asked.
“I might have.”
Den groaned. “You must disavow your words immediately. If you do, I might be able to persuade Kagemni the servant misheard or lied.”
“Or I must act quickly, before Sneferu hears.”
“You do not mean it.” Den stared in horror at his daughter. “You cannot really want to…to kill…him? Daughter, you would condemn your whole family to death and ignominy.”
“Not if I was successful.”
“No, I will not let you do it. I will call the guards myself if need be.”
Senefer laughed out loud. “Oh, father, do you really think I would do such a thing? Am I a murderer? Go to Kagemni and tell him the servant is lying or mistaken, and I will remove myself from the city.”
Den stared in disbelief. “This has all been some terrible jest? You make a mockery of such a thing? Why would you do that?”
“I do not like what the king will do to my sister, but she has made her life and must now live it. I was angry and said things I should not have said, but that is all.”
“You mean it?” Den asked. “You have no inimical feelings toward the king?”
“None that I would put into action, father. You may assure Kagemni of that. He has nothing to worry about.”
“I will talk to him and hope that I can persuade him,” Den said. “You really mean it?”
“I really mean it, father.”
“What will you do then?”
“Hunting is the life I have made for myself,” Senefer said. “I will leave the city for a time as I have no desire to watch my sister’s disappointment when Hetepheres is made queen.”
“I think that might be for the best,” Den replied.
Senefer saw her father out and closed the door behind him. She glowered as she went back into her house, angry at the position into which her own father had put her.
“You forced me to lie to you, father. You should never have questioned me.”
Pouring herself a mug of beer and grabbing a handful of dates, she went out into the small courtyard and sat down in the shade of a fig tree. As she ate and drank, she ruminated over the options open to her, and as she thought, her anger ebbed away.
“I should have been more careful when I spoke, but who can keep track of all those servants in the palace?”
She grinned and looked around her, knowing there was no one there to overhear anything she might say.
“Father is persuasive, but if Kagemni is not convinced, he might say something to the king. I doubt he would act without more proof, but he might be on his guard, making it harder for me to kill him.”
The bare words, spoken into the empty courtyard, gave her pause.
“Did I just say that? Do I really want to kill the king? And if I do, do I have the nerve to go through with it?”
Senefer sat and thought about how the king had come between her and Neferka, tempting her away and making her his wife. Neferka had hardly resisted, willingly going to him and turning her back on a sister who was more than a sister.
“The only thing that separates us physically is the tiny blemish on your neck, and of course such things as the court hairstyle, jewellery and clothing. Our thoughts are very different though. I have remained true to the vows we made, but you have repudiated those vows, seeking out the company of men and everything that goes with it.”
Senefer’s anger rose again and she threw aside the half-empty mug of beer and rose to her feet. She started pacing, into the hot sun and back into the shade, her stamping footsteps raising dust even from the hard-packed earth of the courtyard.
“I hate you, Neferka,” she snarled. “You have betrayed me.”
All of a sudden, tears welled in her eyes, but she brushed them away angrily.
“How can I hate you?” she wailed. “You are everything to me, but I am nothing to you. I would die for you, but you have chosen a man over me.”
Tears flooded out as Senefer cried aloud in her anguish, and for a few moments she contemplated putting an end to her misery by throwing herself into the river. She wiped her eyes and her streaming nose on a sleeve of her tunic, thinking how sorry Neferka would be when she saw the body of her sister. Too late, she would realise how foolish she had been.
“But that is not what I really want. I want her to admit her fault and come back to me, so that once more we can devote ourselves to each other and the hunt.” She shook her head. “She will never do it, though; not while the king lives. And that leaves me without a choice; I must kill Sneferu if we are to have any chance of regaining our happiness.”