The Pyramid of King Unas (Photo by Keith Payne)
The death of Pharaoh Unas prompted the most fragile transfer of power in the Old Kingdom to date, but it would hardly be the last, or the
worst. Without an heir, or at least one who ascended to the throne, the fact that the crown passed from one dynasty to another peaceably amidst a time of growing turmoil is a testament to what remained of Egypt’s institutions.
Pharaoh Unas, also called Ounas and Wenis, was the last king of the Fifth Dynasty, and possibly the last sovereign of the Old Kingdom to rule with relative security. He ruled from about 2367 – 2347 BC, around 20-23 years. He had two wives, Nebit and Khenut, the latter of which was probably the mother of Iput I, who would marry King Teti, thus founding the Sixth Dynasty.
Unas was apparently an active king, as reliefs and other narrative art depict him making war with the Bedouin and engaging in trade with other kingdoms. It seems he passed without leaving an heir, and there may have been a brief and tense interregnum, finally settled with the marriage of his eldest daughter to Teti.
Many of his court officers would be retained under the rule of Teti, probably including Vizier Kagemni, which likely did at least as much to maintain law and order as Iput I’s royal pedigree.
In terms of pyramid construction, the end of the Fifth Dynasty was as far as you could get from the monuments of Dashur and Giza that symbolize the early years of the Old Kingdom. King Unas’ Pyramid was the smallest of the Old Kingdom Period, and although successive pyramids would be slightly larger, his layout would set the pattern for the Sixth Dynasty.
Monument construction during the Fifth Dynasty was focused chiefly on temple building. The generous endowments extended to the newly-empowered cult of Ra, combined with other growing demands on the royal coffers, left little gold for pyramid building.
In an effort to compensate, finely dressed white limestone was placed over a cheaply constructed step-style pyramid understructure to create the illusion of a small but regal smooth-sided pyramid. As a result, when the limestone casing was plundered in later years the core was left to disintegrate in the elements, leaving behind one of the trademark rubble pyramids of this period.
The inside of Unas’ pyramid, however, is another matter altogether. The inner walls are mostly in very good shape, and contain the earliest example of Pyramid Texts discovered to date. These are passages inscribed on the walls containing rituals and incantations to assist the divine pharaoh in the ordeals of the afterlife.
The burial chamber has a vaulted ceiling that has been painted with a starry nighttime sky. Unas’ basalt and alabaster sarcophagus was found in the burial chamber, and a few fragments of what is believed to have been his mummy were recovered from within.
The base and stairway of Unas’ valley temple remain in fairly good shape, and much of the causeway is in excellent shape. The causeway is decorated with scenes of daily life, including hunting and agriculture, along with depictions of various craftsmen plying their trades.
There are also scenes describing the geopolitical climate of Unas’ reign. In addition to trade and warfare, Unas’ foreign policy resulted in an influx of immigrants who are represented as emaciated to the point of starvation.
This was a time when famine was common throughout the Mediterranean region, and Egypt had her own share of domestic problems. These new additions to the already restless provinces were yet another factor sapping away at the authority of the central government, the very thing that had made the Old Kingdom possible.
At the end of the causeway, the mortuary temple itself is in very good condition. Many elements remain, including flooring, palm-adorned pillars, and niches where statues of the king would have once stood. King Teti’s name appears in the gateway to the mortuary temple, indicating that it was completed during his reign, after Unas had passed.
The transfer of power from the Fifth Dynasty to the Sixth may have been with trepidation, but it occurred successfully, due in no small part to the political genius of Teti. As local leaders and high court officials were enjoying the redistribution of wealth that accompanied the slow death of the Old Kingdom, things were not going so well for the rest of the populace, and the institution of pharaonic authority would increasingly come to feel the heat.
Teti would have his work cut out for him.