Biography of Userkaf

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Userkaf was the son of Neferhetepes, a daughter of the 4th Dynasty king Djedefre. His father is not known. His marriage to Khentkaus I, assumed to have been a daughter of Mykerinos, may further have legitimised his claim to the throne. If Khentkaus I was indeed Userkaf’s wife, then his two successors, Sahure and Neferirkare, were his sons. No further wives nor children are known for Userkaf.

Despite the strong family relationship of Userkaf with his predecessors, Manetho starts a new dynasty, the 5th, with the reign of this king. This may be reflected in the Middle Kingdom tale, noted on the Papyrus Westcar, where the birth of 3 new kings, Userkaf, Sahure and Neferirkare, as the sons of a priest of Re and a woman named Reddjedet, is predicted. Contrary to the tale of Papyrus Westcar, however, it is now believed that Userkaf was not the brother but the father of his two immediate successors and that their mother was Khentkaus I.

Colossal granite head of a statue of Userkaf found in the king’s mortuary complex at Saqqara.

Colossal granite head of a statue of Userkaf found in the king’s mortuary complex at Saqqara.

According to the Turin King-list, Userkaf ruled for only 7 years, but Manetho (in the version of Africanus) credits him with as much as 28 years! The number given by the Turin King-list, however, seems to be confirmed by the Palermo-stone, which notes the year of the 3rd cattle count of this king as his highest.

Userkaf's importance lies in a new type of monument that he built in Abusir, a few kilometres north of Saqqara: a Solar Temple. This temple consisted of a raised platform that contained an altar just in front of a mound, upon which a broad and relatively low obelisk was erected. From this temple, a covered causeway led to a valley-temple. It is in this valley temple that a beautifully preserved head of Userkaf, wearing the crown of Lower-Egypt has been found.

The exact meaning and significance of this structure is not completely understood. Its connection with the solar-cult is obvious through the explicit solar-symbol, the obelisk, but it is believed that this monument also was related to the king's mortuary cult. It does show, however, that during the 5th Dynasty the solar-cult became increasingly important. This tendency had already started during the 4th Dynasty, when Djedefre added the title "Son of Re" to the royal titulary. From the 5th Dynasty on, there would be only a few kings that did not have the theophorous element “Re” in their Prenomen. The increased importance of the solar cult is also reflected in the tale of the Papyrus Westcar, where Userkaf and his two successors are said to descend from a priest of the solar god Re.

Except for the arrival of 70 foreign women to Egypt and some cultic activity that shows his interest in the Delta, nothing much is known about Userkaf’s political activities.

Next to the Solar Temple, Userkaf's only other monument of some importance seems to have been his pyramid-complex, which he erected at Saqqara, just north-east of the complex of Djoser. It is much smaller than the pyramids at Giza, and this is often interpreted as that Userkaf was not as powerful as his 4th Dynasty predecessors.Userkaf’s funerary cult seems to have been discontinued at the end of the 5th Dynasty.

A mound of rubble is all that remains of Userkaf’s pyramid at Saqqara.

A mound of rubble is all that remains of Userkaf’s pyramid at Saqqara.


© Jacques Kinnaer 1997 - 2017