Saturday, 6 April 2013

Egyptian Pharaoh Sneferu and His Overachieving Children

The fourth dynasty Pharaoh Sneferu is alluded to in the first two books of the Aten Sequence, because he was regarded by later Egyptians as a wise and benevolent ruler.  But this Old Kingdom Pharaoh has a much larger part to play in the third book of the series, but you will just have to wait until it is released to see how Luke and Neferptah get into trouble with a long dead ruler.

Have you heard of the Pharaoh Sneferu? There have been powerful royal families and dynasties throughout history, but if we travel back to Ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom we find a family who all seemed to be high achievers and whose monuments still stand today, including one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The founder of this amazing family was the Pharaoh Sneferu, who was also the first king of the 4th dynasty.  Sneferu’s own parentage is still disputed.  Some scholars think that his father was his predecessor and last king of the 3rd dynasty, the Pharaoh Huni and that his mother may have been one of the lesser wives or concubines of Huni called Meresankh. Sneferu was the pharaoh who brought pyramid building in Egypt to its full fruition and remarkably built three major stone pyramids during his reign, the Meidum pyramid and the Bent and Red pyramids at Dashur.  

Red Pyramid of Sneferu at Dashur - own image
Red Pyramid of Sneferu at Dashur

He was a pharaoh who was also admired by later Ancient Egyptians for being a wise and benevolent ruler. He had several wives and many concubines, as was the custom in Ancient Egypt and his Great Royal Wife is believed to be a lady called Queen Hetepheres I. Hetepheres I was probably a daughter of Huni and therefore may have been Sneferu’s half sister, but marriages between brothers and sisters or even fathers and daughters were common in the royal family of Ancient Egypt.  To a certain degree the succession of the Egyptian crown was matrilineal, as the next Pharaoh tended to be the son of the Great Royal Wife or a wife of royal blood. These marriages were entered into to ensure that the succession to the throne remained within the immediate royal family and marrying his close female relatives strengthened a king’s position and power immensely.

So you would think that having as mighty a Pharaoh as Sneferu for a father would be a hard act to follow?  Well his kids did not seem to think so, as it was his son Khufu who succeeded him as pharaoh and went on to build the Great Pyramid at Giza, a miracle of ancient engineering. Khufu was a son of Sneferu’s Great Royal Wife Hetepheres I and was not remembered by later generations as benignly as his father, as he goes down in folklore as being a particularly cruel and implacable ruler. The length of time a pharaoh ruled is often disputed by scholars, but it is believed that Khufu ruled for around 23 years.

Apart from his amazing achievement of building the Great Pyramid of Giza as his tomb, it is believed that he led expeditions into Nubia, the Sinai and Libya.  The relationships of the 4th dynasty royal family have been pieced together from ancient histories, inscriptions and monuments and some of them are by no means certain and many are still been disputed. Khufu is believed to have had several royal wives, including queens called Henutsen and Meritites I and two further queens whose names are not yet known. Meritites I and Henutsen were both half-sister’s of King Khufu and daughters of Sneferu.

Khufu had many brothers and sisters and the ones that we do know something about all held high office if they were men, or married powerful courtiers if they were women. Khufu was not, in fact, Sneferu’s eldest son, even though he succeeded him on the throne.  According to inscriptions, the eldest son was Prince Nefermaat I.  Nefermaat I’s mother is unknown, but he was the acknowledged Crown Prince as well as holding some other impressive titles such as Vizier, Seal Bearer and Prophet of Bast. Nefermaat I was married to a lady called Itet and they were both buried in a mastaba tomb at Meidum that is famous for being where the glorious tomb painting known as the ‘Meidum Geese’ was found.  They had a very large family, but possibly their most famous son was Hemiunu who was credited with being the architect of his Uncle Khufu’s Great Pyramid at Giza.

Prince Ankhhaf was another younger half-bother of Khufu.  We do not know who his mother was, but he married his half sister Hetepheres, who was a daughter of Hetepheres I. He served as Vizier under his nephew the pharaoh Khafre, who was a son of Khufu and Henutsen. He was buried in a large mastaba in the eastern cemetery at Giza and a particularly fine statue of him can be seen in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Another son of Sneferu and half-brother of Khufu is Rahotep, who was the High Priest of Re at Heliopolis.  He was married to a lady of unknown parentage called Nofret and they were buried in a mastaba tomb in Meidum. There is a very beautiful and lifelike painted statue of this couple in the museum in Cairo that was excavated from their mastaba. There are also sons and daughters of Sneferu that we still know relatively little about. Ranefer is known from his mastaba at Meidum. Kanefer held the titles of Vizier, High Priest and Overseer of the Troops. His tomb is situated in Dashur, which could indicate that he died after Rahotep and Nefermaat who were buried at Meidum, as during his reign Sneferu abandoned Meidum as a his possible burial place and started building pyramids at Dashur. It is also more than likely that they all predeceased their half-brother Khufu who went on to become the next pharaoh.

Nofret Statue
Nofret Statue

There is also another known son of Sneferu called Iynefer, about whom almost nothing is known and, of course, in the future the sands of Egypt may give up evidence of the existence of further members of this talented, powerful family. There are also some other daughters of Sneferu who we know a little about, such as Nefertkau who may have been married to her half brother Khufu.  She was the mother of Nefermaat II and was buried at Giza during the reign of the pharaoh Khafre. There was also a daughter called Nefertnesu whom very little is known about other than the fact that she had a son called Kaemqued.

So you are beginning to get the picture of how everything was very much all kept within the family, so that political power, military power, administrative power and religious power were all led and directed by members of the royal family for the benefit and prestige of pharaoh and the royal family?  It is perhaps unfortunate that all we know about this dynamic, powerful family comes from the formal inscriptions they have left behind on their tombs and monuments and that we can only guess at the politics, relationships and emotions that were generated between the various members of the royal family.

We can only conjecture that the royal ladies manoeuvred and plotted to get their sons ahead in the succession and high in pharaoh’s favour and we have no idea of how the royal princesses felt when they were married to their half-brothers. Was it a peaceful happy family living in accord or a turbulent, feuding one?  We will probably never know, but we can still go and see the amazing pyramid that Khufu built on the Giza plateau and those of his descendants Khafre and Menkaure and be bowled over by the accomplishments of this ancient family of overachievers.

Nofret Statue Wikimedia Commons any purpose