The Pyramid of Shepseskare

Shepseskare or Shepseskara (Egyptian for "Noble is the Soul of Ra") was an Ancient Egyptian pharaoh, the fourth or fifth ruler of the Fifth Dynasty (2494-2345 BC) during the Old Kingdom period. Shepseskare lived in the mid-25th century BC and was probably the owner of an unfinished pyramid in Abusir, which was abandoned after a few weeks of work in the earliest stages of its construction.

Following historical sources, Shepseskare was traditionally believed to have reigned for seven years, succeeding Neferirkare Kakai and preceding Neferefre on the throne, making him the fourth ruler of the dynasty. He is the most obscure ruler of this dynasty and the Egyptologist Miroslav Verner has strongly argued that Shepseskare's reign lasted only a few months at the most, after that of Neferefre. This conclusion is based upon the state and location of Shepseskare's unfinished pyramid in Abusir as well as the very small number of artifacts attributable to this king. Verner's arguments have now convinced several Egyptologists such as Darrell Baker and Erik Hornung.

Shepseskare's relations to his predecessor and successor are not known for certain. Verner has proposed that he was a son of Sahure and a brother to Neferirkare Kakai, who briefly seized the throne following the premature death of his predecessor and probable nephew, Neferefre. Shepseskare may himself have died unexpectedly or he may have lost the throne to another of his nephews, the future pharaoh Nyuserre Ini. The possibility that Shepseskare was a short-lived usurper from outside the royal family cannot be totally excluded.

Both the relative chronological position and absolute dates of Shepseskare's reign are uncertain. The Saqqara Tablet records Shepseskare as the successor of Neferirkare Kakai and the predecessor of Neferefre, which became the traditional opinion among Egyptologists. Following discoveries in the early 1980s, the Czech Egyptologist Miroslav Verner advocates the hypothesis that Shepseskare succeeded, rather than preceded, Neferefre.

In support of this hypothesis, Verner first emphasizes the presence of several clay seal impressions bearing Shepseskare's Horus name "Sekhemkaw" (meaning "He whose apparitions are powerful") in the oldest part of Neferere's mortuary temple, which was not built "until Neferefre's death".

This appears to suggest that Shepseskare ruled after - rather than before - Neferefre. Verner's second argument concerns the alignment of pyramids of Sahure, Neferirkare Kakai and Neferefre: they form a line pointing to Heliopolis, just as the three pyramids of Giza do. In contrast, Shepseskare's unfinished pyramid does not fall on the line to Heliopolis, which strongly suggests that Neferefre's pyramid had already been in place when Shepseskare started his.

Finally, Verner observes that Neferefre is known to have been Neferirkare's eldest son and around 20 years old when his father died so that he was in optimal position to inherit the throne. Shepseskare thus most likely took the throne after Neferefre. As Verner notes, while Shepseskare is noted as the immediate predecessor of Neferefre in the Saqqara tablet, "this slight discrepancy can ... be attributed to the political disorders of the time and its dynastic disputes."

An unfinished pyramid located in north Abusir, between the sun temple of Userkaf and the Pyramid of Sahure, is believed to belong to Shepseskare. The structure was discovered in 1980 by a Czechoslovakian archaeological team led by Miroslav Verner and seems to have been abandoned after no more than a few weeks or months of work.

A square area of roughly 100 m2 (1,100 sq ft) was leveled and the digging of a T-shaped ditch was just started in its center. This ditch was to be left open during the pyramid construction to allow for simultaneous works on the pyramid filling and its substructures. This construction technique is common to all pyramids of the Fifth Dynasty and can directly be seen in the case of the Pyramid of Neferefre, which was also left unfinished.

This technique as well as the location of the unfinished pyramid in the royal necropolis of the Fifth Dynasty indicates that it belonged in all likeliness to Shepseskare,[59] the pyramids of the other kings of the dynasty being already known. If finished according to the established pattern, the pyramid would have reached 73 m (240 ft) high, similar to the Pyramid of Neferirkare.

Analyzing the fragments of clay seals bearing Shepeseskare's name, the Swiss Egyptologist Peter Kaplony has proposed that the ancient name of Shepseskare's pyramid could be reconstructed as "Resj-Shespeskare" and meaning "The awakening of Shepseskare". Verner rejects this hypothesis, and he contests the reading of certain signs and their interpretation as the name of a pyramid.

Kaplony has proposed that Shepseskare started to build a sun temple named reading "Hotepibre" and meaning "Satisfied is the heart of Ra". Although all the kings of the early to mid-Fifth Dynasty, from Userkaf to Menkauhor Kaiu, did build sun temples, Verner regards Kaplony's hypothesis as "sheer speculation" since it is based on the tentative reconstruction of a single clay seal.

Verner first argues that this seal is not inscribed with Shepseskare's name but rather bears traces of a Horus name which could equally well be that of Djedkare Isesi.

Second, Verner notes that the name of a sun temple is rarely found with that of the king who built it: more often it is found with the name of another king during whose reign the seal was made.

Finally, he doubts that the sign reading "Hotep", is really part of the name of a sun temple. Instead, he believes it is more probable that the seal either refers to the sun temple of Neferirkare

It is possible that Shepseskare continued the construction of the funerary complex of his predecessor. As Neferefre had died after a short reign, his pyramid complex was far from finished and neither the burial chamber nor the mortuary temple had been built. The planned pyramid was thus hastily changed into a square mastaba representing a stylized primeval hill and the accompanying mortuary temple was completed during the reign of Nyuserre.

The presence of seals of Shepseskare in the oldest part of Neferefre's mortuary temple could indicate that the former also undertook construction works there. The evidence for such works is uncertain: these seals could have been placed on boxes which were later moved into the magazine rooms of the temple. For example, seals of Userkaf, Sahure and Neferirkare Kakai were also found in the temple, while these three pharaohs died before Neferefre's reign.