By Ran Shapira
The Egyptian researchers who, in early January, entered the burial room in the latest pyramid to be discovered in Saqqara, south of Cairo, labored for five hours before they could lift the lid of the sarcophagus within. Inside was a mummy wrapped in a flax shroud. In addition to pottery shards, gold wrappings were also found in the sarcophagus, which apparently were used to cover the fingers of the mummified body. Although no inscriptions were found in the tomb, the researchers assume, with a high level of probability, that it contains the body of the mother of the founder of the Egyptian Sixth Dynasty: Pharaoh Teti.
The pyramid in which the queen, Sesheshet, was buried, was discovered in November 2008 - it is the 118th found in Egypt. Its discovery in Teti's burial compound surprised the researchers to some extent, since the site had been thoroughly combed through over the past 150 years. In addition to the pyramid where the king himself was buried, two "satellite pyramids" were found, the tombs of his two principal wives: The one belonging to Iput I was discovered about 100 years ago; the second, of Khuit, was discovered in 1994.
Information about the queen herself is very meager.
In a papyrus document that includes medical prescriptions, her name is mentioned alongside a request for a preparation that was supposed to strengthen thin hair. Nevertheless, it is possible that the "pharmacists" used her name to lend a bit of prestige to the prescription, and did not necessarily prepare it for her. Another inscription mentions her as being the mother of the king, and in several reliefs of the same area the name "Sesheshet" appears. However, these do not contribute substantial information about the king's mother. Scholars believe she played a very important role in her son's ascent to the throne, thanks, among other things, to her success in mediating between two rival factions within the royal family.
Dr. Deborah Sweeney, an expert on ancient Egypt from the archaeology department of Tel Aviv University, says researchers assume that Sesheshet belonged to the close circle of the last king of the Fifth Dynasty, Unas. He had no sons to inherit the throne and Teti may have been his grandson. Since it is not known when she died, researchers can only guess that the pharaoh's mother was alive during almost 20 years of his reign, which extended from 2323 to 2291 B.C.E.
"Queens were identified with the goddesses that accompany the sun god, protect him and give him strength," Sweeney explains. "The king needed a queen at his side. There were periods when the queens played a political role, but that was an exception. There was a need for that, for example, when a king ascended to the throne as a child. Usually in those cases there was a queen mother, who took charge of governing until her son grew up."
Dr. Rachel Shlomi-Chen, of Hebrew University's department of Ancient Near Eastern history, says Manetho, a Greek historian from the 3rd century B.C.E., wrote about a conspiracy in Teti's court. Furthermore, archaeologists excavating the cemetery near Teti's pyramid in Saqqara have found evidence that may point to a plot: The inscriptions on the tombs of high-ranking officials in the court were damaged, in what does not seem to be a random way, scholars claim: It may have been deliberately done to the tombs of officials belonging to the conspiracy.
The queen mother may have helped Teti in his struggle against the conspirators, but in any case, according to Manetho, he was murdered by his bodyguards not long after she died. His dynasty, the Sixth, ruled Egypt until 2184 B.C.E., almost 1,000 years before the period of Rameses II, the king during whose reign the Exodus from Egypt took place.
Egyptian scholars, headed by Dr. Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the country's Supreme Council of Antiquities, stress that Sesheshet's pyramid is more impressive in terms of its dimensions than the structures usually built by ancient Egyptian rulers for their wives and mothers. Discovered beneath seven meters of sand, this pyramid in its prime was 14 meters high and the width of its square base was 22 meters.
There is no question that Teti wanted to express respect for his mother by building the structure, but this in itself was not so unusual, Shlomi-Chen emphasizes: In ancient Egypt, the royal family also played an important religious role, and its members were considered to be the earthly incarnations of gods. The pharaoh was identified with Horus, god of the sky and the sun. The queen was both the spouse of the most important god and the mother of the god-king who was to succeed him. She was also identified with the goddess Hathor, the mother of Horus and the wife of the sun god, Ra. One of Hathor's symbols was a noisemaker, which is called sistrum in Greek and sesheshet in Egyptian.
A step up
The transition between the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties was accompanied by significant changes in religion and ritual. Dr. Sweeney explains that the kings of the Fifth Dynasty built their pyramids at Abu Sir rather than Saqqara. Alongside their pyramids, in addition to pyramids for their wives and mothers, they also built a sun temple, symbolizing their belief in Ra. During the Fifth Dynasty, the cult of Ra constituted the state religion, but there were changes during the reign of the last two kings in the dynasty: Alongside the pyramids of Unas and his predecessor, there were no sun temples, nor were there any in the burial compound of Teti and his family.
"It is possible that Teti and Unas built huge temples in the capital city of Memphis, but nothing remains of them," Sweeney suggests.
Unas also built his pyramid in Saqqara, which shows that after living elsewhere, he returned to the ancient burial site where the most famous type of step pyramid, that of Djoser, was constructed. Another innovation relating to Unas' pyramid, according to Shlomi-Chen, is the fact that the walls bear inscriptions - spells designed to accompany the king in the Land of the Dead. In the inscriptions, Unas is identified for the first time with Osiris, king of the Land of the Dead, and not only with the sun god. The Osiris cult, which came to symbolize the resurrection of the dead and was identified with the cycles of nature, had been started two generations earlier by the nobility.
Teti ascended the throne on the backdrop of profound changes in Egyptian religion and culture, and became part of them. Further research into his mother's tomb will likely shed more light on him and on the events of that period of antiquity.