November 9, 2012

The Heliopolis-Memphis Rivalry Renews in Ancient Egypt

The Heliopolis-Memphis Rivalry Renews
The political structure was based on a sound, but unfortunately not enduring, religious system. It could survive only so long as the cult of the Egyptian God-king remained firm. By the reign of Menkaure (Mycerinius) there is indication of a weakening of the centralised government. It is significant, therefore, that in the Great House during his reign, and also during that of his successor Shepseskaf, there was a certain official named Ptah-Shepses. His name indicates that simultaneously with the loss of pharaonic prestige a member of the palace was loyal to the priesthood of Memphis. Suddenly we have evidence that the hitherto inviolable ranks of the Heliopolis priests had been penetrated by the rival cult.

Menkaure probably met an untimely death, for he planned but never completed his Valley Temple. And Shepseskaf, who succeeded to the throne appears not to have been a son of ‘The Great Royal Wife’; he was not of pure Heliopolitan blood. Shepseskaf digressed from the Heliopolis tradition in several other respects: he changed the shape of his tomb (in place of a pyramid, the symbol of the sun-cult, his ‘Mastaba Farun" was shaped like a large rectangular sarcophagus), and it was not situated on the Giza plateau opposite Heliopolis, but on the Saqqara plateau nearer Memphis; and he failed to acknowledge, either in name or title, any connection with the cult of Ra God.

One wonders what part Ptah-Shepses pharaoh played in the above, especially since he married Shepseskaf’s eldest daughter and forthwith declared himself High Priest of Ptah. This political marriage was bound to have far-reaching consequences.

The last pharaoh of the 4th dynasty compounded his name with the god of the Memphites. He was called Dedeptah. He reigned for only two years and after his death there is evidence that a compromise was reached between the priests of Heliopolis and Memphis, a division of power. The pharaohs were still of Heliopolitan descent as ascribed to them by popular tradition, but no longer was the pharaoh’s eldest son the most important official in the land. The post of Chief Vizier-Judge became the prerogative of the Memphite families. Five of the 5th-dynasty viziers bear the name of Ptahhotep and were buried at Saqqara. It is from the Egyptian tomb of one of them (an important official in the reign of the 5th-dynasty pharaoh Djedkare), and from the tombs of other 5th-dynasty noblemen, that we know most about how the ancient Egyptians lived (Chapter 5), worked and spent their leisure time.

A Egyptian text known as the Westcar Papyrus explains the continued predominance of the state cult of the Heliopolitan priesthood in the 5th dynasty. It contains a prophesy by a powerful sorcerer that Reddedet, the wife of a priest, would give birth to three sons by the Sun-god Ra. These children, he declared, were destined for the throne. The pharaoh would forthwith be physically as well as spiritually the ‘son of the Sun-god’. With great enthusiasm the priests announced that the. First three pharaohs of the 5th dynasty would be Reddedet’s sons by immaculate conception and that the first would also be High Priest of Heliopolis. Reddedet may be identified with Khant-kawes, whose tomb was found at Giza, and whose cult was assiduously kept throughout the 5th dynasty; she bore the title ‘Mother of Two Kings’.

The Westcar Papyrus only appeared in written form some five centuries after the fall of the Old Kingdom. Since it largely related tales of magical feats it has been placed in the literary genre of popular stories transmitted by oral tradition. The text is, however, of historical value, for all the stories are set in the Egyptian Old Kingdom and mention the names of kings and princes in chronological order. In the context of the increasing strength of the Memphite priests during the reigns of Menkaure and Shepseskaf, the Westcar Papyrus may in addition preserve the undercurrents of a most inspired, imaginative and successful campaign to boost the dwindling reputation of the Heliopolitan priests.

It was Khufu king , builder of the Egyptian great pyramid on Giza, who asked his sons to tell him tales of wonders. The first two magical feats they recounted took place in the reigns of the 3rd-dynasty pharaohs Zoser and Nebka kings. The third tale told of the magical power of a sorcerer in Senefru’s reign and the fourth in Khufu’s own reign. The tales end with the prophecy of the imminent birth of the three children of the Sun-god destined for the throne.

Wondrous tales for the credulous masses of how a sorcerer folded back the waters of a lake in order that a pharaoh, sailing with a maiden companion, could recover the jewel she had dropped; of how a sorcerer, on learning of his wife’s deception, ordered his wax crocodile to carry off his rival; of how another, in Khufu’s own reign, brought decapitated geese back to life, garnished and would assure widespread circulation for the prophecy of the divine births. The Egyptian stories seem to have the decided flavour of a propaganda bid.

The success of the Heliopolis priests is attested by the fact that, in the 5th Egyptian dynasty, it became an established custom to have royal names compounded with that of the Sun-god

The Ancient Egyptians (Sahure, Neferirkare, Shepseskarg, Neferefre, Nyuserre, etc) and a new epithet ‘Son of Ra’ became a regular concomitant, usually outside the cartouche. In addition, there is evidence on the Palermo Stone of abundant gifts of land and offerings to the Sun-god Ra and the ‘Souls of Ore’ (Heliopolis) in the 5th dynasty. Finally, a new monument, a Sun Temple, was constructed. These were different in design from anything hitherto built. They comprised a huge open court surrounded by a high wall, with the whole temple so oriented that the rising sun would cast its rays through the entrance to the east and strike, at the opposite end of the court, a huge, squat obelisk resting on a mastaba-like base of hewn stone. The obelisk was patterned after the symbol of the Egyptian Sun-god, being an elevated hen-ben stone, the sacred symbol of Heliopolis. The first Sun Temple was built in the reign of Sahure, the second of the three divine pharaohs, and five of his successors also built them.

The royal burial grounds move southwards to Abu Sir, between Giza (the necropolis of Heliopolis) and Saqqara (the necropolis of Memphis). As might be expected following the division of power, the Egyptian pyramids of the pharaohs were of inferior workmanship and materials, with loose blocks and rubble at the core.

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