Archaeologists Discover ‘Lost,’ 4,500-Year-Old Egyptian Sun Temple

Fifth-Dynasty pharaohs built six such structures. Until now, only two had been found

Nyuserra temple
The team found traces of an earlier temple beneath the famed sun temple of Nyuserra (pictured). kairoinfo4u via Flickr under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Archaeologists at the Abu Ghurab site in northern Egypt have discovered the remains of a sun temple dated to the mid-25th century B.C.E., reports Jack Guy for CNN.

The team found the ruins buried beneath another temple built for Nyuserra, sixth king of the Fifth Dynasty, who ruled Egypt from 2400 to 2370 B.C.E. Researchers discovered that temple in 1898.

“The archaeologists of the 19th century excavated only a very small part of this mud-brick building below the stone temple of Nyuserra and concluded that this was a previous building phase of the same temple,” excavation co-director Massimiliano Nuzzolo, an archaeologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences, tells CNN. “Now our finds demonstrate that this was a completely different building, erected before Nyuserra.”

Discoveries made among the ruins of the older temple include seals engraved with the names of kings, dozens of intact beer jugs, and portions of a limestone threshold and entrance portico. 

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, ancient inscriptions suggest that Egypt’s Fifth-Dynasty pharaohs built six sun temples. Unlike pyramids, which ancient Egyptians believed assured a king’s position as a god in the afterlife, sun temples established rulers as gods while they were still alive. Only two such structures have been identified previously. One is the temple of Nyuserra. The other, located nearby, honors Userkaf, the first king of the Fifth Dynasty, and was excavated in the 1960s. It’s still unclear which pharaoh the newly discovered temple was dedicated to.

Ruins of Nyuserra temple
The layouts of the two temples were similar, but the older one was built out of mud brick, while the second was constructed out of stone. kairoinfo4u via Flickr under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Unique to the Fifth Dynasty, sun temples were built for six of the era’s seven pharaohs, notes Jimmy Dunn for Tour Egypt. The temples tied the kings to the sun god Re, or Ra. Similarly to pyramid complexes, the structures had their own agricultural land and staff, and they received donations on festival days.

Some scholars have speculated that the six pyramids didn’t exist as distinct buildings. Instead, they suggest, pharaohs may have simply renamed and updated older temples. As the recent excavation quickly made clear, however, the temple below Nyuserra’s was actually a separate structure.

“[T]he fact that there is such a huge, monumental entrance would point to a new building,” Nuzzolo tells the Telegraph’s Joe Pinkstone. 

As Artnet News reports, the seals and the beer jars, which were dated to the 25th century B.C.E., helped confirm that the newly discovered temple was far older than the Nyuserra one.

The layouts of the two buildings were similar, but the older one was built out of mud brick, while the second was made of stone. Nuzzolo says it’s likely that other sun temples were also built with mud brick, which is a relatively perishable material.

“This may have facilitated their disappearance during the course of the centuries,” he tells CNN. “... Moreover, mud brick buildings can be easily demolished and buried under other constructions, as it probably happened in our case.”

The team plans to conduct further analysis of the pottery in hopes of finding out more about the lifestyle, beliefs and diet of the people who used the temple.

National Geographic featured the discoveries in a recent episode of its “Lost Treasures of Egypt” series.

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