an archaeological locality on the western bank of the Nile River, approximately 25 kilometers (15 miles) southwest of Cairo (29°56′N, 31°13′E). Its name was derived from the Egyptian Per-Usire, in Greek, Busiris, meaning “the place of worship of the god Osiris,” ruler of the land of the dead.
Although Abusir had already been inhabited by hunters in the Middle Paleolithic and was settled in the Neolithic, it became especially important in the fifth dynasty, when the first ruler, Userkaf (ruled c.2513–2506 BCE), built the sun temple Nekhen-Re there and his successor, Sahure (ruled c.2506–2492 BCE), founded a royal cemetery. Sahure was the first to build himself a pyramid complex that is regarded as a milestone in the development of royal tombs; the dimensions of his pyramid were smaller than those of the fourth dynasty pyramids, but his mortuary and valley temples achieved greater importance. The mortuary temple was designed with finely worked building materials: red granite was used for the palm columns that stood in an open court; walls of white limestone were decorated with superb polychrome scenes in low relief, which mainly showed mythical scenes of the ruler victorious in battle against Egypt's traditional enemies; hunting scenes; and ships.
Sahure's valley temple on the edge of the desert served as a landing place, linked to the Nile by a canal. A causeway led from this temple to the mortuary temple; some fragments of the causeway's relief decoration included scenes of the completion celebrations buildings, starving Bedouins, and other scenes.
The pyramid complex of Sahure's successor, Kakai (ruled c.2492–2482 BCE), was located on the most elevated site in the cemetery. The pyramid, which was changed in the course of construction from a stepped into a true pyramid, rose to a height of approximately 74 meters (225 feet). The casing was, however, left unfinished, like the remaining parts of the complex, as a result of the ruler's premature death. His mortuary temple was constructed of mud bricks and wood by his sons and heirs, Neferefre Kakai and Newoserre Any. At the end of the nineteenth century, tomb robbers discovered a papyrus archive (called the First Abusir Archive) in the storage rooms of the mortuary temple. These records date from the last part of the fifth dynasty to the end of the sixth.
On the southern side of Neferirkare Kakai's pyramid is the smaller pyramid complex of his wife, Khentkawes II. Valuable finds from the queen's mortuary temple have included numerous papyrus fragments (the Second Abusir Archive) and other materials that throw new light on complex problems related to the ending of the fourth dynasty and the beginning of the fifth—in particular, the role played by the two queen mothers, Khentkawes I and Khentkawes II.
Neferirkare Kakai's eldest son Neferefre ruled for only a brief period, perhaps two years. His unfinished pyramid was changed into a mastaba, and before its eastern side, an architecturally unique mortuary temple was built of mud bricks. The finds there have included stone statue fragments of the ruler, as well as papyri from yet another temple archive (the Third Abusir Archive), roughly the same age as the Second Abusir Archive. A cult abattoir, known as “the Sanctuary of the Knife,” was connected with that mortuary temple. Fragments of pyramid foundations have been uncovered between Sahure's pyramid and Userkaf's sun temple (and those have been hypothetically attributed to Neferefre Kakai's ephemeral successor[?] Shepseskare).
To remain near his family, the next fifth dynasty ruler, Newoserre Any, built his pyramid at the northeastern corner of the pyramid of Neferirkare Kakai, appropriating the unfinished foundations of its valley temple and a part of its causeway for his own complex. The open courtyard of Newoserre Any's mortuary temple was adorned with papyrus-form columns of red granite, with relief decoration that in many respects resembled that of Sahure; but the normal, rectangular temple plan had to be abandoned in favor of an L-shaped outline, for lack of space.
Newoserre Any's wife, Reputnub, does not appear to be buried in the vicinity of her husband's tomb. Her tomb may be one of the pyramid complexes (marked “no. XXIV” and “no. XXV” on the Lepsius archaeological map) that were demonstrably constructed in that time. Excavations in pyramid 24 (“no. XXIV”) have provided valuable information about its mode of construction, but the name of its owner remains unknown. Newoserre Any's successor, Mekauhor, abandoned the Abusir necropolis.
Other members of the royal family and courtiers and officials of that time were also buried in the vicinity of the pyramids. The largest of their tombs belonged to the vizier Ptahshepses, Newoserre Any's son-in-law; that twice-extended mastaba almost rivaled the royal complexes in size, architectural plan, and quality of decorative relief. Its eight-stemmed lotus-form columns of fine limestone are unique. Not far from this is the mastaba of the princesses Khamerernebty and Meretites, two daughters of Newoserre Any. Nearby are the mastabas of the princesses Khamerernebty and Hetjetnub, daughters of Isesi.
A large cemetery, with tombs of dignitaries from the third dynasty to the sixth was discovered on the southern edge of Abusir; these include the partially intact tomb of the vizier Kar and his family, from the time of Pepy I. Also situated in this part of Abusir is the tomb of Fetekti, built at the end of the fifth dynasty. At the northern edge, there is a fifth dynasty burial ground with tombs of those from lower social ranks.
During the First Intermediate Period, there were no royal mortuary cults at Abusir. Although briefly revived at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, from this period to the Late period, Abusir became increasingly a cemetery for the common people. A cemetery in southwestern Abusir was built to contain huge shaft tombs that were dated to the end of the twenty-sixth dynasty and the beginning of the twenty-seventh. Among them was the tomb of Udjahorresnet, chancellor of Egypt's Persian kings, Cambyses and Darius I (of the First Persian Occupation). His tomb was constructed with a cunning system of linked shafts, filled with sand; this was supposed to prevent access to the burial chamber. The southwestern excavation also uncovered the intact tomb of Iufaa, director of the palace.
The history of archaeological research in Abusir, in which Germans, French, Swiss, Egyptians, and Czechs have participated, began in the 1830s. Yet only two expeditions have carried out long-term and extensive excavations there—that of the German Oriental Society, headed by Ludwig Borchardt, from the beginning of the twentieth century, and the ongoing expedition of the Czech Institute of Egyptology, which began in the 1960s.
- Borchardt, Ludwig. Das Grabdenkmal des Königs Ne-user-reʿ. 2 vols. Leipzig, 1907 and 1908.
- Borchardt, Ludwig. Das Grabdenkmal des Königs Saʒhu-reʿ, vol. 1: Der Bau. Leipzig, 1910; vol. 2: Die Wondbilder. Leipzig, 1913.
- Verner, Miroslav. Forgotten Pharaohs, Lost Pyramids: Abusir. Prague, 1994. A comprehensive, richly illustrated account of the history of Abusir, its main features and artifacts, and the history of their excavation.
- Verner, Miroslav. Abusir III: The Pyramid Complex of Khentkaus. Prague, 1995.