Userkare

Userkare (also Woserkare, meaning "Powerful is the soul of Ra") was the second pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty of Egypt, reigning briefly, 1 to 5 years, in the late 24th to early 23rd century BC. Userkare's relation to his predecessor Teti and successor Pepi I is unknown and his reign remains enigmatic.

Although he is attested in some historical sources, Userkare is completely absent from the tomb of the Egyptian officials who lived during his reign and usually report the names of the kings whom they served. Furthermore the figures of some high officials of the period have been deliberately chiselled out in their tombs and their titles altered, for instance the word "king" being replaced by that of "desert". Egyptologists thus suspect a possible Damnatio memoriae on Pepi I's behalf against Userkare. In addition, the Egyptian priest Manetho who wrote an history of Egypt in the 3rd century BC states that Userkare's predecessor Teti was murdered but is otherwise silent concerning Userkare. Consequently, Userkare is often considered to have been a short-lived usurper to the throne, possibly a descendant of a cadet branch of the preceding Fifth Dynasty. Alternatively, he may have been a legitimate short-lived ruler or a regent who ruled during Teti's son Pepi I's childhood before his accession to the throne.

The tomb of Userkare has not yet been identified, either because it was never finished or because Pepi I erased traces of his predecessor's rule. If the tomb was indeed started, Egyptologists conjecture that it should be located in South Saqqara.

Attestations

Historical sources

Userkare is present on the Abydos King List, a list of kings written during the reign of Seti I (1290–1279 BC) over 1000 years after the early Sixth Dynasty. Userkare's cartouche occupies the 35th entry of the list, between those of Teti and Pepi I, making him the second pharaoh of the dynasty. Userkare was possibly also listed on the Turin canon, a king list composed during the reign of Ramesses II (1279–1213 BC). Unfortunately, a large lacuna affects the second line of the fourth column of the papyrus on which the list was written, the place were Userkare's name might have been located.

Contemporaneous sources

Secure attestations

Few artefacts dating to Userkare's lifetime have survived to this day, the only secure attestions contemporaneous with his reign being two cylinder seals inscribed with his name and titles, and a copper mallet from the Michaelides collection. The mallet bears a small inscription giving the name of a crew of workmen "Beloved ones of Userkare" who hailed from Wadjet, the 10th nome of Upper Egypt, located around Tjebu, south of Asyut.

Possible attestations

The French Egyptologists Michel Baud and Vassil Dobrev have also proposed that a copper axe head discovered in Syria could belong to Userkare. The axe bears the name of another crew of workmen called the "Beloved ones of the Two Golden Falcons", where "Two Golden Falcons" is the golden Horus name of a pharaoh. Although both Khufu and Sahure bore this name and either one of them may be the owner of the axe, Baud and Dobrev note that Teti's and Pepi's golden horus names are "Golden Falcon who Unites" and "Three Golden Falcons", respectively. Given the role of the golden Horus name as a symbol of the tramission of royal powers in the Old Kingdom period, Dobrev proposes that the missing link between Teti's and Pepi's names is the name "Two Golden Falcons" and that it would logically correspond to Userkare's brief intervening reign. Consequently the axe would be an attestation of his rule.

The English Egyptologist Flinders Petrie has tentatively identified Userkare with a king named Ity attested by a single rock inscription found in the Wadi Hammamat. The inscription, dated to the first year of reign of Ity, mentions a band of 200 sailors and 200 masons under the direction of the overseers Ihyemsaf and Irenakhet sent to the Wadi Hammamat to collect stones for the construction of Ity's pyramid called "Bau Ity", meaning "Glory of Ity". Petrie's identification of Userkare with Ity relies solely on his estimation of the inscription to the Sixth Dynasty and the fact that Userkare is the only king of this period whose full titulary is not known. This identification is nowadays deemed conjectural and several First Intermediate Period dates have been proposed for Ity.

South Saqqara Stone

In addition to historical and contemporaneous sources, details about Userkare's reign were once given on the nearly contemporaneous South Saqqara Stone, a royal annal of the Sixth Dynasty dating to the reign of Merenre Nemtyemsaf I or Pepi II. Unfortunately, an estimated 92% of the original text was lost when the stone was roughly polished to be reused as a sarcophagus lid, possibly in the late First Intermediate (c. 2160–2055 BC) to early Middle Kingdom period (c. 2055–1650 BC). The presence of Userkare on the annal can nonetheless be inferred from a large space between the sections concerning the reigns of Teti and Pepi I as well as from traces of a royal titulary in this space. Although the text reporting Userkare's activities is lost, its length suggests that Userkare ruled Egypt from two to four years, with the former seen as less likely than the latter.

Reign

Statue of a pharaoh wearing a crown and a pleated kilt
According to Manetho Userkare's predecessor Teti was murdered

For Michel Baud, the absence of monuments as well as the scarcity of artefacts and documents pertaining to Userkare all point to the short duration of Userkare's reign. For the same reasons, his relations to his predecessor and successor are largely uncertain and Egyptologists have proposed a number of hypotheses regarding his identity and rule. These fall broadly into two contradictory scenarios: one that sees Userkare as a legitimate ruler or regent, while the other perceives Userkare as an usurper, possibly responsible for the murder of his predecessor Teti.

As a legitimate ruler

The Egyptologists William Stevenson Smith, William C. Hayes and Nicolas Grimal believe that Userkare briefly ruled Egypt either as a legitimate stopgap ruler or as a regent with queen Iput I. Indeed, Teti's son Pepi I reigned for circa 50 years, indicating that he was likely very young at the death of his father, likely too young to immediately assume the throne. The theory that Userkare was merely a regent is rejected by Naguib Kanawati, on the basis that Userkare might have been mentioned on the Turin canon, is present Abydos king list and holds full royal titulary, something reserved exclusively to reigning pharaohs.

In support of the hypothesis that Userkare was a legitimate stopgap ruler, Grimal stresses that he is well attested by historical and contemporaneous sources, in particular the South Saqqara Stone. This seems in contradiction with the idea that, being illegitimate, he was victim of a Damnatio memoriae by his successor Pepi. In addition, there is no direct evidence of difficulties associated with Pepi I's rise on throne in the archeological record, which one could expect had Userkare been a usurper. Rainer Stadelmann and Michel Baud underline that there is no clear evidence for a damnatio memoriae targeting Userkare. For example his funerary complex may have been planned yet never erected, which they find would provide a better explanation for its absence than a "speculative" attempt on Pepi I's behalf to erase traces of his predecessor's rule.

Vivianne Gae Callender—who agrees that Userkare was the target of some kind of damnatio memoriae—has put forth another theory in which Userkare was a legitimate son of Teti born while his father was king, but not his first-born son. In this hypothesis, Userkare's claim to the throne would rely on his being born after Teti had assumed power, while Pepi I would be the eldest son of Teti yet born before Teti's elevation to power. In particular Teti's eight to 12 years of reign would imply that Userkare would have been around 10 at the time of his coronation and facing a resenting older brother, possibly explaining the paucity of attestations of his rule. Proceeding by elimination Callender has conjectured that a queen "Khentet[...]" mentioned in a south Saqqara relief could be Userkare's mother.

As a usurper to the throne

Bronze head of a pharaoh
Pepi I may have instituted a damnatio memoriae against Userkare

The Egyptian priest Manetho who wrote a history of Egypt, the Aegyptiaca, in the 3rd century BC during the reign of Ptolemy II (283–246 BC), mentions that Othoês—the hellenized name of Teti—was murdered by his bodyguards or attendants. Based on this statement, Egyptologists have found it plausible that Userkare participated in or at least benefited from Teti's assassination, despite Userkare's absence from the Aegyptiaca. Userkare's name is theophoric and incorporates the name of the sun god Ra, a naming fashion common during the preceding Fifth Dynasty. Since Teti was not a son of the last Fifth Dynasty king Unas, some Egyptologists have proposed that Userkare could have been a descendant of a lateral branch of the Fifth Dynasty royal family who briefly seized power in a coup.

The Egyptologist Naguib Kanawati also finds the hypothesis that Userkare was a short-lived legitimate ruler or regent "unconvincing". Indeed, archeological evidence lends credence to the idea that Userkare was illegitimate in the eyes of his successor Pepi I. In particular, there is no mention of Userkare in the tombs and biographies of the many Egyptian officials who served under both Teti and Pepi I. The viziers Inumin and Khentika, who served both Teti and Pepi I, are completely silent about Userkare and none of their activities during Userkare's time on the throne are reported in their tomb. Furthermore, the tomb of Mehi, a guard who lived under Teti, Userkare and Pepi, yielded an inscription showing that the name of Teti was first erased to be replaced by that of another king, whose name was itself erased and replaced again by that of Teti. Kanawati argues that the intervening name was that of Userkare to whom Mehi may have transferred his allegiance. Mehi's attempt to switch back to Teti was seemingly unsuccessful, as there is evidence that work on his tomb stopped abruptly and that he was never buried there.

A similar situation is encountered in the mastaba of Merefnebef, a "lowly" official and courtier who started his career under Teti then was elevated to the highest position, becoming vizier, in all probability under Userkare. The tomb exhibits distinct building phases, the latest one corresponding to Merefnebef's vizierate during which Merefnebef had his title inscribed repeatedly at the exterior of his tomb. Work on the tomb was then abruptly stopped, either with Merefnebef's death or with his political downfall following the death of Userkare. Later on, one of Merefnebef's son intervened in the mastaba chiseling out the figures of his brothers, altering his father's titles in particular those of "Honoured by the king" by erasing the word "king" or even replacing it with the word "desert". Finally the mastaba, left unfinished, was deliberately walled off so as to be hidden from sight. For Karol Myśliwiec who excavated the tomb, this shows that "the infamy of the most shameful moment in [Merefnebef's] career, that of being (probably) promoted to the function of vizier by the usurper Userkare, was visibly remembered for generations". This opinion is shared by the Egyptologist Peter J. Brand who sees here an instance of a wider pattern of promotion of low-ranking officials to the highest offices under Userkare, followed by their demotions under Pepi I.

Michel Baud also sees difficulties with the idea that Userkare was fully legitimate: he points in particular to the "disturbing" silence of contemporaneous private biographies, with no official of the time period mentioning serving under Userkare. Furthermore, Michel Baud and Vassil Dobrev do not see Userkare's presence on the South Saqqara Stone royal annals as evidence that he was legitimate in the eyes of his successors: it could be that royal annals were not affected by damnatio memoriae measures, even those targeting usurpers, because their purpose was precisely to systematically record all royal activities, regardless of their political context.

Tomb

Map of South Saqqara

The location of the tomb of Userkare has not yet been identified. The brevity of his reign implies that the tomb was probably unfinished at his death, making modern identification difficult. Since Userkare was a Sixth Dynasty pharaoh, his tomb was presumably planned to be a pyramid. A possible vindication of this hypothesis is the copper mallet mentioning a team of paid workers from the nome of Wadjet. These workers were likely involved in an important building project, likely to be Userkare's pyramid.

Two hypotheses for the location of Userkare's pyramid have been put forth. The Egyptologist Vassil Dobrev proposed that Userkare's pyramid is located in the area of Saqqara South known today as Tabbet al-Guesh, north-west of the mortuary complex of Pepi I. Indeed, a large necropolis of Sixth Dynasty administration officials is found there, which according to Dobrev, hints at the nearby presence of a royal pyramid. The astrophysicist Giulio Magli believes instead that the pyramid of Userkare is to be found midway between those of Pepi I and Merenre Nemtyemsaf I, at a place that would make the three pyramids form a line parallel to the one formed by the pyramids of Sekhemkhet, Unas, Djoser, Userkaf and Teti to the North.


This page was last updated at 2024-04-17 12:10 UTC. Update now. View original page.

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