Egypt: Userkaf, First Ruler of the 5th Dynasty

Userkaf, First Ruler of the 5th Dynasty

by Jimmy Dunn

Userkaf, traditionally the first ruler of the 5th Dynasty is, like most of the other kings of the dynasty, not well attested. We are even uncertain of his father, though he may have been a priest. His mother was probably Neferhetep, making him the grandson of Djedefre who succeeded Khufu. We believe he was married to Khentkaues I, who is buried at Giza. This marriage may have legitimized his claim to the throne. We believe that Khentkaues I was probably Menkaure's daughter and perhaps a half sister of Shepseskaf. Oddly, nowhere in her tomb is Userkaf mentioned. There was apparently another queen (possibly), who's pyramid lies close to the pyramid of Userkaf's at Saqqara.

It should be noted that resources on Userkaf are rather confusing. Some allow Neferhetep to be his wife, rather then mother, while others even ascribe to Khentkaues I being his mother, rather then his wife. However, the majority seem to suggest the relationships as first set out above. Userkaf was the kings birth name, meaning "His Soul is Powerful. He was also known as Weserkaf and may possibly be known in some literature as Ouserkaf, or Oeserkaf.. His Horus name was Iry-maat, meaning "He who puts Maat into Practice". It is interesting to note that having chose this Horus name, he was burdening himself with the maintenance of the whole of creation. He may have come to the throne as an older man, for we are told his reign only lasted seven years, though as usual, the actual dates of his reign very from Egyptologist to Egyptologist.His seven year reign is attested to in the Turin King list and seems to be confirmed on the Palermo Stone.

As the 4th Dynasty progressed into the 5th Dynasty and the rule of Userkaf, there seems to have been no major changes in the country or much in its administration. Several high officials of the 4th Dynasty continued in their positions after Userkaf took the throne.

He is given credit for establishing Egypt's first contact with the Aegean world. An inscribed stone vessel from his mortuary temple was found on Kythera. Apparently later kings of this dynasty would continue the Aegean relationship.

Perhaps Userkaf is best known for building the first of the 5th Dynasties solar temples at Abusir. It was named Nekhen-Re, meaning "Stonghold of Re". Eventually, this line of rulers would build four other solar temples, of which all but two have not been discovered, or perhaps, no longer exist. Here, he built a platform of mudbrick and limestone with a smaller podium on its west end where a short obelisk (benben) stood. It was probably a forerunner of the tall obelisks of the New Kingdom. In front of the obelisk was a sun alter, a feature that would later be incorporated into the sun temple of Akhenaten. But then again, it is said that Userkaf's solar temple was a replica of an earlier temple at Heliopolis. There was a causeway leading from the solar temple to a valley temple where a statue of Userkaf wearing the Red Crown was discovered.

He is also credited with enlarging the temple of Monthu at Tod, but little else is known, other then perhaps the arrival of 70 foreign women during his reign and some cult activity that seems to indicate he had an active interest in the Delta. He is attested to (mentioned) in the tombs of Sekhemkare and Nisutpunetjer, both at Giza, and his name is found on a weight currently at the Museum of Modern Art. There also blocks from a chapel built during Userkaf's reign near the temple of Montu in el Tod (ancient Djerty).

It is interesting to note that Userkaf's funerary cult apparently collapsed at the end of the 5th Dynasty, never to be renewed. Userkaf was succeeded by his son (possibly by Khentkaues I), Sahure.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Chronicle of the Pharaohs (The Reign-By-Reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt) Clayton, Peter A. 1994 Thames and Hudson Ltd ISBN 0-500-05074-0
History of Ancient Egypt, A Grimal, Nicolas 1988 Blackwell None Stated
Monarchs of the Nile Dodson, Aidan 1995 Rubicon Press ISBN 0-948695-20-x
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2
Who Were the Phraohs? (A history of their names with a list of cartouches) Quirke, Stephen 1990 Dover Publications ISBN 0-486-26586-2