The Pyramid of Senusret I at Lisht in Egypt

About Egyptian Pyramids

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston


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The name of Senusret I's  Pyramid at Lisht


Like his father, Amenemhet I, Senusret I built his pyramid at Lisht, near the Fayoum Oasis, about one and one half kilometers south. It is located on a prominent hill. We know from foundation tables that it was called "Sunusret Looks Down on Both Lands". It may have even had its own pyramid town, named Khenemsut. Maspero visited the pyramid in 1882 and determined its owner from inscriptions on various objects. In antiquity, the pyramid had been robbed probably shortly after it was sealed. Maspero followed the robber's tunnel that curved around the granite barriers, where he found the remains of some funerary equipment. The pyramid was investigated early on by Gautier and Jequier who worked on this pyramid between 1894 and 1895. The were followed by a team from the Metropolitan Museum of New York led by Lythgoe, Mace and Ambrose Lansing, who worked the pyramid between 1906 and 1943. In the 20th century, Arnold excavated the pyramid between 1984 and 1987. More traces of pyramid building have been found here than at any other location in Egypt.



A view of the Pyramid of Senusret I at Lisht


The valley temple of Senusret I's complex is buried beneath considerable sand and a Roman cemetery, and has in fact not precisely been located. From there, the long causeway connected the valley temple with the mortuary temple. Architecturally, the causeway, has no roof like that of his father's, more resembled the complex of Mentuhotep II at Thebes than that built in the older pyramid complexes. An inscriptions indicates that it was first built during year 22 of Senusret I's reign. The causeway was rebuilt, including having a roof added, and even its basic concept changed time. In order to add the roof, the passage was narrowed by adding limestone blocks.




Another view of the Pyramid of Senusret I at Lisht


At equal lengths of about 10 cubits along this passage were deep statue niches in which stood larger than life statues of Senusret I. These depicted the king in death as his Osiris mummified form, with arms crossed over the breast. Each alternating statue bore either the crown of Upper or Lower Egypt. Eight of these statues have survived and now grace the Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. A doorway ion the south side of the upper end of the causeway led to a small mudbrick building for priests or attendants. There were also mudbrick walls on either side of the causeway that created secondary passages. This was common to a number of Middle Kingdom causeways. At the upper end, these paths broadened into small courtyards with a gate that lead to the pyramid's outer enclosure. The northern court eventually was made into a small bath with a pottery pipe where priests could cleanse themselves before attending to the cults of the surrounding queens' pyramids.


Like his father's complex and others to come, each component of Senusret's complex had a different name. The mortuary temple was named "United are the (cult) places (of Senusret)". It was almost completely ruined by stone thieves when first excavated in 1894, even though no alabaster, basalt or diorite, and only limited amounts of granite were apparently used in its construction. However, enough remained to reconstruct the ground plan. Unfortunately, very little of its decorative theme is known.


With the exception of far fewer storage annexes, it highly resembled earlier mortuary temples of the late 5th and 6th Dynasties. However, the outer walls of the mortuary temple were slightly inclined and had a concave cornice at the top. The roof terrace was eight meters above the ground at its highest level.


The outer part of the mortuary temple, similar to mortuary temples, had a long , vaulted, entrance corridor that connected the causeway with the open, pillared courtyard. To either side of the courtyard were storage annexes. The courtyard itself had 24 limestone pillars to support the ambulatory roof around its edge. The courtyard was also paved with limestone and had its own drainage system for rainwater. Found within the ruins of the courtyard was a square, granite altar decorated with inscriptions and reliefs.


The Ground plan  of the Pyramid of Senusret I at Lisht in Egypt


Also like older pyramid complexes, there was a central transverse corridor dividing the inner sanctum from the outer part of the mortuary temple. It also opened to either side into the pyramid courtyard. In the rear, or long west wall of the corridor was a small entrance stairway to the customary chapel with its five niches for statues. Here, a rare find was made of the base and a part of the feet of a standing statue of the king which most probably one stood in one of the niches. It would have originally stood about 2.7 meters high, not including the crown.


From the chapel, an antechamber Carree led to the offering hall. However, this small room apparently had an unusual column at one time. Impressions on a pink granite foundation block suggest that the column was in the shape of a twelve stemmed papyrus.



Goddess Seshat records foreign captives and booty, from  Senusret I's mortuary temple

Goddess Seshat records foreign captives and booty, from Senusret I's mortuary temple



The vaulted offering hall also has the same components as older complexes. There is a false door on the west wall adjacent to the main pyramid, and in front of that stood a granite altar. As was customary, the walls of the offering hall were adorned with scenes depicting sacrifices. Like the outer part of the mortuary temple, the chapel and offering hall had storage annexes to either side.


Sunusret I's pyramid is somewhat larger than his father's, and is in fact on the scale of larger than many Old Kingdom pyramids. However, unlike his father's pyramid, there were no stones from older pyramid complexes found in the core of Sunusret I's pyramid.


Local limestone was used in the core, which rested on a platform of stone blocks. An innovation of the Sunusret I pyramid is that it uses a framework of eight walls radiating from the four corners of the core. This framework is built of rough, huge blocks that decrease in side towards the top. Each of the eight triangular sections is then subdivided by three cross walls. The framework was then filled with fragments of limestone, sand and waste material. Backing stones rest on the steps, behind the pyramid's outer casing. A casing of fine white limestone was then used to case the pyramid. The casing was firmly anchored in a flat trench dug around the pyramids base, which not only helped support the casing, but added strength to the whole pyramid (though some Egyptologists disagree with this assessment, maintaining instead that it weakened the structure. They point to a crack that zig-zags down the pyramid.). Casing stones were also supported by wooden clamps to join adjacent pieces. Today casing remains at the very lowest levels of the pyramid, in one area up to eight layers high.


Another problem with stability is the unevenness of the foundation or base, which is up to 13 or 15 (5 to 6 inches) on two of the corners off level from the entrance.


Like many of the Old Kingdom pyramids, the entrance to the subterranean chambers in Senusret I's pyramid is located in the pavement of the courtyard in front of the middle of the its north wall. Over the entrance stood the north chapel, just as we so often find in the Old Kingdom. This chapel fit into a niche created from the pyramid's casing.


Within the north chapel there was an alabaster stele, according to Verner, inset into the wall closest to the pyramid and in front of it a granite altar. However, Lehner maintains that rather than a stele, on the back wall, it was an alabaster false door. He is probably correct. The other walls of the chapel were decorated, and though fragmentary, they appear to depict sacrifice rituals, processions of divinities and the king with his ka. Interestingly, a gargoyle in the form of a recumbent lion carried rainwater away from the chapel's roof terrace.


The entrance to the pyramid is covered in granite. Inside the pyramid, the descending entrance corridor is not straight, but turns to the southeast, as in a few 5th Dynasty pyramids. There is a huge barrier also made of granite that blocks the passage. The blocks used for this weigh as much as 20 tons. The plugs slid down the passage, each hitting the next, with enough force that fractures radiated through their blocks. Except near the entrance of the corridor, which is lined in fine white limestone, the rest of the passage is lined with granite blocks weighing as much as eight tons.


Regrettably, the burial chamber, which lies some 22 to 25 meters (72 to 82 feet) below ground level, is filled with water (as is Amenemhet I's burial chamber). In fact, it was only just above the water table when the burial chamber was constructed. Egyptologists see this as a desire by Senusret I (and some future kings) to connect with the realm of Osiris, who's cult he seemed to favor during his lifetime. It has never been entered by archaeologists. However, in this pyramid a second corridor was found below the first. It is longer, flatter and wider than the entrance corridor, and was probably used to transport materials for the substructure that could not have been passed through the normal entrance corridor. It was also probably useful in digging the substructure. After the burial chamber was completed, this tunnel was also sealed and has never actually been seen by archaeologists. However, some Egyptologist believe that this shaft has caused instability within the modern structure.


Though there was apparently no small cult pyramid attached to his father's complex, Senusret built one for his own pyramid, but it would be the last of its kind. It stood, as was customary in the Old Kingdom, at the southeast corner of the main pyramid. However, it too was unique, with its own north chapel and on the east side, a sacrifice chapel. Though the cult pyramid is now in ruins, Arnold thought that the king's ka statue may have been buried in one of its underground chambers, and a canopic chest in the other. Both of the chambers, located on the same axis, are encased in limestone slabs. The northern chamber is slightly larger than the southern chamber. The cult pyramid had its own enclosure wall, apparently added later, that formed a court entered by a doorway on the north. At about the same time that this wall was added, the pyramid was enlarged with a layer of casing band backing stones on the north and west.


A few items of funerary equipment were discovered by Maspero when he made his way down the robber's tunnel. These included pieces of wooden boxes, alabaster containers, a gold dagger sheath and parts of four alabaster canapic vessels.


An interesting and important discovery was made by Gautier in another part of the pyramid courtyard. On December 21st, 1884 he found hidden under the pavement of the courtyard, north of the mortuary temple, a cache of larger the life sitting statues of Senusret I. They sit on block like thrones. There were ten of these, made from limestone, but painted to resemble granite. Some were unfinished, but these artfully sculpted statues are now one of the most famous exhibits in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. It is thought that they may have originally stood in the mortuary temple's open courtyard and were probably removed and hidden at the beginning of the Hyksos period. However, there is disagreement among Egyptologists on this matter, and some believe that they were originally intended for the causeway.

Statue of Senusret I now in the Egyptian Antiquity Museum

Statue of Senusret I now in the Egyptian Antiquity Museum


The main pyramid complex is enclosed within a perimeter wall, with the exception of the outer part of the mortuary temple. Then, the entire complex, including subsidiary pyramids is surrounded by a second wall. The inner wall was built of limestone, and uniquely, on its interior and exterior sides, were panels every five meters that were decorated with bas-relief. The bottom of these reliefs depicted fertility gods bringing gifts. Above, these images appeared the serekh (a total of 150 serekh) with the ruler's name. His Horus name, Ankhmesut was always present, along with either his throne name, Kheperkare, or his birth name, Senusret.


There are nine small pyramid complexes enclosed between the inner and outer perimeter walls that are mostly the same size, with the exception of Pyramid one, which is slightly larger than the others. Pyramid one was probably built first. The last pyramid, number nine, may have been built as late as the reign of Amenemhet II, or even Senusret II. By this time, stone had apparently run short, for pyramid nine is cased in mudbrick. Three of the pyramids are on the south side, and two each are located to the west, north and east sides of the main pyramid. Each of these small pyramids had their own small mortuary temples and the small complexes were all enclosed by their own perimeter walls with the exception of pyramids eight and nine, that shared their enclosure. In fact, some of these pyramids even had subsidiary burials, with shaft tombs sometimes located inside and sometimes outside the complex.



Detail from the throne of one of the statues found in the pit

Detail from the throne of one of the statues found in the pit


Surprisingly, even though the pyramids and chapels were completed, and even decorated, at least some of the substructures appear never to have been finished and it is not certain that all of these pyramids received burials. None of the shafts in pyramids five, six and nine conclusively led to a burial chamber. Pyramids two and three had two shafts, including a construction shaft on the north and a formal entrance shaft on the east.


The owner of a few of these small pyramids have been identified. These subsidiary pyramids probably all belong to members of the royal family, but specifically two belonged to Nofret (Neferu) I (pyramid one) and Itakaiet (pyramid two). Nofret I was one of the principle queens as well as sister of Senusret I and daughter of Amenemhet I. But surprisingly, for the first time in Egyptian history, her name is enclosed within a cartouche. In this pyramid, a shaft in the center of the north side leads to a gently sloping corridor paved with limestone. The corridor in tern leads to a chamber, lined with limestone, under the center of the pyramid. There was a hole for the sarcophagus and an unfinished niche for the canopic chest within this chamber, but the chamber appears to have never been finished, or used for a burial.


Itakaiet was probably either the daughter of Senusret I, or one of his wives. We know pyramid two probably belonged to her because of a 32 sided column inscribed with her name that was found within the ruins. The burial chamber in this pyramid was really only an extension of the entrance corridor, sealed with mortared limestone slabs. It is also questionable whether a burial took place in this pyramid as well, for there was no sarcophagus found within, and no visible hole large enough for thieves to have stolen it.


Pyramid three had one main burial chamber, like Itakaiet's, formed by casing the end of the entrance corridor, and a set of five burial niches. Here, however, the main chamber was almost filled by a beautiful quartzite sarcophagus and canopic chest. Pyramid four also contained a quartzite sarcophagus, though there is no evidence a burial took place. Fragments of red granite pyramidions, which probably topped all nine subsidiary pyramids, were discovered near pyramids three and five. Finally, there was a life size granite female statue found by pyramid six.


In addition, there are other structures within the outer perimeter wall, including priests' houses, granaries, low mudbrick walls, hauling tracks, numerous shallow pits for ritual burials of model dishes, ox bones and breads, and in the western part, a mudbrick boat pit.


Other burials from Senusret I's reign are found outside of the outer perimeter wall. The most prominent of these is the tomb of Senusretankh, which lies northeast of the wall and has a copy of the Pyramid Texts in the burial chamber. It has well preserved decorations in the burial chamber and a wonderful ornamental sarcophagus. Here, we find mortuary text similar to the royal tombs of the Old Kingdom. Other burials include the vizier, Mentuhotep, who's tomb has its own causeway, Imhotep, the High Priest of Heliopolis.


  • Height: 48.65m
  • Base: 105.2m
  • Slope: 49o 24'


See Also:







Reference Number

Complete Pyramids, The (Solving the Ancient Mysteries)

Lehner, Mark


Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05084-8

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2

Pyramids, The (The Mystery, Culture, and Science of Egypt's Great Monuments)

Verner, Miroslav


Grove Press

ISBN 0-8021-1703-1

Last Updated: June 20th, 2011