Snefru: The “Good” Pyramid Builder of Egypt

Since the days of Imhotep, the kings of Egypt built their own Step Pyramids. These imitations have not lasted the test of time. The next major step in Egyptian culture came with the ascension of Snefru (alternatively spelled Sneferu) to the throne of Egypt. This king begat Egypt’s pyramid dynasty, leading to the splendors of Giza. Yet, Snefru also has another claim to fame. He was known as “Snefru the Beneficient” by Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans alike. How did he lead? Can we get a glimpse into the character of a man who lived over 4,500 years ago? Surprisingly, we can.

Snefru
Bust of Snefru, as seen on the Discovery Channel’s “The Great Egyptians.”

Snefru The Persistent

Snefru came to power on the death of Huni, the last king of the Egyptian Third Dynasty. He initiated the Fourth, which oversaw the peak of Egypt’s Old Kingdom period. The origin of this division, which traces back to the Greek-Egyptian priest Manetho, remains a mystery. Snefru may have been Huni’s son, or he may have married into his family.

The real demarcation line came in the architecture. The most famous thing about Egypt, the true, triangular pyramid, was unknown prior to the Fourth Dynasty. It was a logical evolution, though. Snefru decided to fill in the steps on his unfinished step pyramid to give it a smooth, triangular surface. Unfortunately, this attempt, at the Meidum Pyramid, failed. The design simply couldn’t incorporate what Snefru wanted to do and the pyramid collapsed into the deformity we see now. This was a huge setback, threatening the possibility that the pharaoh wouldn’t have a tomb – a dreadful possibility for the afterlife. Yet, he took it in good stride and ordered a do-over. Maybe he realized that worrying wouldn’t solve his problem.

The second attempt, with a lower-angled slope, came with the Bent Pyramid, which still stands today. This was the first durable triangular pyramid ever built, but it is unique. The pyramid is not a perfect slope, but rises at a 54-degree angle and then tapers off at 43 degrees near the top. This came in an attempt to stabilize the burial chamber, as the walls were caving in under the pyramid’s weight and needed to be stabilized with wooden beams (see 33:50 in the video below).

As such, Snefru still wasn’t satisfied and ordered yet another do-over, despite his advancing age. The final result was the Red Pyramid (so-called after its modern, rather than its ancient appearance). This was the first true pyramid in Egypt and remains the country’s third largest, after the Great Pyramid and Khafre’s Pyramid at Giza.

True, these were vanity projects dedicated to one man’s immortality, but we can praise Snefru for his persistence. Further, the pyramid projects put people to work during the down times of the year, when the Nile flooded the fields and there wasn’t much else to do. The workers and their families must have appreciated the job opportunities.

Of course, these projects were so grand that they required year-round mobilization. This must have produced a professional class, furthering civilization and diversifying economic activity. The Third Dynasty kings should take the credit for this innovation, but the frequency and scale of Snefru’s projects exceeded his predecessors and gave this trend greater reach.

And as we’re about to see, the pyramids weren’t Snefru’s only achievements. The first monarch of Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty was busy in other, more fruitful fields, which opened new avenues of wealth creation.

Snefru the Mighty

Egypt became more powerful, internationally, at the start of the Fourth Dynasty. Snefru boosted the Egyptian turquoise industry in the mines of Sinai, securing them from hostile Bedouin tribes. He is also likely the first king to have sent trading missions to the land of Punt. This area near the Red Sea was rich in myrrh and electrum. All of these missions brought new wealth into his country. He also sent fleets to modern Lebanon to return with cedar wood which could be used to build more ships. Stelae from his mining expeditions into Sinai still stand (seen at 13:50 here):

Though these were the bare beginnings of things to come, Snefru seems to be the first king with a real interest in international affairs. The founder of the Fourth Dynasty also campaigned in Nubia and Libya, the western desert. While this was not new, either, his achievements there brought further wealth into Egypt and secured its borders. This allowed for an Egypt more powerful than anything Narmer might have imagined so many centuries earlier.

Indeed, Snefru’s foreign and trade policies brought such renown that kings in later times, far after the Old Kingdom, bragged about their exploits in relation to him. “Nothing like it was seen since the days of Snefru,” they would say when elevating their own achievements.

Unfortunately, the campaigns into Nubia and Libya came back with thousands of slaves as part of the spoils. Yet, we can at least say that the pyramids themselves were not tainted by slave labor.

And this is where we can look at the third attribute of Snefru, which makes him even more notable. He long had a reputation as being a just and good king, a good man as well as a great one.

Snefru the “Beneficent”

Such was his reputation. This epithet seems to have originated as a Middle Kingdom source, the Prophecy of Neferti, which supposedly came during his reign. This was actually a piece of royal propaganda, meant to shore up the 12th Dynasty’s story as the bringers of light from the darkness of the First Intermediate Period. Yet, Snefru himself stands out:

“Now it so happened that when the late King Snefru was potent king in this entire land, one of these days it happened that the Council of the Residence entered into the Great House to give greeting, and when they had given greeting, they went out in accordance with their daily custom. Then said his Majesty to the seal-bearer who was at his side: Go and fetch for me the Council of the Residence which has gone out from here after having given greeting today. They were ushered in to him immediately, and again they prostrated themselves before His Majesty. And His Majesty said to them: Comrades, see, I have caused you to be summoned in order that you may seek out for me a son of yours who is wise, a brother of yours who is trustworthy, or a friend of yours who has achieved some noble deed, someone who shall say some fine words to me, choice phrases at the hearing of which My Majesty will be entertained. They prostrated themselves again before His Majesty: There is a Great Lector of Bastet, O Sovereign our lord, whose name is Neferti; he is a commoner valiant with his arm, he is a scribe skilled with his fingers, and he is a wealthy man who has more possessions than any of his equals. Let him be [permitted] to see Your Majesty. His Majesty said: Go and fetch him to me. And he was ushered in to him immediately.

He prostrated himself before His Majesty, and His Majesty said: Come, Neferti my friend, say some fine words to me, choice phrases at hearing which My Majesty will be entertained.

Here we see the god-king calling people by the name “comrades” and “friends.”

Another story, told in Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs and dating from the Fifth Dynasty, not too far in time from his own day, has him show a remarkable degree of patience and affability when dealing with a stubborn concubine.

The most telling source, though, comes from his own reign.

Snefru Sneferu

Here we see the god-king with a rather pudgy appearance and a weak chin. Contrast with the portraiture of other Egyptian kings, back and forward in time. It is an unassuming appearance. Ostentation (beyond his pyramids, at least) did not seem to be one of his priorities. This contemporary relief makes the stories of his beneficence more believable. Tradition, as we have seen elsewhere, is often more accurate than we give it credit for.

So much of this period is steeped in the fog of myth, so it is nice to be able to say good things about a man who lived that long ago, and to return to him some of the shine which he lost when ancient Egyptian civilization disappeared. He seems to have deserved it.

Read Lives of the Luminaries for more stories from ancient Egypt.

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