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Detail of King Snefru from his funerary temple of Dahshur.
Detail of King Snefru from his funerary temple of Dahshur.

Snefru (or Sneferu) was the founding Pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty in Egypt’s Old Kingdom. Following his death, his ancient Egyptian subjects remembered him as a good and just ruler. Egyptologists believed he reigned from around c. 2613 to c. 2589 BCE.

Ancient Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty (c. 2613 to c. 2494 BCE) is often referred to as a “Golden Age.” The Fourth Dynasty saw Egypt enjoy a period of wealth and influence derived in part from flourishing trade routes and an extended period of peace.

The Fourth Dynasty saw Egypt’s pyramid construction reach its apogee. The comparative peace with external competitors enabled the Fourth Dynasty pharaohs to explore their cultural and artistic leisure pursuits. Snefru’s construction experiments paved the way for the transition from the mud-brick mastaba step pyramids to “true” pyramids with their smooth sides, of the Giza Plateau. Few other Dynasties could equal the Fourth Dynasty achievements in architecture and construction.

Facts About Snefru

  • Snefru founded the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt’s Old Kingdom Period
  • His reign is estimated to have lasted for 24 years and heralded the construction of the first true pyramids
  • Khufu, Snefru’s son adopted Snefru’s innovative approach in constructing the Great Pyramid of Giza
  • Snefru’s pyramid at Meidum was a step pyramid that he later transformed into a true pyramid.
  • Snefru’s Bent and Red Pyramids built at Dahshur illustrate Snefru’s learning process in pyramid construction
  • Egyptologists have not yet found Snefru’s tomb or his mummy

What’s In A Name?

Snefru’s name translates as “to make beautiful.” Snefru is also known as Sneferu “He has perfected me” derived from “Horus, Lord of Ma’at has perfected me.”

Snefru’s Family Lineage

The genetic connection between the pharaohs of the Third Dynasty and those of the Fourth Dynasty remains unclear. The final king of the Third Dynasty was the Pharaoh Huni, who may have been Snefru’s father, although no substantive evidence has survived to prove this. Snefru’s mother is believed by Egyptologists to have been Meresankh, and may have been one of Huni’s wives.

Snefru married the daughter of Huni, Hetepheres. Assuming Snefru was also Huni’s son, this implies he followed ancient Egyptian royal tradition and married his half-sister. This tradition was intended to consolidate the pharaoh’s claim to the throne.

In addition to his eventual heir Khufu, Snefru had several other children. Some Egyptologists contend Prince Nefermaat, Snefru’s first vizier was also his son. Archaeologists discovered a mud-brick mastaba tomb belonging to one of Snefru’s sons close by his Meidum pyramid. Similar mastabas belonging to Snefru’s children were unearthed in different graveyards, enabling Egyptologists to compile a detailed list of Snefru’s children.

Snefru’s Prosperous Reign

Most Egyptologists agree Snefru reigned for at least 24 years. Others point to a period of 30-years while others advocate for a 48-year rule.

During his reign, Snefru launched military expeditions westwards into Libya and south into Nubia. The objective of these campaigns was to seize resources and cattle and enslave captives. In addition to these military expeditions, Snefru encouraged trade. In particular, Snefru imported copper and turquoise mined in the Sinai and cedar from Lebanon.

Egyptologists point to the need to finance his building projects and support a large construction workforce as the primary motivation behind both Snefru’s renewed enthusiasm for trade and military campaigns. Snefru’s monumental construction program required a huge workforce to be mobilized on an on-going basis. This broke with the tradition of farmers working on construction projects only while the annual Nile floods inundated their fields. This workforce mobilization strategy required additional food imports, as fewer Egyptian farmers would be available to grow their own food supplies.

Snefru’s time on Egypt’s throne ushered in experimentation in construction techniques as well as in logistics. His vizier employed several different pyramid-building techniques as the Egyptians learned how to construct a solid pyramid. Artists experimented with new approaches to decorating tombs with painted scenes. Egyptologists have discovered tombs with some sections of its walls decorated with images painted on plaster and some walls covered with carved inscriptions. This was an attempt by ancient artists to perfect a system to ensure their tomb decorations lasted longer.

Snefru’s innovations extended in new approaches to large scale quarrying of stone for his colossal monuments together with more efficient means of transporting the enormous stone blocks to the construction site.

Ambitious Construction Agenda

During his long reign, Snefru constructed at least three pyramids together with other monuments that have survived through to this day. He also pioneered significant innovations in pyramid design and construction methods, particularly the Egyptian state’s approach to organising the labour and logistical support that was adopted by his successor, Khufu, in building the Great Pyramid of Giza.

While Snefru maintained an ambitious construction agenda across Egypt, his most well-known projects remain his three pyramid complexes.

His first pyramid was a large step pyramid located at Meidum. In the latter stages of his reign, Snefru converted this pyramid into a true pyramid through the addition of a smooth outer casing. Egyptologists point to the influence of the cult of Ra as the motivation for the late addition.

All of Snefru’s pyramids included significant funerary complexes including temples, courtyards and a cult pyramid or false tomb, which served as the focus of the pharaoh’s funerary cult worship.

Following his decision to relocate his court to Dahshur, Snefru built the first two true pyramids.

The Bent Pyramid was Snefru’s first true pyramid. The pyramid’s original sides were sloped at 55 degrees. However, the rock under the pyramid proved unstable, causing the pyramid to crack. To reinforce the structure Snefru built a casing around the pyramid’s base. The remainder of the pyramid’s sides has a 43-degree slope creating its signature bent shape.

Snefru’s final pyramid was his Red Pyramid. Its core is constructed from red limestone, giving the pyramid its name. The Red Pyramid’s interior structure is less complex than that of the Bent Pyramid. Today, some Egyptologists suspect there may be undiscovered chambers inside both pyramids.

As yet, no chambers have been identified in Snefru’s tomb. His mummy and burial chamber remain undiscovered. Archaeologists suggest Snefru constructed a network of small pyramids in Egypt’s provinces to act as sites for his funeral cult.

Reflecting On The Past

Snefru’s reign was marked by Egypt’s prosperity and wealth and an extended period of comparative peace. His subjects remembered him as a benevolent and just ruler who ushered in a “Golden Age.”

Header image courtesy: Juan R. Lazaro [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

David Rymer BA MBT

David is a freelance writer, non-fiction and fiction author and university lecturer in journalism, marketing and law. He has been based in the Middle East for over a decade travelling extensively in the region, including Egypt indulging in his passion for archaeology. He amuses himself in his down time by writing.

David can be found at @daviddoeswords and www.zaharablu.com

Cite this article

David Rymer BA MBT, "Snefru," Give Me History, August 9, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/snefru.

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