THE SECRETS OF SNEFRU

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His name means "bringer of beauty," although he was officially known as the Master of All Justice and Ruler of the Lower and Upper Nile. He was worshipped as a god during his lifetime, some 4,600 years ago, from the Nile Valley to the Sinai. He designed and built the first true pyramids and founded a dynasty--Egypt's 4th--that lasted more than 100 years.

But Snefru, known to the Greeks as "the Good King," has long been overshadowed by "the Bad King," Khufu (also known as Cheops), his more famous son and successor. Because Khufu's Great Pyramid at Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, is more accessible to tourists, it has become the picture-postcard landmark. Snefru's monuments, by contrast, sat on an army base in Dahshur, 13 miles away. For much of this century, they were concealed behind barbed wire and watch towers, off limits to all but a handful of archaeologists.

All that will change this week, when Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities opens Dahshur's long-hidden monuments to the public, adding a stunning new attraction to the nation's 86 previously accessible pyramids. Eventually, says Zahi Hawass, director of antiquities at Giza, Dahshur could rival Giza as a place of historical interest. "It's time the father became as famous as the son," he maintains. "The father was more important."

The newly opened site encompasses the remains of 11 pyramids, some of which were built 700 years after Snefru's reign, and many smaller rectangular mausoleums, known as mastabas. But it is Snefru's spectacular constructions that dominate the horizon. Most Egyptian kings gave themselves only one pyramid; Snefru built five, three of them at Dahshur.

One of the most striking is the Red Pyramid, known by the reddish tinge its iron oxide-rich stone takes on in the light of the setting sun. It is the first pyramid in the classic smooth-sided shape so familiar to schoolchildren. Previously, only step-sided pyramids had been built (a shape that was also seen in Mesopotamia and turned up, much later, in Latin America). It was Snefru who conceived of the more difficult smooth-sided form. "He made the intellectual jump," says Rainer Stadelmann, director of the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo. Enlisting two of his sons as architects, Snefru perfected a system of earthen ramps that allowed his workers to line up the huge stones; when the stones were in place, the earth was removed, revealing the finished pyramid.

Even more intriguing is the so-called Bent Pyramid, instantly recognizable by its strange, blunted profile. It has the best-preserved outer casing of any pyramid in Egypt, perhaps because the lower half of the monument is too steep for stone robbers to scale easily. Viewed from its base, the pyramid rises so abruptly that it seems at first glance to be about to break over visitors like a giant tidal wave.

But halfway up, the angle of incline suddenly changes. Nobody knows why, although archaeologists have argued about it for years. Some theorize that the King may have died during construction, forcing workers to finish quickly. Others suggest that a building disaster--a heavy rain, perhaps--required a change of plans. Stadelmann believes the weak clay beneath the pyramid began to give way; rather than leave an ugly stub, Snefru completed the project at a gentler (and hence more stable) incline and began building the Red Pyramid a mile to the north.

Parts of the Dahshur site were first excavated 101 years ago by French archaeologist Jacques de Morgan, though few visitors ever saw the area. Little was done to build on his work during most of this century, however, and the site fell into neglect. Today Dahshur's pyramids and mastabas are being re-excavated by archaeologists from three countries. "De Morgan's methods were very crude," says Dieter Arnold of New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. "He was only interested in treasure and the names of kings."

Treasure he found, in abundance. The jewelry that men and women wore in ancient Egypt was buried with them. De Morgan's finds included two diadems, one with delicately intertwined water weeds and flowers; a necklace of sculpted-gold Nile shells; and an exquisite belt of gold lioness heads and amethyst beads. But De Morgan didn't uncover all there was. A year and a half ago, the Met's Arnold found a Queen's mummy and some of her royal jewelry at one of Dahshur's later monuments. "You're so accustomed to going over robbed tombs that you don't expect to find anything. It hits you like a thunderbolt," he says.

Most of these artifacts date from the 12th dynasty, long after the kingdom once ruled by Snefru disintegrated in an era of famine and unrest. It was during this chaotic period that the first great wave of looting and tomb robbing ruined much of Egypt's historical treasures. The rulers of the Middle Kingdom tried to restore law and order, but the mystical union of nature, religion and state that marked the Old Kingdom never returned.

By all accounts, life was sweet under Snefru's rule. Egypt in the 3rd millennium B.C. was a land of peace and plenty. The nobles feasted on fattened ducks and geese and wore white linen robes--when they wore much at all. One papyrus recounts how a bored King Snefru had himself rowed around a lake by young beauties clothed only in fishnets. Snefru seems to have had an exceedingly high opinion of himself. Until his reign, an Egyptian king was believed to be the earthly incarnation of Horus, the falcon god, achieving full deification only in death. Snefru, however, declared himself to be the living sun god Re. Khufu, following in his father's royal footsteps, took the title Son of the Sun God.

Modern archaeologists downplay the good King--bad King labels, which date to an apocryphal--and now discounted--tale told by the Greek historian Herodotus about how Khufu prostituted his own daughter to pay for his pyramid. Good or bad, Snefru ended up in the Red Pyramid, entombed in a magnificent three-room burial chamber that is considered the finest of the Old Kingdom. The chamber, with its 45-ft. corbel ceiling, remains. Its royal occupant, however, is missing. A mummy discovered in the pyramid in 1948 and believed to contain Snefru's corpse disappeared shortly afterward and has never been found.