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Nearly everyone knows the pharaohs who built the two big pyramids at Giza -- you may know them as Cheops and Chephren, or Khufu and Khafre. Fewer know the builder of the smaller pyramid, Menkaure. Even though tit was noticeably smaller than the previous two, Menkaure's pyramid is quite fine, with a casing of Aswan granite that made it stand out from the tura limestone casing of the larger pyramids.
Menkaure was the son of Khafre (Chephren, Khefren) and his queen Khamernebi I. LIke many pharaohs, he married his sister, Khamernebti II, to retain power. They had a son together, Khunre, but he died early. he at least two other wives. One bore his successor, Shepseskaf, and the other bore him a daughter, Khentkawes, who would later mater Userkaf, the first king of the fifth dynasty.
His succession to the throne includes the intrusion of one of his cousins, Bakare, another son of Kheops. Other king lists do not list Bakare. And like always, we have a problem with the cattle counts -- the latest one listed in the king lists is the eleventh cattle count pointing towards a rule of 20 or 22 years, but we simply don't know. Manetho's estimate of 63 years seems horridly excessive when you consider that he left his funerary monument unfinished when he died. Either he ruled for a much shorter period of time, or he was the original procrastinator!
It is most likely that he became king as a mature man, after the death of his cousin Bakare. He did not want to repeat the errors of his predecessors in attempting to built too large a monument that would remain unfinished, so he started the smaller pyramid at Giza. Still, he died before it was finished and it was completed somewhat hastily by his son Shepseskaf. Very little remains, ad the causeway to the demolished valley temple is all but gone.
Despite the much smaller size of his pyramid, the burial chamber and relieving chambers in the pyramid are the most advanced of the group. THe interior is elaborate, and the exterior was cased in fine granite, some of which still remains. We have a good idea of how the casing was installed, since seven courses of the granite remain on the base of the pyramid. Some has been smoothed and partially polished, while the rest is still rough. It appears that the stone was roughly fitted into place, then the surface smoothed and polished in situ -- the blocks were not carved entirely in the quarry and then just fitted here.
At least one theory suggests that Menkaure was a benevolent and wise king because his pyramid was so much smaller. I think whoever made that one up bought into the "slaves built the pyramids" myth. Obviously, if the pyramid was smaller, then fewer people were oppressed to build it. Feh.
One of the very interesting things about Menkaure is that we have a pretty good idea of what he looks like. Unlike his predecessors, who have only a few fragments of statuary (usually heads!) or a teeny seated statue, a cache of six triad statues of Menkaure were found in 1910 by the American archaeologist Reisner. He is shown with goddesses and his wife, and the statues are obviously meant to be representations (even if a bit idealized) of the pharaoh, not just a formal representing of a "king". Obviously, he was portrayed as a young, athletic man, even though he was middle aged, but we can attribute that to artistic license rather than a formalized iconography of the king. Several of these statues are in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
A number of other pieces attest to the pharaoh, as well. An alabaster head and the parts of four statues with his name on them were found in 1908 while excavating the valley temple. It isn't wearing a headdress or crown, but instead a wig, which is very odd, although the consensus seems to be that it is indeed Menkaure, based on where and how it was found.