Perhaps the most powerful legacy of the ancient Egyptian culture passed down to us is the eternal pyramids. Instantly recognizable around the globe, these monumental structures have carved a niche in our popular imagination.
The word pyramid triggers images of three enigmatic structures standing majestically on the Giza plateau. However, few people realize over seventy pyramids still survive today in Egypt, scattered from Giza all way the way down the length of the Nile Valley complex. At the height of their power, they were great centres of religious worship, surrounded by sprawling temple complexes.
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The Pyramids Of Egypt And Beyond
While a pyramid may be a simple geometric shape, these monuments with their massive quadrilateral base, rising to a sharply defined triangular point have taken on a life of their own.
Predominantly associated with ancient Egypt, pyramids were first encountered in ancient Mesopotamian ziggurats, complex mud-brick buildings. The Greeks also adopted pyramids at Hellenicon although their purpose remains unclear due to their poor state of preservation and lack of historical records.
Even today the Pyramid of Cestius still stands near the Porta San Paulo in Rome. Constructed between c. 18 and 12 BCE, the 125 foot high and 100 feet wide pyramid served as the tomb of the magistrate Gaius Cestius Epulo. Pyramids also made their way south of Egypt into Meroe, an ancient Nubian kingdom.
The equally enigmatic Mesoamerican pyramids follow a similar design to those in Egypt, despite the lack of any evidence of cultural exchanges between Egypt and vast Central American cities such as Tenochtitlan, Tikal, Chichen Itza. Scholars believe the Mayans and other indigenous regional tribes employed their enormous pyramids as a representation of their mountains. This symbolized their attempt to rise ever closer to the realm of their gods and the reverence they held for their sacred mountains.
The El Castillo pyramid at Chichen Itza was designed specifically to welcome the great god Kukulkan back to earth at each spring and autumn equinoxes. On those days a shadow cast by the sun appears to be the serpent god gliding down the stairs of the pyramid to the ground, thanks to meticulous mathematical calculations combined with some clever construction techniques.
The ancient Egyptians knew their pyramids as ‘mir’ or ‘mr.’ Egyptian pyramids were royal tombs. The pyramids were believed to be the place where the recently deceased pharaoh’s spirit ascended to the afterlife through the Field of Reeds. The very topmost capstone of the pyramid was where the soul embarked on its eternal journey. If the royal soul so chose, it could similarly return via the pyramid’s apex. A true to life statue of the pharaoh, served as a beacon, providing the soul with a homing point it would readily recognize.
In the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150-2700 BC) simpler mastaba tombs served royalty and common alike. They continued to be built throughout the Old Kingdom (c. 2700-2200 BC). In the initial phase of the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150-2613 BCE) a concept based on a pyramid emerged during the reign of King Djoser (c. 2667-2600 BCE) a Third Dynasty pharaoh (c. 2670-2613 BCE).
Djoser’s vizier and principal architect Imhotep developed a radical new concept, building a monumental tomb for his king entirely out of stone. Imhotep redesigned the preceding mastaba, to replace the mastaba’s mud-bricks with limestone blocks. These blocks formed a series of levels; each positioned one on top of the other. Successive levels were slightly smaller than the previous one until the final layer created a stepped pyramid structure.
So emerged Egypt’s first pyramid structure, today known by Egyptologists as Djoser’s Step Pyramid at Saqqara. Djoser’s pyramid towered 62 meters (204 feet) high and comprised six separate ‘steps’. The platform Djoser’s pyramid sat upon was 109 by 125 meters (358 by 411 feet) and each ‘step’ was sheathed with limestone. Djoser’s pyramid occupied the heart of an imposing complex comprising temples, administrative buildings, housing, and warehouses. In all, the complex sprawled across 16 hectares (40 acres) and was ringed with a 10.5 meters high (30 feet) wall. Imhotep’s grand design resulted in the world’s then-tallest structure.
The Fourth Dynasty pharaoh Snofru commissioned the first true pyramid. Snofru finished two pyramids at Dashur and completed his father’s pyramid at Meidum. The design of these pyramids also adopted a variation of Imhotep’s graduated stone limestone block design. However, the pyramid’s blocks were shaped progressively finer as the structure tapered, lending a seamless even exterior surface to the pyramid rather than the familiar ‘steps’ which required a limestone cover.
Egypt’s pyramid building reached its zenith with the magnificent Great Pyramid of Khufu of Giza. Positioned with astonishingly precise astrological alignment, the Great Pyramid is the sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Comprising a staggering 2,300,000 individual stone blocks, the Great Pyramid’s base extends over thirteen acres
The Great Pyramid was clad in an outer covering of white limestone, which gleamed in the sunlight. It emerged from the center of a small city and was visible for miles.
The Old Kingdom Pyramids
The Old Kingdom’s 4th Dynasty kings embraced Imhotep’s groundbreaking innovations. Sneferu (c. 2613 – 2589 BCE) is believed to have introduced a “Golden Age” of the Old Kingdom. Sneferu’s legacy comprises two pyramids built at Dahshur. Sneferu’s first project was the pyramid at Meidum. Locals call this the “false pyramid.” Academics have named it the “collapsed pyramid” due to its shape. Its external limestone sheathing is now scattered in a massive pile of gravel around it. Rather than a true pyramid shape, it more closely resembles a tower spearing up out of a scree field.
The Meidum pyramid is considered to be Egypt’s first true pyramid. Scholars define a “true pyramid” as a uniformly symmetrical construction with its steps smoothly sheathed to form seamless sides tapering to a sharply defined pyramidion or capstone. The Meidum pyramid failed as the foundation of its outer layer rested on sand instead of Imhotep’s preferred foundation of rock triggering its collapse. These modifications to Imhotep’s original pyramid design were not repeated.
Egyptologists remain divided as to whether the collapse of its outer layer occurred during its construction phase or post-construction as the elements wore at its unstable foundation.
Shedding Light On The Mystery Of How Egyptians Moved The Pyramid’s Massive Stone Blocks
The recent discovery of Ancient Egyptian stone-working ramps dating back 4,500 years in an alabaster quarry in Egypt’s eastern desert sheds light on how the ancient Egyptians were able to cut and transport such massive stone blocks. The discovery, the first of its kind is believed to date back to Khufu’s reign and the construction of the colossal Great Pyramid.
Discovered in Hatnub quarry, the ancient ramp was paralleled by two staircases lined with postholes. Egyptologists believe ropes were tied to drag the huge stone blocks up the ramps. Workers slowly walked up the staircases on either side of the stone block, pulling the rope as they went. This system helped alleviate some of the strain of pulling the massive load.
Each of the huge wooden posts, measured 0.5 meters (one-and-a-half feet) thick, were the key to the system as they allowed teams of workers to pull from below while another team hauled the block from above.
This allowed the ramp to be inclined at double the angle that would have once been thought possible, given the weight of the stones the pyramid workers were moving. Similar technology could have allowed the ancient Egyptians to haul massive blocks up the steep inclines required to build the Great Pyramid
Pyramid Construction Village
Khufu (2589 – 2566 BCE) learned from his father Sneferu’s experiments when it came to constructing the Great Pyramid of Khufu of Giza. Khufu developed an entire ecosystem to support this massive construction undertaking. A complex of housing for the workforce, shops, kitchens, workshops and factories, storage warehouses, temples, and public gardens grew up around the site. Egypt’s pyramid builders were a mixture of paid laborers, laborers performing their community service or part-time workers when the Nile floods halted farming.
Men and women working on the construction of the Great Pyramid enjoyed state-provided on-site housing and were well paid for their work. The result of this focused construction effort continues to amaze visitors through to this day. The Great Pyramid is the sole surviving wonder from the ancient Seven Wonders of the World and until the construction of Paris’ Eiffel Tower was finished in 1889 CE, the Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made construction on the face of the planet.
Second And Third Giza Pyramids
Khufu’s successor Khafre (2558 – 2532 BCE) built the second pyramid at Giza. Khafre is also acknowledged as having commissioned the Great Sphinx from a massive outcrop of natural limestone. The third pyramid was built by Khafre’s successor Menkaure (2532 – 2503 BCE). An engraving dating to c. 2520 BCE details how Menkaure inspected his pyramid before allocating 50 workers to build a tomb for Debhen a favored official. In part the engraving states, “His majesty commanded that no man should be taken for any forced labor” and that debris should be removed from the construction site.
Government officials and workers were the predominant occupants of the Giza community. Dwindling resources during the 4th Dynasty’s epic pyramid-building phase resulted in Khafre’s pyramid and necropolis complex being built to a slightly smaller scale than Khufu’s, while Menkaure’s has a more compact footprint than Khafre’s. Menkaure’s successor, Shepsekhaf (2503 – 2498 BCE) constructed a more modest mastaba tomb at Saqqara for his resting place.
Political And Economic Costs Of Pyramid Building
The cost of these pyramids to the Egyptian state proved to be political as well as financial. Giza was just one of Egypt many necropolises. Each complex was administered and maintained by the priesthood. As the scale of these sites expanded, so too did the influence and wealth of the priesthood together with the nomarchs or regional governors who oversaw the regions where the necropolises were located. Later Old Kingdom rulers constructed pyramids and temples on a smaller scale, to conserve economic and political resources. The move away from pyramids to temples foreshadowed a deeper seismic shift in expanding dominion of the priesthood. Egyptian monuments ceased being dedicated to a king and were now dedicated to a god!
Reflecting On The Past
An estimated 138 Egyptian pyramids survive and despite decades of intensive study, new discoveries continue to emerge. Today new and often controversial theories are expounded about the Great Pyramids of Giza, which continue to fascinate researchers and visitors alike.