An Introduction to Pharaonic Egypt | The Rise of Egypt | Rebuilding | From the Depths to the Heights | The Amarna Period | The Long, Slow Decline | Egyptian Mummies | Egyptian Pyramids | Egyptian Legends and Theology | Egyptian Gods
If one single image could be said to sum up ancient Egypt, it would be the pyramids. Pyramids were the vast burial places of the early pharaohs, and were constructed of enormous blocks of stone. They are solid structures with sloping triangular sides meeting at an apex, arising from a square base. Although the Great Pyramid and its companions at Giza are the best known, there are scores of pyramids scattered along the west bank of the Nile.
Standard Pyramid Complexes
All pyramids were accompanied by a group of outbuildings, collectively known as the pyramid complex. These included mortuary temples where the dead pharaoh could be worshipped, smaller pyramids for the family or Ka (spirit) of the pharaoh, and a surrounding wall. This was linked via a causeway to the 'valley temple', which opened on to a harbour and served as an access way to the main temple complex. The earliest and latest pyramid complexes were aligned along a north-south axis; the buildings around the later, better-known pyramids were aligned along an east-west axis. Other differences include the location of the entrance and the presence of a Ka pyramid.
The main structure would have had sides of polished white limestone. A single huge stone was used as the point, or capstone, and this may have been metal-plated so as to reflect the sunlight.
Many temples also had boats buried near them. Known as solar barques, these boats were symbolic of the deceased monarch's journey to the afterlife.
The pyramid itself was built with one or more burial chambers inside or below it. These were linked to the outside world by narrow, cramped passageways. Once the burial was complete, these passageways would be sealed with heavy portcullis-like stones and the entrances sealed to hide them.
Pyramid History and Evolution
The earliest burials of Egyptian monarchs were not accompanied by pyramids. Examples such as Narmer's tomb at Nekhen (later called Hierakonpolis) were a simple earthen mound, covering a small temple.
This developed into mastabas, literally meaning 'benches', which were long, narrow buildings where the bodies were laid.
The first attempt at a pyramid was the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. Over the next few generations of pharaohs, the sides of the pyramids became smooth, the burial chambers rose up into the body of the pyramid (rather than being underground) and eventually burial texts were painted onto the walls.
Pyramid building went into a lull during the First Intermediate Period. It resumed during the Middle Kingdom, but never reached the size of pyramid achieved in the Old Kingdom. It eventually died out altogether, to be replaced by tombs carved into the living rock. This was probably due to a combination of the expense of pyramid-building and the obviousness of a pyramid as a target for tomb-robbers.
It is not known exactly how the pyramids were constructed. It is assumed that poles, levers and ramps were used to lift the massive stone blocks, along with massive amounts of manpower. Some pyramids have a spiral arrangement of stones along their upper courses, which gives a clue as to how the ramps may have been arranged.
What is certain is that pyramid-building was a major undertaking. Entire towns would be required to house the workers, and the remains of these are a fertile source of information for archaeologists. Contrary to popular opinion, slave labour does not seem to have been used for the bulk of the construction work.
The pyramids at Giza are Egypt's most famous monument and the only surviving ancient Wonder of the World1.
The three pyramids were built during the Fourth Dynasty by Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure (often given the Greek forms of their names: Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus). They are all solid except for access tunnels leading to the burial chambers.
Each is a vast tomb. The earliest is the largest. Although the second is smaller, it is set on slightly higher ground, and so appears taller. The third pyramid is noticeably smaller than the other two. Although this may simply reflect the lesser power and influence of Menkaure, it has led to much speculation concerning mystical reasons why the third pharaoh might be satisfied with a lesser tomb than his illustrious predecessors, including the idea that the pyramids represent the stars in the belt of Orion, with their sizes proportional to the brightness of the stars. It has to be said against the Orion theory that the dimmest star is only slightly dimmer than the other two, while the small pyramid is only one half the height and one eighth the volume of the others.
When first built, each pyramid would have been covered with whitewash, perhaps with a thin layer of beaten gold over the capstone. In the bright desert sun, they would have been a magnificent sight. At the time, the Nile flowed much further to the west than it does now, and would have passed close to the foot of the Giza plateau. Remains of a harbour for boats have been found.
The Sphinx2 is a vast statue of a human-headed lion. Although representations of this entity are common (in better-preserved statues, eagle-like wings are visible folded over the lion's flanks), none is approaching the size of the Great Sphinx at Giza.
The remains of a ceremonial funerary boat have also been found here.
The Step Pyramid at Saqqara is believed to be the oldest pyramid. It has 'step sides' (technically making it a ziggurat, not a pyramid). Since it is the oldest-known construction that would have had to be planned, it is sometimes cited as the first example of true architecture, as opposed to mere building. Its architect, Imhotep, was later worshipped as a god.
It has the most extensive set of underground passages of any pyramid. Some of these may have been dug in antiquity by grave-robbers. Although the example at Saqqara is by far the best known, there are a handful of other step pyramids in Egypt.
Built by Snofru, the ruins at Meidum are believed to be the first true pyramid, as opposed to a ziggurat. The outer casing has now fallen away, leaving only the inner core which rises like a stocky tower from the desert floor. Ironically, it is now the least pyramid-like pyramid in Egypt. It may originally have been built as a step pyramid and later altered to have smooth sides.
The Bent Pyramid of Snofru at Dahshur is believed to bridge the gap between step pyramids and 'true' pyramids. It has an unusual shape, in that the tip has a much shallower angle than the base. It looks as though construction began on a steep-sided pyramid, but at around half the intended height it was capped with a much shallower-sided pyramid. Why this should be is not clear; it may be that the pharaoh died unexpectedly during the construction and the pyramid had to be finished in a hurry. Alternatively, it may be that the builders found that such a tall, steep pyramid was untenable, and the design had to be altered.
Like the Meidum pyramid, this was built by Snofru. It is unclear why he felt the need to build two pyramids - theories include the burial place of his wife; an unknown pharaoh requiring a burial-place; the Dahshur pyramid being unsatisfactory; or a production line of pyramids, rather than a strict one-per-pharaoh system.
There are numerous other pyramids in Egypt, mostly in a long string along the (former) course of the Nile. All are on the west bank3, as the Egyptians associated the Western Desert with the land of the dead. Almost all are in Upper Egypt, near modern Cairo.
There is also a cluster of smaller pyramids in Nubia (modern Sudan), mostly around Meroe. These are influenced by true Egyptian pyramids, but are smaller, much later and built on the east bank of the Nile. Examples are known of small pyramids built by workers for their own families. These typically mark the entrance to an underground family crypt. The ones at el-Medina were built during the New Kingdom, after the pharaohs had ceased building massive pyramids.
Pyramid building on a large scale belonged exclusively to the Old Kingdom. Later Dynasties recognised that by their very nature pyramids were attractive targets for tomb-robbers, which defeated their purpose. The Middle and New Kingdoms developed the idea of funerary temples for their dead monarchs. The last pyramid was constructed by Ahmose I, the first pharaoh of the New Kingom, at Abydos. It was unconventional, having no internal passages and being positioned some distance from the burial site of the king. No pyramid has survived unpillaged into the modern era, as most were looted in antiquity.