Pyramids can be found in many parts of the world in a wide variety of contexts and functions (for example, tombs, temples), from remains in Egypt and Central America to modern reconstructions. When we think of pyramids, however, no better examples exist than those from ancient Egypt, especially the pyramids at Giza. The term pyramid is derived from the Greek pyramis, meaning “wheaten cake.” Although the ancient Egyptians knew pyramids as mer, they also referred to a pyramid capstone or the tip of an obelisk as ben-ben, which alternatively refers to a conical loaf of bread. The main age of the royal pyramid building occurred mainly from Dynasties 3-13, and as late as the early 18th dynasty (circa 2686-1550 B.C.), after which Egyptian royal tombs became mainly subterranean, rock-cut galleries, while many 18th- to 30th dynasty (circa1550-332 B.C.) elite private tombs adopted pyramidal chapels above subterranean burial chambers. An estimated 100 Old Kingdom to Middle Kingdom pyramids concentrate in an area focusing near present-day Cairo, while northern Sudan contains Egyptian-derived pyramids at Meroe and Napata, built by the Dynasty 25 Kushite and later Meroitic kings and royal families to the south of Egypt.
The classic Old Kingdom pyramids represent the personification of the deceased kings (and late Old Kingdom queens), along with their creation, rebirth, and connections with the daily rising and setting of the sun. The four sloping sides of the pyramid reflect the concept of the rising solar deity and the ascension of the king to the heavens using the sun’s rays as a ladder or stairway. The pyramid existed as the eternal house of Pharaoh for his daily journey to and from the gods in the cosmos; it reflected aspects of creation by resembling the primeval mound rising from the waters of creation; the alignment of the entry passage with the circumpolar “imperishable” stars assisted the king’s ascent to one of the potential destinations for his spirit in the afterlife.
Though Ancient Egyptian pyramids differ widely in their size, form, and construction techniques, they share many similarities. Pyramids contain subterranean tombs (sometimes associated with galleries), superstructures containing a mortuary temple, satellite pyramid for the king’s spirit double (ka), an enclosure wall, a causeway, and a valley temple, where offerings could be made. The associated temples bore royal cult statues, scenes of offerings, storage magazines, and facilities for the royal funerary cult.
Archaeologists of the Pyramids
The first true archaeologist of the pyramids was the pharaoh Thutmose IV (circa1401-1391 B.C.), who restored the Sphinx 1,100 years after the reign of Chephren. In the Roman period, the pyramids were a popular tourist attraction though many suffered extensive damage due to stone quarrying. Even in the 12th century A.D., the casing of the pyramids at Giza was still intact. The first modern visitor to record the pyramids was John Greaves (1602-1652), an Oxford astronomy professor. In the early 1800s, the Napoleonic survey scientifically described the pyramids. R. Howard Vysejn investigated five stress-relieving chambers in the great pyramid in 1831.
Other well-known archaeologists whose work at the pyramid complexes greatly influenced modern investigations include G. Belzoni (1816), K. Lepsius (1840s), A. Marriette (1850s), W. M. F. Petrie (18871888), and G. Reisner (1920s). Recent and current investigations include work by M. Lehner (workman’s village at Giza), Z. Hawass (pyramids of Giza), D. Arnold (El-Lisht), and M.Verner (Abu Sir).
Development of Pyramid Complex
The origins of the pyramids can be traced to pit graves of the predynastic period and mud brick tombs Dynasty 1 (circa 3050-2890 B.C.). Its origins lie in the concept of the primeval mound, one of the creation myths of ancient Egypt, in which the world began by rising out of floodwaters. Slightly raised mounds (tumuli) covering early graves gave way to mud brick structures (mastabas) that grew in size and complexity over time. For the Dynasties 1-2 royal tombs at Abydos (in southern Egypt), the appearance of twin stelae and separate funerary enclosures anticipate the subsequent, unified pyramid complexes with linked pyramidal tombs and temples.
Following in the traditions of Khasekhemwy’s late Dynasty 2 burial mound and separate funerary enclosure at Abydos (Shunet el-Zabib), King Djoser (circa 2630-2611 B.C.) commissioned his architect, Imhotep, to build a funerary complex at Saqqara (near Cairo). Djoser’s burial superstructure began as a simple square mound of stone blocks, but evolved rapidly into a four-stepped and ultimately a six-stepped limestone pyramid. It was inside a large enclosure wall, measuring 278 meters x 595 meters and 62.5 meters tall, and contained a red granite-lined underground burial chamber. A series of adjacent underground galleries contain 11 burial shafts and blue-tiled chambers, representing a subterranean palace. The step-pyramid enclosure wall symbolized the walled capital at nearby Memphis and the land of Egypt, containing multiple components oriented north-south, such as twin northern and southern tomb chambers, twin palaces or chapels, twin courtyards, and a series of two types of cult shrines representing deities of southern and northern Egypt, associated with the royal jubilee festivals (the hebsed festival of rejuvenation and kingship).
The Main Pyramid-Building Period
In the Dynasties 4-6 (circa 2575-2150 B.C.), Egypt’s pharaohs built pyramids in a 42-kilometer span extending from Giza southward to Abusir, Saqqara, and Dashur. Dynasty 4 saw the advancement of the stepped form to sloped sides while Dynasties 5-6 had smaller pyramids, but larger and more elaborately decorated temples. Egyptian pyramid complexes had various features in common: a pyramid with a burial chamber, a satellite pyramid for the king’s spirit-double (ka), a mortuary temple, an enclosure wall around these components, and a causeway leading to a temple (a focus for embalming and the royal mortuary cult) and harbor in the Nile Valley. Although the mortuary temple’s orientation changes from north-south to east-west from Dynasty 3 to Dynasties 4-6, the Old Kingdom’s pyramid entrance remains aligned to the north to the circumpolar stars. At the advent of Dynasty 4, King Sneferu (circa 2575-2551 B.C.) built a transitional pyramid at Medium, which was first stepped, but soon became a true pyramid with flat sides. At Dashur, he also built the Bent and Red Pyramids, the former of which has a curious shape due to its angle being changed midway though construction. The Dynasty 4 necropolis at Giza contains the single surviving ancient Seven Wonders of the World; it represented a new royal cemetery and symbolized the consolidation of state power. The Great Pyramid, built by Khufu (circa 2551-2528 B.C.), rises to 146.50 meters, with sides measuring 230.35 meters each. Its core contains massive stone masonry and chambers filled with sand for stability in earthquakes. The interior contains a series of three, superimposed chambers, beginning with an incomplete chamber (30 meters below ground), connected to a northern entrance emerging in the lower face of KhufU’s pyramid. Khufus sarcophagus remains inside the uppermost “king’s chamber,” which is accessed via the “great ascending gallery” lined with red granite. The “king’s chamber” and the “queen’s chamber” yield a pair of incomplete “ventilation” shafts that may have allowed the nightly departure and return of the pharaoh’s soul. The southern side of the pyramid yielded pits for five funerary boats, of which two remain intact (one boat has been reassembled beside the Great Pyramid).
Khafre’s (circa 2520-2494 B.C.) pyramid looks bigger than a great pyramid, being built on a more elevated area, but is actually 10 meters shorter. His complex includes a valley and mortuary temple, beside the Sphinx, which represents either Khafre or Khufu, who guarded the entrance to the underworld and was worshipped as Horemakhet, or Horus with the horizon. Khafre’s beautifully constructed valley temple contains limestone, red granite, and alabaster. Menkaure’s (circa 2490-2472 B.C.) pyramid, the smallest of the three Giza pyramids, has a complicated substructure, a red-granite-cased superstructure and a causeway flanked by three small pyramids for queens. Dynasty 5 saw changes in the mortuary temple, containing more relief decoration. Pyramids became smaller, the substructure was standardized, and the pharaohs built sun temples linking the solar cult with the royal mortuary cult. King Userkaf (circa 2465-2458 B.C.) built the first solar temple at Abusir. Sahure’s (circa 2458-2446 B.C.) pyramid complex at Abusir has historically significant relief decoration, displaying international trade with Syria-Palestine, while his pyramid causeway depicts scenes showing aspects of the transportation and building of his complex, and ceremonial festivals linked to its completion. The pyramid of King Unas (circa 2356-2323 B.C.) is especially significant, bearing the first written texts (“Pyramid Texts”) in his burial chamber and associated interior chambers and passages.
Later Pyramid Complexes
The Old Kingdom pyramids terminate with King Ibi’s tomb in Dynasty 8 (circa 2150-2134 B.C.). The succeeding First Intermediate Period (circa 2134-2040 B.C.) contained different types of tombs for provincial rulers, some of who may have used small pyramidal superstructures (for example, Kings Intef I-III in early Dynasty 11). The advent of the Middle Kingdom (mid-Dynasty 11 through Dynasty 12, circa 2040-1991 B.C.) saw the construction of Montohotep I’s terraced tomb chapel and rock-cut tomb at Deir el-Bahri. The terraced mortuary temple may have had a small pyramid representing a primeval mound. Dynasty 12 witnessed the revival of large pyramid construction, albeit much smaller in scale than the Giza pyramids and built with mud brick cores and stone casings. These pyramids were located farther south, in Dashur, and Illahun and Hawara in the Fayoum. Kings Amenemhet I and Senwosret I tried to revive the pyramid-building traditions of the Memphite region to the north, but after their reigns, royal pyramid construction was limited. Dynasty 12-13 pyramid complexes are variously excavated, while the tombs of Dynasties 14-16 remain mostly unlocated. In the succeeding Second Intermediate Period, the pyramids of Dra Abu el-Naga in Thebes (modern Luxor) contain rows of small pyramids associated with the royal tombs of the Dynasty 17(ending in circa 1532 B.C.). The neighboring mountain peak of el-Qurn at Thebes represented a natural pyramid for the royal tombs of Dynasties 18-20 (circa 1550-1070 B.C.), located mostly in the Valley of the Kings. The last royal pyramids were built in northern Sudan (ancient Nubia, circa 720 B.C.-350 A.D.) for the Napatan and Meroitic rulers. Of note, several Roman emperors adopted small pyramid-shaped tombs in Italy, adopting Egyptian designs.
Pyramids and Ancient Egyptian Religion
Pyramids had many connections with ancient Egyptian religion. The living pharaoh was the earthly form of the god Horus, and when he died he became associated with the god Osiris. The pyramids existed as a temple to the Horus-Osiris union and the sun god, allowing the ba (representing the life force), ka (representing individual qualities), and the body of pharaoh to unite, unifying life with death, and light with darkness. The mummification of the king probably occurred within the valley temple or in lighter structures in the pyramid complex. The Pyramid Texts, first found in the pyramid of Unas, are the oldest religious literature of ancient Egypt, and have allowed the pyramid complex to be interpreted more accurately.
How Were the Pyramids Built?
Although there is no specific, standard method for constructing pyramids, archaeological investigations have revealed different building methods for various pyramids. Although remnants of roadways with logs, sleds for pulling blocks, simple machines using ropes and pulleys, and simple mud brick ramps reveal the means for building pyramids, while corvée labor represented the most important element in the quarrying, transportation, and construction work for pyramids. The pyramids at Giza, for example, used 20,000- to 25,000-person crews. Graffiti reveal that the workforce contained crews of 2,000, who were further divided into groups of 1,000 that competed with one another. Tools included set squares and plumb bobs; copper drills and saws were used to cut stone using a slurry of water, gypsum, and quartz. Limestone is the primary stone used in building pyramids, with granite used on the casings. The Nile flowed closer to the pyramids in antiquity, making it easier to transport materials to the work site, such as limestone from Tura and the basic fuel, food, and animals needed for feeding and supplying the workforce. Blocks were moved using laborers pulling sleds over timber-paved roadways and lubricated alluvial mud to reduce friction in the movement of heavy loads.
The complex and massive level of organization required for building pyramids helped to unify and consolidate state power during the Old Kingdom. Individual pyramids were endowed with people, land, and produce to support each royal mortuary cult in perpetuity, while many new towns and farms were funded through pyramid construction, making them a principal economic driving force in Ancient Egypt. The brilliance of the pyramids, reflecting the sun off their limestone casing, symbolized more than simply the necropolis for dead kings and facets of ancient Egyptian religion. The wonder associated with the pyramids has inspired subsequent visitors, from New Kingdom Egyptians, Greek and Roman travelers, and more recent tourists, giving rise to diverse theories concerning their origins and functions, including such unfounded theories as otherworldly origins. This subsequent fascination with Egypt (Egyptomania) has also given rise to modern reconstructions, such as at the Luxor casino in Las Vegas and the entrance pyramid at the Louvre. It is partly the man-made nature of the pyramids, their immense size, and the implied unity of the Egyptian state and purpose behind them, that continues to inspires visitors.
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