Pyramids: Egyptian Pyramids

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Egyptian pyramids are essentially royal tombs. Throughout the centuries their great size and architectural excellence have led to several alternative explanations for their existence, such as the medieval notion that they were granaries built by Joseph during the seven good years mentioned in the Bible (Gn. 41), but such theories are quite fanciful. There is a connection, however, between the origin of pyramid building and the idea of a staircase; one such stairway, which must be symbolic, was found incorporated in a mud-brick bench-shaped tomb dating from the end of the first dynasty (c. 2900 bce) at Saqqara, south of modern Cairo, but it is far from certain that this was a royal monument. The first pyramid, however, is the Step Pyramid, also at Saqqara, consisting of six such bench tombs arranged on top of one another in the form of a stairway. This is the earliest known monumental stone building (2700 bce), and it has earned its architect, Imhotep, a place in history which was recognized by the ancient Egyptians themselves. Subsequent step pyramids, although unfinished, show increasing confidence in the use of stone, and they developed rapidly, replacing the step structure with something closer to a true pyramid.

The Age of the Great Pyramids

The apogee of pyramid building was reached at the beginning of the fourth dynasty, with the two massive pyramids at Dahshur built by Snefru and the Great Pyramid at Giza, the work of his son Cheops (2600 bce). Each successive king seems to have at least planned a pyramid for himself (over eighty are known), down to the end of the Middle Kingdom (1600 bce), when the concept was abandoned in favor of a less conspicuous burial place. Later royal pyramids are known from the Sudan, and smaller imitations are common in private tombs of the New Kingdom (c. 15691085 bce) at Thebes. One such example was discovered at Memphis in 1980. Here the idea seems to have been borrowed directly from the royal prototype. The earliest pyramids show frequent changes of plan in their interior corridors, either for religious or architectural reasons or a combination of both. Pyramids of the fifth and sixth dynasties show a regular plan and are effectively standardized. Middle Kingdom pyramids have labyrinthine passages within them to provide for greater security from tomb robbers.

The Pyramid Texts

Beginning with the reign of Unas, the last king of the fifth dynasty (2350 bce), the sarcophagus, burial chamber, antechamber, and parts of the descending corridor were inscribed with hieroglyphic texts in vertical columns. These so-called Pyramid Texts are undoubtedly the major source on the religious ideas underlying the architecture. The Pyramid Texts make it clear that the dead king, himself a god, was thought to ascend to heaven, either by a staircase or via the sun's rays; the form of the pyramid itself clearly embodies both concepts. Some texts also hint at a primeval mound, the site of the original creation, and it is possible that a pyramid also symbolizes this idea. Other notions of the next world are explored in the Pyramid Texts as well. The most common is that of a fusion with the sun godjoining in his voyage through the night, repelling his enemies, assuming his identity; this idea is so pervasive that pyramids were in effect solar symbols to the ancient Egyptians. An alternative concept is a stellar one: the king's soul or bai joins the "imperishable ones," the circumpolar stars which never set in the northern sky. The king's death is seen as an event of the night, ideally taking place at the end of a season in the year, and his rebirth to new life is epitomized in the sunrise. The orientation of pyramids reflects these astronomical ideas: they were built to face the points of the compass, usually with remarkable accuracy, and the entrance was invariably placed in the middle of the northern face, at least before the Middle Kingdom; the descending passage of the Great Pyramid was oriented toward the celestial north pole. In the southern sky, the constellation of Orion was explicitly identified with the resurrected king.

A very interesting analysis sees in the position of the texts within the pyramid a clue to the organization of the funeral ceremonies and in the use of walls and ceilings a symbolic "map" of the netherworld. While this is not unlikely, it is important to remember that the texts themselves were published in an arbitrary order, and that only one pyramid has in fact been treated as a coherent whole.

Pyramid Complexes

It is a mistake to imagine pyramids in isolation. Even the Step Pyramid was designed as the center of a stone palace, intended for the spirit of the dead king. This idea was soon abandoned, but a classic later pyramid would have a mortuary temple at its eastern side for the daily cult of the dead king and a valley temple at the edge of the floodplain where rites of embalming were carried out and cult regalia stored. Both temples would be richly decorated. The two were connected by a covered causeway, also decorated, which could be up to seven hundred meters long. Subsidiary pyramids and a series of solar or funerary boats also adorned the complex. The three pyramids at Abusir, south of Giza, dating from the fifth dynasty (c. 2400 bce), show these features well. As much work could have gone into this part of the architecture as into the pyramid itself; the mere size of a pyramid tells us little about the power or ambition of its owner. The existence of a population relatively idle during the months of the Nile flood made such building projects easier; it may even have made them necessary, as a means of gratifying popular expectations.

Other Pyramidal Structures

Pyramid-like structures also exist in Mesopotamia; these are better known as ziggurats. They were not funerary at all but seem to have been exclusively religious, and they were the objects of a cult. In two cases temples have been found on their summits, and it is tempting to believe that the ziggurats represented either heavenly mountains or celestial stairways between gods and humans, but their function is surprisingly obscure. It is possible that Egyptian pyramids were influenced vaguely by ziggurats, or vice versa, but their purposes were markedly different. The same is even more true of the pyramid structures of Central America, which were quite different in design and function, being more like gigantic sacrificial altars. There is no reason to assume any link with Egypt, especially as the Central American "pyramids" were built two or three thousand years later. An underlying feeling that the world of the gods is elevated from that of humans and that this gap needs bridging is probably enough to explain the similarities.

See Also

Egyptian Religion, article on The Literature.


Most of the essential information on Egyptian pyramids is contained in the series of articles written by Dieter Arnold and Hartwig Altenmüller in Lexikon der Ägyptologie, vols. 4 and 5 (Wiesbaden, 19821983). Walter B. Emery's Archaic Egypt (Baltimore, 1967) is essential for the origins of royal tombs. Ahmed Fakhry's The Pyramids, 2d ed. (Chicago, 1969), is clear and well illustrated; Eiddon Edwards's The Pyramids of Egypt (1961; reprint, Harmondsworth, 1980) is informative, and Kurt Mendelssohn's The Riddle of the Pyramids (London, 1974) challenges some accepted notions. The best edition of the Pyramid Texts is by Raymond O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts (Oxford, 1969), but the reconstructed order is best seen in the light of Jean Leclant's "Les textes des pyramides," in Textes et langages de l'Égypte pharaonique, vol. 2 (Cairo, 1972), pp. 3752. Texts from a single pyramid are collected in The Pyramid of Unas, edited by Alexandre Piankoff (Princeton, 1968). Essential studies on the interpretation of these texts are those of Winfried Barta, Die Bedeutung der Pyramidentexte für den verstorbenen König (Munich, 1981), and Herbert W. Fairman in Myth, Ritual, and Kingship, edited by S. H. Hooke (Oxford, 1958). Babylonian ziggurats are dealt with by André Parrot in his Ziggurats et Tour de Babel (Paris, 1949).

J. D. Ray (1987)