Pyramid Complexes

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Pyramid Complexes

Part of a Whole.

The pyramid is the most widely known Egyptian architectural structure. Yet the pyramid itself is only part of a much larger complex. Egyptian kings built pyramid complexes during a distinct time period. During the Old and Middle Kingdoms (2675–1630 b.c.e.) most, but not all, kings built pyramids as tombs. There are approximately 47 pyramid complexes that Egyptologists have identified from this period. This does not include the pyramids built in the Sudan by Nubian kings at a later time, because they were part of a separate tradition over 1,000 years after the Egyptians stopped building pyramids.

Pyramid Complex Types.

Egyptologists recognize two major types of pyramid complexes. In the older type, the main axis of the complex was oriented north and south. This orientation associates the complex with the Egyptian belief that the northern stars represented the gods in the next world. The stars were the physical expression of the belief that the deceased king became Osiris, king of the dead, and that his son on earth was the god Horus who ruled after him. Often the pyramid in the north/south complex was a step pyramid. In such cases many Egyptologists believe the step pyramid represented a staircase to the stars. The second type of pyramid complex has a main axis that runs east and west and reflects a different belief system regarding the afterlife. This orientation associates the complex with the course of the sun and the sun-god, Re. In this Egyptian belief system, Re rode in a boat that traveled across the daytime sky from east to west and then traveled in the land of the dead at night, emerging in the east again in the morning. The deceased king joined Re in his journey in the boat, called a solar barque. There was no real opposition between people who believed in one or the other of these two myths. In fact, many Egyptians believed that both myths were true. Ancient Egyptians often had divergent explanations or beliefs they held as equally valid. This multiplicity of solutions presents problems today when the inclination is to seek for a simple and exclusive answer to a question. Though these ideas explain individual pyramid complexes, Egyptologists still do not understand why a king would choose to build a north/south rather than an east/west pyramid complex or vice versa. Often Egyptologists try to explain the choice between the two kinds of complexes as a choice in emphasizing one myth of the afterlife over the other.

of Dynasty Three

King Djoser's Saqqara complex is the earliest well-preserved stone architecture from ancient Egypt. Other than the remnants of foundations and even some walls which have survived, almost nothing is known about these buildings or the people who built them. Listed below are the names of surviving pyramid complexes, the kings that most likely built them, the type of pyramid they likely represented, and where the remains were located or where the pyramid was most likely built based on ancient record. They are listed in chronological order by reigning king. Absolute dates for these kings and their buildings still remain unknown. Scholars had named the pyramid complexes after the kings that most likely built them since the ancient names for these buildings are not preserved.

King/Pyramid NamePyramid TypeLocation
Nebka (Horus Sannakht)UnknownUnknown
Djoser (Horus Netjerykeht)Step PyramidSaqqara
Djoserteti (Horus Sekhemkeht)Buried PyramidSaqqara
Hours KhabaLayer PyramidZawiyet el-Aryan
Huni (Horus Qahedjet)UnknownUnknown

Parts of a Pyramid Complex.

Both north/south pyramid complexes and east/west pyramid complexes have similar elements. They included the pyramid itself, sites for performing daily rituals, and subsidiary burials. Almost every pyramid complex had unique features in addition to these common features. The meaning of these features is almost never clear. The pyramid itself is the most important common element in a pyramid complex. Egyptians first built step pyramids (pyramids constructed in layers that decreased in size at higher elevations) in the Third Dynasty and built mostly true pyramids (pyramids with smooth sides) beginning in the Fourth Dynasty and later. Besides the difference in outward appearance, there are major differences between the interiors of step pyramids and true pyramids. The step pyramids included ritual areas and storage in addition to a burial chamber inside them. True pyramids sometimes included ritual sites and limited storage areas, but emphasized the burial chamber. The Egyptians observed rituals in pyramid complexes with true pyramids at temples built near the pyramid and at the entrance to the complex in the valley. The Egyptians added temples to the newer, true pyramids that they built beginning in the Fourth Dynasty. Often they built a temple adjacent to the pyramid, known today as a pyramid temple. They also built a temple in the valley below the pyramid that served as an entrance to the complex. Egyptologists call these temples "valley temples." Scholars continue to debate the purpose of these buildings. Older interpretations suggest that the pyramid temple was the site of the funeral and was not used after the king's burial. Most recent scholarship suggests that the pyramid temple, like the valley temple, was the site of continuing rituals that the Egyptians planned for eternity. Pyramid complexes also included burials for other royal family members. No real proof exists as to who was buried in these subsidiary burials, though Egyptologists often call them "queen's burials." They often take the form of small pyramids and vary greatly in number from one complex to another. Recently scholars have suggested that subsidiary burial sites were meant to accommodate different parts of the king's soul. These parts would include the ka, the ba, the akh, and the mummy itself. The ka was the part of a king's soul that was passed from one king to another and that designated an individual as the true Horus. The ba was the part of the soul that traveled between this world and the next, conveying offerings to the deceased in the next world. The akh represented the transformation of the earthly individual into a divine individual that could dwell in the next world. The mummy served as a home for the ba when it was on earth. The pyramid, pyramid temple, and subsidiary burials occupied a space on the plateau that rises above the Nile river valley on the west side. The Egyptians built the valley temple in the valley at the edge of the desert where the agricultural land ended. A covered, stone causeway connected the valley temple with the rest of the pyramid complex.


Alexander Badawy, A History of Egyptian Architecture: The First Intermediate Period, the Middle Kingdom, and the Second Intermediate Period (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966).