Historians have said that most of what humans know about ancient cultures is based on funerary artifacts. Certainly no other example of mortuary culture stands out in modern consciousness than the Egyptian pyramids. The first large-scale stone construction in Egypt was the funerary complex of the Third Dynasty king, Netjerikhet Djoser at Saqqara, demonstrating already at this point in history the strong connection between the pyramid and the royal afterlife. This monument was designed by the king's famous vizier and overseer of works: Imhotep. At its center stood a step-pyramid rising in seven stages to approximately 240 feet in height. Pyramid building reached its climax during the Fourth Dynasty. The first king of the dynasty, Snofru, constructed the first true pyramid, but it was his son Khufu (Kheops) who built the first and largest of all the pyramids at Giza. Over 2.3 million blocks of stone averaging around 2.5 tons apiece were used to erect this enormous structure, which attained a height of about 481 feet and whose square base was 756 feet at each side.
These enormous constructions must have placed a considerable strain on the nation's resources, so it is not surprising that after the Fourth Dynasty both pyramids and royal mortuary complexes and their pyramids dramatically decreased in scale and their construction was shoddier. After some rather small monuments at the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty, pyramids ceased to be used for royal burials. Nevertheless, the Egyptians continued to consider pyramids as the most preferable tomb form so that small versions were occasionally incorporated into the superstructure of private tombs during the New Kingdom and Ramesside periods.
The fact that such an inconceivable amount of energy would be expended on these massive funerary structures has given rise to many fantastical alternative explanations as to their origin and purpose. Even though texts explain little specifically about the meaning of the pyramids and say virtually nothing about how they were built, the preponderance of evidence clearly shows that they were intended as the kings' funerary monuments. A combination of archaeological evidence from the sites along with some sparse textual material clearly demonstrates a connection between these monuments and the royal mortuary cult. However, there was a strong association with worship of the sun god Re, the chief religious belief during the Old Kingdom. The pyramids' shape reminds some of a staircase, but a similarity with a sunburst seems a more probable intent.
Normally the pyramid was the largest part of a vast, tripartite temple enclosure whose purpose was to maintain the king's cult, theoretically in perpetuity. The design details changed constantly, but retained essentially the same pattern. The main access to the pyramid complex was at the valley temple at the edge of the cultivation in the Nile valley, usually affording access to a canal. The valley temple was connected to the high desert plateau by a covered causeway. Finally, the pyramid precinct itself was surrounded by an enclosure wall behind which were subsidiary temples and satellite pyramids intended for the king's soul or family members.
The very fact that the pyramids were intended for the king meant that they had a much broader connection with religion. In Egyptian religious and political ideology, the king—who was both the earthly incarnation of the god Horus and the son of the sun god Ra—was always the nexus between humanity and the realm of the gods. Therefore the pyramids were not merely royal tombs but national endeavors that could help all Egyptians in terms of the gods and the afterlife, reminiscent of the spirit that one can sense behind the great European cathedrals. Interestingly, they did provide at least symbolic immortality to their occupants.
See also: Egyptian Book of the Dead; Immortality; Mummification; Tombs
Edwards, I. E. S. The Pyramids of Egypt. Harmondsworth: 1985.
Lehner, Mark. The Complete Pyramids. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997.
OGDEN GOELET JR.
Burial monuments for ancient Egyptian kings.
For over a thousand years, from the Step Pyramid of King Djoser (r. 2654–2635 b.c.e.) to the beginning of the New Kingdom with the Eighteenth Dynasty (1549 b.c.e.), Egyptian kings were buried in pyramid tombs. There may be as many as one hundred; remains of some that are mentioned in texts have not yet been discovered. The ruler's pyramid was the center of a pyramid complex, which generally included a mortuary temple on the east side, a causeway leading down to a valley temple on the edge of the flood plain, and subsidiary pyramids for queens. All were plundered long ago. The three major pyramids of Giza (Fourth dynasty, c. 2547–2475 b.c.e.), the largest of which is that of Khufu (Cheops), are the most famous. Easily visible from Cairo, they are central objectives of archaeological research and tourism. Khufu's Great Pyramid is unusual in containing three burial chambers, probably reflecting changes in plan, with the king buried in the uppermost. The interior walls of the pyramid of Unas, the last ruler of the 5th Dynasty (2375–2345 b.c.e), and those of the 6th Dynasty (2345–2181 b.c.e) at Saqqara are elaborately inscribed with religious passages known as Pyramid Texts. After Egyptian rulers stopped building pyramids, nonroyal funerary chapels sometimes included small pyramid-shaped structures. Centuries later in what is now northern Sudan, the Nubian kings of Meroe and Napata built steep-sided pyramids on a smaller scale than those of their Egyptian predecessors. First depicted on postage stamps in 1867 and giving their name to al-Ahram (Egypt's leading newspaper), they have become national symbols of Egypt.
see also giza.
Edwards, I. E. S. Pyramids of Egypt. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1986.
Lehner, Mark. The Complete Pyramids: Solving the Ancient Mysteries. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.
donald malcolm reid
Pyramids were built as tombs for Egyptian pharaohs from the 3rd dynasty (c.2649 bc) until c.1640 bc. The early step pyramid, with several levels and a flat top, developed into the true pyramid, such as the three largest at Giza near Cairo (the Pyramids, including the Great Pyramid of Cheops) which were one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Monuments of similar shape are associated with the Aztec and Maya civilizations of c.1200 bc–ad 750, and, like those in Egypt, were part of large ritual complexes.