The Pyramids of Ancient Egypt

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The Pyramids of Ancient Egypt


One of the most enduring accomplishments of early civilizations was the creation of monumental architecture in the form of pyramids, a shape that has fascinated humans ever since. The Greeks and Romans considered the Great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt as the most impressive of the seven wonders of the world. Even today, a pyramid is printed on the back of American dollar bills, and in the 1980s, a glass and steel pyramid was built in the courtyard of the Louvre in Paris as a new entrance to the museum. Although pyramids were constructed in the ancient world in areas as far apart as Peru, Central America, Mesopotamia, and Indonesia, those built in the Old Kingdom of Egypt have drawn the most attention in the Western world.


Although the pyramids of ancient civilizations were massive structures, their most impressive aspect is not their size, but rather the fact that they were built at all. Judged by modern standards, they performed no pragmatic, functional purpose. They were not storehouses for food, provided no protection from invaders, nor did they offer shelter from the elements. Instead, they were built for religious purposes by peoples willing to expend extraordinary amounts of labor and economic resources in the construction of these structures, which served as burial sites or as monumental platforms for temples.

The earliest of these monuments were built in Peru about 3500 b.c., in the form of truncated mounds of earth and stone rubble, topped with a temple. Much later, pyramids were constructed in Central America (termed Mesoamerica by archaeologists), particularly in present-day Mexico. The Olmec peoples built tamped-earth pyramid mounds beginning around 1000 b.c. Near what is now Mexico City, an unknown people constructed the massive Pyramid of the Sun in about a.d. 100, and both the Maya and Aztecs built huge pyramid structures. Elsewhere, pyramids were being built in Egypt by 2700 b.c.; in nearby Mesopotamia, pyramids called ziggurats were constructed by the Sumerians from 2100 b.c. on. Considered by some archaeologists to be pyramids, dome-shaped towers (stupas) were built by Buddhists in ancient India and Indonesia. While not all ancient civilizations constructed pyramids, their form seemed to satisfy a religious need in various polytheistic cultures.

The most common form of these ancient monuments was the step pyramid, a structure built in five or six stages, or steps, each rectangular stage smaller in area than the one below it. Outside staircases rose to the top platform, which held a temple or shrine. It was built in a heavily populated area and was intended to provide a dramatic setting for religious ceremonies. The "true" pyramids of Egypt were different in both form and function. They had a square ground plan with the four walls of triangular shape meeting at an apex above the center of the base; they supported no architectural or decorative features. Built outside cities on the edge of the desert, they served as burial tombs not accessible to the general population. But whichever form a pyramid took, it served as an ideological icon, as a stairway or mountain reaching to the heavens.

The Egyptian pyramids have received the most attention from historians, archaeologists, and the general public. Aesthetically, their closed geometric form probably functions as a subliminal metaphor for perfection. In addition, the Mesoamerican pyramids were far more inaccessible to scholars and tourists than were those of Egypt, which were easily reached by travel up the Nile River. Also, Sumerian ziggurats and many Central American pyramids were built of mud bricks and other less stable materials that have crumbled into chaotic mounds. Many of the stone pyramids of Egypt, while damaged, are still close enough to their original shape to be impressive. Another factor explaining the popularity of the Egyptian pyramids is the writings of the socalled pyramidiots who, for over a century and a half, have published scores of books revealing the "secrets" of the pyramids. Some have claimed they are divine prophecies in stone predicting future events; others view them as proof that Earth was once visited by aliens. Theories such as these, coupled with myths of the "curse" of the pharaohs and the mummy's "revenge," have made the Egyptian pyramids irresistible.


The age of the pyramids in Egypt began about 2780 b.c. and ended around 1550 b.c., although it should be noted that scholars do not agree upon the dates (or even the chronology) of Egyptian history. Over 70 royal pyramids are known to have been built in this period; it is impossible to estimate how many more lie hidden under the desert sands or have crumbled, leaving no traces. Much later, kings in Nubia (present-day northern Sudan) built about 180 smaller, inferior pyramids during the period 720 b.c. to a.d. 350. The golden age of the Egyptian pyramids was in the Old Kingdom, particularly during the fourth dynasty (2575-2465 b.c.) when, in a single century, the greatest of these monuments were constructed. Subsequent Egyptian pyramid builders looked back to this period for inspiration and models.

Ancient Egypt, which stretched along the Nile River, was unified in about 3000 b.c. With unification, the kings (later called pharaohs) and their officials learned to organize large numbers of Egyptians to control the annual flooding of the Nile and to irrigate the fields as the waters slowly receded. Such organizational skills were essential for successful completion of the pyramids and the many buildings and walls in the pyramid complex. Thousands of conscripted peasants (not slaves) had to be organized into teams to transport and then raise into place the huge stones used in the pyramids. Thousands of others were needed to work in the quarries and at the pyramid site as skilled laborers. Farms had to be established to feed these workers. Only a strong central government could provide the necessary organizational expertise and finances for such an effort.

The Egyptians regarded their king as an incarnation of the god Osiris and the son of Re, the sun god. After the king died, they believed that he joined the gods and hence could intercede on their behalf with the divine powers. But this did not automatically occur. Egyptians viewed death as a continuation of life, and were convinced that the survival of the soul (the ka) in the afterlife depended on its rejoining the body's manifestation (the ba) after death. This would not happen if the body was decaying. Hence they mummified and embalmed the body of the deceased, removing all the viscera to prevent decay. They also believed that all the material needs for the ba, such as food, must be supplied for eternity or the ka would perish. Thus it was imperative that they build a tomb for the king that would be ready at his death, would protect his remains, would provide the necessities for his eternal survival, and would remind him of the loyalty of his subjects.

Initially, the kings were buried in mastabas, large flat rectangles of mud brick, under which lay a burial chamber and storerooms for the necessities of the ka. In this early period, the belief developed that any object or drawing placed in the tomb would magically provide for the needs of the deceased in the afterlife. So while boats were buried in pits outside the mastabas to provide the king with transportation for his heavenly journeys, model boats and drawings of boats were placed in the tomb as further insurance. However, mastabas were not secure from robbers seeking the treasures buried with the king. A ruler named Zoser ordered his architect, Imhotep, to remedy this. Imhotep made two crucial innovations in the tomb he built at Saqqara (c. 2780 b.c.). He used six mastabas to cover the burial chamber, placing one upon another, each smaller than the one beneath it. The result was a step pyramid, the first in Egypt. Equally important, Imhotep built the structure entirely of stone, the first burial monument so constructed.

Around 2570 b.c. King Sneferu tried to build a smooth-sided pyramid at Dahshur. However, for some reason the builders changed the angle of the sides, resulting in the so-called Bent Pyramid. It was Sneferu's successor, Khufu (Cheops, 2551-2528 b.c.), who built the first true pyramid. Known as the Great Pyramid of Giza, it contains about 2.3 million blocks of stone, averaging about two and a half tons each, with some weighing as much as 15 tons. Each side measured 756 feet (230 m) and was aligned almost exactly with true north and south or east and west. Standing 481 feet (147 m) high and covered with a smooth casing of white limestone, it marked the pinnacle of pyramid building. Even today, with its casing gone and its crude inner courses of stone revealed, it still awes onlookers.

The Great Pyramid of Giza, and all subsequent pyramids, contained a hidden burial chamber to protect the king's body. Carved reliefs and paintings in the chamber guaranteed the necessities for a comfortable afterlife. Also buried with the king were valuable objects such as jewelry and, in later pyramids, copies of the so-called Pyramid Text containing rituals and magic spells to insure an untroubled afterlife. All pyramids were built on the edge of the desert on the west side on the Nile, where the setting sun symbolized death. The pyramids themselves were part of a large complex that included a chapel where priests brought daily offerings of food. The complex also contained a mortuary temple, a small ritual pyramid (of unclear purpose), and a number of boat pits. A covered and walled causeway led down to a valley temple that was located on a canal connecting the complex to the Nile. After the king's mummy was placed in the burial chamber, the pyramid entrance was sealed and hidden behind one of the casing stones. Kings endowed their monuments with large estates to support the priests, workers, and guards who maintained the complex.

Much about the pyramids puzzle scholars, such as how they were aligned so perfectly with certain stars. Their biggest mystery is how they were built; that is, how such huge blocks of stone were raised into position. Most archaeologists and historians believe that some system involving ramps was employed, but there is no agreement as to how they were arranged. Nor is there agreement on the purpose of the smaller, subsidiary pyramids in the pyramid complex; although it is clear some were tombs for members of the king's family, others seem to have no obvious purpose.

Built to last through eternity, the pyramids suffered from two problems. As centuries passed, subsequent builders removed their limestone casings for other uses, such as constructing new pyramids. Once the casing was removed, the inner core deteriorated. The second problem greatly concerned later kings. The pyramids were very conspicuous and in times of anarchy such as in the First and Second Intermediate periods, the burial chambers were all broken into and looted by robbers. Since the pyramids failed to protect the remains of the king against such desecration, newer burial methods had to be developed. Ahmose I (c. 1550 b.c.) seems to have been the last major pyramid builder in Egypt. Instead of building massive monuments, the royal tombs were now hidden in the cliffs of inaccessible valleys across the Nile from Thebes. Thutmose I (c. 1500 b.c.) was probably the first of the many kings to be buried in the isolated valley known today as the Valley of the Kings.


Further Reading


Andreu, Guillemette. Egypt in the Age of the Pyramids. Trans. by David Lorton. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Bierbrier, Morris. The Tomb-Builders of the Pharaohs. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1984.

Clancy, Flora Simmons. Pyramids. Montreal: St. Remy Press, 1994.

Edwards, I. E. S. The Pyramids of Egypt. Rev. ed. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1961.

Fakhry, Ahmed. The Pyramids. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Lehner, Mark. The Complete Pyramids. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Periodical Articles

Spence, Kate. "Ancient Egyptian Chronology and the Astronomical Orientation of Pyramids." Nature 408 (November 16, 2000): 320-24.

Wilford, John Noble. "Early Pharaohs' Ghostly Fleet." New York Times (October 31, 2000): F1, F4.


When Herodotus saw the Great Pyramid of Cheops and the other monumental structures of ancient Egypt, they were nearly as ancient to him as he is to the modern observer. In fact it is likely that modern scholars know more about Herodotus than he did about the pyramids or the almost unbelievably ancient civilization that produced them. He speculated that the Egyptians had used giant cranes to build them, and elsewhere wrote that Cheops was a cruel king who compelled some 100,000 slaves to toil in the construction of his pyramid.

The myth of slave labor building the pyramids has continued throughout history, as reflected in the 1956 film The Ten Commandments. While certainly great entertainment, the movie compounds its flawed portrait of history by depicting the Israelites' captivity as coinciding with the building of the pyramids—which is a bit like portraying John F. Kennedy and Charlemagne as contemporaries. In fact the workers who built the pyramids were Egyptians, and they seem to have done so voluntarily, believing their labor an act of service to the gods. They even left behind graffiti suggesting the pride they took in their toil—the various work gangs touting themselves, for instance, as "Vigorous Gang" or "Enduring Gang."

Nor were the gangs who built the Great Pyramid nearly as large as Herodotus envisioned: just some 4,000 men, working during a period of little more than 20 years. The idea that they could build a perfectly proportioned structure—and do so without the wheel, draft animals, or iron tools—has long been perplexing, and has led to much speculation. In fact historians believe that, though an impressive feat by any standards, the building of the pyramids could be (and was) accomplished without recourse to giant cranes, slave-labor gangs, extraterrestrial intelligence, or any other outside help.


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