The History of the Egyptian Pyramids

The Egyptian pyramids are old. In fact they are so old that Queen Cleopatra was closer in time to us today than she was to the builders of the original pyramids. When Cleopatra ruled Egypt, the Great Pyramid at Giza was already 2500 years old.

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Giza Pyramids                                                     photo from WikiCommons

In Egyptian mythology, it was believed that the soul could only live eternally in the afterlife if it had an intact body that would join it in the underworld. To provide this, the Egyptian priests began to mummify the bodies of the dead. This process most likely began when they noticed that bodies that had been buried in the desert were often dried out and preserved by the dry sand and the natural salt, called “natron”, found in it. By the time of the First Dynasty in the Egyptian Old Kingdom (beginning about 3100 BCE), the priests had developed a system for preserving dead bodies by removing the internal organs, packing the corpse in natron to dehydrate it, then wrapping it in oil-soaked linen strips. At first, only members of the Royal Family could afford to have the mummification process done after they died, but later other nobility were also mummified after death.

Whether they were mummified or just let to dry in the sun, the bodies were then buried in a low flat-topped rectangular building with sloping sides, built from sun-dried mud brick, called amastaba. These had chambers that contained not only the mummified body, but also a collection of earthly possessions for the deceased’s use in the afterlife, including food, furniture and, for Pharaohs and the wealthy nobles, gold. Over time, to make them less vulnerable to grave robbers, the burial and storage chambers were moved underground, and the mastaba became a solid mound built from mud brick or stone. Most of the Pharaohs of the First and Second Dynasties (from 3100 to 2600 BCE) were buried in mastabas located at the funerary center in Saqqara, near the Egyptian capitol of Memphis.

In 2667 BCE, the Pharaoh Djoser, of the Third Dynasty, ascended to the throne. To show off his wealth and power (and also to give him a better chance of eternity in the afterlife), Djoser decided that his royal tomb should be the grandest ever seen. With his royal architect (a scholar and mathematician named Imhotep), Djoser built his tomb at Saqqara as a series of sixmastabas built one on top of the other, with each one a little narrower. The result was the Step Pyramid, the first large ceremonial building in the world made from stone. Djoser’s burial and storage chambers were underneath the pyramid, and surrounding it was a small complex of funerary buildings and temples. Djoser died and occupied his pyramid tomb in 2648 BCE.

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The Step Pyramid of Djoser                           photo from WikiCommons

After Djoser, the Pharaohs Sekhemkhet and Khaba also began step pyramids at Saqqara, but these were smaller and neither one was finished.

The most important changes in royal tomb-building came when Sneferu, the founder of the Fourth Dynasty, became Pharaoh in 2613 BCE. Sneferu planned a grand step pyramid at the site of Meidum, close to modern-day Cairo. But once the three-layered step pyramid, 300 feet high, was finished, Sneferu decided to make it even more grand by using sandstone and gypsum to fill in the steps and make a true smooth-sided pyramid. Unfortunately, the angle of the sides was too steep, and before it could be finished, the casings collapsed into a pile of rubble, surrounding the three-tiered core. The “Collapsed Pyramid” was a failure.

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The Collapsed Pyramid of Sneferu       photo from WikiCommons

Sneferu decided to try again. At the site of Dahshur, on the West Bank of the Nile near Cairo, he decided to build another straight-sided pyramid, this one constructed from the bottom up, without a central core, layer by layer from solid stone blocks. Unfortunately, he failed again. The sides of this pyramid also proved to be too steep, and the builders could only prevent it from collapsing by changing to a shallower angle of slope, 43 degrees instead of 54 degrees, halfway up. It became known as the “Bent Pyramid”.

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The Bent Pyramid of Snefuru                         photo from WikiCommons

Finally Sneferu began his third pyramid, at Dahshur. This time, the builders constructed their pyramid at the shallower 43-degree slope from the start, and it held. Because it was made of red granite blocks, it is known as the “Red Pyramid”. It stands 341 feet tall. The burial chamber was built inside the rock layer as the pyramid was being constructed, using a stepped-stone technique called a “coibled arch”. Sneferu was buried in it when he died in 2589 BCE.

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The Red Pyramid of Snefuru                                          photo from WikiCommons

Sneferu was succeeded as Pharaoh by his son Khufu, who moved his own burial site to Giza, just outside of Cairo. The pyramid he built was the grandest ever made, and is known today as the Great Pyramid. It remains today the largest stone structure in the world. Finished in 2560 BCE, it stands 481 feet tall, with a slope of slightly less than 52 degrees. It is built of granite blocks that are stacked in layers, with the sides smoothed by a covering of polished white limestone (most of this has now peeled off and fallen). There are three internal chambers in the Geat Pyramid, one below ground and two inside the pyramid itself, as well as a long coibled “Grand Gallery”. Outside, there are several mortuary temples, and three small pyramids where Khufu’s wives are buried.

After Khufu, over 100 more pyramids were built in various sites around Egypt. Twenty-nine of these were for Pharaohs (a number of other Pharaohs chose to be buried in mastabas instead), and the rest were for royal wives and members of the royal family. Two pyramids were built at Giza next to the Great Pyramid of Khufu, by his sons, Khafra and Menkhaure. Khafra also had the Great Sphinx carved from a single block of limestone at the Giza site, between 2588 and 2532 BCE.

The last of the Egyptian pyramids to be constructed was that of the Pharaoh Ahmose I, who reconquered Egypt from the Hyksos invaders and reunified Egypt, then died in 1514 BCE. Ahmose’s pyramid, built at Abydos, was only 130 feet tall and was not his actual tomb–the pyramid did not have a burial chamber. Today, Ahmose’s pyramid has collapsed completely into a shapeless pile of rubble.

By Ahmose’s time, most of the Pharaonic pyramids had already been broken into and robbed. Ahmose’s successors therefore gave up the practice of building pyramids as tombs, and instead were buried in chambers cut into the rock walls of the Valley of the Kings, across the Nile from Thebes. The age of pyramid-building in Egypt was over.

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One thought on “The History of the Egyptian Pyramids”

  1. Took those pharaohs quite some time before they realized that an ostentatious pyramid is an invitation to grave robbers. One has to wonder whether, somewhere in some obscure spot, there might not be a spectacular tomb waiting for archaeologists to find, that remained hidden simply because the royal in question decided to entirely forego any above-ground sign of its existence.

    If I were a pharaoh, and believed that my afterlife depended on my body and earthly goods remaining intact, I would order the undertakers to bury me deep in the sand at a secret location somewhere out in the desert, and include no doors or any other ways to get in there. 🙂

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