For starters, it’s a large four-sided structure made of stone, wide at the bottom and pointy at the top, making a perfect triangle.
There are three of them, they are located in the middle of the Egyptian desert, they were built by slaves, and they have mummies in them.
They are large and they do have four sides. They are wide at the bottom and come to a point, although you could park a large SUV on some of those points, and still have room for a picnic. They are triangular in shape, but some of them have a step-shaped contour, others look like a few different sized boxes stacked on top of one another, and at least one sharply changes the angle of its slope two thirds of the way up. Many of them look like piles of rubble.
So far more than 130 pyramids have been found in Egypt, and more have been discovered in Sudan. They are located in the desert, but the most famous pyramids are within walking distance of a city with twice as many people as Los Angeles. They were not built by slaves, and until very recently, no mummies had been found in any of them.
Built during the Old Kingdom Period, particularly during the Third and Fourth Dynasties, the pyramids represent a time when power was absolutely centered in the person of the Pharaoh. They required a huge workforce ranging from general labor to artists and engineers, and the notion that they were built by slaves, Hebrew or otherwise, has been widely discredited. There are many theories regarding their construction, each of which has its own set of unanswered questions.
The early forerunner of the pyramid is the mastaba, the Arabic word for bench, so-called for their bench-like shape. In the pre-dynastic and early dynastic periods, the mummified bodies of the dead were buried in shafts cut into the stone ground, and mastabas were built over the grave. Mastabas were rectangular structures with sloping sides and a flat top. They were generally made of mud brick, but in later times royalty and more important court officials might have mastabas constructed of dressed limestone. Cemeteries of mastabas often mirrored the social strata of the living, with more grandiose tombs being set apart on larger plots of land while those of lesser personages were lined up in avenues like city streets.
The mastabas included a small shrine where offerings of food and incense could be made for the deceased, and a concealed a room called a serdab, where a statue of the deceased was housed. The walls inside the mastabas typically had detailed murals and friezes depicting the everyday life of the deceased, and in fact, these paintings provide much of what we know of Egyptian life during that period. The mastaba was not just the tomb of the deceased, it was a representation of their home in the afterlife, and so great care was taken in its construction and preservation. Although not built until the Sixth Dynasty, the mastaba par excellence is that of Vizier Mereruka, at Saqqara.
The Step Pyramid
Post-mortem accommodations would take a quantum leap forward in the Third Dynasty when Imhotep, chief engineer and architect of King Djoser, conceived of a way to symbolize the king’s ascension to divinity. Imhotep started with a basic mastaba, but constructed it in a square rather than the traditional rectangular shape. He then added another smaller mastaba to the flat surface of the first, and continued to build upward until he had six square mastabas, each smaller than the previous, stacked one on top of the other. The result was the original Stairway to Heaven—the Step Pyramid of Djoser. Pharaoh was greatly pleased…
Although the mastaba would remain in use for thousands of years, Imhotep started a craze that would earn him deification, a rare honor for a commoner. The evolution of the pyramid form may be observed in the region of Dashur, where attempts were made—and in some cases failed—at making a true smooth-sided pyramid. But the procedure would be perfected during the reign of Snefru, the first king of the Fourth Dynasty.
Evolution of the “Modern” Pyramid
Snefru’s first contribution to pyramid building was his completion of the pyramid begun by his father, King Huni, at Meidum. The Meidum Pyramid began as a step pyramid, but in completing it Snefru attempted to smooth its sides, resulting in a large blocky structure. It would mostly collapse later, during the New Kingdom Period.
Snefru built his second pyramid intending to attempt a smooth-sided pyramid from the outset. This attempt is called the Bent Pyramid because the top third was constructed at a radically different angle than the bottom two thirds. It is believed that the angle of the bottom part, a 55-degree grade, was too steep and when the construction began to show signs of stress, the angle for the remaining part was changed to a much more stable 43-degrees.
They say the third time is the charm, and King Snefru would agree. His third contribution to the Pyramid Fields of the Memphis Necropolis was the Red Pyramid, the first true smooth-sided pyramid. Having learned from his mistakes, such as they were, the Red Pyramid was constructed at a 43-degree gradient from the first block, and is the third largest pyramid in Egypt, being just barely exceeded by those of Khufu and Khafre at Giza.
Snefru’s Red Pyramid would be surpassed by that of his son, Khufu, on the Giza Plateau. Others would follow, including the pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure, but the Great Pyramid was the pinnacle, literally, of pyramid building. Khafre’s Pyramid looks larger because of its location on higher ground, but Khufu’s Pyramid is the undisputed champion.
The Pyramid Complex
Pyramids are actually just the centerpiece of a larger complex. Each pyramid contains a number of elements, all associated with the afterlife. There is typically a valley temple, a pavilion where the body of the king was received, which was connected to the Nile. From the valley temple there would be a causeway leading to the mortuary temple, which was dedicated to the worship of the deceased king.
Mortuary temples had their own priests who not only performed the funerary rites but who assured that the cult of that particular king would be sustained in the future. There was often a smaller “cult pyramid” which was built to honor the king’s Ka (his spirit or soul). Pyramid complexes often also included cemeteries, or even additional pyramids, for the king’s family and chosen servants.
It goes without saying that pyramids were associated with the afterlife, and are the center of the king’s funerary complex, but some controversy remains regarding exactly what function they served. It seems obvious they were intended to hold the body of the dead king—including the presence of burial chambers and sarcophagi. However, out of the nearly 140 pyramids discovered, not a single king’s mummy has ever been recovered from a pyramid. The only mummy found in a pyramid thus far is that of Queen Seshseshet, discovered in her pyramid in November, 2008.
Some speculate that the king’s pyramids may have served a ceremonial function, possibly as a location for the initiation of the king into divinity and preparation for the afterlife. Others speculate that the kings were indeed interred in their pyramids, but that their bodies were later removed for various reasons. It is possible that the pyramids served as both tombs and places of initiation. All that is certain is that we can’t be certain, which is a large part of the pyramids’ appeal.
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Tags: Bent Pyramid, Black Pyramid, Dashur, Djoser, Giza Plateau, Giza Pyramids, Imhotep, Khufu's Pyramid, Mastabas, Meidum, Memphis Necropolis, Mereruka, Old Kingdom, Pyramid Complex, Pyramids, Red Pyramid, Saqqara, Serdab, Snefru, Step Pyramid of Djoser