Built during a period when Egypt was one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful empires, the pyramids, especially the Great Pyramids of Giza, are among the most majestic man-made structures in history. Their colossal scale represents the pharaoh’s, or king’s, special presence in ancient Egyptian culture. Though Egypt pyramids were constructed from the beginning of the Old Kingdom until the end of the Ptolemaic era in the fourth century A.D., the height of pyramid construction occurred with the late third dynasty. It lasted until the sixth century (c. 2325 B.C.).
The Egyptian pyramids maintain much of their beauty even after more than 4,000 years, offering a window into the country’s rich and glorious history.
The Pharaoh of Egyptian Culture
Egypt saw considerable economic growth and stability during the third and fourth dynasties of the Old Kingdom. In Egyptian civilization, kings occupied a special role. They were said to have been selected by the gods themselves to act as their mediators on Earth, somewhere between human and divine. As a result, it was in everyone’s best interests to preserve the king’s majesty right after his death, when he was thought to become Osiris, the god of the dead.
The new pharaoh, in exchange, became Horus, the falcon god who acted as the sun god Ra’s guardian.
Did you remember that? The smooth, angled sides of the pyramid represented the sun’s rays. They were intended to help the king’s soul ascend to heaven and join the gods, especially the sun god Ra.
When the king died, the ancient Egyptians assumed that a portion of his spirit (known as “ka”) existed with his body. To better care for his soul, the body was mummified, and all the king might need in the afterlife, including gold pots, clothing, furniture, and other offerings, was buried with him.
The pyramids were the focal point of a cult of the dead king, which was intended to last long after his burial. Their wealth would compensate for him and his family, politicians, and priests who were buried nearby.
The Beginning Pyramids
Royal tombs were cut into the rock and covered with flat-roofed rectangular buildings known as “mastabas,” which were precursors to the pyramids, starting with the Dynastic Era (2950 B.C.). The oldest known pyramid in Egypt was constructed around 2630 B.C. at Saqqara for King Djoser of the third dynasty.
The Step Pyramid started as a conventional mastaba but evolved into something much more ambitious.
According to legend, Imhotep, a priest and healer who was later revered as the patron saint of scribes and doctors, built the pyramid. During Djoser’s nearly 20-year reign, pyramid builders built six stepped layers of stone that ultimately reached 204 feet; it was the tallest building of its period. Djoser’s afterlife was surrounded by courtyards, mosques, and shrines surrounding the Step Pyramid.
The stepped pyramid became the norm for royal burials after Djoser. Still, none of those proposed by his dynastic predecessors were completed (probably due to their relatively short reigns). The Red Pyramid at Dahshur was the first tomb built as a “true” (smooth-sided, not stepped) pyramid, one of three burial structures built for Sneferu, the first king of the fourth dynasty (2613-2589 B.C.) It got its name from the color of the limestone blocks used to construct the pyramid’s foundation.
In architecture, a pyramid is a monumental building made of or faced with stone or brick that has a rectangular base and four sloping triangular (or occasionally trapezoidal) sides that intersect at an apex (or truncated to form a platform). Pyramids have been constructed at different times in Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, western Asia, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, India, Thailand, Mexico, South America, and several Pacific Ocean islands. Egypt’s, as well as those in Central and South America, are the most well-known.
The Egypt pyramids were funerary structures. They were constructed over 2,700 years, from the beginning of the Old Kingdom to the end of the Ptolemaic period. But the pyramid period par excellence, beginning with the 3rd dynasty and concluding about the 6th (c. 2686–2325 BCE), was when pyramid construction reached its pinnacle. During those times, the pyramid was the most common form of the royal tomb. It was never a standalone building but was still part of a larger architectural complex.
The pyramid itself, surrounding or surmounting the grave proper and standing inside an enclosure on the high desert ground; an adjacent mortuary temple; and a causeway leading down to a pavilion (usually called the valley temple), situated at the edge of the agriculture and possibly linked with the Nile by a canal were the central components, at least during the Old Kingdom. Hundreds of royal Egypt pyramids have been discovered. Still, all of them have been reduced to mounds of rubble, and their artifacts have long since been looted.
The mastaba, a style of tomb known in Egypt since the beginning of the dynastic period, served as the pyramid’s prototype.
It was distinguished by a flat-topped rectangular mud-brick or stone superstructure with a shaft descending to the burial chamber well below. Djoser, the second king of the third dynasty, undertook for the first time, with Imhotep as an architect, building a mastaba entirely of stone. It was 8 meters high and had a square ground plan with sides of around 63 meters each. Once finished, it was expanded to all four sides of the ground. Its height was raised by superimposing rectangular extensions of decreasing scale on top of it.
Therefore, Djoser’s initial mastaba was transformed into a terraced building rising in six unequal stages to a height of 60 meters, with a foundation measuring 120 meters by 108 meters. This monument, located in Aqqrah, is known as the Step Pyramid; it is believed to be Egypt’s first significant stone structure. The substructure has a complex network of underground passages and chambers. The main feature is a central shaft 25 meters deep and 8 meters high, at the bottom of the sepulchral chamber made of Aswan granite.
The Step Pyramid rises inside a massive walled court 544 meters long and 277 meters high, containing the ruins of many other stone edifices designed to supply the king’s needs in the afterlife.
The Bent, Blunted, False, or Rhomboidal Pyramid, which sits at Dahshr, a short distance south of Aqqrah, represents a step forward toward the purely pyramidal tomb. It is 188 square meters at the base and approximately 98 meters high and was built by Snefru of the 4th dynasty. It’s unusual because it has a double slope, changing inclination about halfway up, with the lower section steeper than the upper.
It is closer to being a real pyramid than Djoser’s terraced tomb. Maydm’s monumental building, often attributed to Snefru, was a true pyramid, though it was not initially built as such. The original construction was eventually expanded until it became a massive eight-terraced masonry mass. Then the steps were filled in with stone packing to create a continuous slope. The entire building was ultimately covered with a smooth facing of limestone, resulting in a geometrically true pyramid. In its ruined state, though, it resembles a three-stepped pyramid rising to a height of around 70 meters.
The Red Pyramid at Dahshr, believed by some to have also been erected by Snefru, is the oldest tomb believed to have been constructed and executed as a true pyramid throughout. It is approximately 220 meters (722 feet) deep at the base and 104 meters (341 feet) tall. The Giza pyramids of the pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkure are the largest Egypt pyramids.
Among the most well-known American pyramids are the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon at Teotihuacán in central Mexico, the Castillo at Chichén Itzá, and numerous Inca and Chim structure Andean settlements.
American pyramids are usually of stepped shape and topped by a platform or temple roof. They were commonly made of Earth and then faced with stone. The Pyramid of the Sun exceeds the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza in height, with a base dimension of 220 by 230 feet.
The Great Pyramids of Giza
The Great Pyramids of Giza, built on a hill on the west bank of the Nile River on the edge of modern-day Cairo, are the most celebrated. The Great Pyramid, the oldest and highest of Giza’s three pyramids, is the only remaining building of the famous Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was constructed for Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops in Greek), Sneferu’s successor, and the second of the fourth dynasty’s eight kings.
Even though Khufu reigned for 23 years (2589-2566 B.C. ), nothing is known about his reign other than the grandeur of his pyramid.
The pyramid’s base sides measure 755.75 feet, and its original height was 481.4 feet, making it the world’s tallest pyramid. Three small Eygpt pyramids constructed for Khufu’s queens are lined up next to the Great Pyramid. A tomb containing the empty burial chamber of his mother, Queen Hetepheres, was discovered nearby. Khufu’s pyramid is flanked by rows of mastabas, where family or officials of the king were buried to join and assist him in the afterlife, as are other Egypt pyramids.
The Giza Pyramids’ middle pyramid was constructed for Khufu’s son, Pharaoh Khafre (2558-2532 B.C). The Pyramid of Khafre is the second-highest pyramid at Giza and houses the tomb of Pharaoh Khafre.
The Great Sphinx, a guardian statue carved in limestone with the head of a man and the body of a lion, was a rare feature installed within Khafre’s pyramid complex. With a length of 240 feet and 66 feet, it was the largest statue in the ancient world. The Great Sphinx came to be worshiped as the image of a tribal form of the god Horus in the 18th dynasty (c. 1500 B.C.). Menkaure, Khafre’s uncle, was the recipient of Giza’s southernmost pyramid (2532-2503 B.C.). It is the smallest of the three pyramids (218 feet). It serves as a prototype for the smaller pyramids built between the fifth and sixth dynasties.
The Fall of the Pyramid Era
Egypt Pyramids were still being constructed during the fifth and sixth dynasties. Still, their architecture’s overall standard and size diminished, as did the kings’ influence and prosperity. Beginning with King Unas’s (2375-2345 B.C.) pyramid, pyramid builders started to inscribe written accounts of events during the king’s rule on the burial chamber walls and the remainder of the pyramid’s interior. These are the earliest important biblical compositions known from ancient Egypt, known as pyramid texts.
Pepy II (2278-2184 B.C. ), the second king of the sixth dynasty, who came to power as a young boy and lived for 94 years, was the last of the great pyramid builders. By the time he came to power, the Old Kingdom’s wealth was dwindling. The pharaoh’s quasi-divine prestige had dwindled as the power of non-royal administrative officials increased. Pepy II’s pyramid completed 30 years after his rule at Saqqara was much shorter (172 feet) than those in the Old Kingdom. With Pepy’s death, Egypt’s monarchy and powerful central government virtually collapsed, ushering in the First Intermediate Era.
During the so-called Middle Kingdom era, later kings of the 12th dynasty would return to pyramid construction, but never on the scale of the Great Pyramids.
Modern Day Pyramids
In both ancient and modern times, tomb robbers and other vandals stole the majority of the corpses and burial goods from Egypt pyramids, as well as plundered their exteriors. The Great Pyramids, stripped of much of their smooth white limestone coverings, no longer exceed their original heights; Khufu’s, for example, stands just 451 feet tall.
About this, millions of tourists visit the pyramids every year, attracted by their towering grandeur and the timeless allure of Egypt’s rich and glorious history.