Ancient Egypt: Evolution of the Great Pyramids

Six Pyramids of the Giza Necropolis

Six Pyramids of the Giza Necropolis

They started out as mastabas, bench-like burial mounds or tombs for the pharaohs, and ended up as massive structures that inspired our fascination with the ancient Egyptians. Indeed, the Great Pyramid of Giza (also known as the Pyramid of Khufu or the Pyramid of Cheops), built more than 4,500 years ago, is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing. Today’s post looks at how pyramids evolved, primarily during the Fourth Dynasty (circa 2575 BCE and 2450 BCE), from simple mounds into the audacious monuments we see today.

Before 3000 BCE, members of the Egyptian aristocracy were buried in mounds of sand known as mastabas, rectangular tombs that were believed to symbolize the ancient mass of earth on which the sun god was born. By the early dynastic period, the mounds had evolved into bench-shaped mastabas which consisted of a chapel, a false door and a burial shaft leading into a subterranean chamber containing the sarcophagus. The false doors reflected the Egyptian fascination with the afterlife; they believed that the spirit of the deceased could move through the door in order to receive food offerings left by grieving family members.

Mastaba to Pyramid

Initially the burial chamber was sparsely decorated – if at all. But as time passed, the decoration in these chambers became more elaborate, and the chambers themselves were enlarged to make space for the tombs of family members. Early mastabas had mostly been made of mud brick but during the Third Dynasty increasing numbers of the elite preferred their final resting places to be made of stone.

Snofru; first king of the 4th Dynasty

Snofru; first king of the 4th Dynasty

The pharaohs, however, had far grander designs in mind for their own tombs; at the beginning of the Third Dynasty, Zoser (or Djoser), in concert with his gifted architect, Imhotep, started work on the Step Pyramid of Zoser at the Saqqara necropolis outside Cairo. The idea was to pile six mastabas on top of each other, with each one being smaller than the one beneath it. The pyramid, once completed, soared to a height of 60 meters (197 feet) and still dominates Zoser’s impressive necropolis. It was, archaeologists say, the first real forerunner to the Great Pyramid of Giza.

The Step Pyramid was followed by the Buried Pyramid, built by Zoser’s successor Sekhemkhet; next was the Layer Pyramid, attributed to Sekhemkhet’s successor Khaba – neither structure, however, was sufficiently impressive to make any historical impact. It was only once Snofru (or Snefru/Sneferu; in Greek known as Soris), the founder of the Fourth Dynasty, came to power in about 2575 BCE that the age of the pyramids really took off. He started his experiments with the Meidum Pyramid near Fayoum; it was intended to be a step pyramid but Snofru later had it encased to resemble a ‘true’ or smooth-sided pyramid. This development means the Meidum Pyramid is the only example of the transition from a step pyramid to a ‘true’ one.

Unfortunately the Meidum Pyramid imploded after farmers removed some of its casing stones, but it remains an important point of interest for those tracing the development of pyramidal architecture.

Snofru next turned his attention to building a ‘true’ pyramid at Dahshur, but the outcome wasn’t what he expected. During its construction, the pyramid started to disintegrate so the architect reduced its 54 degree angles to 43 degrees. The result is that theBent Pyramid (height: 101m or 332ft) has an unusual but nonetheless unique gradient. Snofru was determined to complete a smooth-sided pyramid so he set about building another one to the north of the Bent Pyramid. This was the Red (or Northern) Pyramid – named for the reddish limestone with which it is built – and its successful completion was Snofru’s proudest moment.

However, it was Snofru’s son, Khufu (or Cheops), who was to build the most famous pyramid – the Great Pyramid of Giza, the only one of the Seven Wonders of the World that is still mostly intact.Khufu is said to have reigned between 2589 BC and 2566 BC (or between 2609 BC and 2584 BC, depending on which Egyptologist you believe). He was determined his pyramid would be the most spectacular one yet, so he instructed his nephew Hemiunu to take command of the project. On completion, the pyramid was 146m (480ft) high and measured 230m (756ft) along its base, making it an almost perfect square.

The Great Pyramid of Giza

The Great Pyramid of Giza

The immaculate precision of the Great Pyramid to true north suggests that some sort of alignment with the stars was at play. The ancient Egyptians were accomplished astronomers with stars playing an important part in state religion as well as in the king’s afterlife. In addition, the fact that the air-shafts in the pyramid point to the stars indicate that the structure was seen as much more than simply a tomb – it was, in fact, a way to unite heaven and earth, all in the interests of the king’s well-being.

The enormity of the pyramid (it is estimated to weigh six million tons and consists of 2.3 million blocks) and the sheer effort it must have taken to build it, are testament to the speed at which technology progressed in Ancient Egypt. Only 400 years earlier, the Egyptians had used basic mastabas to entomb their dead; now, they were building stairways to the stars.

After Khufu’s death, his son Khafre (also known as Chephren) tried to emulate his success by building a pyramid next to his father’s masterpiece. In terms of height, the Pyramid of Khafre failed to measure up although the pharaoh clearly understood perception was everything – he had his pyramid built on higher ground so that, to the naked eye, it seems far larger than Khufu’s structure. Sadly for Khafre, his pyramid was imperfectly aligned – the result is that the apex has a slightly twisted appearance.

Great Sphinx with Pyramid of Khafre in Background.

Great Sphinx with Pyramid of Khafre in Background

In about 2490 BCE when Khafre’s son Menkaure (or Mycerinus) came to build his pyramid – the third and smallest in the Giza necropolis – the age of the pyramids was at an end. The height of the pyramid (65m or 213ft) reflects the declining power and wealth of the pharaohs in the Fourth Dynasty. Menkaure died unexpectedly, so although he used costly granite instead of limestone to build parts of his pyramid while he was alive, his son Shepseskaf was unable or unwilling to spend vast amounts of wealth on the project. In fact, he may have ended up using mud brick in order to keep the costs down.

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