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Ancient Egyptian Pyramids

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Where, when, why they were built

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Summary

The pyramids of Ancient Egypt constitute one of the greatest forms of ancient art known to history.

The Great Pyramid at Giza, for instance, is a design and engineering marvel. It's also an incredible feat of organization, for a relatively unsophisticated society.

To cut, transport, move around, lift and fit 2.3 million stone blocks into a precisely aligned pyramidal shape, is nothing short of amazing. Especially since each of these megaliths weighed an average of 2.5 tons.

The only architectural works which are remotely comparable are the Ancient Egyptian temples at Thebes, and elsewhere, and the Neolithic temples erected by hunter-gatherers at Göbekli Tepe, in Anatolia, around 9500 BC.

When were the Pyramids Built?

The Old Kingdom saw the building of all the famous pyramids at Giza, including: the Great Pyramid of Khufu (completed 2560 BC), (one of the traditional Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), the Pyramid of Khafre (completed 2532 BC), and the Pyramid of Menkaure (completed c.2510 BC).

It also witnessed the construction of the Great Sphinx at Giza (c.2558–2532 BC).

Other famous pyramids built during the Old Kingdom, include:

Famous pyramids erected during the Middle Kingdom, include:

Later examples include:

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Where are the Egyptian Pyramids Located?

Memphis Necropolis

The Memphite (or Memphis) Necropolis is an area of ancient archaeological tomb complexes, spread out on the Western Desert plateau near the ruins of the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis.

The necropolis extends over 16,000-hectares on the west bank of the Nile, and includes four groups of pyramids, namely Giza, Abusir, Saqqara, and Dahshur.

Each group relates to a specific period and incorporates a unique collection of temples, tombs, mastabas and other funerary monuments.

As a whole, the complex contains almost 40 pyramids, including most of the ones constructed during the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BC).

Others from the same period are located at Abu Rawash, Zawyet El Aryan, and Meidum.

The pyramids of Giza, along with their Great Sphinx guardian, occupy the northern end of the necropolis, followed southwards by Abusir, Saqqara, and Dahshur.

Since 1979, these pyramid fields have been listed as the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Memphis and its Necropolis.

Saqqara

Saqqara was the earliest pyramid field in the necropolis, and contains 17 pyramids including, the Step Pyramid of Djoser - the world's oldest.

Although no more were built here after the Fifth Dynasty, the site continued to be used as a cemetery until the end of the Ptolemaic Period (30 BC).

Dahshur

Dahshur is the second of the pyramid fields to be established. Among its six tombs, are Sneferu's Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid, and it continued to be used as a burial ground for another thousand years.

The Pyramids built at Dahshur under Sneferu, gave Egyptian Architects the knowledge and technical know-how to progress from step-sided to smooth-sided pyramids.

This learning experience enabled them to tackle the Great Pyramid of Giza - a massive structure built for Sneferu's son Khufu, and the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing.

Giza

The Giza necropolis was the third pyramid complex to be built. It houses the Great Pyramid (also known as the Pyramid of Cheops or Khufu), the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure, several temples and cemeteries.

All were built during the Old Kingdom. The Great Sphinx sits on the eastern side of the complex.

Abusir

Abusir was the last of the pyramid fields to be built. Its 14 pyramids - including 3 completed king's pyramids - were constructed over two centuries at the end of the Old Kingdom, but with inferior stone to those at the other fields, so most have collapsed.

The use of inferior materials, coupled with a smaller size than normal, suggests either a decline in pharaonic power or a less prosperous economy. (Note: All of the major pyramids at Abusir were built as step pyramids.)

The three major royal pyramids at Abusir are the Pyramid of Sahure, noted for its finely carved relief sculptures; the Pyramid of Nyuserre, a largely ruined structure; and the Pyramid of Neferirkare Kakai, the tallest structure at Abusir.

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Why Did the Egyptians Build Pyramids?

Answer: They built pyramids to ensure the safety of the pharaoh king during his eternal afterlife.

Ancient Egyptians believed the soul could only survive if the body was fed and kept safe from harm. So to ensure the safety of the pharaoh in the afterlife, they spent enormous amounts of time and labour building monumental pyramid tombs.

How are Pyramids Linked to the Afterlife?

Answer: because pyramids were believed to be the place where the pharaoh would live, during the eternal afterlife.

You see, Ancient Egyptians believed that when they died their spiritual body would continue to exist, in the 'afterlife'.

However, entry into the afterlife was not automatic. They had to negotiate a dangerous underworld journey, and face a final judgment before they were allowed to enter the afterlife.

What's more, if they did gain entry, they were supposed to provide eternal sustenance for their spirit.

All this required great preparation during their lifetime.

Take tombs, for example. Tombs were essential. They would have significant resources devoted to them, and might take years to build.

Tombs Grew More Luxurious Over Time

At first, Pharaohs were buried inside pyramids. Their burial chambers tended to be small, quite austere and lined with thick granite blocks.

They usually included a few valuables as well as some personal memorabilia, but little more.

For instance, the pyramid burial chamber of Princess Neferuptah (c.1800 BC) contained some ancient pottery, a set of coffins, some gilded jewellery and a set of royal insignia.

The interior of the unfinished pyramid of King Sekhemkhet (c.2605 BC), which was opened untouched at Saqqara, contained 21 gold bracelets, a golden sceptre and various other gold objects.

That said, large amounts of treasure and other goods have not been found in any of the Egyptian pyramids.

However, the walls of some later pyramids were decorated with lengthy hieroglyphic inscriptions on their walls, which scholars today call the pyramid texts.

These texts included rituals, spells, and chants to be used for the pharaoh's resurrection and well-being in the afterlife.

The pyramid of Unas, dating to c.2355 BC, was the first pyramid to have pyramid texts inscribed on its interior walls.

Rock Tombs

It was only much later, during the New Kingdom (1550-1069) - when pharaohs started to be buried inside remote underground rock tombs, in the Valley of the Kings, in Upper Egypt - that burial chambers became more lavishly equipped.

These remote tombs were typically decorated with a variety of Ancient Egyptian art, including relief carvings, stelae and murals, and filled with valuable objects.

They were stocked with food, furniture and shabtis, to equip the deceased for the challenges of the Duat, the netherworld.

Shabtis were small funerary figurines engraved with a spell that magically brought them to life, in order to look after the pharaoh in the hereafter.

Treasures interred along with Egyptian kings, included valuables to demonstrate their high position, as well as all manner of supplies, like food, clothes, furniture and more.

Some pharaonic tombs even included boats made of gold and silver which could ferry them on their way to the afterlife.

In 1922, for example, when archaeologists opened the tomb of the Egyptian King Tutankhamun (buried in 1323 BC), they found more than 5,000 treasures, including a silver throne, statues, gold coffins and gold-plated chariots.

Body, Soul, Spirit

The religious beliefs of Ancient Egyptians were quite complicated. Put very simply, they believed in three entities: Ka, Ba and Akh. All three were essential to achieve passage into the afterlife.

How the Pyramid Tomb Assisted Passage into the Afterlife

Egyptologists used to believe a number of slaves, concubines - even family members or wives - might be killed and buried with the pharaoh, in order to serve his needs in the afterlife.

Recent research, however, suggests this is untrue.

Pyramid Archaeology

For a quick guide to digging up the ancient world, see: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient. For an explanation of terms, see: Archaeology Glossary.

Was the Pharaoh's Body Mummified?

Yes. The high priests went to great lengths to preserve the pharaoh's body.

It was drained of all fluids and all its internal organs were removed. (These were left in the burial chamber, in containers known as canopic jars.) The heart was the only organ left inside the body, as it would be weighed in the hereafter to see if you had led a good life.

The body was then embalmed and mummified in linen, complete with amulets and jewels inside the bandages. The body was then placed inside a nest of coffins.

Tutankhamun, for instance, was fitted with a gold death mask and then placed inside a solid gold coffin.

The coffin was placed inside two ornate wooden coffins, one inside the other.

The three coffins were put inside a red quartz sarcophagus, which itself was placed inside a nest of four gold shrines.

Pyramid Design Reflected Religious Perceptions

Over dynasties, as nuances in religious beliefs emerged, the design and orientation of pyramids evolved.

The step pyramids, such as Djoser's Pyramid at Saqqara (c.2670 BC), reflected the pharaoh's ascension to the heavens in stages.

The smooth-sided pyramids, like the Great Pyramid of Giza (c.2560 BC), symbolized the sun's rays, facilitating the pharaoh's direct ascent to the celestial realm.

Pyramids were strategically positioned on the west bank of the Nile, the land associated with death and where the sun set – a clear embodiment of the journey into the afterlife.

This geographical orientation, coupled with the alignment of pyramids to specific stars, was believed to secure the deceased's seamless transition to eternity.

How Were the Pyramids Built?

Answer: We don't know, exactly, although Egyptologists suggest pyramids were built using the following basic construction scheme.

Surveying the Site

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Built in Horizontal Layers

The Quarry

How did they Move the Heavy Blocks of Stone Needed for the Pyramid?

One of the major problems which confronted early pyramid builders was how to move thousands of heavy blocks of stone from the river to the top of the pyramid.

Egyptologists think the problem was solved as follows.

What Stone was Used to Build the Pyramids?

Nearly all the famous Egyptian pyramids were constructed using limestone from local quarries. The Pyramid of Khufu, for instance, used limestone sourced from the Giza plateau itself.

For finer work, such as casing stones and internal chambers, a fine grade of white limestone was obtained from Tura, situated across the Nile River. Tura - known as Troyu or Royu - was the main quarry for high quality limestone in ancient Egypt.

Tua limestone was used for the the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the Bent Pyramid of Sneferu, the pyramids of the Middle Kingdom, and a number of temples erected during the New Kingdom up to at least Ahmose I, founder of the 18th Dynasty.

What Equipment was Used to Build the Pyramids?

In a 1997 pyramid building simulation for TV, workers built a pyramid (6 metres high, 9 metres wide), using 186 stones, each weighing around 2.2 tons.

The work team consisted of 44 men, with iron hammers, chisels and levers.

Separate tests showed that copper tools were a viable alternative to iron tools, although 20 extra men were needed to keep the tools sharp.

Levers were used to flip and move blocks up to 1 ton, while larger stones were placed on wooden sledges and hauled by between 12 and 20 men.

At the building site, in addition to iron tools, a fork-lift truck was used, but no other modern equipment.

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How Well were the Pyramids Built?

Extremely well. Each of the 2.3 million stone blocks used on the Great Pyramid of Giza, were cut to size using using nothing more than copper tools, and yet the pyramid was built to exceptionally precise dimensions - a sheet of paper can barely fit between the blocks.

What's more, each of its four sides are exactly in line with the NSEW points of the compass, and differ in length by no more than 5 cm. Even more impressive, the pyramid site was levelled to within two centimetres over the entire 13-acre base. This matches the latest laser levelling techniques.

How Many Workers were Used to Build the Pyramids?

Workforce estimates vary widely. Herodotus, a Greek historian, suggested that 100,000 workers were employed, but modern Egyptologists consider this number to be an exaggeration.

Current estimations propose a workforce of around 20,000 to 30,000, including quarry workers, haulers, masons, and supporting personnel such as overseers and provisioners.

According to a collaborative estimate by egyptologists and US architecture and engineering firm Daniel, Mann, Johnson, & Mendenhall, the Great Pyramid of Giza was constructed in about 10 years, using an average workforce of just under 15,000 people - rising to an occasional peak of 40,000 people, without the use of iron tools, pulleys or wheels.

Using data taken from modern construction projects completed in the Third World without modern machinery, the report calculated that the workers could have maintained a work-rate of roughly 180 blocks per hour, and ten hours per day.

Did Slaves Build the Pyramids?

No. Building workers were almost certainly a mixture of permanent employees of the pharaoh and seasonal workers, who contributed labour during the Nile's flood season when agricultural work was impossible.

Labourers were likely recruited from farms further down the Nile, near Luxor (Thebes). For example, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a village, 400 metres south of the Great Sphinx, which was erected for the thousands of labourers working, at Giza.

Evidence of a huge catering operation, which included the best cuts of meat and plentiful supplies of bread, indicates they were feeding free workers not slaves. Slaves would not have been treated so well.

What's Inside an Egyptian Pyramid?

Answer: not much, so far as we can tell. The Great Pyramid, for instance, has very little usable space inside.

Every pyramid was built with at least one burial chamber, but few other chambers have been discovered.

To make matters worse, tomb robbers have looted almost everything from inside most of the pyramids, so scientists cannot be certain that a discovered chamber is in fact the Pharaoh's burial chamber.

In addition, the burial chamber (and other chambers) may be carefully hidden by (say) 'portcullis walls' slid into place once the body is laid to rest, in order to block off access and prevent its desecration.

So, pyramids may contain more than we think but locating hidden rooms is no easy matter.

Georadars are one of the latest items of equipment to be used to scan the inside of the Great Pyramid of Giza, but the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities appears reluctant to allow the interiors of their pyramids to be taken apart.

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Which are the Most Famous Pyramids?

The most famous of these royal tombs include:

- Djoser's Step Pyramid
- The Great Pyramid of Khufu
- The Pyramid of Khafre
- The Pyramid of Menkaure

Djoser's Step Pyramid

The first stone building in the world was the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, which rose to a height of 62 metres in six steps.

It was built for the pharaoh Djoser in the 3rd dynasty, around 2670 BC, by Imhotep, his chief architect and high priest of the sun god Ra at Heliopolis.

Hitherto, buildings - like the monumental ziggurats of Sumerian culture, as well as Egyptian mastabas - were constructed almost exclusively out of mud-brick.

At Saqqara, Imhotep updated the traditional building styles and materials by using a new medium, stone.

The Step Pyramid stood inside a sacred enclosure surrounded by other funerary buildings. These were all fake buildings, consisting simply of facades supported by rubble with shallow doorways and columns that were not free-standing but attached to adjacent walls.

This was because the builders were uncertain of the new building's stability.

From this first stepped pyramid it was a natural progression to smooth out the steps to create a proper pyramid shape.

The Great Pyramid of Khufu

The Great Pyramid of Khufu, is one of the most iconic and impressive architectural marvels in human history.

Constructed during the reign of Pharaoh Khufu, the second ruler of the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, this colossal pyramid is is the oldest and largest of the three tombs in the Giza Necropolis. Scholars believe it was built around 2589–2566 BC.

With a height of approximately 146.6 metres (481 feet) when it was first built, the Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure in the world for more than 3,800 years until Lincoln Cathedral claimed the title of tallest manmade structure, with its new spire, in the 1300s.

Originally, the pyramid was covered with smooth, polished white limestone casing stones, which reflected the sun's rays, giving it a glistening appearance.

The pyramid was constructed from an estimated 6 million tons of limestone blocks, 8,000 tons of granite, and 500,000 tons of mortar.

The limestone was sourced locally, but the granite for the royal chambers came from quarries at Aswan, about 500 miles distant.

Each limestone block, meticulously quarried and transported, fits together with remarkable precision, showcasing the incredible engineering and architectural expertise of the ancient Egyptians.

The pyramid's interior contains a small number of chambers and passages, including the King's Chamber and the Queen's Chamber, with the primary purpose of housing the pharaoh's sarcophagus and funerary equipment.

The construction techniques used in the Great Pyramid remain a topic of fascination and scholarly inquiry, with theories ranging from the use of ramps to advanced lifting mechanisms.

For a comparison with other Bronze Age architecture, see: Stonehenge (2500 BC), Newgrange Passage Tomb (3200 BC) and its Neolithic sister site Knowth Passage Tomb (3100 BC).

The Pyramid of Khafre

The Pyramid of Khafre, situated on the Giza Plateau in Egypt, is a remarkable ancient structure dating back to the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom.

Constructed during the reign of Pharaoh Khafre, around 2558–2532 BC, it is one of the three major pyramids at Giza.

Originally standing about 143.5 meters (471 feet) in height, the Pyramid of Khafre was the second tallest pyramid in ancient Egypt, surpassed only by the nearby Great Pyramid of Khufu.

Originally, it was clad in smooth Tura limestone casing stones, which would have given it a strikingly smooth and polished appearance.

This casing was dismantled during the New Kingdom, by Rameses II, in order to provide stone for a temple at Heliopolis.

The pyramid's core is composed of Tura limestone blocks, with the largest weighing an estimated 400 tons.

Its base measures roughly 215.5 metres (706 feet) on each side. The precise construction techniques employed by the ancient Egyptians allowed them to align the pyramid's sides with extraordinary accuracy, with only a slight deviation from perfect alignment.

The Pyramid of Khafre also features a mortuary temple on its eastern side, along with a causeway leading to a valley temple near the Nile River. These temples were integral to the funerary rituals and ceremonies associated with the pharaoh's burial.

The Pyramid of Menkaure

The Pyramid of Menkaure, the third and last of the famous Egyptian pyramids at Giza, was constructed during the reign of Pharaoh Menkaure, around 2532–2504 BC, who, according to ancient historians like Herodotus, was a kind and enlightened ruler.

It stood roughly 65.5 meters (215 feet) in height, and is the smallest of the three Giza tombs. Its base measures 108.5 metres (356 feet) on each side.

The pyramid's core is constructed using large limestone blocks, while the outer casing, which is no longer present, was made of smooth Tura limestone.

The polished white casing stones would have reflected the sunlight and making it visible from a great distance.

Inside the pyramid, scientists found a large quantity of relief sculpture depicting the pharaoh, as well as a magnificent basalt sarcophagus. This might have contained Menkaure's mummified remains, but the ship carrying it to England sank off the island of Malta.

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FAQs

Which was the First Egyptian Pyramid to be Built?

Answer: The Pyramid of Djoser (Zoser) at Saqqara. This structure is widely believed to be the oldest pyramid in the world. It dates back to around 2670 BC, while construction on the Great Pyramid of Giza began in 2560 BC, roughly a century later.

Which was the Tallest Egyptian Pyramid?

Answer: The Great Pyramid at Giza, which was built for Khufu. Originally, it stood 146.6 meters tall. The second tallest pyramid is the Pyramid of Khafre, which was originally 136 metres tall.

Which Pyramid Took the Longest to Build?

Answer: The Pyramid of Djoser, which took around 20 years to build. It comprised six layers, and was 62 metres tall when originally built. Once it was completed, a further 10 years was spent connecting it with the Valley temple below. So its total construction time was around 30 years.

Which was the Last Egyptian Pyramid to be Built?

Answer: The Pyramid of Ahmose I, which was built at Abydos around 1540 BC. The later Pyramids of Piye (721 BC) and Taharqa (664 BC) are located at El-Kurru and Nuri, respectively, in present-day Sudan.

What is the Great Sphinx of Giza?

The instantly recognizable monument, known as the Great Sphinx of Giza, depicts a sitting lion with a human head.

It is approximately 20 metres in height and about 73.5 metres in length, making it one of the largest and oldest statues known to archaeology. Its face is believed to be that of Pharaoh Khafre.

It was created during the reign of Pharaoh Khafre, in the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, around 2558–2532 BC.

To construct it, workers dug into the limestone bedrock of the plateau. The head was carved from the rock, and the body was shaped and sculpted to resemble a lion's resting form.

The monument was originally adorned with a layer of smooth white casing stones, but most of these have weathered away over time.

In Egyptian mythology, the Sphinx embodied the connection between mankind and the Gods. Egyptologists believe it represented a form of the sun god Ra-Horakhty, and that it was meant to protect the temples and the tombs of the Giza plateau.

Why Did the Egyptians Stop Building Pyramids?

Answer: because they were too costly, very difficult to construct, and acted as magnets for tomb robbers.

Since Egyptians had a strong religious belief in the afterlife, which could only be enjoyed if the body was kept safe, a desecrated pharaonic burial chamber spelt disaster for the pharaoh and his soul.

For 900 years, Egyptian kings were interred inside pyramids. The Memphite necropolis near Giza, alone, housed more than 20 Pharaonic tombs.

Then, around 1550 BC, construction work began on a new set of rock tombs in a remote valley in the far south, near the Egyptian capital of Thebes (Luxor).

Since then, no further pyramids of any significance were built. Instead, pharaohs were buried in tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

Although there are other theories about why they stopped burying Pharaohs in pyramids, security concerns must have figured quite highly. So hiding the royal burials in a remote desert valley, patrolled by security guards, would surely have been seen as a smart move.

Even before royal pyramids fell out of favour, pharaohs had started building them further south.

The last pyramid, for example, built for Ahmose I around 1540 BC, was erected at Abydos in the south, far from Memphis.

What's more the burial chamber was no longer placed under the pyramid. Ahmose's burial chamber, for instance, was excavated out in the desert, some 500 metres away from his pyramid.

Appendix: Chronology

NEXT: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) Arnold, Dieter. The encyclopedia of ancient Egyptian architecture. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2003.
(2) Edwards, I. E. S., The Pyramids of Egypt Penguin Books Ltd; New edition (1991), ISBN 978-0-14-013634-0.
(3) Lehner, Mark (1997). The Complete Pyramids. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-05084-8.
(4) Mendelssohn, Kurt, The Riddle of the Pyramids, Thames and Hudson Ltd (1974), ISBN 978-0-500-05015-6.
(5) Spinney, Laura. "Secret chamber may hold key to mystery of the Great Pyramid." Guardian Newspaper. Mon 30 Aug 2004.

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