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A Short Introdction to The Pyramids of Egypt


About Egyptian Pyramids

by Jimmy Dunn

 

Great Pyramids at Giza in Egypt

 


Though we have a comprehensive site on the Pyramids of Egypt, this is a summary overview for those who would like to digest just a little less information.

 

The Great Pyramids of Giza are some of the most famous manmade objects in the world, and they have been famous since ancient times. In fact, the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) is the only "Wonder of the Ancient World" that still survives. However, there are actually over one hundred Pyramids in Egypt, including at least eight more at Giza (two belonging to kings and six to queens).

 

Many Egyptologists have somewhat different views on exactly why the ancient Egyptian kings built Pyramids as their tombs, but all of them seem to agree that it had to do with their worship of the sun god, Re (Ra). Most believe that the Pyramid was symbolic of the Benben, a mound that rose from the waters during the creation of the earth, in ancient Egyptian mythology, which was closely associated with Re as the creator god.

 

How pyramids were built is also a matter of some controversy. Traditional views, regarding the length of time and the labor force of workers required has changed in recent years. Most Egyptologists no longer believe that many slaves were used, and it is probable that much of the most difficult work of hauling the large blocks up ramps was probably performed using beasts of labor such as oxen. Experiments have also demonstrated that it probably took less time to build them then we originally thought. One reason is that there were probably not as many solid blocks used as we once believed. Rubble and sand were instead used to fill pockets surrounded by solid stone, in many instances.

 

A view of the Step Pyramid of Djoser

 

The Pyramids of Giza are very important, and world famous, but they are not the only important pyramids in Egypt. For example, The Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara (Sakkara) is extremely important as the first pyramid built in Egypt, though it is not a true, smooth sided one. There are also a number of pyramids in and around Dahshur that are important because they show the evolution, including the failures and the first success of the pyramid builders, as they tried to build the first true, smooth sided pyramid. Other later pyramids are less spectacular, sometimes made of mudbrick and therefore not as well preserved today, but still important, because they are the first to be decorated with inscriptions and various scenes. For example, the ruined pyramid of Unas at Saqqara was the first one that we know of to be inscribed with the 128 magical spells of the Pyramid Text.

 

The Smallest of the Three Royal Pyramids at Giza, belonging to Menkaure

The importance of other pyramids, particularly those of a late date, is less obvious to most people, but not to Egyptologists. They reveal the gradual change that the Egyptians made in their religion, as it concerns death and the afterlife, towards the worship of a god named Osiris. The Pyramid of Ahmose at Abydos must also be important to us, because it marks the very end of the Pyramid Period. It was the last pyramid ever built by the kings.

 

Just about every pyramid, grand and small, is located within just a few miles of Egypt's modern capital, Cairo. However, this is because Cairo is very near the ancient capital known as the White Walls, though most people know it better by its Greek name, Memphis. Most of the pyramids are clustered in several specific areas that we refer to as pyramid fields, though pyramid fields are almost always a part of a larger necropolis (cemetery) containing other types of tombs. The major ones are the Giza Plateau, of course, Saqqara (Sakkara), Dahshur, Abusir, Abu Rawash. Other Pyramids are somewhat scattered out between Dahshur and the Fayoum just south of Cairo. Still other less well known pyramids are scattered about in places such as Zawiyet el-Aryan (which is between Giza and Abusir and Mazghuna. Some Egyptologists believe that, in reality, this dense region of pyramids between Giza and Saqqara may have been one huge necropolis (cemetery).

 

A map showing the pyramid fields in Lower, or southern Egypt near Cairo

 

All of these pyramids are near Cairo, but there are a few others that are further south. One building which was probably the pyramid of Khui, though it is very ruined, is located in Dara, which is about in the middle of the Nile Valley, called Middle Egypt. The last pyramid built by Ahmose I is even further south, at Abydos. The only other pyramids built for burial purposes that we know of in Egypt were the non-royal pyramids of the workers who lived at Deir el-Medina on the West Bank at Luxor (ancient Thebes). There are, however, a series of small step pyramids that were not tombs, that stretch from Seila in the north to Elephantine Island in the south. We are really not very sure of the purpose of these small pyramids. However, we should also note that the Nubians, who lived further south in what is now the Sudan, also built pyramids used for tombs, though their royal pyramids were more similar to the non-royal ones at Deir el-Medina.

 

The Bent Pyramid was one of the first efforts to build a true, smooth sided pyramid

 

Pyramids in Egypt were only one type of tomb used mostly to bury kings and sometimes queens during a specific period of time. The "Pyramid Age" lasted from about the 3rd Dynasty reign of Djoser (2630 BC) until the Reign of Ahmose I, which ended in about 1514 BC. However, few of the kings after the 12th Dynasty (ending in about 1759 BC) seem to have built pyramids. Before the Pyramid Age, kings were buried in tombs known as mastabas, because from a distance they look like Arabic benches, and that is the term in Arabic for a bench. After the Pyramid Age, kings were buried in rock cut tombs that they tried to hide from tomb robbers. There was no structure above ground at the tomb to give its location away.

 

However, after the very earliest period of Egyptian history, the tombs of kings were almost always complexes, having other buildings and structures other than the tomb itself. Almost all royal tombs, including pyramids, had a mortuary temple where priests were supposed to take care of the king's soul (known as his Ka). During the Pyramid Age, the mortuary temple was located right next to the pyramid itself, though after the Pyramid Age, the mortuary temple was separated from the tomb so that the tomb's location would be less obvious to grave robbers. Other structures usually included a valley temple, usually near the Nile River, which was sort of an entrance to the complex, a causeway, which was a corridor that led from the valley temple to the mortuary temple, and usually a "cult pyramid", which was a smaller pyramid set next to the larger one. We think that the cult pyramid was probably built for the king's Ka. Usually, the pyramid complex was surrounded by a wall, known as an enclosure wall. Pyramid complexes also typically contained other tombs or smaller pyramids belonging to the king's wives and other family members, and there were also pits dug for boats, which were the boats that carried the dead king in his funeral, or were symbolic boats for his journey through the afterlife. Other parts of the greater pyramid complex might include storage buildings, a village for the workers who built the pyramid, and housing for the priests who took care of the dead king.

 

Typical Pyramid components, though the Valley temple and River Quay is not shown

 

The Pyramids of Egypt are a fascinating topic that have created many controversies over the years, and which continue to do so today. They have not given up all of their secrets even after over four thousand years, and these first of mankind's large, stone buildings will probably intrigue us for many years to come.

 

For a complete description of the pyramids of Ancient Egypt, including links, see:

 

Our Feature Article on Pyramids

 

References:

 

Title

Author

Date

Publisher

Reference Number

Chronicle of the Pharaohs (The Reign-By-Reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt)

Clayton, Peter A.

1994

Thames and Hudson Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05074-0

Complete Pyramids, The (Solving the Ancient Mysteries)

Lehner, Mark

1997

Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05084-8

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul

1995

Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

History of Ancient Egypt, A

Grimal, Nicolas

1988

Blackwell

None Stated

Monarchs of the Nile

Dodson, Aidan

1995

Rubicon Press

ISBN 0-948695-20-x

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian

2000

Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2

 

 

 

 

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