About Egyptian Pyramids
by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston
The Bent Pyramid was probably the first planned from the outset to be a true pyramid, with smooth sides. This represents a glorious period in the evolution of the pyramid, comparable to that when Djsoer's architect, Imhotep, built the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. The Bent Pyramid was probably either the first or second of Snefru's pyramids, depending on who built the Medium Pyramid. It was almost certainly built prior to his other project at Dahshur, the Red Pyramid. The pyramid is also sometimes called the Rhomboidal, False, or Blunt Pyramid. The ancient Egyptians called it "Snefru Shines - South (pyramid)".
As one of the most unusual pyramids in Egypt, as well as one of the best preserved (much of its casing remains), it has attracted considerable attention over the centuries. Early visitors included European travelers such as Richard Pococke, Robert Huntington, Robert Wood and Edward Melton. Yet strangely, a serious archaeological investigation of the structure was not made until the 19th Century, when the great pyramid explorers Perring, Lepsius and later still, Petrie came to explore the structure. Later still, after World War II, Abdel Salam Hussain and Alexandre Varille further investigated the Bent Pyramid, but regrettably their work was lost.
Modern archaeological studies of the Bent Pyramid began under the direction of Ahmad Fakhry in the first half of the 1950s, and his information was added to by important observations and measurements made by Maragioglo and Rinaldi, as well as Josef Dorner, an Austrian geodesist.
Even with all of this investigation, some Egyptologists believe that the pyramid may still hold a few secrets. Some question whether all of the pyramid's chambers have actually been located. Investigation of the pyramid was sometimes difficult, because wind created a strong draft blowing through the passageways. This so hindered the archaeological studies that work was sometimes interrupted. However, these problems occurred even prior to the discovery of the walled in western entrance, so some current Egyptologists wonder how the draft was vented, and leading them to speculate that other rooms or passageways might remain undiscovered.
The remains of the pyramid complex's valley temple lie about a kilometer west of the Nile Valley, about half way between between the pyramid and the Nile river. There may have in fact been a second causeway that lead down to a dock or landing stage. It is the first valley temple we know of to be connected to a pyramid complex, and so it has been fairly well investigated archaeologically. However, it may have been preceded by a valley temple that at Medium, though the investigation of that structure is hampered by high water levels. In reality, the Bent Pyramid's prelude to the valley temple is in fact part valley temple and part mortuary temple, containing elements of both types of structures.
The Bent Pyramid valley temple is rectangular and north-south oriented. It was built of fine white limestone, with an entrance in the middle of the south facade. The entrance was framed with wooden pillars with pennants. During the Middle Kingdom, a limestone stele from the tomb of Snefru's son, Netjeraperef was used to frame the entrance doorway.
The Bent Pyramid as Viewed from the Ruins of the Valley Temple
This temple has three sections of equal size. In the southern section, are located four storerooms. Here, the side walls are decorated with scenes depicting representations of personified mortuary estates. On the east wall Upper Egyptian sources are displayed, while on the west wall we find Lower Egyptian funerary estates. These reliefs are considered to be some of the best artwork of the 4th Dynasty, and are the earliest known examples of such estate scenes.
A portico with ten, undecorated limestone pillars arranged in two rows occupied the northern part of the valley temple. These pillars were all painted red. Here we find the walls decorated with bas-reliefs portraying the ruler participating in the rituals of the Sed-festival. At the rear of the portico was six deep niches, originally each provided with wooden doors, that held six statues of Snefru in a walking pose. Their north walls were built from large limestone monoliths decorated with the figure of the king in half sculpture. Here, we find the king represented at least twice wearing the crown of Upper Egypt, and at least once wearing the crown of Lower and Upper Egypt.
Apparently uncommon in later structures, the Bent Pyramid's valley temple was enclosed within a huge perimeter wall made of mudbrick. Within the wall apparently the temple priests of Snefru's mortuary cult, which lasted into the Middle Kingdom, made their homes. The causeway to the main pyramid and complex led out of the southwest corner of the valley temple and enclosure wall.
The causeway to the main pyramid complex followed an irregular path leading from the valley temple It had no roof, but was paved with limestone blocks. Along the causeway ran low, fine white limestone walls that were rounded at the top and slightly inclined on the outside.
The pyramid complex was surrounded by a huge wall built probably of local yellowish, gray limestone. This wall enclosed a large, square courtyard to which the causeway connected on the northeast corner.
A cult chapel, consisting of fine white limestone walls and roof, stood at the foot of the east wall of the pyramid directly on the east-west axis. Here, an altar was located, also in the form of the hetep symbol, but this time constructed of three limestone block with two nine meter high fine white limestone monoliths (stele) to its north and south sides. On the southern monolith Snefru's name and titles were engraved in bas-relief (part of which may now be found in the Egyptian Antiquity Museum in Cairo). Over time, this chapel was surrounded by mudbrick walls and eventually it was made into a small temple. Because of Snefru's later deification and worship during the Middle Kingdom, some renovations in this structure were still being made for many years.
It is not unusual for us to find pyramids in Egypt that are mere ruins, often because of a poor foundation. It seems that some pyramid architects took the foundation very seriously, while others did not. The Bent Pyramid, though largely intact, owes its preservation to the builder's realization of their errors soon enough to make changes to their initial building plans. The relatively soft layer of slaty clay that the core rests upon seriously compromised the stability of the whole structure. The structure was further weakened by the internal masonry being laid with little care, leaving substantial gaps that were then filled with limestone rubble. However, one reason that so much of the fine white limestone casing remains is that they built an artificial foundation that it rests atop.
The Pyramid actually went through about three different alterations away from the original plans, which called for the structure to have an angle of almost 60o. The was changed to a less steep slope of almost 55o, requiring that the base be enlarged. This first alteration can be clearly seen in the ceiling and the side walls of the north access corridor, about twelve meters from the entrance. These early stages of construction used the traditional method of laying the courses of the core with the stones sloping inward. However, this adjustment in slope proved to be inadequate.
When the pyramid was about 45 meters high, the angle of the slope was reduced to 45o (later pyramid usually had a slope of between 52 and 53 degrees), which had the effect of reducing the mass of the upper part of the pyramid and thus reducing the load on the substructure. At this point in the pyramid's construction, the builders began laying the stone courses horizontally (rather than with the stones sloping inwards). Apparently the builders had learned that the inward sloping layers of the core, rather than adding stability, actually increased the stresses within the structure.
It should also be noted that other structural changes were incorporated into the Bent Pyramid. For example, both the core stones and the casing stones were larger than those used in 3rd Dynasty pyramids. In act, the casing stones were much larger.
However, it should also be noted that a very few scholars believe that the pyramid was intentionally planned to have its odd shape for various religious reasons. This theory is dismissed by most Egyptologists.
There are actually two entrances to the substructure. A north entrance is aligned with the pyramid's north-south axis about twelve meters above ground level. The entrance leads to a descending corridor and then to an underground antechamber with a high, corbel vault ceiling made of large limestone slabs. A steep ladder (stairway) leads up into a burial chamber that also has a corbel vault ceiling. From here, a short passage leads out of the southwest corner to a vertical shaft, which today is partly destroyed. This shaft, referred to by archaeologists as the chimney, is precisely aligned with the vertical axis of the pyramid.
The second entrance to the pyramid is much higher up the west face of the structure. Again, it leads to a descending corridor, but here we find two portcullis barriers. The corridor ends in an "upper chamber", which also has a corbel vault ceiling made of rough limestone slabs. In the openings of side walls were found the remains of cedar beams (also to be found in his possible pyramid at Meidum). The lower part of the chamber was filled with rough limestone masonry, some of which was bound with mortar and some of which was laid dry.
The function of the masonry and beams is unknown. Maragioglio and Rinaldi believed that this formed a structure intended to either serve as a base of thesarcophagus, or to help protect it. Stadelmann, on the other hand, thinks that the material was perhaps to prevent the side walls from cracking, or possibly to finish off the vault. It seems that other Egyptologists such as Lehner agree with him.
Carbel Vault Ceiling within the Pyramid
Fakhry believes that Snefru was actually buried in this chamber. Within the chamber, crudely written in red pigments is an inscription that bears the courtouche of Snefru, but most Egyptologists believe the pyramid was never used for its intended purpose, and some also believe that it was the upper north chamber that was originally intended to be the burial chamber of Snefru.
The chambers of the pyramid accessed by the northern entrance are lower than those accessed by the western entrance, but both substructures are connected by one narrow, irregular tunnel roughly cut through the core masonry of the pyramid. This passage communicates with the lower chamber and connected to the western substructure between the two barriers, but was almost certainly built after the completion of both substructures.
Egyptologists speculate that the underground substructure and the passage connecting the two systems, with the rooms all oriented north-south, was an effort by the builders to harmonize traditional theology with the emerging sun worship inspired east-west orientation of the pyramid complex as a whole. Others, though the arguments are somewhat similar, believe that the western substructure acted similarly to the South Tomb of Djoser.
Attached to the north face of the pyramid was a small mudbrick "north chapel". Though little of this remains, from other pyramid we can probably assume that there would have been a sacrificial table with the hieroglyphic sign for hetep (offering, or offering table), cut into its upper side.
A small cult pyramid stands off further to the south side, but still along the pyramid axis. It has an substructure with an entrance on the north side at ground level. This entrance leads to a corridor that first descends, and then ascends to communicate with a small chamber with a corbel vaulted ceiling just under seven meters above the floor. Many scholars see this corridor as the model for the Great Gallery in Snefru's son's (Khufu) pyramid at Giza. On the east side of the cult pyramid was another small chapel with an alabaster altar with five meter high limestone monoliths bearing the king's name and titles to either side.