The Evolution of the Egyptian Pyramid

About Egyptian Pyramids

by Pete Vanderzwet


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They Great Pyramid: Photo by Nancy Awbrey

In the last two decades much has been written on the pyramids, anchored not with archaeological evidence, but instead with wishful thinking and un-evidenced, fanciful imagination. This scholarly error has resulted in a general public that believes the pyramids, Khufu's in particular, are mysterious, magical monuments that appear overnight and with no architectural or cultural evolution. This could not be further from the truth; the Egyptian pyramid is the result of centuries of development, experiment and adaptation to various evolving cultural manifestations.


For thousands of years in the Predynastic Period the dead were buried in shallow oval pits, sometimes surrounded by their personal belongings and covered with sand. The first significant development came when the Egyptians altered the shape of their burial pits from oval to rectangular and roofed the pit with timber (Edwards 20). While no remains of a superstructure has been found, it probably consisted of sand, which could have easily blown away revealing tomb goods to any potential grave robbers (Edwards 21). In the beginning of the dynastic period the kings of Egypt overcame this issue by constructing a mud-brick superstructure over their burial pit (Edwards 21) which is known today as a mastaba, named so for their resemblance to the brick benches outside houses in modern Egyptian villages (Fakhry 3).


The tombs of Egypt's earliest historical kings are found in Upper Egypt at Abydos and date ca. 3200 B.C.E (Fakhry 3). The introduction of mastabas coincided with an increase in the amount of highly valuable and increasingly elaborate equipment being buried with the king (Edwards 27), and serve as an evolutionary missing-link between the unrefined burial practices of the Predynastic Period and those of an emerging, solidified Egyptian state.


The mastabas of high officials who served in the court of the various kings of the First Dynasty were found by W.B. Emery at Saqqara north during his excavations there between 1935 -1956 (Edwards 21). While Emery initially believed these early mastabas belonged to the kings of the First Dynasty, more recent work at the site has resulted in their reattribution to high officials. Regardless of their ownership, the mastaba previously believed to belong to King Hor-Aha serves as an excellent example of the evolutionary progress made between more recent predynastic burial pits and the early pyramids. Excepting the brick superstructure which housed 27 cells for storage of funerary goods (Edwards 21), the tomb is simply an enlarged version of the later predynastic burial pits.



Mastaba Tomb of Shepseskaf



While mastaba tombs continued to be built by Egyptian nobles and officials long into Egyptian history, the kings of Egypt, with the exception of Shepseskaf in the Fifth (or Fourth) dynasty (Edwards 152), ceased to construct them after the reign of Djoser, known from his monuments as Netjerikhet (Shaw 90), in the Third Dynasty.



The Step Pyramid Complex at Saqqara



With the birth of the Third Dynasty, Egypt entered into a period previously unmatched in national achievement known as the Old Kingdom. Kings of the First and Second Dynasties used mud-brick as the primary material with which they would construct their tombs, but with the advent of the Third Dynasty the archaeological record is marked with the beginning of stone utilization in private monuments on a grand scale. Manetho, an Egyptian priest who lived ca. 290 BC, credits Imhotep, the vizier of King Djoser, as being the inventor of the art of building in stone (Edwards 34). However, it is of interest to note that the annals from the Palermo Stone record the construction of a large building called Men-netjeret, dating to the reign of Khasekhemwy or Nebka (Shaw 90). Dr. Jaromir Malek and other notable Egyptologists believe this structure may be known today as Gisr el-Mudir, at Saqqara. However, since this structure never proceeded beyond its initial stages of construction (Shaw 90), Manetho is vindicated in assigning credit to Imhotep for the first monument constructed entirely out of stone.



Mortuary Complex at the Step Pyramid at Saqqara

Imhotep chose for King Djoser the site on which his pyramid would be constructed, at Saqqara, near the early mastabas of the officials noted above (Edwards 34). Dating ca. 2680 B.C.E (Aldred 1998 46), the pyramid is thought to have originally been planned as a mastaba which underwent six different stages in planning that would itself lead to a transition from mastaba to pyramid. The first stage was composed of a square mastaba-like structure of local stone dressed in fine Tura limestone from a quarry on the eastern side of the Nile, near Memphis (Edwards 35). In approximate association with the cardinal directions, a feature which later became prominent in royal Egyptian funerary architecture, it measured roughly eight meters in height with each side measuring 63 meters in length (Edwards 35). Stage two saw an extension on all four sides by four meters and a second dressing of Tura limestone was added (Edwards 36). The height of the second stage was lowered by 0.7 meters, thus forming a step-mastaba. Imhotep's third stage involved the elongation of the east side only, by 8.6 meters, forming a longer axis east to west (Edwards 36). This newly enlarged mastaba, which makes up stage four, then became the lowest step in what was planned as a four stepped pyramid. The construction of a mortuary temple on the north face of the pyramid was initiated but before either the fourth stage or mortuary temple was completed, it was decided to extend the pyramid to the north and west (Edwards 36). This extension on the north and west side, the fifth stage of construction, was abandoned at the fourth step in the pyramid. The sixth stage saw the addition of stone materials to each side of the pyramid which resulted in a completed six-stepped pyramid with a ground plan of 140 x 118 meters and a height of 60 meters, which was once again dressed in fine Tura limestone (Shaw 9).



Djoser's Step Pyramid: Photo by Diaa Khalil



Remaining uninvestigated until 1821 by Prussian Consul-General von Minntoli (Fakhry 20), the vast substructure of Djoser's Step Pyramid, filled with a maze of corridors and chambers, is unique in Old Kingdom Egypt. However, as some of these passageways were never completed, it remains difficult to ascertain their originality as they just as easily could have been produced from early explorers or tomb robbers (Edwards 36). In tracing the evolution of the royal Egyptian pyramid complex, it is important to note that the substructure of Djoser's Step Pyramid, namely the vertical shaft and ramp, still retain elements which resemble earlier private mastabas (Edwards 47). If the Step Pyramid truly does serve as an evolutionary link between mastabas and pyramids, then features similar to later pyramids should also be observed. One such feature can be seen in that Djoser's tomb-chamber is built entirely from pink Aswan granite, a lithic-type later abundantly utilized in pyramid burial chambers (Edwards 37). With the exception of the mortuary temple found on the north side of the pyramid, the rest of the pyramid complex is unique to the Old Kingdom. In fact, even the mortuary temple is somewhat unique in that it is found on the northern face, whereas with later pyramids the mortuary temple is always found on the eastern face.



Djoser's Step Pyramid: Photo by Diaa Khalil



The alignment of the mortuary temple on the eastern face of later pyramids was perhaps due to the growing influence of the cult of Re, the sun god, at Heliopolis. The fact that Imhotep was a high priest of Re at Heliopolis and Djoser was the first ruler to build a shrine there (Shaw 92), serves as circumstantial evidence for the growing association between the king and Re. This association is later manifested with developments in the layout of the pyramid complex and hints at a religious, funerary function related to sun worship for the pyramids.


Although further attempts at step pyramids were made by subsequent kings of the Third Dynasty, namely those of Sekhemkhet, Khaba and Nebka, they were neither completed or show any real sign of continuing evolution in pyramid design. It is not until the first king of the Fourth Dynasty, Sneferu, that a significant step is taken with the pyramid he built at Meydum. First scientifically investigated by Sir Gaston Maspero in 1882 (Edwards 75), the pyramid of Meydum sits in transition from the Step Pyramids of the Third Dynasty and the True Pyramids of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Dynasties. The site chosen by Sneferu sits in a strategic location near the Fayium Oasis, overlooking the modern village of Meydum, from which the pyramid derives its name (Verner 160). In ancient times, however, the pyramid is thought to have been known as Djed-Sneferu, and it is this name which serves as one piece of evidence contributing to the pyramid's attribution to Sneferu (Lehner 97).



Sneferu's Pyramid at Meydum



Like the Step Pyramid of Djoser, the pyramid of Meydum was built in stages. E1, the designation for the first stage of construction, consisted of seven steps. However, before the fifth step was completed the pyramid was enlarged to eight steps. This stage is known as E2, and was completed in the first 14 years of Sneferu's reign (Lehner 97). It was around this time that work ceased and Sneferu moved his court to Dashour (Dahshur), north of Meydum. In year 28 or 29 of his reign, according to German Egyptologist Dr. Rainer Stadelmann, Sneferu initiated construction of E3, the last stage of the pyramid's development which also concentrated on features within the newly emerging pyramid complex (Lehner 97). The construction techniques utilized in sections E1 and E2 originally parallel those used in the older step pyramids, with the accretion layers laid on an inward slope providing better support for the structure (Lehner 97). Section E3 was comprised of blocks laid horizontally and the polished Tura limestone facing blocks, which gave the pyramid a slope of 51 50' 35", almost identical to that of Khufu's at Giza, and thus the first true pyramid in Egyptian history was formed (Lehner 99).


Today the pyramid of Meydum has the appearance of a large three-stepped pyramid. In contrast to earlier theories forwarding the idea of a sudden collapse, Dr. Mark Lehner believes the present state of the pyramid "is one of being in the midst of construction and being stripped" (Lehner 100). This idea is evidenced by the fact that the lower casing stones found in the debris mound at the base of the pyramid show far fewer signs of erosion than those from the upper reaches of the pyramid. This variation in degrees of erosion could be due in part to the ancient presence of a ramp covering the lower courses of the monument, which in turn provided a means of access to the top of the pyramid for those interested in using the structure as a quarry (Verner 163). Since no ropes or other tools used in construction have been found in the rubble, it suggests its modern appearance, and Sneferu's abandonment of the monument, is not due to a sudden collapse.


As one would expect in this evolutionary stage of Egyptian pyramid development, the entrance to Djed-Sneferu is located on the northern face, fifteen meters above ground (Verner 163). At this time Sneferu was apparently experimenting with ways of constructing a burial chamber in the superstructure of the pyramid (Lehner 98). This feature is unique amongst Third Dynasty step pyramids, but a prominent feature which would be later utilized by both Sneferu and his successor, Khufu, on a grand scale (Verner 163). Instead of using thick granite to roof the burial chamber, as Djoser did before him, Sneferu made use of a technique known as corbelling for the first time (Lehner 98). This technique distributes the weight of the core blocks above it and provides better structural stability for the chamber. Following the tradition of the Third Dynasty step pyramids, Sneferu aligned the burial chamber on a north-south axis (Verner 165). Within the burial chamber Maspero found ropes and logs, the use of which were once suggested to lower the sarcophagus in place (Verner 164). Evidenced by the existence of several sarcophagi in unfinished pyramids of the Third Dynasty, it is more likely that the sarcophagus would have been placed during the construction of the burial chamber, before the corbelled ceilings were introduced, and thus their function is the subject of some debate.


During his work at Meydum in the late 19th century, Sir Flinders Petrie uncovered the Mortuary Temple on the east side of the Sneferu's pyramid (Verner 164). The practice of building the Mortuary Temple on the eastern side of the pyramid would hereafter become a regular feature with nearly all pyramid complexes. Associated with the E3 building phase, the square Mortuary Temple is one of the best preserved from the Old Kingdom and consists of an entry corridor with a double bend in the south east corner, similar to that seen in Djoser's chapels (Lehner 100), an open courtyard, and a room with two round-top stela with an offering table between them (Verner 165). While not formally inscribed during the reign of Sneferu, the Mortuary Temple does bear graffiti from the New Kingdom. For example, in year 41 of Tuthmosis III reign in the 18th dynasty, a scribe named Ankhkheperre-seneb wrote that he came "to see the marvelous temple of Horus Sneferu. He saw it, as if heaven were in it and in it the sun roseMay cool myrrh rain down from the heavens and fragrant incense drip onto the temple roof of Horus Sneferu" (Edwards 78). This graffiti serves as another source of evidence which allows Egyptologists to confidently attribute the Meydum pyramid to Sneferu. Other graffiti from the 6th dynasty does make mention of Sneferu, but it does not associate him with ownership of the pyramid complex (Edwards 78).



Ground plan of the Bent Pyramid with its additional cult pyramid



Yet another feature of the Meydum pyramid complex significant to the evolution of the Egyptian pyramid complex is the oldest known example of a cult pyramid, found at the south west corner of the primary pyramid (Verner 166). This example serves as an evolutionary link between the chapels constructed by Djoser and the cult pyramids constructed by later kings in the dynasty.


The reasons behind Sneferu's abandonment of Meydum are not clear, but with his next pyramid complex at Dashour he would seek to build upon the foundations he laid at Meydum.



The Bent Pyramid: Photo by Tour Egypt user Nebmaatre



No blueprint for a true pyramid had yet been established when Sneferu moved his palace from Meydum to Dashour. However, the Bent Pyramid was the first to have been planned as a true pyramid from the outset (Verner 174). Archaeological investigation of the pyramid was not initiated until efforts were undertaken by Perring, Lupsius, and later by Sir Finders Petrie, in the 19th century (Verner 174). It is from these and subsequent investigations that it has been made possible to study the methods of construction utilized in the Bent Pyramid.


Originally, the pyramid's architects planned to have a true pyramid with an angle of 60. However, the angle was reduced to roughly 55 shortly after construction commenced and thus required the enlargement of the base (Lehner 102). At about 45 meters above ground, the angle changed once again to a more gradual slope of 43 (Verner 462). It is from this decision that the Bent Pyramid derives its name. This change in angle allowed for a reduction in the size and number of blocks used in courses laid above 45 meters and was probably made in reaction to damage, evidenced by cracks, in the inner chambers (Verner 175). No other pyramid in Egypt retains as many of its casing stones as does the Bent, which is probably due in part to the traditional method of laying courses inclining inwards below the change in angle (Edwards 80). After the alternation in the angle of the pyramid was made, the courses were laid in the horizontal manner seen in use with later pyramids, including that of Khufu's at Giza (Lehner 102). In this respect the Bent pyramid sits in transition from the building practices utilized in the Third Dynasty with those of the so-called Great Pyramids at Giza built later in the Fourth Dynasty. The limestone core of the pyramid, comprised of local stone, rests directly on the sandy clay of Dashour, whereas the Tura limestone casing rests on an artificially constructed foundation, a feature which is again later seen at Giza (Verner 174). While it is widely assumed by the general public that Egyptian pyramids are comprised of a solid blocks of stone, such is not the case with Sneferu's Bent pyramid at Dashour. Here, and once again with the Great Pyramid at Giza, spaces in the stones were often filled with limestone and talfa debris (Lehner 102). This served the duel purpose of speeding construction and providing the pyramid with some flexibility should the site be struck by earthquake.


The Bent Pyramid is unique in that it has two entrances, one on the northern and another on the western face (Lehner 103). The northern entrance, aligned with the pyramid's north-south axis, was built twelve meters above the ground. Beyond it, a descending passageway gives access to a small underground chamber with high ceilings and a corbelled vault comprised of large limestone slabs (Verner 176). The western entrance, positioned at thirty meters above ground level, provides access to a descending passage which ends at another chamber with a corbelled vault ceiling known as the Upper Chamber (Verner 177). Here in this chamber were quarry marks with Sneferu's name, providing attribution of the pyramid to him. The Palermo Stone makes reference to Sneferu sending an expedition of forty ships to Lebanon for cedar, so it is therefore interesting to note that the side walls of this chamber have remains of cedar beams (Lehner 103). Cracks in the walls of the chamber, covered by the ancient Egyptians with gypsum mortar, suggest that there was at least some structural instability and give support to the theory that the pyramid's change of angle was related to this instability (Edwards 83). It is interesting to note that 700 years later, not far from the Bent Pyramid, King Amenemhat III of the Twelfth Dynasty would encounter similar problems with his pyramid. The double entrance/chamber system noted above likely resulted from the emphasis on the traditional north-south orientation of the burial chamber giving way to the east-west orientation of the pyramid complex (Verner 178).



Pyramid of Amenemhat III



Around year 30 of Sneferu's reign, construction began on the Bent Pyramid's cult pyramid on the south axis (Lehner 102). Once thought to belong to Queen Hetepheres I, King Khufu's mother, in terms of evolutionary development the cult pyramid serves as a significant transitional monument between earlier pyramids and the pyramid of Khufu (Lehner 103). It is within this small pyramid that the majority of Egyptologists believe the precursor to the corbelled Grand Gallery of Khufu's pyramid is found (Verner 180).


While Sneferu's beautiful Valley Temple at the Bent Pyramid is well investigated, in the contextual study of pyramid development the most important aspect of this temple is that it is the first known temple of the sort (Verner 181). From this point on a Valley Temple would be included in the Royal Pyramid Complex and serve a critical role in the mortuary practices of the king and his cult.



The Red Pyramid at Dashour



The Red Pyramid of Sneferu, at Dashour, provides little in way of transitional architectural developments utilized by later kings in their pyramids. However, it is significant to note that the east-west alignment of this pyramid's burial chamber removes itself from the traditional north-south alignment seen in Sneferu's two earlier pyramids and those built by Third Dynasty kings (Verner 186). Once again, like those at Meydum and the Bent Pyramid, the Red Pyramid also retains the corbelling feature in its burial chamber (Fakhry 97).


While much is made of Khufu's accomplishments at Giza, never in Egyptian history has one king accumulated the resources of the country and applied them to such vast and numerous building projects. Sneferu truly was the king of the pyramid builders, but his son, Khufu, would construct for himself a pyramid which would never be matched in complexity and sheer volume.


Surprisingly, very little is known about the man who built the Great Pyramid at Giza. The Turin Papyrus mentions that Khufu ruled for 23 years after the death of his father, Sneferu, so it is within this timeframe that (one of) the last remaining wonder of the ancient world was constructed. Khufu, whose full name was Khnum-Khufu (Shaw 94), chose for himself the site on which his pyramid was to be constructed at Giza, near the ancient capital of Memphis. With a ground plan of 230 square meters and an original height of 146.5 meters, the pyramid of Khufu is the largest pyramid ever built in Egypt (Shaw 95). Although not fully excavated, Khufu's pyramid complex sits in transition from those built by Sneferu and those built by Khufu's successors. On the south side of the pyramid a dismantled boat, 43.4 meters long and constructed of cedar and sycamore, was found in a pit especially designed to house it (Shaw 95). From the beginning of Egyptian history, indeed even into pre-history, boats have held special funerary significance related to the journey the soul makes in the afterlife. As early as 4000 B.C. (Wilkinson 62), at the beginning of the Nagada I period, boats are found in eastern desert rock art within a religious context. Later on, many mud-brick pits in the shape of boats are found at First and Second Dynasty tombs at Helwan and Saqqara (Fakhry 106). This practice continued through Egyptian history, so it is therefore not surprising to see this represented in a funerary context, once again, at Giza, where, in addition to the boat listed above, four other boat burials have been discovered (Shaw 95). This again shows a cultural adherence to mortuary iconography while allowing for the introduction of new elements into the Egyptian religious sphere. This process was critical to the long lasting survival of ancient Egyptian culture and is in evidence at Giza.


Robbed of its stone in antiquity, the mortuary temple sits exactly where one would expect it at this phase in the pyramid's development; on the east side (Fakhry 104). Here nothing remains save a small amount of basalt paving stones. The attaching causeway, extending 825 meters (Verner 207), presumably joins with Khufu's unexcavated Valley Temple (Fakhry 104). When excavated, the plan of the Valley Temple should show further evidence of a transitional link between those constructed by Sneferu, and that later constructed by Khufu's son, Khafre (Fakhry 104).


Like Sneferu's Red Pyramid, the Pyramid of Khufu rests on a foundation of limestone blocks (Fakhry 115). The core of the pyramid, made up of limestone local to Giza, sits on a natural mound which had the affect of reducing the number of stones required for the construction of the pyramid (Fakhry 115). Here the courses were laid horizontally, however, like Sneferu's earlier pyramid. The gaps between blocks were filled with quarried debitage and sand (Verner 195) to resist earthquake. The casing of the pyramid, of which little remains, was composed of highly polished white limestone, probably from Tura (Verner 195).


Sitting at seven meters above ground level on the north side, the original entrance to the pyramid opens to a long descending passageway which extends for thirty meters before leveling off and continuing to the Subterranean Chamber (Verner 196). Obviously unfinished, the function of the Subterranean Chamber is hotly debated. Dr. Rainer Stadelmann believes it was constructed to serve as a symbolic tomb for Sokar, who may have originally been worshiped in the Giza area. As such, the pyramid of Khufu would serve as a tomb for both the king and the god Sokar (Verner 196). It is significant to note here, however, that in the southern wall of the chamber a roughly hewn passage exists. The existence of this passage suggests a plan for another chamber, which would leave the subterranean structure of the monument very similar to that of Sneferu's Red Pyramid (Edwards 101).


The ascending passageway branches off from the upper area of the descending passageway and extends upwards until it opens at the bottom of the Grand Gallery (Verner 196). This remarkable structure is composed of seven layers of corbelling with an overlap of 7.5 cm (Verner 197). At the bottom of the Grand Gallery opens another horizontal passage which continues for a short distance before opening into the so-called Queen's Chamber.


Constructed entirely of limestone, the Queen's Chamber sits precisely on the pyramid's east-west axis (Verner 199). It has a garbled ceiling and a feature in its northern and southern walls which is unique in Egyptian architecture. At approximately two meters above the floor, a small square shaft, originally closed off, extends through the core of the pyramid and stops before the exterior at a small plugging stone. The function of these shafts is not known.


At the upper end of the Grand Gallery is another horizontal passage leading to the burial chamber. Built entirely of pink Aswan granite, the burial chamber houses a granite sarcophagus, in which king Khufu is presumably to have been laid to rest (Verner 202). Nine granite blocks, with a combined weight of 400 tons, make up the ceiling of the chamber. A small shaft like those in the Queen's Chamber is found on the north and south walls, only in this case they exit the pyramid (Verner 202). Above the King's Chamber are five relieving chambers designed to distribute the weight of the core blocks above it. Within these chambers were found several quarry marks, some of which list Khufu's names and serve as evidentiary support for the attribution of the monument to him (Verner 203).



Great Pyramids at Giza during the Sound and Light Show



In order to properly understand the function of the pyramids of Egypt, one must study the development of the Royal Egyptian Mortuary Complex within the context of ancient Egyptian cultural influences at the time. The pyramids did not spring up overnight, they are the end result of an evolution spanning over a dozen generations. All too often this development is ignored with the isolation of the three pyramids constructed at Giza by Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. This Great Pyramid Isolation Syndrome runs rampant throughout many of the "fringe" circles today, and nullifies the ability to objectively look at the evidence explaining the function and development of the Royal Egyptian Funerary Complex. Only through the study of this gradual but completely evidenced evolution will the ancient Egyptians be truly appreciated and their accomplishments properly credited.


Editor's notation: While Khufu's pyramid at Giza may represent a culmination in the development of the true pyramid, it was by no means the end of pyramid evolution. Though later pyramids were not as grand, many changes were made, usually reflecting changing religious ideology. For example, not until the pyramid of Unas at Saqqara do we find decorations within Pyramids. Still later, security measures would require a change in the pyramid's entrance. The substructures, including the burial chamber underwent many changes, particularly as Egyptian religion began to more and more encompass Osirian beliefs. In effect, the religious ideology of pyramids took much longer to perfect than the actual construction of these great monuments to Egypt's early civilization.

Works Consulted


Aldred, Cyril. Egyptian Art. New York: Thames & Hudsom Ltd, 1998.

Aldred, Cyril. The Egyptians. New York: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2000.

Edwards, I.E.S. The Pyramids of Egypt. England: Clays Ltd, 1993.

Fakhry, Ahmed. The Pyramids. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.

Lehner, Mark. The Complete Pyramids. New York: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1997.

Shaw, Ian. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Verner, Miroslav. The Pyramids. New York: Grove Press, 2001.

Wilkinson, Toby. Genesis of the Pharaohs. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003.