|The pyramids on the Giza Plateau near Cairo. At far right is the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), in the middle and closer is the pyramid of Khafre (Chephren), and on left is the smallest of the three major Giza pyramids – that of Menkaure (Mycerinus). Three small subsidiary pyramids are at the extreme left. The photograph is a montage by Mark Rigby taken from a rocky outcrop to the southeast.|
There are about 110 pyramids currently known in Egypt, many in a state of great disrepair and almost unrecognisable. Some were built as burial places for kings and others for queens. A pyramid also may have represented a stairway for the king to ascend to the heavens. Another possibility is that it was symbolic of the primeval mound on which the sun god/creator was born.
How the Egyptians managed the complex organisation of labour and the physical movement of large stone blocks is still a matter for debate. Pyramid construction may have involved ramps being erected around the pyramid. Blocks of stone would have been pulled up on sledges and the ramps dismantled later. It is believed that most of the labour for the construction of the pyramids would have come from farmers who were available during the inundation season when the Nile River flooded and farmland was underwater. It would also have been an ideal time for the transportation by boat of large stone blocks from their quarries to the pyramid sites.
The earliest pyramid was the Step Pyramid of king Djoser of the Old Kingdom’s 3rd Dynasty over 4,600 years ago. The pyramid (at right) was the largest structure ever erected at Saqqara, the necropolis that overlooked the ancient capital of Memphis. Its construction was initially in the form of a low mastaba tomb upon which extra levels were gradually added to give it a step-like appearance.
Underneath Djoser’s pyramid was a complex system of corridors with a burial chamber lined with Aswan pink granite about 28 metres underground. The entrance was sealed with a three-tonne granite plug. The pyramid’s outside would have been cased with fine limestone, but this was removed long ago. Nearby were the Mortuary Temple, a Great Court and various other structures.
The first true pyramid (at right) was developed for King SneferuRed Pyramid, because of its colour, or the North Pyramid because of its position at Dashur south of Cairo. It was about 105 metres high with its sides measuring 220 metres. during the 4th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. It is referred to as the
The largest pyramid ever built was the Great Pyramid at Giza southwest of modern Cairo (see Giza and the Pyramids). Built for king Khufu, this pyramid was completed around 2550 BC.
It is estimated that the pyramid contains approximately 2,300,000 blocks of stone with an average weight of 2.5 tonnes each and some up to 15 tonnes. Its sides measure 230 metres in length. The structure would have towered about 146.6 metres high, but it is now a little shorter owing to the outer casing having been removed to build many of Cairo’s buildings during the Middle Ages. The interior design was changed during the pyramid’s construction and the burial chamber was relocated.
One of its most spectacular features is the enormous sloping Grand Gallery. At the Gallery’s top is a low corridor which leads into the King’s Chamber, the walls of which are made of polished granite. A large granite sarcophagus is open and no burial goods have ever been found.
To the east of the pyramid, some of the smooth basalt paving of the mortuary temple remains and the causeway which led to the river temple is now buried with the valley temple being under modern buildings. Small pyramids for queens are adjacent to the Great Pyramid, as are boat pits.
In 1954, a large cedar boat (pictured at left) was uncovered in one of the pits and then reassembled. It is now on display next to the pyramid. A second boat remains in pieces in another covered pit. The boats may have been provided for the deceased king to travel through the underworld.
The Giza Plateau also is home to two other large pyramids for the subsequent kings, Chephren and Menkaura. As with the Great Pyramid, both of these pyramids have valley temples and mortuary temples connected by causeways. However, next to Chephren’sSphinx and its associated temple. valley temple is the famous 73-metre long
Despite controversy over its age, most Egyptologists believe that the SphinxChephren’s pyramid. was carved from a rocky outcrop at the same time as
The resources for building enormous pyramids during the rest of the Old Kingdom could not be mustered and the pyramids were both smaller and less well built. The 5th Dynasty pyramid of Unas at Saqqara is famous for its Pyramid Texts – the first funerary texts carved into the walls of any pyramid. The pyramid is located just south of the walled enclosure of the pyramid of Djoser.
During the Middle Kingdom, kings again built themselves pyramids, but being largely of mud-brick, they have not survived very well. Elaborate interior designs failed to stop ancient tomb robbers from breaking in and stealing the burial goods.
The time of large pyramids had passed, although small pyramids were used in some New Kingdom private burials as superstructures for funerary chapels. Restored examples exist at Deir el-Medina, the village of the workmen who constructed the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
Pyramids were also built south of Egypt in ancient Nubia (the northern part of today’s Sudan), where there are actually more than in Egypt. Although being influenced by the Egyptian pyramids, the pyramids in Nubia had their own style and were built on a smaller scale and with steeper sides. In the case of the Nubian pyramids, the tombs of owners were usually underground with the pyramid built on top. The last pyramid was built in Nubia in the 4th century AD.