What Was the Importance of Pyramids in Ancient Egypt?

King Djoser’s Step Pyramid Near Saqqara

The pyramids of Egypt are among the most recognizable and enduring monuments of the ancient world. Long after they were built, other ancient peoples, such as the Greeks and Romans, wrote about them with as much awe as people do today. The Greeks included the Giza Pyramids among the Seven Wonders of the World, which brought an appreciation of the structures to people who would not otherwise see them. The Greco-Roman admiration of the pyramids was transferred to medieval and early modern Europe, where early attempts to uncover the mysteries of the pyramids were made. Influenced by the Bible, Europeans of these periods believed that the pyramids were the famed granaries of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Around the same time, Arab and Persian writers postulated that the pyramids of Egypt were actually vessels of esoteric knowledge of a previous age. Although these early writers erred in their judgement of the pyramids’ functions, they were correct to assume that they were important structures.

During the nineteenth century, when the discipline known as Egyptology was emerging, scholars discovered that the pyramids were in fact tombs for the Egyptian kings. This in itself was important, but it became even more so when scholars learned more about ancient Egyptian religion and discovered that Egyptian kings were also viewed as gods. The pyramids were more than just tombs, though, they were part of often expansive temple complexes that played an integral role in the religious life of Old Kingdom Egypt. Pyramid construction also evolved considerably during the Old Kingdom, demonstrating the Egyptians’ ability to tackle complex architectural problems at an early point in human civilization.

The Symbolism of the Pyramids

King Snefru’s First Pyramid Near Meidum

Unfortunately, no manual has been discovered that details the mechanics of how the pyramids were built or what they were meant to represent. Although that certainly presents some problems to the modern scholar, some conclusions can be drawn concerning the symbolism of the pyramids. Any discussion or examination of what the pyramids were meant to symbolize must begin with the ancient Egyptian concept of divine kingship and how that related to Egyptian religion.

The sun-god, in all of his manifestations, was among the most important of the deities in the Egyptian pantheon. After death, the king was associated with the sun-god, so the idea that pyramids are solar symbols has long been argued by Egyptologists. One of the most common solar interpretations is that pyramids represent the rays of the sun shining down on the mummy of the deceased king. [1] It is also significant that the very tops of pyramids, known as “pyramidions,” were often gilded, giving a shiny appearance. Others have argued that pyramids, especially step pyramids, represent steps to the heavens that the deceased king will use on his journey in the afterlife. [2]

Another possible explanation for the shape of the pyramids is that they were meant to represent the sacred benben stone in Heliopolis. The benben stone was a pyramidion, which according to the Helipolitan creation myth was the primordial mound of creation. Because of that, many modern scholars theorize that the pyramids were meant to represent the primordial mound of creation through which life emerged. [3]

The layout of pyramids also had symbolic significance. Since pyramids were tombs, they were always located on the west bank of the Nile River, which is where most tombs were located in ancient Egypt because the deceased needed to see the sun rise each morning. The layout of the Great Pyramids of Giza has particularly been a point of interest among scholars and laypeople alike. Noted scholars state that the three pyramids may indeed have pointed toward the city of Heliopolis, further proving the solar significance of the structures, but that they do not match Orion’s Belt as some fringe theories have claimed. [4]

The Evolution of the Pyramids

King Snefru’s Bent Pyramid Near Dashur
King Snefru’s Red or North Pyramid Near Dashur

Among the general public, there is often confusion about the origins of the pyramids, which is frequently the result of fantastic theories and outright falsehoods that are perpetuated on television programs and other media. An examination of early Egyptian history reveals that there was actually a very clear progression that began with small burial mounds, developing gradually into “true” pyramids. In Egypt’s First and Second Dynasties, kings were buried in mud-brick mounds that are known as mastabas, which is an Arabic word for “bench.” Most scholars believe that the mound, or bench, represented the primordial mound of creation discussed above. The earliest mastabas were built in the Upper Egyptian (southern) city of Hierakonpolis, which is probably where the Egyptian concept of divine kingship was first articulated. [5] Later in the Second Dynasty, the royal burials moved a bit farther north to Abydos and finally to the area near the modern village of Saqqara in Lower Egypt, just outside of the ancient capital of Memphis on the west bank of the Nile River. [6] By the end of the Second Dynasty the mastabas had grown in size and extended members of the royal family, as well as non-royal government officials, began to be buried near the kings in the royal necropolis.

The next step in Egyptian royal burial construction was to stack successively smaller mastabas on top of each other to create a “step pyramid.” The famed architect and scientist, Imhotep, is generally credited with being the “inventor” of the step pyramid as he was the vizier and “overseer of the works” under the first king of the Third Dynasty, Djoser (ruled ca. 2667-2648 BC). [7] Not only was Djoser’s step pyramid the first Egyptian burial monument made of stone, it also provided a template for later pyramids as a “temple complex.” The king’s tomb was located beneath the 196 foot high solid structure, but all around it was a 5,397 foot long wall that enclosed the pyramid and several other religious buildings. [8] Essentially, the entire complex was dedicated to the divinity of the kingship god Horus and Osiris, god of the dead, who were merged with the sun-god in the pyramid. Besides the religious significance, pyramid complexes became economic and population focal points of the community: merchants and artisans all were drawn to them for various professional reasons. [9]

The Pyramid Age

The Pyramids of Giza: From Left to Right – Khufu, Khafra, and Menkaura

Although Djoser’s pyramid represented a major step forward in the evolution of pyramids in terms of structure, style, and purpose, it would not be until the Fourth Dynasty when the first attempts at a “true” pyramid were made. King Snefru (reigned ca. 2613-2589 BC) started the Pyramid Age by building three pyramids: one near Meidum and two near Dashur. The Meidum pyramid was originally intended to be a step pyramid early in the king’s rule, but later in his life he had it filled in, making it a true pyramid, albeit one with extremely steep angles. [10]

Snefru’s long reign allowed him the luxury to build three potential tombs and to choose which one best suited his mummy. The second pyramid Snefru had built was the Bent Pyramid, located near the village of Dashur. The pyramid is noticeable for its extreme angles near the top: the bottom of the pyramid has a 52-53 degree angle, while the top is 43 to 44 degrees. Modern scholars believe that the extreme difference in angles may have been the result of structural problems, but it is impossible to say for sure. [11]

The final pyramid Snefru constructed was the North or Red Pyramid, so named for its reddish color. The king began the pyramid in his thirtieth year of rule, but it remains unknown if that was he final resting place. The Red Pyramid is considered the first true pyramid that survived unblemished and therefore provided the template for the later Giza Pyramids. [12]

The Giza Pyramids

King Khufu’s Funerary Barque

Snefru left his son and successor, Khufu (ruled ca. 2589-2566 BC), known as Cheops to the Greeks, with an impressive architectural base from which to build. Khufu did so by building the greatest of the three pyramids known collectively as the “Great Pyramids” or the “Giza Pyramids” for the modern town in Lower Egypt near where they are located. Khufu’s Pyramid covers 13.1 acres, is 479 feet high, and has a slope of 53 degrees. The Great Pyramid was accompanied by smaller pyramids for the king’s queens and a royal barque that was never used in the temporal world, but was buried next to the pyramid to be ridden by the king through the underworld. [13]

The organization of the labor needed to build the pyramids was almost as incredible as the pyramids themselves. The Great Pyramid was built from 2,300,000 limestone stones, each weighing about 2.5 tons. [14] The workers were picked from villages throughout Egypt in a conscription/draft system, were paid, and their families were also taken care of while they were away. The men would be divided into groups of 25,000 who would work for three month “tours.” On any working day, there were two gangs of 1,000 men working, further divided into “phyles” of 200 men, which were sub-divided into groups of twenty. The quarry was less than a mile away, which made hauling the stones easier, but the workers had to do so without the use of wheels. Twenty men could pull a two ton block on a sled from the quarry to the pyramid in about twenty minutes, less if they poured water to make the sled slide better. Ten stone setters would work per block. The builders had no pulleys, so they constructed dirt ramps that allowed the workers to stack the blocks. [15]

Two kings after Khufu, Khafra (reigned ca. 2558-2532 BC), called Chephren by the Greeks, was the next king to build a pyramid at Giza. Although Khafra’s pyramid looks bigger than Khufu’s, it is on a bedrock foundation that is thirty-three feet higher. Khafra’s pyramid is at a slightly sharper angle than Khufu’s and the bottom is made from red granite. [16]

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Khafra’s pyramid is the larger complex, which contains the fabled Sphinx. The Sphinx, which was carved from the natural bedrock instead of limestone, and the temple complex are connected to the pyramid by a causeway that at one time would have connected to canals that brought people to and from the Nile. [17] The smallest of the three Great Pyramids was King Menkaura’s (reigned ca. 2532-2503 BC), known to the Greeks as Mykerinos. After Menkaura, the high point of the Pyramid Age had peaked, but it was not completely done.

Later Pyramids

The pyramids constructed after the Fourth Dynasty were inferior in size, but not so in theological importance. The last king of the Fifth Dynasty, Unas (ruled ca, 2375-2345 BC), introduced a new innovation to the pyramids known as the Pyramid Texts. The Pyramid Texts were a collection of hieroglyphic texts, known as Utterances, inscribed on the walls of the pyramid’s tomb chamber, which served to unite the king in death with Osiris and the different manifestations of the sun-god. [18] One Utterance describes how the rides an ethereal barque with the sun gods Re and Atum and Isis, who was the goddess of magic and Osiris’ wife.

“He goes aboard the bark like Re at the banks of the Winding Waterway, this King rows in the Bark of Lightening, he navigates therein to the Field of the Lower Skies at this south of the Field of Rushes. His hand is taken by Re, his head is lifted up by Atum, the end of his bow-warp is taken by Isis, his stern-warp is coiled by Nepthys, the Celestial Serpent has placed him at her side, she drops him down among the khentyush as calf-herds.” [19]

Pyramid building continued into the Middle Kingdom (ca. 1975-1640 BC), which comprised Egypt’s Twelfth and Thirteenth Dynasties. Most of the prominent pyramids from this period were built near the city of Lisht in Middle Egypt, but some were also constructed near Dashur. [20] These pyramids were but a shadow of those built during the Fourth Dynasty and by the New Kingdom the royals abandoned pyramids as royal burials in favor of more isolated and hidden tombs in the Valley of the Kings near Thebes in southern Egypt.

Conclusion

Pyramids played an important role during ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom for a number of reasons. They not only functioned as tombs for their kings, who were seen as gods, but were the focal point of a much larger temple complex. The structure of pyramids gradually grew from being simple mound tombs into the great structure that most people think of today. Once the size and workmanship of pyramids declined slightly, their theological significance did not. Later kings plastered the interiors of their pyramids with some of the oldest religious texts known to man as a testament to the importance of pyramid building in ancient Egypt.

References

  1. Lehner, Mark. The Complete Pyramids: Solving the Ancient Mysteries (London: Thames and Hudson, 2001), p. 34
  2. Shaw, Ian and Paul Nicholson. The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), p. 24
  3. Kuhrt, Amélie. The Ancient Near East: c. 3000-330 BC. (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 140
  4. Lehner, p. 106-7
  5. Lehner, p. 72
  6. Lehner, pgs. 75-81
  7. Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 111
  8. Lehner, p. 84
  9. Lehner, p. 9
  10. Lehner, p. 99
  11. Lehner, p. 102
  12. Lehner, p. 104
  13. Lehner, p. 14
  14. Lehner, p. 108
  15. Lehner, p. 224-25
  16. Robins, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 49
  17. Lehner, p. 126
  18. Malek, Jaromir. “Old Kingdom (c. 2686-2125 BC).” In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Edited by Ian Shaw. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pgs. 112-13
  19. Faulkner, Richard, trans. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts (Stilwell, Kansas: Digireads.com Publishing, 2007), Utterance 548
  20. Lehner, pgs. 168-87