Did Ancient Egypt bury all her pharaohs in pyramids?

Ancient Egypt is synonymous with pyramids, yet not all pharaohs were buried within these iconic structures. Over millennia, burial practices evolved, encompassing mastabas, rock-cut tombs, and other methods. This topic delves into the varied resting places of Egyptian rulers throughout different dynastic periods.

READ MORE: Most Famous Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs

The first question that begs to be answered is: Did ancient Egyptians bury all their pharaohs in pyramids?

The simple answer is: No.

Pharaoh Khafre

Khafre – ancient Egyptian pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom (i.e. the Pyramid Age of ancient Egypt). Image: Alabaster statue of Khafre, probably from Memphis, now in the Egyptian Museum at Cairo.

Ancient Egypt did not bury all its pharaohs in pyramids. While pyramids are among the most iconic burial structures associated with ancient Egyptian pharaohs, especially from the Old Kingdom, they were not the exclusive burial place for all of Egypt’s rulers.

Considering how long ancient Egyptian civilization lasted for, it comes as no surprise that their burial practices changed over time.

Burial practices in the Early Dynastic Period

Before the construction of pyramids, early pharaohs of the 1st and 2nd Dynasties were buried in large mud-brick tombs called “mastabas” at Abydos and Saqqara.

Old Kingdom

Pyramids of Giza

Old Kingdom | Image: Pyramids of Giza at the Giza Plateau

This is the age of the great pyramid builders. Pharaohs of the 3rd to 6th Dynasties, most notably Pharaohs Djoser, Sneferu, Khufu (Cheops), Khafre (Chephren), and Menkaure, built their monumental pyramids primarily at Saqqara, Dahshur, and Giza.

READ MORE: How did the ancient Egyptians build the pyramid?

First Intermediate Period & Middle Kingdom

The practice of building grand pyramids declined. The pharaohs of the 11th and 12th Dynasties were buried in smaller pyramids and sometimes in rock-cut tombs, especially at sites like Lisht and Dashur.

Second Intermediate Period

During this time of fragmented rule and the invasion of the Hyksos, monumental tomb building was limited.

New Kingdom

Due to massive feats that were attained by the rulers of the New Kingdom, as well as just how united Egypt was at the time, some historians like to refer to this period as the Egyptian Empire or the Golden Age of ancient Egypt. Image (L-R) – Ahmose, Akhenaten, Amenhotep III, Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, and Tutankhamun

This period saw a significant shift in royal burials. Rather than pyramids, pharaohs and nobles were buried in rock-cut tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, located near modern-day Luxor. The most famous tomb from this era is that of Tutankhamun (King Tut).

READ MORE: Most Famous Rulers of the New Kingdom Period

Third Intermediate Period & Late Period

During these times of political instability and foreign invasions, pyramid building was sporadic, and tombs were often less grand. Many pharaohs were buried in the northern delta region or in smaller, less elaborate tombs.

Ptolemaic Period

The Greek rulers of Egypt, the Ptolemies, adopted some Egyptian customs but did not build pyramids for themselves. Instead, they had grand temples and tombs in places like Alexandria. The most famous burial from this period is the mausoleum of Alexander the Great (although its precise location remains uncertain) and the speculated tomb of Cleopatra, which has not been definitively found.

Did you know…?

  • Mummification was a costly procedure, reserved primarily for the wealthy elite, while commoners received simpler burial treatments.
  • The ancient Egyptians believed that proper burial ceremonies were crucial for the peace of the deceased’s soul. Regardless of their social or economic status, every Egyptian received some form of burial rite. This widespread practice stemmed from the fear that if the deceased were not appropriately honored, their soul might return as a malevolent forces to disturb the living. This belief in the tangible threat of those dark forces meant that families, even those in financial distress, would go to great lengths to secure proper funerary rites. Morticians, aware of this fear, often promoted elaborate services as the most effective in ensuring the deceased’s soul was content and the living relatives remained untroubled by spirits.
  • When a body was brought for mummification, the embalmer wore a mask representing Anubis, the god of the afterlife, believed to guide souls for judgment in the Hall of Truth.

READ MORE: How does Anubis’ role differ from Osiris’?

Questions and Answers

Pharaoh Menkaure

Known by his Hellenized names Menkheres and Mykerinos, ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Menkaure was a ruler from the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom.

How were ancient Egyptian pharaohs buried?

The burial of ancient Egyptian pharaohs was a complex process, involving intricate rituals, structures, and beliefs about the afterlife. The overarching goal was to ensure the pharaoh’s safe passage and eternal life in the afterlife.

Generally, the pharaoh’s body was mummified. This was a critical process that preserved the deceased’s body. The organs (except for the heart) were removed and placed in canopic jars. The body was then cleaned, treated with natron (a type of salt) to dry it out, and then wrapped in layers of linen bandages.

Pharaohs often had elaborate funerary masks, like the famous golden mask of Tutankhamun. These masks, often made of gold and precious stones, represented the pharaoh’s features.

The mummified body was then placed in a series of nested coffins, which could be made of wood, stone, or gold, depending on the era and the wealth of the pharaoh.

The tomb was filled with various goods the pharaoh might need in the afterlife, including furniture, food, jewelry, chariots, weapons, and figurines called “ushabti” (which were believed to become servants for the deceased in the afterlife).

Often included within the tomb, this was a collection of spells, hymns, and instructions to aid the pharaoh in navigating the challenges of the afterlife.

What went into the mummification process?

After the body is brought to the embalmer, it is cleaned and major organs, except the heart, were removed for separate embalming. These organs were stored in canopic jars, guarded by The Four Sons of Horus, for tomb placement. The brain was extracted through the nose, though keeping the body unbroken was ideal. The body was then dried using “Natron” for about 70 days, subsequently stuffed, covered with resin for preservation, and wrapped in linen. This wrapping process took two weeks. Since the body was believed to house the spirit, the mummy was often adorned with jewels, metals, and paint.

What was the tomb structure like?

As stated above, in Old Kingdom, Egyptian pharaohs were buried in pyramids, the most famous being the Pyramids of Giza. These monumental structures were surrounded by smaller pyramids and mastabas for queens and nobles.

In the Middle Kingdom, pyramid-building continued but on a smaller scale, often in regions like Dashur and Fayoum.

In the New Kingdom, pharaohs were buried in rock-cut tombs in the Valley of the Kings near Thebes (modern-day Luxor). These tombs were hidden away, perhaps due to concerns about grave robbery.

The Mastabat al-Fir’aun of Shepseskaf, the last Egyptian ruler of the fourth dynasty

What security measures were put in place to protect the pharaoh’s tomb?

To prevent tomb robbery, many tombs had false chambers, corridors, and traps. Guards were often stationed nearby, and curses were inscribed to deter potential thieves.

It was also not uncommon for tombs to be inscribed with hieroglyphs detailing the life and accomplishments of the pharaoh, praises to the gods, and spells for protection.

What funerary rituals accompanied the burial of the pharaohs?

Various rituals were performed to ensure the pharaoh’s safe journey to the afterlife. One such ritual was the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony, believed to restore the deceased’s senses.

What were the purpose of memorial temples?

Especially during the New Kingdom, pharaohs built memorial temples near their burial sites. These temples were for offering rituals and commemorating the deceased, separate from their actual burial tombs.

What role did a stele play?

These stone or wooden slabs, often placed at the tomb’s entrance, had inscriptions commemorating the deceased and asking passersby to make offerings or prayers for their soul.

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