Pyramids that came before the Great Pyramid

The Great Pyramid of Giza, constructed around 2580-2560 BC during the reign of Pharaoh Khufu, is one of the most iconic and enduring symbols of ancient Egypt. However, its grandeur was preceded by a series of architectural and engineering developments spanning several generations of pyramid-building in Egypt.

In the article below, World History Edu delves into the evolution and significance of the pyramids that preceded the Great Pyramid, tracing their origins from simple mastabas to sophisticated true pyramids, showcasing the innovation and ambition of ancient Egyptian civilization.

Egyptian Pyramids: History and Interesting Facts

Early Dynastic Period and the Mastaba Tombs

The journey towards the Great Pyramid began during Egypt’s Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150 – c. 2613 BC), when the predominant form of elite burial was the mastaba.

A mastaba, derived from the Arabic word for “bench,” is a flat-roofed, rectangular structure with outward sloping sides, constructed from mud-bricks or stone, and used as a tomb.

The mastaba was designed to cover a subterranean burial chamber, providing a space for the deceased to transition to the afterlife, as well as to house offerings and depictions of the deceased’s life.

Great Rulers of the Early Dynastic Period in Egypt

Step Pyramid of Djoser: The First Monumental Stone Structure

The architectural evolution from a mastaba to a true pyramid began with the Step Pyramid of Djoser, built during the 3rd Dynasty (c. 2670 – c. 2640 BC) by the visionary architect Imhotep. Located at Saqqara, the Step Pyramid represents the first monumental stone structure of its kind and marks a significant transformation in royal funerary practices. Originally planned as a traditional mastaba, the design was ambitiously expanded into a six-tiered step pyramid, reaching a height of 62 meters. This pyramid was not merely a tomb but a central part of a vast funerary complex, including temples, shrines, and courtyards intended for royal rituals and offerings.

Image: Pyramid of Djoser

The Innovations at Meidum: A Transitional Pyramid

The pyramid at Meidum, believed to have been started by Pharaoh Huni and completed by Sneferu, Khufu’s father, represents another pivotal moment in the evolution of pyramid construction. Originally built as a step pyramid, it was later transformed into a true (smooth-sided) pyramid.

However, this transition was not fully successful; the outer casing collapsed, leaving the step core exposed. The Meidum pyramid’s partial collapse provided valuable lessons in engineering and construction techniques, influencing future pyramid designs.

Image: The Meidum pyramid

How did the Ancient Egyptians build the Pyramids?

Sneferu and the Mastery of Pyramid Building

Sneferu, the founder of the 4th Dynasty, was a prolific pyramid builder, and his constructions illustrate significant advancements toward achieving the perfect true pyramid form. His reign marked the construction of three major pyramids, each reflecting a different approach to resolving the challenges encountered at Meidum.

Image: A statue depicting Sneferu.

The Bent Pyramid

Located at Dahshur, the Bent Pyramid represents a unique example where the pyramid’s angle changes from a steep 54 degrees at the bottom to a more gentle 43 degrees at the top. This adjustment was likely made mid-construction to avoid the structural instability seen at Meidum. The Bent Pyramid remains one of the best-preserved pyramids and was the first to have smooth sides all the way from the base to the apex.

The Bent Pyramid at Dahshur, built by Pharaoh Sneferu, features a unique shape with a change in angle partway up, reflecting early experiments in pyramid construction techniques during Egypt’s Old Kingdom. Image: Bent Pyramid.

Old Kingdom: Definition, History, Pharaohs, & Major Facts

The Red Pyramid

Also at Dahshur, the Red Pyramid is Sneferu’s third pyramid and is considered the first successful true pyramid owing to its smooth sides and consistent angle. Its construction is seen as a direct response to the structural issues of the Bent Pyramid. With a height of 104 meters and a base length of 220 meters, it set the stage for the dimensions and slope used in the Great Pyramid.

The Red Pyramid, built by Pharaoh Sneferu at Dahshur, is Egypt’s first successful true pyramid, known for its smooth sides and consistent angle, representing a major advance in pyramid construction. Image: Red Pyramid.

Architectural and Cultural Significance

The progression from mastabas to true pyramids reflects broader socio-political and religious transformations in ancient Egyptian society.

Each pyramid was not just a tomb but a statement of divine kingship, designed to display the pharaoh’s power and ensure his place in the afterlife. The complex around each pyramid, which included temples, causeways, and smaller tombs for officials, was integral to the function of the pyramid as part of a state-sponsored cult of the deceased king.

The innovations in pyramid construction also reflect significant developments in ancient Egyptian technology, including advancements in mathematics, engineering, and the organization of labor. The transition from mudbrick to limestone and granite showcases the increasing ability of the Egyptians to manipulate natural resources for monumental construction.

Did Ancient Egypt bury all her pharaohs in pyramids?

The pyramids that came before the Great Pyramid embody the Egyptian worldview, linking the divine and the mortal, the earth and the sky. Image: Great Pyramid of Giza.

Frequently asked questions about Egyptian Pyramids

These questions encompass the intrigue and mystery surrounding the Egyptian pyramids, reflecting both historical significance and enduring cultural fascination.

What was the purpose of the Egyptian pyramids?

The primary purpose of the Egyptian pyramids was to serve as tombs for pharaohs and their consorts. They were part of a larger complex of buildings meant for rituals and to help the deceased pharaohs in their afterlife.

How were the Egyptian pyramids built?

The exact methods of pyramid construction are still debated by scholars. It is generally believed that large blocks of stone were quarried, transported, and assembled using a combination of sledges, ramps, and manpower. Recent theories also suggest the use of water to facilitate the transportation of the heavy limestone blocks.

Who built the Egyptian pyramids?

The pyramids were built by skilled laborers who were likely drafted for work as a form of tax payment to the state during the flood season, rather than by slaves. This labor force included masons, carpenters, architects, and workers.

How many pyramids are there in Egypt?

There are approximately 138 identified Egyptian pyramids, most of which were built as tombs for the country’s pharaohs and their consorts during the Old and Middle Kingdom periods.

What is the largest pyramid in Egypt?

The Great Pyramid of Giza, built for Pharaoh Khufu, is the largest Egyptian pyramid. It was originally about 146.6 meters (481 feet) tall and was the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years.

Why did the ancient Egyptians stop building pyramids?

Pyramid building declined after the end of the Middle Kingdom due to economic factors, changes in religious beliefs, and the political shifting of power. Additionally, the tombs in the Valley of the Kings were less visible and thus less susceptible to tomb robbers.

What are some notable pyramids in Egypt?

Notable pyramids include the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid at Dahshur, and of course, the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Many Egyptian pyramids can be visited by tourists. The most popular pyramid complex is at Giza, near Cairo, which includes the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Sphinx. Image: Great Sphinx of Giza.

Are there any intact pyramids?

While no pyramid has remained entirely intact due to millennia of erosion and looting, the base structure of many pyramids still exists. Some, like the Pyramid of Djoser, have been restored to a significant degree.

What do the inscriptions inside the pyramids mean?

Inscriptions found inside some pyramids, especially those from the Pyramid Texts in the pyramids of Unas and subsequent pharaohs, contain spells and prayers intended to protect the pharaoh in the afterlife and guide him through the underworld.

Pyramid Texts: Definition, Purpose, Hieroglyphs, & Facts

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