All things dread Time, but Time dreads the Pyramids.

Anonymous proverb

For millions of people the three great Pyramids of Giza epitomize Ancient Egypt: no other monuments are so instantly recognized around the world. Yet comparatively few foreigners realize that there are at least 115 further pyramids spread across 70km of desert, from the outskirts of Cairo to the edge of the Fayoum. The mass of theories, claims and counterclaims about how and why the Pyramids were built contributes to the sense of mystery that surrounds them. You can read up on some of the wackier ones – including some involving Martians – at w paranormal.about.com/cs/ancientegypt. Most visitors are content to see the Giza Pyramids and part of the sprawling necropolis of Saqqara, both easily accessible from Cairo (tours to Saqqara often include a visit to the ruins of the ancient city of Memphis). Only a minority get as far as the Dahshur pyramid field, while there are also a host of even more obscure pyramids to explore.

Brief history

The derivation of the word “pyramid” is obscure. Per-em-us, an Ancient Egyptian term meaning “straight up”, seems likelier than the Greek pyramis – “wheaten cake”, a facetious descriptive term for these novel monuments. Then again, “obelisk” comes from obeliskos, the ancient Greek for “skewer” or “little spit”.

Whatever, the Pyramids’ sheer antiquity is staggering. When the Greek chronicler Herodotus visited them in 450 BC, as many centuries separated his lifetime from their creation as divide our own time from that of Herodotus, who regarded them as ancient even then. For the Pyramid Age was only an episode in three millennia of pharaonic civilization, reaching its zenith within two hundred years and followed by an inexorable decline, so that later dynasties regarded the works of their ancestors with awe.

The Pyramid Age began at Saqqara in the twenty-seventh century BC, when the III Dynasty royal architect Imhotep enlarged a mastaba tomb to create the first step pyramid. As techniques evolved, an attempt was made to convert another step pyramid at Maidum into a true pyramid by encasing its sides in a smooth shell, but it seems that the design was faulty and the pyramid collapsed at some time under its own weight. According to one theory, this happened during construction of what became the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur, necessitating a hasty alteration to the angle of its sides. The first sheer-sided true pyramid, apparently the next to be constructed, was the Red Pyramid at Dahshur, followed by the Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza, which marked the zenith of pyramid architecture. After two more perfect pyramids at Giza, fewer resources and less care were devoted to later pyramids (such as those at Abu Sir, South Saqqara and Lisht), and no subsequent pyramid ever matched the standards of the Giza trio.

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