The Pyramids

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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 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.

The cults of Ptah and Sokar

In pre-Dynastic times, Ptah was the Great Craftsman or Divine Artificer who invented metallurgy and engineering. However, the people of Memphis esteemed him as the Great Creator who, with a word, brought the universe into being – a concept that never really appealed to other Egyptians. Like most creator gods, he was subsequently linked with death cults and is shown dressed in the shroud of a mummy. The Greeks equated him with Hephaestus, their god of fire and the arts.

Another deity closely associated with Memphis is Sokar, originally the god of darkness but subsequently of death, with special responsibility for necropolises. He is often shown, with a falcon’s head, seated in the company of Isis and Osiris. Although his major festival occurred at Memphis towards the end of the inundation season, Sokar also rated a shrine at Abydos, where all the Egyptian death gods were represented.


The Dahshur pyramid field contains some of the most impressive of all the pyramids, and some of the most significant in the history of pyramid-building. The pyramids are in two groups. To the east are three Middle Kingdom complexes, dating from the revival of pyramid-building (c.1991–1790 BC) that culminated near the Fayoum. Though the pyramids proved unrewarding to nineteenth-century excavators, their subsidiary tombs yielded some magnificent jewellery (now in the Egyptian Museum).

To the north, the pyramids of XII Dynasty pharaohs Seostris III and Amenenmhat II are little more than piles of rubble, but the southernmost of the three, the Black Pyramid of Amenemhat III (Joseph’s pharoah in the Old Testament, according to some), is at least an interesting shape: though its limestone casing has long gone, a black mud-brick core is still standing (its black basalt capstone is in the Egyptian Museum).

More intriguing, however, are the two Old Kingdom pyramids further into the desert, which have long tantalized archeologists with a riddle. Both of them are credited to Snofru (c.2613–2588 BC), father of Cheops and founder of the IV Dynasty, whose monuments constitute an evolutionary link between the stepped creations of the previous dynasty at North Saqqara and the true pyramids of Giza.

The riddle of Snofru’s pyramids

Snofru, the founder of the IV Dynasty, is associated with three different pyramids: the Red and Bent Pyramids at Dahshur and the Collapsed Pyramid at Meidum. Given that a pyramid was the pharaoh’s tomb, the question arises, why would Snofru want three of them? And why is the Bent Pyramid such a funny shape, changing its angle halfway up?

Some scholars reasoned that the Bent Pyramid’s strange form resulted from a change of plan prompted by fears for its stability, and when these persisted, a second, safer pyramid was built to guarantee Snofru’s afterlife. But for this theory to hold, it’s necessary to dismiss Snofru’s claim to have commissioned the pyramid at Maidum as a mere usurpation of an earlier structure. Two pyramids can be explained, three cannot.

Then, in 1977, Oxford professor Kurt Mendelssohn came up with a better answer. He suggested there was something like a pyramid production line. As one pyramid neared completion, surplus resources were deployed to start another. The reason for this was that building a single pyramid required gigantic efforts over ten to thirty years; inevitably, some pharaohs lacked the time and resources. A stockpile of half-constructed, perhaps even finished, pyramids was thus an insurance policy on the afterlife.

According to Mendelssohn, Snofru did indeed start off by commissioning the pyramid at Maidum. Unfortunately, this was built at too steep an angle and its outer layer collapsed. When this happened, the Bent Pyramid was already under construction, so its angle was hastily altered to make it more stable. The Red Pyramid, which followed, was then built at this new, shallower angle.

Not everyone agrees with Mendelssohn: other scholars argue that the Bent Pyramid’s shape had nothing to do with the Collapsed Pyramid, but expressed a deliberate symbolic duality, echoed in its two burial chambers and the two entrance shafts at right angles to each other. At any rate, Snofru decided against using either Maidum or the Bent Pyramid, and was finally interred in the Red Pyramid.

Even if one discounts the attribution of the Collapsed Pyramid of Maidum to Snofru, it is a staggering fact that, during his twenty-five-year reign, the construction of the Bent and Red pyramids involved the quarrying, transport and shaping of some nine million tons of stone – more than three times the quantity of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Yet Herodotus wrote that Snofru was remembered by the Egyptians as benign, and his successor Cheops as a tyrant.

Kerdassa and Harraniyya

The villages of Kerdassa and Harraniyya have no connection with the Pyramids, but tour groups often pay one or both of them a visit. Kerdassa (accessible by microbus from the junction of Pyramids Road with Sharia Mansureya) is where most of the scarves, galabiyyas and shirts in Cairo are made, plus carpets, which are sold by the metre. Although no longer a place for bargains, it’s still frequented by collectors of ethnic textiles, particularly Bedouin robes and veils (the best-quality ones sell for hundreds of dollars).

Guided tours often take in Harraniyya, the site of the famous Wissa Wassef Art Centre (daily 10am–5pm; t 02 3381 5746, w and w Founded in 1952 by Ramses Wissa Wassef, an architect who wanted to preserve village crafts and alleviate rural unemployment, the centre teaches children to design and weave carpets, and has branched out into batik work and pottery. The pupils, supervised by Wassef’s widow, daughters and the original generation of students, produce beautiful tapestries which now sell for thousands of dollars and are imitated throughout Egypt. You can see them at work (except at lunchtime, Thurs afternoons and Fri) and admire a superb collection, laid out in a mud-brick museum designed by Hassan Fathy. To reach the Art Centre under your own steam, take a taxi or minibus 4km south along the Saqqara road (Maryotteya Canal, west bank) from Pyramids Road, or bus #335 (hourly) from Midan Giza and get off at Harraniyya.

Lesser-known Pyramid sites

Even if you’ve been to the famous Pyramids of Giza, all the pyramids at Saqqara (of which the Step Pyramid is the best-known) and those at Dahshur, you still won’t have come anywhere near to having exhausted Egypt’s pyramid sites. Between Giza and Saqqara, for example, lies the group of V Dynasty pyramids at Abu Sir (about £E3 by tuk-tuk from Abu Sir village). Nearby at Abu Ghurab are two temples dedicated to the sun god Re, while on the way down from Giza, you pass two fragmentary pyramids at Zawiyat al Aryan dating from the III and IV dynasties. All of these are currently closed to the public, but you may be able to make private arrangements with the guards.

Much further south, the dramatic “Collapsed Pyramid” of Maidum and the lesser Middle Kingdom pyramids of Hawara and Lahun are easier to reach from the Fayoum, and are covered in Chapter 3. West of Cairo, a kilometre north of the Ring Road’s junction with the Cairo–Alex Desert Road, Abu Ruash (see w is a very ruined IV Dynasty pyramid which belonged to Cheops’ son, Djedefre. Again, it’s currently closed to the public, but if you have a particular interest you may be able to come to an arrangement with the guards.

The purpose of the pyramids

The Pyramids’ enigma has puzzled people ever since they were built. Whereas the Ancient Greeks vaguely understood their function, the Romans were less certain; medieval Arabs believed them to be treasure houses with magical guardians; and early European observers reckoned them the biblical granaries of Joseph. Most archeologists now agree that the Pyramids’ function was to preserve the pharaoh’s ka, or double: a vital force which emanated from the sun god to his son, the king, who distributed it amongst his subjects and the land of Egypt itself. Mummification, funerary rituals, false doors for his ba (soul) to escape, model servants (shabti figures) and anniversary offerings – all were designed to ensure that his ka enjoyed an afterlife similar to its earthly existence. Thus was the social order perpetuated throughout eternity and the forces of primeval chaos held at bay, a theme emphasized in tomb reliefs at Saqqara. On another level of symbolism, the pyramid form evoked the primal mound (benben) at the dawn of creation, a recurrent theme in ancient Egyptian cosmogony. This was represented first by megalithic benben stones, then obelisks, whose pyramidal tips were sheathed in glittering electrum (an alloy of silver and gold), and finally pyramids, topped by electrum-covered pyramidion capstones, as seen in the Egyptian Museum.

The Pyramids of Giza

Of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, only the Pyramids of Giza have withstood the ravages of time. “From the summit of these monuments, forty centuries look upon you”, cried Napoleon. Resembling small triangles from afar and corrugated mountains as you approach, their gigantic mass can seem oddly two-dimensional when viewed from below. Far from being isolated in the desert as carefully angled photos suggest, they rise just beyond the outskirts of Giza City. During daytime, the tourist hordes dispel the mystique (though the site is big enough to escape them), but at sunset, dawn and late at night their brooding majesty returns.

The Pyramids’ orientation is no accident. Their entrances are aligned with the Pole Star (or rather, its position 4500 years ago); the internal tomb chambers face west, the direction of the Land of the Dead; and the external funerary temples point eastwards towards the rising sun. Less well preserved are the causeways leading to the so-called valley temples, and various subsidiary pyramids and mastaba tombs.

How the pyramids were built

Although the limestone scarp at the edge of the Western Desert provided an inexhaustible source of building material, finer stone for casing the pyramids was quarried at Tura across the river, or came from Aswan in Upper Egypt. Blocks were quarried using wooden wedges (which swelled when soaked, enlarging fissures) and copper chisels, then transported on rafts to the pyramid site, where the final shaping and polishing occurred. Shipments coincided with the inundation of the Nile (July–Nov), when its waters lapped the feet of the plateau and Egypt’s workforce was released from agricultural tasks.

Herodotus relates that a hundred thousand slaves took a decade to build the causeway and earthen ramps, and a further twenty years to raise the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Archeologists now believe that, far from being slaves, most of the workforce were peasants paid in food for their three-month stint (papyri enumerate the quantities of lentils, onions and leeks), while a few thousand skilled craftsmen were employed full time. One theory holds that a single ramp wound around the pyramid core, and was raised as it grew; when the capstone was in place, the casing was added from the top down and the ramp was reduced. Other ramps (recently found) led from the base of the pyramid to the quarry.

Whether or not the Ancient Egyptians deemed this work a religious obligation, the massive levies certainly demanded an effective bureaucracy. Pyramid-building therefore helped consolidate the state. Its decline paralleled the Old Kingdom’s, its cessation and resumption two anarchic eras (the First and Second Intermediate Periods) and the short-lived Middle Kingdom (XII Dynasty). By the time of the New Kingdom, other monumental symbols seemed appropriate. Remembering the plundered pyramids, the rulers of the New Kingdom opted for hidden tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

The Great Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu)

The oldest and largest of the Giza Pyramids is that of the IV Dynasty pharaoh Khufu – better known as Cheops – who probably reigned 2589–2566 BC. It originally stood 140m high and measured 230m along its base, but the removal of its casing stones has reduced these dimensions by three metres. The pyramid is estimated to weigh six million tons and contain over 2,300,000 blocks whose average weight is 2.5 tons (though some weigh almost 15 tons). This gigantic mass actually ensures its stability, since most of the stress is transmitted inwards towards its central core, or downwards into the underlying bedrock. It is thought to contain three main chambers: one in the bedrock and two in the superstructure. By the time archeologists got here, their contents had long since been looted, and the only object left in situ was Khufu’s sarcophagus. In 1993, a German team using a robot probe accidentally discovered a door with handles supposedly enclosing a fourth chamber, apparently never plundered by thieves, which might contain the mummy and treasures of Cheops himself. Another robot, sent down in 2002, pushed a camera through a hole drilled in the door to reveal another, similar door behind it. Further probes have been sent down since then, but no new chambers have been discovered.

The Sphinx

Everyone has seen pictures of the Sphinx but this legendary monument is far more impressive in real life, especially from the front, where it gazes down at you from twenty metres up, with Chepren’s pyramid for a backdrop. The Sphinx is carved from an outcrop of soft limestone supposedly left standing after the harder surrounding stone was quarried for the Great Pyramid; however, since most of the outcrop was too friable to work on directly it was clad in harder stone before finishing. Egyptologists credit Chephren with the idea of shaping it into a figure with a lion’s body and a human head, which is often identified as his own (complete with royal beard and uraeus), though it may represent a guardian deity. Some thousand years later, the future Tuthmosis IV is said to have dreamt that if he cleared the sand that engulfed the Sphinx it would make him ruler: a prophecy fulfilled, as recorded on a stele that he placed between its paws.

The name “Sphinx” was actually bestowed by the Ancient Greeks, after the legendary creature of Thebes (the Greek city, not the Egyptian one now known as Luxor) that put riddles to passers-by and slew those who answered wrongly. The Arabs called it Abu al-Hol (the awesome or terrible one); medieval chronicles relate how its nose and ears were mutilated by a Sufi sheikh in 1378, whereupon the Sphinx blew sand over the village at its feet and enraged residents lynched the sheikh. While there’s no evidence to support the oft-repeated story that the Sphinx was used for target practice by Mamluke and Napoleonic troops, much of its beard ended up in the British Museum in London – although the British were respectful enough to sandbag the monument for protection during World War II.

Three tunnels exist inside the Sphinx, one behind its head, one in its tail and one in its north side. Their function is unknown, but none goes anywhere. Other tunnels have been unearthed in the vicinity of the Sphinx; again, who built them or what they were for is unknown, but one suggestion is that they were created by later Ancient Egyptians looking for buried treasure.

The age of the Sphinx

In 1991, maverick Egyptologist John West – who had long claimed that Ancient Egyptian civilization was the inheritor of the lost culture of Atlantis – got together a team of American scientists led by geologist Robert Schoch to investigate apparent signs of water erosion on the sides of the Sphinx’s enclosure. Schoch’s team duly announced that the erosion could only have been caused by water, meaning the Sphinx was older than Egypt’s last known flood era back in 10,000–15,000 BC – several millennia before the date assigned to its creation by conventional Egyptology. Despite this evidence, most Egyptologists continue to believe that the Sphinx was built to honour Chephren; apart from anything else, a New Kingdom inscription on a stele in front of it bore Chepren’s name, and statues of the pharaoh have been uncovered in the neighbouring valley temple. The water erosion, they argue, can be explained by flooding from the Nile and severe storms in relatively recent times.

Views of the pyramids

The best viewpoints over the Giza pyramids are south of Mycerinus’s pyramid. Most tourists gather along the tarmac road some 400m west of the pyramid, which is particularly popular in the late afternoon when the sun is in the right direction. In the morning, however, photos are better taken from the southeast, though it can often be hazy early on. For the best view of the Pyramids close together, the ridge to the south of Mycerinus’s pyramid is the place to head for.

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updated 4/26/2021
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