Standing the Test of Time: The Pyramids of Egypt

No landmarks in the world are more distinctive than the Pyramids of Egypt. These triangular structures have come to so typify the Land of the Pharaohs that similar monuments in other countries often lead to speculation on the possible influence of Egyptian explorers. In some cases, such as pyramids in Syria, Egyptians indeed influenced the construction during their rule over the land, but in other parts of the world, such as Central America and Iraq, the angled edifices seem to have sprung from indigenous architects.

Still, no matter where other pyramids may be located, the Pyramids of Egypt remain the pre-eminent monuments of their kind. For they are indeed monuments. Each pyramid has been the final resting place of an Egyptian king, called a “pharaoh.” Visitors to Egypt can only fully appreciate the significance and grandeur of these magnificent landmarks when they understand something of how they, and their companion monument, the Great Sphinx at Giza, came into being.

History of the Pyramids

As of late 2008, some 138 pyramids had been discovered in Egypt. Most of these were built to serve as tombs for pharaohs of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, along with their spouses or consorts. With the exception of the small pyramid attributed to Zawyet el-Amwat (or Zawyet el-Mayitin) of the Third Dynasty, all of Egypt’s pyramids are sited on the west bank of the Nile, which was theologically significant to Egyptians as the realm of the dead (possibly because of the setting sun). Most pyramids were built close to one another, creating pyramid fields that may have made it easier for Egyptians to pay homage to their dead rulers. Today these fields certainly make it easier for tourists to observe their architectural wonders.

Why the Egyptians built their kings’ burial palaces in the shape of pyramids still isn’t known decisively. Some Egyptologists think the shape represents a mound from which Egyptians believed their gods created the earth. Other experts think the pyramidal shape represents the rays of the sun, a key feature in Egyptian religious beliefs. Indeed most pyramids originally bore facings of polished white limestone, a highly reflective stone. Although most of the limestone has eroded over the millennia, it isn’t hard to imagine the gleaming appearance these monuments could present when viewed from afar. Many pyramids bear names that refer to sunlight, such as “The Southern Shining Pyramid,” the formal name of the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur.

Experts continue to disagree about what theological principles the Egyptians used to create the pyramids. One theory contends that they were a type of “resurrection machine” or “stairway to heaven,” intended to help propel the deceased pharaoh to his new spiritual position as King of the Dead. In the past 15 years, author Robert Bauval proposed what has become known as the Orion Correlation Theory. He and his co-authors contend that the three largest pyramids at Giza originally aligned with the three stars on the “belt” of the constellation Orion, and that the location of the other pyramids at the site finishes the constellation’s image on the ground. Veteran archaeologists and Egyptologists have disproved the theory scientifically by comparing the astronomical positions of the stars, but the hypothesis remains popular in pseudoscientific circles.

The latest pyramid was discovered in Saqqara on Nov. 11, 2008 by Zahi Hawass, the noted Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, who has built his life’s work on recovering Egyptian antiquities from museums and private collections around the world. The pyramid that Dr. Hawass found is believed to be that of Queen Sesheshet, mother of the Pharaoh Teti of the Sixth Dynasty, whose pyramid is also at Saqqara.

Saqqara also is noted as the site of the earliest known pyramids. Here visitors will find the well-known Step Pyramid of Djoser, built between 2630 and 2611 BCE. Not only are the Saqqara pyramids the earliest such Egyptian structures, they’re generally held to be the world’s oldest monuments built of dressed masonry. Their dating means they were built almost 5,000 years ago. Hieroglyphic inscriptions at the site have been deciphered to show that the Saqqara pyramids were designed by the architect Imhotep, whose accomplishments were deemed so extraordinary that he was elevated to divine status by later generations.

Location of the Pyramids

The main pyramid fields from north to south are:

Abu Rawash, site of the largely destroyed Pyramid of Djedefre (c. 2566 – 2558 BCE), successor of Khufu. Conquering Romans quarried this pyramid, leaving little behind but a pile of stones on a small hill.

Giza, the most accessible of the sites about 45 minutes outside of Cairo. Here lies the Pyramid of Khufu, also called the “Great Pyramid” and the “Pyramid of Cheops”; the somewhat smaller Pyramid of Khafre (or Kephren) (c. 2558 – 2532 BCE); the relatively modest Pyramid of Menkaure (or Mykerinus) (c. 2532 – 2504 BCE), some smaller monuments known as “queens’ pyramids” and the mysterious edifice that is the Great Sphinx. The Great Pyramid was listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and is the only one of those awe-inspiring sites still in existence.

Abu Sir hosts fourteen pyramids and is believed to have been the main royal burial ground, or “necropolis,” during the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2416 to 2477 BCE). The decline in these pyramids construction compared to those of the Fourth Dynasty seems to indicate a reduction in either economic resources or pharaonic power.

Saqqara, home of the aforementioned Step Pyramid of Djoser (2630 – 2612 BCE), also houses Pyramid of Merykare, the Pyramid of Userkaf, the Pyramid of Teti and the Pyramid of Unas, with one of the best-preserved causeways among Egyptian pyramids.

Dahshar is considered the most significant field after Giza and Saqqara. Here visitors will find the southern Pyramid of Snofru commonly known as the Bent Pyramid, thought to be conceived as the first “true” smooth-sided pyramid although built as a step pyramid; the Red Pyramid, the world’s first successfully completed smooth-sided pyramid, and the Black Pyramid of Amenemhet III.

Lisht, site of the pyramids of Amenemhat I (c. 1991 – 1962 BE) and his son, Senusret I (c. 1971 – 1926 BC). It’s in the area thought to be near the site of ancient Itjtawy (still unfound), Egypt’s capital during the 12th Dynasty.

Meidum, one of three pyramids constructed during the reign of Sneferu (c. 2612 – 2589 BCE), started as a step pyramid and then later was converted into a smooth-sided pyramid. It sits on hill composed of its own debris.

Hawarra, site of the burial Pyramid of Amenemhet III (c. 1860 – 1814 BCE), the last powerful ruler of the 12th Dynasty.

Lahun, home the Pyramid of Senusret II (c. 1897 – 1878 BCE) and the southernmost royal tomb in Egypt. Its builders used the 12-meter-high limestone hill on which its sits as the pyramid’s foundation.

Leave a Reply