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The Pyramids of Ancient Egypt

The Earliest Pyramids

There are about ninety pyramids in Egypt. Of the first ten started, two were never finished and one is now a ruin, but the other seven are far more famous and spectacular than any of the eighty or so pyramids that came after them.

Our word pyramid comes from the Greek word for a little cake, because when the Greeks under Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 they gave everything Greek names, and the pyramids looked looked their little cakes. Today most words associated with Ancient Egypt come from Ancient Greek not Ancient Egyptian - even Egypt is from an Ancient Greek word! They also gave Greek names to many of the Pharaohs, and many older books on Ancient Egypt use these names, although today most people use the Egyptian names.

The hieroglyph for pyramid is Hieroglyph for pyramid a triangle with a red base and sides far steeper than any real pyramid. It was probably pronounced mer. The pyramid of Menkaure (see below) had a red base like this hieroglyph.

Each pyramid was only a part of the whole funerary complex, a group of buildings which included temples and store houses. This is more fully discussed in Pyramids and Rockets.

The first pyramid was built for a Pharaoh called Djozer, who reigned from about 2630 - 2611. (As all dates for Ancient Egypt are BCE we do not need to say so.) The architect who built this pyramid became as famous as the Pharaoh for whom it was built: his name was Imhotep.

Djozer's pyramid was built in a series of steps so we call it the Step Pyramid. Imhotep made it with all the stones sloping slightly inwards. This made it much less likely to fall down.

The next two Pharaohs after Djozer were Sekhemkhet and Khaba. They each started a step pyramid but never finished it.

Then came Sneferu (2575 - 2551). He built no less than three pyramids!

His first pyramid started off as a step pyramid but later he tried to turn it into a true pyramid, with smooth triangular sides. This collapsed probably shortly after it was finished, and today it appears as a step pyramid surrounded by a pile of rubble. We call it the Meidum pyramid, although Sneferu himself called it Sneferu Endures.

His next pyramid was intended to be a true pyramid but when it was half finished the foundations started to crumble and they had to change the slope to reduce the weight. We call this the Bent Pyramid, but Sneferu called it The Southern Shining Pyramid. It was faced with white limestone and most of this is still in place. It is the best preserved of all pyramids.

He then built a third pyramid and this was successfully completed as a true pyramid. It was built of red limestone faced with white limestone. All the white limestone has long since been taken away and now it appears as a beautiful red colour. We call it the Red, or North, Pyramid but Sneferu called it The Shining Pyramid.

Although Sneferu built three pyramids he was not actually buried in any of them - in fact we are not certain where he was buried!

All these pyramids were built at Meidum, Dahshur or Saqqara, on a narrow strip of land only about 15km long, along the west bank of the River Nile to the south of modern Cairo. You can see most of it from the top of the Great Pyramid.

You can find out more about Sneferu's three pyramids by visiting the Bent Pyramid web site - to visit it click here Link to Bent Pyramid Web Site

This site also contains links to web sites of the Meidum and Red Pyramid, the Step Pyramid, and the Giza Pyramids and Sphinx - do bookmark it!

After Sneferu came his son Khufu, who the Greeks called Cheops. He reigned from 2551 - 2528. He built his pyramid not at Saqqara but about 10km to the north, on the Giza plateau. We call his pyramid The Great Pyramid, but he called it The Horizon of Khufu. Although it was originally faced with white limestone all of this has long since disappeared.

After Khufu came his son Djedefre (2528 - 2520) and he built his pyramid even further north, at Abu Roash. This pyramid was later pulled down and is now just a ruin.

After Djedefre came another son of Khufu, called Khafre (in Greek Chefren), who reigned from 2520 - 2494. He built his pyramid next to the Great Pyramid at Giza. We call it Chefren's pyramid, but he called it Great is Khafre. Although it is not as big as the Great Pyramid it looks bigger because it is the middle of the three pyramids at Giza and is built on higher ground. Like the Great Pyramid it was originally faced with white limestone, but most of this has been removed - you can still see a small amount near the tip. It was Khafre who had his face carved on the Great Sphinx.

After Khafre came his son Menkaure (in Greek Mycerinus), who reigned from 2494 - 2472. His pyramid is the smallest of the three Giza pyramids. We call it the pyramid of Menkaure but he called it Menkaure is Divine. The upper part of hs pyramid was cased with white limestone, but the lower part was faced not with white limestone but with red granite, like the hieroglyph for pyramid. You can still see some of this casing today.

After Menkaure's pyramid at Giza most pyramids were built at Saqqara or Dahshur, but none can compare with the Step Pyramid, the three pyramids of Sneferu and the three pyramids at Giza. Of the first ten pyramids built these seven are still standing and contain between them twice as much stone as all the eighty pyramids built after them put together!

Pyramids were still being built in Egypt more than a thousand years after Djozer, but then in about 1550, at the start of the New Kingdom, the Pharaohs started being buried in rock tombs rather than pyramids. When Tutankhamen was laid to rest in the Valley of the Kings the Great Pyramid was already more than a thousand years old, and Khufu would have been as mysterious a character to Tutankhamen as King Arthur is to us!

To read about the Valley of the Kings please click here scarab.gif - 472 bytes

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The Great Pyramid

The Great Pyramid took about thirty years to build. It is not the largest man-made structure in the world - that is the Great Wall of China - but it is still by far the largest man-made mountain, and until the completion of the Eifel Tower had been the tallest building in the world for more than four thousand years.

Great is the only word adequate to describe the pyramid of Khufu. It is built on a square base with a side of about 230m, bigger than nine soccer pitches, and was originally about 147m high, higher than a forty story building. Most of the blocks inside it are of limestone about 1.3m by 1.3m by 0.7m and weigh about 2.5 tonnes, but the blocks put in to reinforce the roof of the King's Chamber are made of granite and are much bigger and weigh up to thirty tonnes each. There are about three million stone blocks in the Great Pyramid.

You can see an aerial view of the Giza plateau, which includes the three pyramids (and a soccer pitch! - in the very top left-hand corner) by clicking here (about 1.6Mb, so it may take a time to download) Link to aerial view of Giza plateau

The Egyptians had a year consisting of twelve months each of thirty days, and three ten-day weeks each month, and then five days of public holidays to celebrate the birthdays of the gods. With only lamps burning animal fat to see with in the dark they could not have worked at night, so to construct the pyramid they had to put a two and a half tonne block of stone into position every two and a half minutes, for twelve hours a day, for three hundred and sixty days a year, for thirty years!

To find out more about the Egyptian Calendar please click here scarab.gif - 472 bytes

The accuracy of the construction is stunning, even by today's standards. The base is almost perfectly flat and level, with a slope from corner to corner of less than two centimetres. The sides at the base are only eight centimetres different in length, each of the corners is within one sixteenth of a degree of a right angle, and the sides are aligned north/south and east/west to an accuracy of less than a tenth of a degree!

When it was built it was covered with smooth brilliant white limestone, and the effect must have been dazzling in the bright Egyptian Sun, but all of this has long disappeared. (You can see some of the original white limestone casing at the top of Khafre's pyramid).

You can find out more about the Great Pyramid by visiting its own web site - to do so click here scarab.gif - 472 bytes

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Selected bibliography

The Complete Pyramids by Mark Lehner

© Barry Gray December 1998

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