The riddle of the Pyramids

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 9 Nov 2021

How could the ancient Egyptians have brought together the architectural brilliance and technical skills required to build the Pyramids, asks Zahi Hawass

Throughout the history of ancient Egypt more than 92 pyramids were constructed and still exist, alth
Throughout the history of ancient Egypt more than 92 pyramids were constructed and still exist, although some are barely distinguishable from the sand and rubble that surround them today.

The Pyramids of ancient Egypt have captivated and will continue to captivate mankind on two distinct levels, the material and the spiritual.

The material level is the one that inspires awe when viewing the Pyramids. How could our ancestors four and five millennia ago have coalesced the brilliance and technology evident in these structures? What engineering genius and general contracting capability came together and erected monuments that modern man would be hard pressed to duplicate? Under what community context were these wonders encouraged to develop?

The spiritual level touches the heart of man and his plaintive, futile cry for immorality. An old Arab proverb says that “man fears time and time fears the Pyramids.” The Pyramids have made a mockery of death. They cannot be killed; they have aspects of infinity. Their physical presence defies the limitations of time. If there was enough intelligence to overcome the primitive conditions of the Bronze Age that produce the Pyramids, then perhaps ideas can be harnessed in this advanced industrial age to provide a deathless life.

There are also mysticism and occultism connected to the Pyramids. But that subject is one that does not lend itself to widespread academic analysis. Rather, it turns upon the faith and idiosyncrasies of believers. In this article, I will indicate the process of pyramid development, essentially to put pyramid-building into its appropriate evolutionary framework.

By way of background a few facts require repetition. Throughout the history of ancient Egypt more than 92 pyramids were constructed and still exist, although some are barely distinguishable from the sand and rubble that surround them today. The best-known, of course, are those on the Giza Plateau ten miles outside Cairo. While the Pyramids of the Old Kingdom (c 2750-2200 BCE) are the most recognised, there were also royal pyramids built in the Middle Kingdom (c 2133-1991 BCE). In the New Kingdom (c 1567-1320 BCE) pyramid structures were placed over tombs by non-royal persons, while kings built tombs under a physical outcropping in Thebes that had a pyramid shape.

The strongest control of materials and purpose, however, clearly was demonstrated by the Old Kingdom craftsmen in building the royal necropolis which extends from Abu Rawash in the north to Meidum in the south, a span of about 30 miles. Ancient Egypt was divided into two geographical areas: Upper Egypt in the south and Lower Egypt in the north. Their customs and practices often differed, an example of which is the concept of burial during Predynastic times (c 4500-3100 BCE). The people of Upper Egypt began placing grave goods in their tombs even prior to 4500 BCE, whereas in the north hardly anything was buried with the deceased.

It is the former tradition, that of providing physical goods for the deceased’s use, which became institutionalised and embellished upon during the rest of the glory of ancient Egypt.

Throughout Predynastic Egypt and into the archaic times of the First and Second Dynasties, the dead were laid in a flexed or fetal position, resting on their left side. Their graves were shallow rectangular or oval pits dug in sand away from any arable land.

In Late Predynastic times, a variety of burial customs took hold throughout Egypt. The body of the deceased was often placed on a reed mat or a goat skin, with the face turned toward the west, and there appears to have been ritual practices involved in burials. Grave goods representing the deceased’s standing in the community became more common and included such offerings as flint knives, scrapers, shell and stone ornaments, jars, grinding palates and adzes.

Towards the end of the Predynastic Period, the walls of pit graves were sometimes lined with sunbaked mud bricks faced with mud plaster. Although bodies were not mummified, their placement directly in the hot desert sand preserved them better than some later mummification practices.

During the Early Dynastic or Archaic Period (3100–2750 BCE), Upper Egypt had two power centres associated with burials: Saqqara in the north and Abydos in the south. Each had an important necropolis that contained large tombs that were royal in appearance. Which ones were the tombs of the early kings is a matter of controversy, but many scholars believe that those at Saqqara were for high officials. The tombs at Abydos are the burial places of First and Second Dynasty kings.


CHANGES: The construction of tombs changed during this time, and the simple oval or rectangular graves of the Predynastic Period were expanded to include a building above the ground with a superstructure consisting of a flat roof and vertical mudbrick walls.

Below ground the body was placed in a wooden coffin, and a separate chamber for grave goods was added. This type of tomb is called a mastaba, a modern Arabic word meaning “bench”.

At the beginning of the Old Kingdom, the preservation of the body, too, took on a new emphasis. Elaborate grave goods for the deceased’s comfort increased as did cult practices. The deceased also began to be buried stretched out instead of in a fetal position. At first, the building of mastaba tombs for kings continued into the Third Dynasty. However, with the construction of what is known as the Djoser Complex, an important milestone in royal burials was reached.

Initially king Djoser, the founder of the Third Dynasty, followed the pattern of his predecessors by preparing a sunbaked, mudbrick mastaba at Beit Khallaf not far from Abydos. Then he began a larger complex at Saqqara. He built six mastaba superstructures on top of one another, each smaller than the one below. The resultant monument was ancient Egypt’s first step pyramid. Its four sides rose to a height of 204 feet. It was built of small local stones faced with an outer layer of dressed limestone, and it became the central and dominating feature of a large complex of stone buildings and courtyards intended for various ceremonies connected with the afterlife of the king.

Subsequently, the Pyramid of Meidum, built probably by the last king of the Third Dynasty, Huni, started as a seven-stepped pyramid but was altered into an eight-stepped structure. The steps were filled in and cased with limestone to complete its shape as a pyramidal form. This form reflects the shape of the primeval mound from which the ancient Egyptians believed the creation of the world erupted.

The step pyramids soon evolved into the familiar true pyramids, epitomised by the immortal Fourth Dynasty Pyramids at Giza. Among the largest ever built, the Giza Pyramids were constructed of great rocks with a finish of limestone from Tura. The Pyramids of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties were smaller than those at Giza, and their composition reverted to the use of small stones with a Tura limestone finish, such as the Pyramid of Wserkef of the Fifth Dynasty and Pepi I and Pepi II of the Sixth Dynasty.