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Egyptian pyramids

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A view of the pyramids at Giza from the plateau to the south of the complex. From right to left are the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the Pyramid of Khafre and the Pyramid of Menkaure. The three smaller pyramids in the foreground are subsidiary structures associated with Menkaure's pyramid.
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in hieroglyphs

The Pyramids of Egypt are among the largest structures ever built and constitute one of the most potent and enduring symbols of Ancient Egyptian civilization. Most were built during the Old and Middle Kingdom periods.

Historic development

The Mastaba of Faraoun, at Saqqara.

By the time of the early dynastic period of Egyptian history, those with sufficient means were buried in bench-like structures known as mastabas.

The first historically documented Egyptian pyramid is attributed to the architect Imhotep, who planned what Egyptologists believe to be a tomb for the pharaoh Djozer. Imhotep may have been the first to conceive the notion of stacking mastabas on top of each other — creating an edifice composed of a number of "steps" that decreased in size towards its apex. The result was the Step Pyramid of Djozer — which was designed to serve as a gigantic stairway by which the soul of the deceased pharaoh could ascend to the heavens. Such was the importance of Imhotep's achievement that he was deified by later Egyptians.

The most prolific pyramid-building phase coincided with the greatest degree of absolutist pharaonic rule. It was during this time that the most famous pyramids, those near Giza, were built. Over time, as authority became less centralized, the ability and willingness to harness the resources required for construction on a massive scale decreased, and later pyramids were smaller, less well-built and often hastily constructed.

Long after the end of Egypt's own pyramid-building period, a burst of pyramid-building occurred in what is present-day Sudan, after much of Egypt came under the rule of the Kings of Napata. While Napatan rule was brief and ceased in 661 BCE, the Egyptian influence made an indelible impression, and during the later Sudanese Kingdom of Meroe (approximately in the period between 300 BCE–300 CE) this flowered into a full-blown pyramid-building revival, which saw more than two hundred indigenous, but Egyptian-inspired royal pyramid-tombs constructed in the vicinity of the kingdom's capital city.

Pyramid symbolism

The shape of Egyptian pyramids is thought to represent the primordial mound from which the Egyptians believed the earth was created. The shape is also thought to be representative of the descending rays of the sun, and most pyramids were faced with polished, highly reflective white limestone, in order to give them a brilliant appearance when viewed from a distance. Pyramids were often also named in ways that referred to solar luminescence. For example, the formal name of the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur was The Southern Shining Pyramid, and that of Senwosret at el-Lahun was Senwosret is Shining.

While it is generally agreed that pyramids were burial monuments, there is continued disagreement on the particular theological principles that might have given rise to them. One theory is that they were designed as a type of "resurrection machine"

The Egyptians believed the dark area of the night sky around which the stars appear to revolve was the physical gateway into the heavens. One of the narrow shafts that extends from the main burial chamber through the entire body of the Great Pyramid points directly towards the centre of this part of the sky. This suggests the pyramid may have been designed to serve as a means to magically launch the deceased pharaoh's soul directly into the abode of the gods.

All Egyptian pyramids were built on the west bank of the Nile, which as the site of the setting sun was associated with the realm of the dead in Egyptian mythology.

Number and location of pyramids

The number of pyramid structures in Egypt today is reported by most sources as being between 81 and 112, with a majority favouring the higher number. In 1842 Karl Richard Lepsius made a list of pyramids, in which he counted 67. Pyramid 29 that Lepsius called the "Headless Pyramid" remained lost until being found in an archaeological dig in 2008. A great many more Pyramids have since been discovered.

The imprecise nature of the count is related to the fact that as many smaller pyramids are in a poor state of preservation and appear as little more than mounds of rubble, they are only now being properly identified and studied by archaeologists. Most are grouped in a number of pyramid fields, the most important of which are listed geographically, from north to south, below.

Abu Rawash

Abu Rawash is the site of Egypt's most northerly pyramid (other than the ruins of Lepsius pyramid number one)— the mostly ruined Pyramid of Djedefre, son and successor of Khufu. Originally it was thought that this pyramid had never been completed, but the current archaeological consensus is that not only was it completed, but that it was originally about the same size as the Pyramid of Menkaure, which would have made it among the half-dozen or so largest pyramids in Egypt.

Its location adjacent to a major crossroads made it an easy source of stone. Quarrying — which began in Roman times — has left little apart from a few courses of stone superimposed upon the natural hillock that formed part of the pyramid's core. A small adjacent satellite pyramid is in a better state of preservation.


Map of Giza pyramid complex.

Giza is the location of the Pyramid of Khufu (also known as the "Great Pyramid" and the "Pyramid of Cheops"); the somewhat smaller Pyramid of Khafre (or Kephren); the relatively modest-sized Pyramid of Menkaure (or Mykerinus), along with a number of smaller satellite edifices known as " Queen's pyramids"; and the Great Sphinx.

Of the three, only Khafre's pyramid retains part of its original polished limestone casing, near its apex. This pyramid appears larger than the adjacent Khufu pyramid by virtue of its more elevated location, and the steeper angle of inclination of its construction — it is, in fact, smaller in both height and volume.

The Giza Necropolis has been a popular tourist destination since antiquity, and was popularized in Hellenistic times when the Great Pyramid was listed by Antipater of Sidon as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Today it is the only one of those wonders still in existence.

Zawyet el-Aryan

This site, halfway between Giza and Abu Sir, is the location for two unfinished Old Kingdom pyramids. The northern structure's owner is believed to be the Pharaoh Nebka, whilst the southern structure is attributed to the Third Dynasty Pharaoh Khaba, also known as Hudjefa, successor to Sekhemkhet. Khaba's four-year tenure as pharaoh more than likely explains the similar premature truncation of his step pyramid. Today it is approximately twenty meters in height; had it been completed it is likely to have exceeded 40.

Abu Sir

There are a total of seven pyramids at this site, which served as the main royal necropolis during the Fifth Dynasty. The quality of construction of the Abu Sir pyramids is inferior to those of the Fourth Dynasty — perhaps signaling a decrease in royal power or a less vibrant economy. They are smaller than their predecessors, and are built of low-quality local limestone.

The three major pyramids are those of Niuserre (which is also the most intact), Neferirkare Kakai and Sahure. The site is also home to the incomplete Pyramid of Neferefre. All of the major pyramids at Abu Sir were built as step pyramids, although the largest of them — the Pyramid of Neferirkare Kakai — is believed to have originally been built as a step pyramid some 70 metres in height and then later transformed into a "true" pyramid by having its steps filled in with loose masonry.


Major pyramids located here include the Step Pyramid of Djozer — generally identified as the world's oldest substantial monumental structure to be built of finished stone — the Pyramid of Merykare, the Pyramid of Userkaf and the Pyramid of Teti. Also at Saqqara is the Pyramid of Unas, which retains a pyramid causeway that is one of the best-preserved in Egypt. This pyramid was also the subject of one of the earliest known restoration attempts, conducted by a son of Ramesses II. Saqqara is also the location of the incomplete step pyramid of Djozer's successor Sekhemkhet, known as the Buried Pyramid. Archaeologists believe that had this pyramid been completed it would have been larger than Djozer's.

South of the main pyramid field at Saqqara is a second collection of later, smaller pyramids, including those of Pepi I, Isesi, Merenre, Ibi, Pepi II and Shepseskaf. Most of these are in a poor state of preservation.


This area is arguably the most important pyramid field in Egypt outside Giza and Saqqara, although until 1996 the site was inaccessible due to its location within a military base, and hence was virtually unknown outside archaeological circles.

The southern Pyramid of Sneferu, commonly known as the Bent Pyramid is believed to be the first (or by some accounts, second) attempt at creating a pyramid with smooth sides. In this it was only a partial — but nonetheless visually arresting — success; it remains the only Egyptian pyramid to retain a significant proportion of its original limestone casing, and serves as the best example of the luminous appearance common to all pyramids in their original state. The northern, or Red Pyramid built at the same location by Sneferu was later successfully completed as the world's first true smooth-sided pyramid. Despite its relative obscurity, the Red Pyramid is actually the third largest pyramid in Egypt — after the pyramids of Khufu and Khafre at Giza. Also at Dahshur is the pyramid known as the Black Pyramid of Amenemhet III.


Located to the south of Dahshur, this area was used in the First Intermediate Period by several kings who constructed their pyramids out of mudbrick. Today these structures are obscure and unimpressive.


The pyramid of Amenemhet I at Lisht.

Two major pyramids are known to have been built at Lisht — those of Amenemhat I and his son, Senusret I. The latter is surrounded by the ruins of ten smaller subsidiary pyramids. One of these subsidiary pyramids is known to be that of Amenemhat's cousin, Khaba II. The site which is in the vicinity of the oasis of Fayyum, midway between Dahshur and Meidum, and about 100 kilometres south of Cairo, is believed to be in the vicinity of the ancient city of Itjtawy (the precise location of which remains unknown), which served as the capital of Egypt during the 12th Dynasty.


Sneferu's Pyramid at Meidum; the central core structure remains, surrounded by a mountain of rubble from the collapsed outer casing.

The pyramid at Meidum is one of three constructed during the reign of Sneferu, and is believed by some to have been started by that pharaoh's father and predecessor, Huni. However, this is not very likely, as his name does not appear on the site. Some archaeologists also suggest that the Meidum pyramid may have been the first unsuccessful attempt at the construction of a "true" or smooth-sided pyramid.

The pyramid suffered a catastrophic collapse in antiquity, and today only the central parts of its stepped inner core remain standing, giving it an odd tower-like appearance that is unique among Egyptian pyramids. The hill that the pyramid sits atop is not a natural landscape feature — it is the small mountain of debris created when the lower courses and outer casing of the pyramid gave way.


The Pyramid of Amenemhet III at Hawarra

Amenemhet III was the last powerful ruler of the 12th Dynasty, and the pyramid he built at Hawarra, near Faiyum, is believed to post-date the so-called "Black Pyramid" built by the same ruler at Dahshur. It is the Hawarra pyramid that is believed to have been Amenemhet's final resting place.


The Pyramid of Senusret II. The pyramid's natural limestone core is clearly visible as the yellow stratum at its base.

The pyramid of Senusret II at el-Lahun is the southernmost royal-tomb pyramid structure in Egypt. Its builders reduced the amount of work necessary to construct it by ingeniously using as its foundation and core a 12-meter-high natural limestone hill.

Construction dates

The following table lays out the chronology of the construction of most of the major pyramids mentioned here. Each pyramid is identified through the pharaoh who ordered it built, their approximate reign and its location.

Pyramid / Pharaoh Reign Field
Djozer c. 2630 - 2612 bce Saqqara
Sneferu c. 2612 - 2589 bce Dashur
Sneferu c. 2612 - 2589 bce Dashur
Sneferu c. 2612 - 2589 bce Meidum
Khufu c. 2589 - 2566 bce Giza
Djedefre c. 2566 - 2558 bce Abu Rawash
Khafre c. 2558 - 2532 bce Giza
Menkaure c. 2532 - 2504 bce Giza
Sahure c. 2487 - 2477 bce Abu Sir
Neferirkare Kakai c. 2477 - 2467 bce Abu Sir
Nyuserre Ini c. 2416 - 2392 bce Abu Sir
Amenemhat I c. 1991 - 1962 bce Lisht
Senusret I c. 1971 - 1926 bce Lisht
Senusret II c. 1897 - 1878 bce el-Lahun
Amenemhat III c. 1860 - 1814 bce Hawara
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