The pyramids were built at a time when Egypt was one of the richest and most powerful civilizations in the world. The Great Pyramids of Giza in particular are some of the greatest man-made structures in history. This reflects on a large scale the unique role played by the pharaoh, or king, in ancient Egyptian society. Although the pyramids were built in the fourth century from the beginning of the ancient kingdom until the end of the Ptolemaic period, the peak of pyramid construction began in the late third dynasty and lasted until roughly the sixth century (2325 B.C.). 4,000 years later, the Egyptian pyramids still retain their majesty and give an insight into the country’s rich and glorious past.
Pharaoh of Egyptian society
During the Third and Fourth Dynasties of the Ancient Kingdom, Egypt enjoyed great economic prosperity and stability. Kings held a special position in Egyptian society. They believe that somewhere between humans and the gods, the gods have chosen them to serve as their mediators on earth. For this reason, even after the king’s death, when Osiris was believed to be the god of the dead, it was in everyone’s interest to keep the king’s glory intact. The hawks, who served as guardians of the new pharaoh, the sun god Ra, became their god, Horus.
The smooth, angular sides of the pyramid symbolize the sun’s rays, designed to help the king’s spirit ascend to heaven and unite with the gods.
The ancient Egyptians believed that when a king died, part of his soul remained with his body. In order to properly care for his soul, the corpse was mutilated, and all the gold vessels, food, furniture, and other offerings that the king needed in the afterlife were placed with him. The focus of the pyramid was to continue it even after the death of the dead king. Their wealth will benefit not only him but also his relatives, officials and priests who are buried near him.
From the beginning of the Dynasty (2950 B.C.), the royal tombs were carved and covered with rectangular structures with flat roofs known as “mastabas”, the forerunners of the pyramids. The oldest pyramid in Egypt was built in 2630 B.C. At Sakkara for King George of the Third Dynasty. Known as the “Step Pyramid”, it started as a traditional mastaba but grew into something more ambitious. According to legend, the architect of the pyramid was Imhotep, a priest, and healer. He is considered the patron saint of writers and physicians some 1,400 years later. During Jose’s nearly 20 years of rule, the pyramid makers assembled six layers of stone (much like tombs earlier than mud bricks) and eventually reached a height of 204 feet (62 m). It was the tallest building at the time. The action pyramid surrounded the courtyard, temples and shrines, and Joser could enjoy life after his death.
After Jose, the step-by-step pyramid became the standard for royal burial, but none of the plans of his dynastic successors were completed (probably due to their relatively short reign). The Red Pyramid at Dashur was the oldest tomb built as a “true” (smooth-sided, stepless) pyramid. It is one of three cemeteries built for the first king of the Fourth Dynasty, Sneferu (2613-2589 BC). The
Great Pyramid of Giza
The pyramids are no more celebrated than the Great Pyramids of Giza, located on a plateau on the west bank of the Nile River near modern-day Cairo. Known as the Great Pyramid, the oldest and largest of the three pyramids of Giza, it is the only surviving structure of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was built for Pharaoh Kufu (Cheps in Greek), the successor of Sniffer and the second of the eight kings of the Fourth Dynasty. Although Kufu ruled for 23 years (2589-2566 BC), little is known about his reign beyond the grandeur of his pyramid. The base of the pyramid averaged 755.75 feet (230 m), its original height was 481.4 feet (147 m), making it the largest pyramid in the world. Adjacent to the Great Pyramid are three small pyramids built for the queens of Kufu, and a tomb containing the empty sorghum of his mother, Queen Hetophires, was found nearby. Like the other pyramids, Kufu is surrounded by rows of mastaba, and the king’s relatives or officials are buried to assist him in the afterlife.
The Central Pyramid of Giza was built for Pharaoh Kafre, son of Kufu (2558-2532 B.C.). Kafre Pyramid, the second tallest pyramid in Gaffa, contains the tomb of Pharaoh Kafre. The distinctive feature of Kafre’s pyramid complex is the Great Sphinx. It is a defensive statue carved out of limestone with the head of a man and the body of a lion. It is the largest statue in the ancient world, standing 240 feet long and 66 feet high. During the 18th Dynasty (1500 BC) the Great Sphinx was worshiped as a native form of the god Horus. The southern pyramid of Giza was built for Mankoure (2532-2503 B.C.), son of Kafre. It is the shortest of the three pyramids (218 feet) and is the forerunner of the smaller pyramids built during the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties.
Who Built the Pyramids?
Although some popular versions of history say that the pyramids were built by slaves or by foreigners, the skeletons excavated from the area indicate that the workers were mostly indigenous Egyptian agricultural workers who worked on the pyramids during the Nile floods. To build the Great Pyramid of Kufu, approximately 2.3 million pieces of stone (usually about 2.5 tons) had to be cut, transported, and assembled. Herodotus’ writing of ancient Greek history required the labor of 100,000 men, and later archaeological evidence suggests that the workforce may have numbered about 20,000.
The End of The Pyramid Era
The pyramids continued to be built throughout the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, but with the power and wealth of the kings the average quality and scale of their construction declined during this period. In the pyramids of the later ancient kingdom, beginning with King Yunus (2375-2345 B.C.), the makers of the pyramids began to record written events on the walls of the tomb and the interior of the pyramid during the reign of the king. Known as the Pyramid Books, they are one of the oldest known religious compositions in ancient Egypt.
The last of the builders of the Great Pyramid was Pepi II (2278-2184 B.C.), the second king of the Sixth Dynasty. He came to power as a little boy and ruled for 94 years. By the time of his reign, the prosperity of the old kingdom had waned, and with the rise of the power of non-royal administrators, the pharaoh had lost his semi-divine status. The Pyramid of Pepi II was built in Zakkara and completed his reign of about 30 years, making it shorter (172 feet) than the rest of the Old Kingdom. With Pepi’s death, the kingdom and the strong central government almost collapsed, and Egypt entered a period of turmoil known as the First Intermediate Period. Later kings of the 12th dynasty returned to the pyramid building during the so-called Middle Kingdom, but it never resembled the Great Pyramid.
Tomb robbers and other destroyers in ancient and modern times removed many bodies and funeral items from the pyramids of Egypt and looted their exteriors. The Great Pyramid, which had removed most of its smooth white limestone coverings, no longer reached its original height. For example, Kufu is only 451 feet tall. However, millions of people visit the pyramids every year. Their magnificence and the richness and splendor of Egypt are evident in the attraction of the past.