The history behind the Egyptian pyramids is anything short of extraordinary. It is believed that the first Egyptian pyramid was built some 4,700 years ago when royal architect Imhotep stepped onto the scene, completing a proto-pyramid that would become, in the Old Kingdom, a standardized monument.
The ancient Egyptian pyramid achieved its most impressive form with the completion of the Great Pyramid of Giza, several generations after.
But the process between the first stone pyramid in Egypt, the largest pyramid in Egypt, and the last pyramid ever built is history at its best.
Few monuments hold a place in human history as significant as the Egyptian pyramids. Ever since their construction, explorers, academics, and tourists have wondered how such monuments were built. Even during ancient Egyptian times, and one thousand years after the greatest Egyptian pyramid was built, people were left awestruck by what their ancestors had achieved.
This astonishment continues to this date. One cannot dismiss the marvel of engineering that the construction of the Egyptian pyramids represents, and one must acknowledge the massive leap in ancient Egyptian architecture represented in Djoser’s Step Pyramid.
Without Djoser’s Step Pyramid, the Great Pyramid would probably have never been built. Djoser’s revolutionary monument kick-started a pyramid-building fever in ancient Egypt that lasted through Egypt’s greatest time.
But the journey to building the Great Pyramid does not start 4,500 years ago in the Fourth Dynasty; it traces its origins back all the way to Djoser, Saqqara, and the failed pyramids that followed after Djoser.
Although one would expect that after Djoser, a similarly long line of Step Pyramids, would have been built, this was not the case. Although Pharaohs that succeeded Djoser in the Third Dynasty attempted building pyramids, Egypt would not have another pyramid until the start of the Fourth Dynasty, when King Sneferu took the throne of Egypt.
Sneferu is regarded as the greatest pyramid builder in the history of Egypt, successfully completing three “Great” Pyramids: the Pyramid at Meidum, and the Bent and Red Pyramid at Dahshur.
This means that the truly gigantic stone pyramids of Egypt were built over the course of three generations; Sneferu, Khufu, and Khafre, father, son, and grandson.
If Sneferu did complete the pyramid at Meidum, and his pyramids at Dahshur, then his pyramids alone contain more than 2.5 million cu. Meters of stone. This is astonishing since all other pyramids combined of the Egyptian kinds contain no more than 41 percent of the total mass of the pyramids built by Sneferu.
Although Menkaure’s pyramid was built with multi-ton stones, the total volume of his pyramid is less than the mass of Djoser’s Step Pyramid. Therefore, the fourth Dynasty of ancient Egypt is regarded as the most flourishing pyramid building dynasty in the history of Egypt.
In the 5th and 6th dynasties, Pharaohs still built pyramids but on a much smaller scale, and in lesser forms. Pyramids were built with smaller stones and a core of stone rubble fill. Therefore, the 5th and 6th dynasty pyramids are inferior monuments.
As revealed by Lehner (p15), pyramid building almost stopped during the Frist Intermediate Period, when unified rule gave way to rival principalities. Pyramid construction was resumed in the Middle Kingdom.
These pyramids, however, were even lesser and built with a core of small and broken stone in casemate or retaining walls. Later pyramids were built with a core made of mudbrick.
Sizes of pyramids were at this time no longer standardized as those that were built in the Old Kingdom. Entrances were no longer opened consistently from the north side of the pyramid, signalizing that the pyramid, as a monument, was losing importance among the rulers.
Eventually, and during the New Kingdom, pyramids were no longer a “thing”, and Egyptologists say that the Pharaohs built their tombs in a communal royal burial ground; the Valley of the Kings near Thebes.
It still fascinates me as to why kings after Menkaure decided on building lesser pyramids, and why they decided to expand the size of temples while reducing the size of pyramids.
Eventually, the Nubian kings—in present-day Sudan—mirrored many facets of the Egyptian culture, and with them the Pyramids. Some 800 years after the successful completion of the last Egyptian pyramid, the Nubian kings erected their own version of pyramids, albeit on a smaller scale.
In the course of one thousand years, the rules of the Kingdom of Napata—720BC—and the Kingdom of Meroe—AD350—built around 200 pyramids, making Sudan the African country with the most number of pyramids with nearly twice as many as in Egypt.