Unrecorded Mystery: What Happened to the Capstones of Egypt’s Ancient Pyramids?

Throughout history, and starting around 4,700 years ago, the ancient Egyptian civilization erected impressive pyramids. As of now, there are around 120 pyramids in Egypt, many of which are unrecognizable and were reduced, for various reasons, to no more than rubble. In fact, there are many pyramids in Egypt that appear as no more than mounds of sand. Beneath them, however, are the remnants of structures that can be traced back thousands of years.

Although the Great Pyramid of Giza is perhaps Egypt’s most famous pyramid, Egypt is home to many others that are equally important. In fact, were it not for these ancient pyramids, the Great Pyramid of Giza may never have been built.

According to Egyptologists, the birth of the ancient Egyptian pyramid can be traced back to the Third Dynasty reign of King Djoser and the Step Pyramid at Saqqara.

Some 4,700 years ago, Djoser instructed his royal vizier and architect, a young man called Imhotep, to travel to Saqqara and design a monument that would stand the test of time. Imhotep did not disappoint his king, and he would eventually build a monumental stairway to heaven.

Measuring around 65 meters in height, it was the greatest construction that the Egyptians had undertaken until then; only surpassed several generations later by the great pyramids of Giza.

A stairway to heaven

Great Pyramid of Cheops vividly reflected in Nile overflow. Image Credit: Matson Photo Service / Library of Congress. Image taken between 1950 and 1977.
Great Pyramid of Cheops vividly reflected in Nile overflow. Image Credit: Matson Photo Service / Library of Congress. The image was taken between 1950 and 1977.

Such dimensions were at the height of the goal pursued by its designer: to allow his Pharaoh, once buried inside, to ascend the six steps of the pyramid to meet the sun god Ra, without appearing before the court of Osiris, the god who judged the souls of the deceased.

In itself, the Pyramid at Saqqara is not the perfect pyramid that would come many years later. As revealed by experts, it is not even entirely accurate to speak of a “step pyramid.”

As demonstrated by the French archaeologist and architect Jean-Philippe Lauer, who spent several decades studying the site, the building did not start from a complete initial project but was the result of a series of successive modifications. Originally it was a mastaba, a large flat-roofed mud-brick structure with which the Pharaonic tombs were covered since the first dynasty.

The Step Pyramid was completed in around 19 years and became the example of Pyramids in Egypt. Pharaohs that followed Djoser worked on replicating the pyramid complex, but many of them failed. Djoser’s Step Pyramid is thought to have been the only pyramid that was completed in the Third dynasty. There is evidence of other attempted pyramids, but none of them were complete.

The greatest pyramid builder

The Fourth Dynasty King Sneferu would revolutionize Egypt again. He built three large pyramids and made sure history would remember him as Egypt’s greatest pyramid builder.

Sneferu erected three majestic pyramids; one at Meidum and two at Dahshur. His pyramids, just as that of Djoser, would completely revolutionize Egyptian pyramid building. The Pyramid at Meidum was an experimental structure in which the builders tried creating a smooth-sided pyramid. Today, only its core remains but at one point in history, it may have even surpassed in terms of height, the Step Pyramid of Djoser.

Sneferu’s next two pyramids, the Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid would further develop the Egyptian pyramid building techniques. The construction of these two pyramids allowed future pyramid builders to construct more precise, more complex, and larger monuments. Essentially, the Bent and Red Pyramids of Sneferu laid down the foundations for the construction of Egypt’s greatest pyramid, the Pyramid of Khufu.

The Red Pyramid of Sneferu was Egypt’s tallest and largest pyramid and remained so until the construction of the Great Pyramid. Even after the construction of Khafre’s pyramid next to that of Khufu, the Red Pyramid would remain one of the largest pyramids ever built in Egypt. In fact, in terms of size, the largest pyramids in Egypt are Khufu’s, Khafre’s, and Sneferu’s Red Pyramid.

Essentially, the Step Pyramid of Djoser was Egypt’s most unique pyramid because it was the only true step pyramid that was ever built in Egypt. All other monuments that followed it had very different design elements, something that tells us that the Egyptian pyramids were developed and changed from generation to generation.

We can probably conclude that the birth of Egypt’s smooth-sided pyramid can be attributed to Sneferu and the construction of the Red Pyramid at Dahshur. Many elements were taken from Sneferu’s Red Pyramid by future generations of pyramid builders.

The peak of the Egyptian pyramid building was met with Khufu’s majestic monument; the builders had succeeded in constructing a never-before-seen pyramid with an estimated 2.3 million blocks of stone. Egyptologists believe that Khufu’s incredible monument is so massive, it has a total weight of around 6.5 million tons.

The Pyramidion

This is the Pyramidion of the Pyramid of Amenemhet III at Dahshur. Image Credit: Pinterest.
This is the Pyramidion of the Pyramid of Amenemhet III at Dahshur. Image Credit: Pinterest.

The most mysterious part of the pyramid is perhaps its uppermost part, specifically its pyramidion. This structure was the uppermost piece—capstone—placed both on Pyramids and Obelisks. In ancient Egyptian times, the pyramidion was referred to as the benbenet, which associated the entire structure to the sacred benben stone. The Benben was the mound that arose from the primordial waters Nu upon which the creator deity Atum settled in the creation myth of the Heliopolitan form of ancient Egyptian religion.

In essence, the benbenet was, therefore, one of the most sacred and important parts of a pyramid, yet if we take a look at some of the most impressive examples of ancient Egypt, this stone seems to be missing.

In fact, the lack of a pyramidion has sparked widespread debate among experts whether pyramids in the distant past even had one. Usually, when we look at recreations of what the pyramids of Egypt may have looked like thousands of years ago, we see a benben stone that is usually made of gold, or other precious materials.

But even though the pyrmaidion was of great importance in the design elements of the pyramids, when we look at the pyramids of Khufu, Khafre, Sneferu, and many others, we see their top lacking what many say is the most important part.

So, what happened to the capstone of the pyramids? Did it ever exist? If so, what was it made of? Was it Gold? Was it destroyed in ancient times? Or was it looted, like many of the pyramids were?

Without its capstone, the pyramid is incomplete.

The Great Pyramid’s missing capstone is perhaps the most evident; its summit is marked by a flagpole that is said to have been installed there by astronomers in 1874 who were attempting to calculate the pyramid’s apex.

Since there aren’t any descriptions or texts dating back to the time when the pyramids were completed, and since archaeologists have failed to find any blueprints describing how the pyramids were built, it is extremely difficult to imagine what these majestic structures may have looked like in their prime. Nonetheless, I believe we can conclude that such majestic monuments must have had a summit equally stunning.

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