The Pyramids of Egypt


The pyramids weren’t merely piles of stone used to denote the burial place of a pharaoh, like today’s mausoleums and tombstones. To think so is to misunderstand completely what the ancient Egyptians believed when it came to the concept of kingship. Pharaoh wasn’t merely a person who ruled over a mass of others, as medieval western monarchs were. Instead, he was an incarnation of the falcon god Horus. When a pharaoh went to meet Osiris (being the god of the underworld, this was the euphemism used to denote the death of pharaoh), the spirit of Horus passed into the next king. The dead pharaoh then became a god, meaning that the pyramid in which he was buried became a temple to him.

When a pyramid was built, a whole host of support services appeared in the vicinity to maintain it. Housing was needed for the priests who manned the temples, and also for the guards who protected the corpse of pharaoh from people who would like to get their hands on the treasures entombed in the pyramid and the jewellery placed on the body. Farms were needed to provide food for the workers, and so on. It is no wonder that one author has written, “So the pyramid was also an economic engine and, especially during the Old Kingdom, a major catalyst for internal colonisation and the development of Egypt as one of the world’s first true states”.

The Pyramid Complex

A pyramid was not merely a triangular mass of rock put on its own somewhere in the desert, despite how it may seem today. In fact, there were all sorts of buildings and walls surrounding the pyramid, which all came together to form the pyramid complex. There was not 1 but 2 types of pyramid complex, one being based on the first ever pyramid, Djoser’s Step Pyramid of Saqqara, and the other following the example set by Snefru at Meydum.

The most common was the second type, copied from Snefru’s Meydum pyramid. Here there was a valley temple in the valley (there’s a surprise;)), which served as a harbour and also as an entrance gate for the whole complex. Leaving the valley temple, the visitor would walk along a huge causeway with walls and usually also a roof leading up to the pyramid itself. However, entering the pyramid wasn’t that easy. Having passed along the causeway, one would enter the mortuary temple, consisting of a great colonnaded entrance hall, on the other side of which would be an open courtyard, leading to an inner sanctuary. At the end of the inner sanctuary was a false door cut into the side of the pyramid. The real entrance to the pyramid would usually be concealed on the east side of the pyramid, once again to discourage tomb robbers. These security features never worked, however, as a pyramid with all its contents intact has never been found. Around the main pyramid would be satellite ones, belonging to pharaoh’s queens, and perhaps also a small one dedicated to pharaoh’s physical soul, which was bound to the mummy and therefore remained in the world (ka). It is also likely that there would be low mastaba (literally “bench”) tombs surrounding the complex, belonging to the nobles who served under pharaoh.

The original pyramid complex, exemplified by that of Djoser’s Step Pyramid, was different in that there was an enclosure wall surrounding the area (in the form of a north-south rectangle), and no causeway or valley temple. There were also no satellite pyramids.

Next: Main Pyramid Sites