It is not always immediately apparent to visitors to the pyramids of Giza that these ‘Wonders of the Ancient World’ were, in fact, the culmination of years of intense developments in royal tomb design – part of a tradition of pyramid building in ancient Egypt that spanned several millennia.
Saqqara: the dawn of the Pyramid Age
The birth of pyramid design actually began with the appearance of Djoser’s step-pyramid complex at Saqqara (c. 2667 – 2648 BC). His stunning mortuary complex contains the world’s first monumental buildings in stone, including a sophisticated collection of elegantly designed hallways, shrines and open courtyards.
At the centerpiece of this architectural tour de force was the tomb of the king – the Step Pyramid. This was a radically new style of building and the foundation for the transition from earlier royal mastaba (or bench-like) tombs to the true pyramid forms that would later appear in the 4th dynasty (2613 – 2494 BC).
Djoser had originally intended to build for himself a large stone-built mastaba. However, for reasons unknown to us, he continued to expand the structure with the addition of a second smaller mastaba, built on top of the first. This process was repeated until the building took on its final form – that of a six-stepped pyramid – without doubt, a truly brilliant piece of engineering.
Sneferu, Master Pyramid Builder
Thirty-five years after Djoser’s death, king Sneferu came to the throne as head of a new line of 4th dynasty monarchs (r. 2613 – 2589 BC). He quickly set about a prodigious and highly innovative campaign of pyramid building that included no fewer than three monumental pyramid-tombs, one at Meidum and two at Dahshur. His feats as a monumental builder are remarkable. In fact, the stone used in his three funerary complexes surpasses the amount employed by Khufu in the “Great Pyramid” at Giza.
Mistakes at Meidum
Whilst the vast necropolis of Saqqara is high on the list of most tour groups, very few tourists have time to visit Meidum, some 100 kms south of Cairo. It was here that Sneferu built his first pyramid. Originally conceived as a seven-stepped, and then an eight-stepped monument, it drew its inspiration from the blueprint set down by Djoser. Whilst the structure has partially collapsed (probably in antiquity), it still dominates the desert landscape for miles around. A visit to Meidum will be rewarded by gaining entry into the core of the pyramid and the rather uncomfortable, though hugely exciting, descent to the otherworldly burial chamber of the king.
The move to Dahshur
Upon completion of his Meidum step-pyramid, the complex was mysteriously abandoned when Sneferu re-located the imperial court from Meidum northwards to Dahshur, around the middle part of his reign. This would coincide with a dramatic shift in royal funerary architecture. For it was here at Dahshur, in the second half of the reign, that Sneferu’s architects would experiment with the construction of the first-ever “true” pyramids.
The Bent Pyramid: a flawed design
The first of Sneferu’s monuments here was the Bent pyramid, which marks his first attempt to make the transition from step pyramid to a true geometric pyramid. Greater emphasis on solar cults probably played an influential role in the new design. Upon death the king was believed to have been assimilated with the sun god. He joins the solar deity in his divine barque on a daily journey – a voyage that mirrors the cycle of the birth-death-and-resurrection of the sun god – and, by extension, the death and re-birth of the king himself.
Form following funerary function
The smooth sides of these new pyramids were styled to imitate the rays of the sun god – endowing the king with their divine, life-enhancing energy and thus providing him with a means to ascend to his final destiny. By ascending this ramp, the king would re-enact the main motif in the ancient perception of the afterlife – his eventual unification with the sun god in his daily journey through the heavens – a journey that would result in his own re-birth.
Third time lucky?
Unstable foundations meant that the Bent pyramid was plagued by structural difficulties and its angle of inclination had to be reduced midway through the build. It is this radical modification in design that is responsible for giving the pyramid its unique “bent” shape!
It was also at this point that Sneferu embarked upon a second, more ambitious pyramid, just to the north on the Dahshur plateau. This “Northern Pyramid” is more commonly known as the “Red Pyramid”, on account of the hue of its limestone core. With a base measuring some 220 metres, it is a mere 10 metres shorter than the “Great Pyramid” of Giza.
It is only in recent years that the site of Dahshur has been re-opened to the public and visitors allowed access to the inner chambers of the Red Pyramid. These fascinating, yet much neglected, monuments help to piece together our understanding of the technical advances in royal funerary architecture that took place between the construction of the first step-pyramid and that of the most famous pyramid of them all, the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza.