The kings of ancient Egypt had themselves buried in pyramids, which became their tombs. As trite as such a truth may seem, for over two thousand years the West has had trouble acknowledging that the Egyptians accumulated millions of several-ton stone blocks for the sole purpose of sheltering the mortal remains of their rulers. Enticed by doubt many centuries ago, we no longer belong to a world that expressed itself in hieroglyphs or emblems. Of all the symbols to which classical Egypt resorted, that of the pyramid was among the most powerful. So powerful that a whole nation felt obliged to apply their energy to it, to making it nefer—that is, "effective for millions of years." Thus, although destined for but a single man, their king, each pyramid bespeaks the fervor of their belief, what we refer to as the "piety" of the Egyptians.
The very shape of the monument has a history that dates back to earliest times. In prehistoric times, the deceased person was lowered into a pit and placed in fetal position on his or her left side. Covering the pit was a mound of earth and loose stones. Hence the tombs at the (ca. 4000 BC) sites of Badari and Merimdeh are the direct ancestors of the so-called "classical" pyramids that appeared during the 4rd
Dynasty (ca. 2500 BC): in effect, during the protohistoric and predynastic periods, the originally bare burial mound was encased in carefully bonded limestone and already began resembling the mastabas. Early in the Historic Period—that is, during the first two dynasties—the royal tombs recorded at Abydos and Saqqara became more elaborate: King Aha's tomb (1st
Dynasty), for instance, is shaped like an enormous rectangular brick mass measuring 62 feet (19 meters) in length by almost 10 feet (3 meters) in width, and its outside walls, featuring pilasters and redans (vertical offsets), emphatically bespeak the birth of an architecture.
The decisive transformation of Ancient Egypt's royal tombs from the early mastabas into pyramids belongs to Djoser
3rd DYNASTY Step-Pyramid of Djoser, Saqqara, royal necropolis
the second king of the 3rd
The history of the Egyptian pyramids can be traced back to Djoser's funerary monument at Saqqara, which represents the ultimate Thinite prototype. However, despite the boldness of the overall layout, the king's burial chamber remained underground. It was lined with Aswan pink granite and sealed off by an almost 4-ton monolith during the funeral ceremony. This vault, together with a room for maneuvering the stone blocks and four long galleries carved into the bedrock are still reminiscent of the Pre- and Protohistoric tombs or the subterranean storerooms of the Thinite mastabas.
During the almost two centuries separating the reigns of Djoser and Cheops, the very concept of pyramids evolved from case to case. Thus, the pyramid built by Sekhemkhet (3rd
4th DYNASTY Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu), Giza, royal necropolis
was dressed entirely in a smooth facing of limestone from Turah. For reasons that remain unexplained to this day, Snefru went on to order the construction of two new pyramids at Dahshur: the Bent (or Rhomboid, or Southern) Pyramid featuring a strange change in the angle of its slope, and the Red (or Northern, or Shining) Pyramid. Both of these boasted a smooth facing and, for the first time, funerary chambers that instead of being carved underground at bedrock level were inserted into the lower reaches of the masonry.
Snefru's successor, Cheops (Khufu)
4th Dynasty- Cartouche of Cheops (Khufu) - Limestone - Ht. 0.139 cm - Provenance: Giza; New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
chose the plain of Giza as his final resting place. By general consensus, his pyramid
4th DYNASTY Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu), Giza, royal necropolis
represents the archetypal Memphite tomb, not only due to its size—756 feet (230 meters) along each side of its base, 482 feet (146 meters) in height, and a 613 foot-(187 meter-) long slope at 51°
50, thus attaining the enormous volume of 89,016,510 ft3 (2,521,000 m3)—but also because of the perfection and originality of its design, which make a true masterpiece of it. The galleries and burial chambers are built into its masonry: Thus, the king's chamber, at the core of the pyramid, opens up at some 164 ft (50 meters) above ground, as if suspended between heaven and earth. A close look at the map and elevation reveals that this layout was the fruit of long and patient analysis and revisions: The first project—patterned on the traditional concept, with a gallery leading downwards to a first burial chamber carved into the subterranean bedrock at a depth of around 82 feet (25 meters) — was left unfinished; a second project foresaw an ascending gallery opening up onto a horizontal corridor leading to the new burial chamber, misleadingly labeled the queen's chamber and the only one of the three chambers to be located exactly along the pyramid's axis. A third and final revision produced the famous, 151-foot (46-meter) long Grand Gallery, leading to the third and last of the burial chambers, the king's chamber, made entirely out of pink Aswan granite. Superimposed above the nine granite blocks constituting this chamber's flat ceiling, are five relieving chambers to distribute the weight away from the burial chamber.
Reign after reign, ever since King Djoser, the anonymous teams of architects, engineers and foremen responsible for the royal construction sites gained ever vaster experience, which reached its zenith at Giza. Indeed, the sites of Badari, Merimdeh, This, Saqqara, Dahshur, Meydum and Giza all represent distinct stages of one and the same evolution from a primitive mound to the ideal pyramid, over a period lasting almost one millennium and a half. And during those 1500 years—aside from certain technical considerations-the basic tomb shape remained the same. This implies that the symbol illustrated by that form was powerful enough to enforce strict compliance with the canons and traditions attached to it.
In order to attempt to understand that symbol, we must return to its point of departure: In classical Egyptian, the world "tomb"
as written per en djet
- that is, "house of eternity" or, more precisely, "house for eternity."
Already in Thinite (Early Dynastic) times, the mastabas of This and of Saqqara were structured like the civil buildings: For example, the walls around King Aha's tomb, with their alternating pilasters and redans (vertical offsets), bring to mind the property or town perimeter walls of the time. Hence, they symbolically underscore the deceased's intention to rest for all eternity in his fief, his dwelling place. The wall that sets the boundaries of Djoser's funerary complex at Saqqara is similar, even though it was erected almost three centuries later.
However, with the dawn of the Old Kingdom, the funerary symbolism began to evolve, reflecting the fact that—among the temples depending on the crown—certain heretofore rather scattered religious ideas were being pooled, encouraging a syncretist approach to the burial rites. In the divine system that came into being, the mastabas of the pharaohs were no longer considered worthy of rulers now ranked highest, and endowed with a "neteric" destiny whereby they were called upon to join their father gods. More than a site serving to ensure their immortality, it was a vehicle with which to join their divine dwelling place that the kings deserved. The pyramid was meant to serve both purposes, providing the king with an impregnable refuge and assisting him in the first steps of his ascension towards the hereafter.
The famous Pyramid Texts help elucidate this double role of the pyramid: the passive inertia of its construction material and the active power of its shape. These texts, which are the fruit of a gigantic compilation accomplished by the Heliopolitan (Heliopolis = "city of the sun", center of astronomy under Old Kingdom) priests during the first dynasties of Ancient Egypt, consist of hymns, incantations, and magic formulae. The purpose of such verbal amulets was to protect the deceased on his way to fulfilling his destiny, to overcome the dangers that he might cross on his way or, in the words of the Egyptians themselves, "to lay the foundation in the heart" all the way to the end of his journey. The three main versions that have come down to us are taken from the burial chambers of the pyramids of Unas (5th Dynasty)
3rd to 5th Dynasties Boat tomb, causeway and pyramid of King Unas; to the right, South Wall of the funerary complex of King Djoser, Saqqara, royal necropolis
, Pepi I (6th
Dynasty), and Merenre (6th
Dynasty): Here they were inscribed on the walls in long columns of hieroglyphs painted in blue. In today's cultural context, these intentionally hermetic inscriptions are of course very difficult for us to grasp. Nevertheless, and despite the differences between them, together they furnish the basics of the "how to be reborn" ritual.
Some passages are of relevance to our topic. Thus, for instance, paragraph 267: "The earth is beaten into
steps for him towards heaven, that he may mount on it towards heaven."
From this we are made to conceive of the pyramid, in particular the step pyramid, as a staircase enabling the
deceased pharaoh to fulfill his cosmic destiny. Further on, paragraphs 508 and 523 comment: "N has trodden
down for himself thy splendor, as stairs under his feet, that N may ascend them to his mother, the living
uraeus which is the head of Ra." - "The sky has strengthened the radiance for N, that N may lift himself
to heaven as the eye of Ra." In other words, the smooth-faced pyramid represents at once the supreme protection afforded by Ra spreading his rays over the mortal remains of his son and, like the staircase in paragraph 267, the pathway of light that the resurrected king will follow to
reach his father's bosom.
To assert that paragraphs 267, 508 and 523 of the Pyramid Texts alone provide a definitive explanation of the
symbolism belonging to the Egyptian burial rites would be an exaggeration. Still other sources confirm the
hypotheses being put forward: Egyptian writing offers an extraordinarily fertile field of research in the
matter. As those familiar with that writing know, to any given group of signs forming a word, the scribes were
in the habit of adding an additional ideogram that served as a determiner for purposes of clarifying the
essence of the term in question.
Take the term "beer":
written as heneket
, it was followed by the sign
, the symbol for a beer pot; that is
. Likewise, the verb "to ascend"
was written er
, with as its determiner the schematic image of a two-sided stairway
whose outline is strangely reminiscent of the pyramid of Djoser. The noun "pyramid" itself was written mer
. The prefixem
most commonly meant the "place," or "site," so that the word can be translated as "the place where one ascends." Hence, the writing corroborates the content of the sacred texts: The pyramid is the staircase, the mystic way, or simply the place from which the king ascends towards Ra.
Not that this brings our problem to an end, for the step pyramid does not always symbolize the first steps of the path leading to Ra, nor does the smooth-faced pyramid always symbolize the supreme protection afforded by the rays of the sun. Studying the inside layout of the pyramids at Saqqara, Dahshur, Meydum and Giza, Egyptologists made a surprising discovery: In most cases, both systems were superimposed in the same pyramid. The pyramid at Meydum, for example, consists of a smooth outer facing over a seven-step inner body. Research has revealed that such a solution was not prompted simply by technical needs, since it is just as easy to encase a straight-walled structure in limestone as a stepped one. In fact, the real reason might well enough be symbolic: Snefru's burial tomb could be a "double pyramid," at once vehicle (staircase) and site of protection (Ra).
Pursuing this line of reasoning, there could be another explanation to the strange break in the angle of slope characterizing the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur: Instead of believing that Snefru's construction had to be interrupted because of unexpected complexities, prompting the change in slope, we might be won over by Alexandre Varille's argument to the effect that this pyramid in fact comprises "two interlocking pyramids, where all speaks of duality. Two separate galleries lead to two chambers: In the lower chamber, two open trap doors in the shaft; two sliding porticullises in the horizontal section of the upper gallery. (...) The pyramid is surrounded by two parallel perimeter walls separated by a narrow corridor. The causeway led to a double door with one leaf strangely placed closely behind the other, in an arrangement that can only by explained as symbolical." [cf. A Propos des pyramides de Snefrou, Cairo, Imprimerie Schindler, 1947, p.7]
Another finding by the archaeologists who continued the research on Ancient Egypt's funerary monuments was that, instead of sitting on entirely level ground, as was formerly thought, the pyramids rested on natural mounds, or in any case a rocky knoll deliberately set apart for their construction. Any technical considerations notwithstanding, here again the explanation has to do with the realm of the symbolic: According to Heliopolitan dogma, which was the dominating current of the day, in the Beginning there was chaos or "noun"—a neutral compound of matter and non-matter, inert and animated, passive and active. From this chaos was said to have arisen, spurred by the creative Will, the first organized element, a stone hillock emerging from the marshes. It was further said that here was the birthplace of Atum, father of the gods who organized the cosmos: Shu and Tefnut, Nut and Geb, Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nepthys—a group of gods forming the "Grand Ennead."
This primeval mound was worshipped in the heart of the Heliopolis sanctuary in the form of a squat obelisk; for lack of testimony, it is not known whether its section was round or square. Originally named "ben," thanks to the well-known phenomenon of reduplication it subsequently became "benben" (original mound). Hence this sacred monolith represented the site of the emergence of life, harmony, and order—all of which were the outward signs of the active neter.
Les pharaons de l'Ancien Empire, pour affirmer leur triomphe sur ce néant qu'est la mort, s'arrogèrent ce privilège de participer au mythe héliopolitain et, reposant à jamais sur la butte originelle, s'assimilèrent au cycle créateur d'Atoum. L'éminence sur laquelle est fondée la pyramide, et donc par extension la pyramide elle-même, représentent le lieu du premier jour de la genèse, celui du pouvoir-naître, celui du pouvoir-renaître, par analogie à la genèse héliopolitaine.
In seeking to assert their victory over the nothingness that is death, the Old Kingdom pharaohs laid claim to the privilege of participating in the Heliopolitan myth: By choosing the original mound as their resting place, they allowed themselves to become assimilated with the creative cycle of Atum. The knoll at the origin of pyramids and, by extension, the pyramids themselves, represent the site of the first day of genesis, of being able to come into being, of being able to come back into being, by analogy with the Heliopolitan genesis.
This makes of the pyramid an instrument of the greatest divine mystery, that of coming back to life. Set up against the horizon and facing the whole country, the pyramid exalts the supreme power of the gods. In the words of J.H. Breasted: «"The pyramidal shape of the royal tomb was of highest holy significance . (...) and when the pyramid arose, enormous like a mountain, above the royal sepulchre, dominating the city at its feet and the valley beyond, it was the loftiest object greeted by the sun in all the land and the morning rays of the divine sun sparkled over the summit, dazzling for a long time before scattering the shadows in the dwelling places of the humble mortals."»
Many a mortal has crossed the plain of Giza in the last forty-four centuries. No matter of what culture or confession, not one of them, I feel certain, ever gazed upon Cheops without experiencing the deep thrill that the discovery of the sacred unfailingly invites.