The Evolution of The Egyptian Pyramids

Ancient Egyptian architecture’s most iconic form is, of course, the pyramid. Built thousands of years ago, the Egyptian pyramids are still popular tourist attractions to this day, giving testament to the skill and ingenuity of ancient Egyptian architects. However, the smooth sloped triangular structures did not simply appear one day, rather the design evolved from millennia of different architectural styles and structures across the region.

Prehistoric pit graves

Around the time of Egypt’s unification, oval pit graves started being built in desert cemeteries, allowing for a natural mummification of the corpses as the hot desert sands drained away body fluids.

Egypt’s elite eventually began to intern their dead within wooden and clay coffins and sarcophagi, installing wooden roofs with plaster of mud-brick linings over the graves. The graves were thought to have been marked with stone piles or low mounds that have since disappeared, leaving some of the underground remains in tact for archeologists to study.

Mastaba tombs

egyptian architecture ancient pyramids mastaba tombs

The Mastaba of Seshemnefer IV is a mastaba tomb in Cemetery GIS of the Giza Necropolis in Egypt. It dates from the early Sixth Dynasty (c. 2340 BC), and was built for the official Seshemnefer IV (LG 53). Image source

Mastaba tombs were used to inter high-ranking officials in Egypt’s Old Kingdom. The burial chambers in Saqqara were cut deeper and deeper into the ground until they passed into the bedrock. These tombs were then topped with a low mound and surrounded by a low, rectangular mud-brick building.

Initially, these mastaba structures were used to store the earthly possessions of those interred there. However, they were frequently raided by thieves, and so more extensive underground storage was designed and the mastaba eventually became a solid, rubble-filled block.

Djoser's Step Pyramid

ancient egyptian architecture pyramids step pyramid djoser

The Step Pyramid of Djoser actually started out as another mastaba in Saqqara that was expanded. Image source

The Step Pyramid of Djoser - Egypt’s first real pyramid - actually started out as another mastaba in Saqqara that was expanded six different times to six levels. King Djoser (c. 2670 BCE) was the king of the Third Dynasty of Egypt, it was his vizier Imhotep (c. 2667 BCE) who conceived a more impressive tomb for the king, stacking mastabas on top of one another and building in stone as opposed to the traditional mud-clay of other mastabas. This resulted in the Step Pyramid shape that would go on to influence the most iconic of ancient Egyptian architecture.

Meidum Pyramid

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There is little left standing of the modifications that made Meidum the first true pyramid. Image source

While Djoser’s tomb began construction as a mataba and evolved into the now-famous Step Pyramid, the Meidum Pyramid was originally conceived as another step pyramid, marking Egypt’s transition from the Early Dynastic Period to the Old Kingdom. The adaptations to the original step pyramid design were made by filling in the steps with limestone encasing, converting it into the first true pyramid.

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The Meidum Pyramid was originally conceived as another step pyramid. Image source

Sadly, there is little left standing of the first true pyramid as much of Meidum’s modifications did not stand the test of time. The outer layer, unlike the inner step pyramid, was founded on sand instead of rock. Additionally, since the inner step pyramid was designed to be the final stage, its outer surface was polished and the platforms of steps were not perfectly horizontal.

This severely compromised the stability and is likely to have caused the collapse of the Meidum Pyramid in a downpour while the building was still under construction.

Bent Pyramid of Dahshur

ancient egyptian architecture bent pyramid dahshur

The slope of the Bent Pyramid of Dahshur changes roughly two thirds of the way up. Image source

Unique amongst the ancient Egyptian pyramids is the aptly-named Bent Pyramid of Dahshur, the slope of which changes roughly two thirds of the way up. The lower part of the pyramid is angled inward at roughly 54 degrees, then at 49 metres above the base it flattens out abruptly to 43 degrees, creating a distinctively bent shape.

There are several theories as to why the pyramid was built in this way. Some say that the original angle was found to be unsustainable once construction had already begun, while others have suggested that the premature death of the pharaoh required an earlier completion than planned.

The Great Pyramid of Giza

ancient egyptian architecture pyramids great pyramid of giza

The Great Pyramid of Giza is the oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the Giza pyramid complex. Image source

This takes us to the world-famous Great Pyramid of Giza, also known as the Pyramid of Khufu or the Pyramid of Cheops. As part of a three-pyramid complex bordering El Giza, the Great Pyramid of Giza was completed in 2,560 BCE and - at 481 feet high - was the tallest man-made structure in the world for more than 3,800 years.

Its surface would originally have been smooth, covered in limestone casing stones, the remains of which can still be seen. While there are a few contrasting theories regarding its construction, most accept that it was built by moving enormous stones from a quarry and dragging and lifting them into place, being completed in anything from 10 to 20 years.

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