Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A(Socio, Phil) B.Sc. M. Ed, Ph.D

Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India

From the heights of these pyramids, forty centuries look down on us.

Napoleon Bonaparte

We see Egypt’s ancient pyramid as monumental structures that inspire our imagination with awe and wonder.

It seems that the earliest temples of Egypt, sometimes incorporated a mound of earth as a symbol of the original site of all life. The word pyramid is apparently derived from the Egyptian word pi-re-mus, altitude, rather than from the Greek pyr, fire Thus, from the outset, the pyramid shape represented the idea of new life, emerging from a mound of earth to be bathed in the light and warmth of the sun. However the Egyptians thought that it somehow incorporated the very power of life itself and even the force that made it possible for new life to emerge after a period of dormancy. The annual experience that the Egyptians linked to their concept of creation . One of their earliest creation myths envisioned the first place in the world as a mound of earth emerging from the waters of a universal ocean. Here the first life form was seen as a lily, growing on the peak of the primeval mound. To the Egyptians, the lily was connected with a god named Nefertum, whose name means “perfect and complete”. Nefertum was honored as a harbinger of the sun, which rose from the lily’s petals to bring life to the newly created world. Even the mound itself was deified as a god named Tatjenen, meaning “the emerging land”.

The earliest such mounds may have been a small hill of earth or sand, but the icon eventually took the form of a small pyramid carved from a single block of stone, known as a bnbn (benben). The benben also, because of the sun’s part in creation, came to be an icon of both the primeval mound as well as the sun which rose from it. In fact, the Egyptian word for the rising sun is wbn.

Thus, the benben was incorporated within the structure of the tomb and provided the power for the spiritual rebirth to take place. The tombs of early rulers, and later on, officials, were usually surmounted by a rectangular structure of mud brick known as a mastaba, but mounds of earth have also been found within these buildings above the burial chamber. However, the mastaba itself may have been seen as symbolizing the primeval mound.

In the ancient Egyptian belief, death was not an end of life but rather the beginning of a new form of existence, particularly for the king. Basically, to the ancient Egyptians, each human was made up of various elements. Among these were the body, the ba and the ka. The body was the physical form that the living being inhabited. The ba was similar to our modern notion of the soul. It was the unique essence of each individual, while the ka was the energy of life itself, a force that was transferred from the creator to each living person. In fact, death occurred when this force was separated from the ka and its body, but after death, the ba and the ka were thought to reunite. This union allowed the individual to continue living, but in a spiritual rather than physical form. This new form of life, called akh, was more or less eternal, though the Egyptians did believe in an end of time.

There were actually two different myths that coexisted to explain this process. In one, the sun reentered the womb of Nut, the goddess of the sky, in the evening and was born again in the morning. However, in the other myth the sun sank into a netherworld, know as the Duat, where in the middle of the night, it merged with the mummy of Osiris . From this union it received the ability to come once again to life. While two different myths, together they combined the role of mother and father in the production of new life. And both of these concepts are reflected in the standardized layout of the interior chambers.

The Egyptian pyramid is one of the most common symbols representing the ancient Egyptian civilization. The best known pyramids are the three pyramids of Giza; however, these are not the only pyramids in Egypt. Egyptian pyramids evolved over time demonstrating improvements in ancient architecture and culminating in the pyramid complex at Giza.

Beginning with the construction of step pyramids, the evolution of pyramid architecture then progressed to the bent-side pyramid of Dashur and finally to the true pyramid like those at Giza.

The earliest dated pyramid is the step pyramid built for the King Djoser in the 3rd dynasty in Saqqara. , began as a mastaba but was made into a pyramid of six steps by the construction of five successively smaller mastabas on top of one another. This seems to have been a progression in the visualization of the primeval mound The pyramid of Djoser consists of 6 steps, a revolution in the construction of royal tombs. But let’s give credit where credit is due: King Djoser did not design the pyramid – the royal architect Imhotep is credited with the architectural design of the earliest Egyptian pyramid. The pyramid stretched to a little over 200 feet high. The design is adapted from earlier tomb designs called mastabas. A mastaba is an underground tomb topped with a rectangular, flat roofed structure usually made of mud bricks. Imhotep created a series of mastabas laid on top of each other to create the step pyramid. The tomb of Djoser was located underground like earlier tombs marked only by the mastabas, with the only difference being the step pyramid marking the tomb.

The bent pyramid of Dashur shows the transition from step pyramids to the later true pyramid. the bent pyramid is the first Egyptian attempt at creating the true pyramid. Construction of the bent pyramid started with the sides ascending at about a 54-degree angle, but halfway up, the angle was changed for the remainder of the construction to the slightly less angular 43 degrees. This change in angle gives the pyramid the bent shape. Similar to the step pyramids, the tomb for the bent pyramid was also constructed underground. Learning from his mistake, Snofru built another pyramid on the same site called the Red Pyramid. Construction of the Red pyramid was a success and is considered the first true pyramid completed.

The typical interior plan of these laterOld kingdom pyramids  consisted of three main elements. These elements consisted of an antechamber beneath the apex of the pyramid, connected to the outside by an entrance corridor that opens into the pyramid’s north face; a burial chamber to the west of the antechamber; and a stone sarcophagus at the west end of the burial chamber.

The true  pyramids that began to be built in the  fourth dynesty wee derived from the original step shape by filling in the steps to create four smooth faces, thus being large scale representations of the more common pyramidal benben.

However, by the fifth dynasty the layout of the chambers within the royal pyramid became standardized in a form that reflects a vision of the afterlife that characterized Egyptian thought from then on.

The purpose of building pyramids was not architectural but religious; the pyramids were tombs, lineally descended from the most primitive of burial mounds. Apparently the Pharaoh believed, like any commoner among his people, that every living body was inhabited by a double, or ka, which need not die with the breath; and that the ka would survive all the more completely if the flesh were preserved against hunger, violence and decay. The pyramid, by its height, its form and its position, sought stability as a means to deathlessness; and except for its square corners it took the natural form that any homogeneous group of solids would take if allowed to fall unimpeded to the earth. Again, it was to have permanence and strength; therefore stones were piled up here with mad patience as if they had grown by the wayside and had not been carried from quarries hundreds of miles away. In Khufu’s pyramid there are two and a half million blocks, some of them weighing one hundred and fifty tons,  all of them averaging two and a half tons; they cover half a million squarefeet, and rise 481 feet into the air. And the mass is solid; only a few blocks were omitted, to leave a secret passage way for the carcass of the King. A guide leads the trembling visitor on all fours into the cavernous mausoleum, up a hundred crouching steps to the very heart of the pyramid; there in the damp, still center, buried in darkness and secrecy, once rested the bones of Khufu and his queen. The marble sarcophagus of the Pharaoh is still in place, but broken and empty. Even these stones could not deter human thievery, nor all the curses of the gods. Since the ka was conceived as the minute image of the body, it had to be fed, clothed and served after the death of the frame. Lavatories were provided in some royal tombs for the convenience of the departed soul; and a funerary text expresses some anxiety lest the ka, for want of food, should feed upon its own excreta” One suspects that Egyptian burial customs, if traced to their source, would lead to the primitive interment of a warrior’s weapons with his corpse, or to some institution like the Hindu suttee the burial of a man’s wives and slaves with him that they may attend to his needs. This having proved irksome to the wives and slaves, painters and sculptors were engaged to draw pictures, carve bas- reliefs, and make statuettes resembling these aides; by a magic formula, usually inscribed upon them, the carved or painted objects would be quite as effective as the real ones. A man’s descendants were inclined to be lazy and economical, and even if he had left an endowment to cover the costs they were apt to neglect the rule that religion originally put upon them of supplying the dead with provender. Hence pictorial substitutes were in any case a wise precaution: they could provide the ka of the deceased with fertile fields, plump oxen, innumerable servants and busy artisans, at an attractively reduced rate. Having discovered this principle, the artist accomplished marvels with it. One tomb picture shows a field being ploughed, the next shows the grain being reaped or threshed, another the bread being baked; one shows the bull copulating with the cow, another the calf being born, another the grown cattle being slaughtered, another the meat served hot on the dish.  A fine limestone bas-relief in the tomb of Prince Rahotep portrays the dead man enjoying the varied victuals on the table before him.  Never since has art done so much for men .

In the Pyramid Texts, a collection of funerary rituals and spells first inscribed on the walls of the interior chambers in the Pyramid of Unas .They were also inscribed on his sarcophagi. Unas was the last king of the fifth dynasty ,and these texts show that the king’s afterlife was thought to parallel the daily solar cycle. Each night, as the sun once again re-entered the body of  Nut and the netherworld, the king’s spirit would come back to the interior of his tomb. The stone sarcophagus in the west end of the burial chamber was an analogue of Nut’s womb. Within the sarcophagus, the king’s mummy was both a fetus and an analogue of the mummy of  Osiris lying in the Duat. The Pyramid Texts   refer to the burial chamber itself as the Duat, and the spells inscribed on the walls of this room refer to the king not only by his own name, but also as Osiris. As the sun united with the mummy of Osiris in the Duat, the king’s spirit was thought to join with his own mummy in the Duat of his tomb and, like the sun, receive through this union the power of new life.

Finally the ka was assured long life not only by burying the cadaver in a sarcophagus of the hardest stone, but by treating it to the most pains- taking mummification. So well was this done that to this day bits of hair and flesh cling to the royal skeletons. Herodotus vividly describes the Egyptian embalmer’s art:

First they draw out the brains through the nostrils with an iron hook, raking part of it out in this manner, the rest by the infusion of drugs. Then with a sharp stone they make an incision in the side,and take out all the bowels; and having cleansed the abdomen and rinsed it with palm wine, they next sprinkle it with pounded perfume. Then, having filled the belly with pure myrrh, cassia and other perfumes, they sew it up again; and when they have done this they steep it in natron, leaving it under for seventy days; for a longer time than this it is not lawful to steep it. At the expiration of seventy days they wash the corpse, and wrap the whole body in bandages of waxen cloth, smearing it with gum, which the Egyptians commonly use instead of glue. After this the relations, having taken the body back again, make a wooden case in the shape of a man, and having made it they enclose the body; and then, having fastened it up, they store it in a sepulchral chamber, setting it up- right against the wall. In this manner they prepare the bodies that are embalmed in the most expensive way.

In the burial chamber, the texts describe two funeral rituals. They begin with a ritual of offerings, always inscribed on the north wall of the burial chamber. The priests would repeat this spell each day in the mortuary temple attached to the pyramid, which would therefore continue to provide the king’s ba with the necessities of daily life. The second ritual was for resurrection, intended to release the king’s ba from its attachment to the body so that it could rejoin its ka and enjoy life once again. It begins by assuring the king that “you have not gone away dead: you have gone away alive,” and then encourages him to “go and follow your sun…and be beside the god, and leave your house to your son of your begetting”. It ends by reassuring the king that “you shall not perish, you shall not end: your identity will remain among the people even as it comes to be among the gods”.

Outside of their power to give new life to the deceased, not much is known about the role that the earliest pyramids were thought to play in the afterlife. Nevertheless, there were successive changes to these structures and new innovations in their architecture and plan that suggest an evolution in Egyptian funerary theology.

There are many mysteries yet to be solved about pyramids, it is clear that they were not simply monumental tombs, kings. They were also, and more fundamentally, resurrection machines, designed to produce and ensure eternal life.

“All the world fears Time,” says an Arab proverb, “but Time fears the Pyramids.”


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