The Pyramids of Egypt

The Egyptian pyramids were built as royal tombs, and were designed to hold the body of the pharaoh. The first pyramids were built in about 2700 BC. They probably developed from a low, rectangular tomb with a flat roof, originally built in mudbrick and later in stone. These gradually increased in size and complexity until they looked like a stepped pyramid-that is, a pyramid with sides that rose in giant steps. Over time, the step pyramid developed into the true pyramid, with smooth sides. The largest and most famous pyramids of ancient Egypt are those that held the bodies of the pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure at Giza, near modern Cairo.

They were built by farm labourers, who made up 90 per cent of the population of ancient Egypt. Working on the pyramids, probably under the supervision of skilled builders, was a kind of tax that everyone had to pay. The work took place during the three or four months of the year when the Nile was in flood, when fields were underwater and no farming could be done.

The way that the pyramids were built is not known for certain. The first stone blocks were probably set in place with simple cranes and levers. As construction progressed and the pyramid grew taller, ramps were built so that blocks of stone could be hauled up with ropes. When the pyramid shape was completed, the tip of the pyramid was covered in a dark-coloured stone, and the smooth outer casing of contrasting white limestone was added, working from the top of the pyramid to the bottom, so that the ramp and scaffolding were gradually cleared. The limestone was polished to make it shine brightly in the sun and reflect moonlight. (Almost all the limestone that covered the pyramids was eventually removed and used to build mosques in Cairo.)

The interior of Egyptian pyramids consisted of passageways leading to rooms, built either underground or deep inside the pyramid, where the pharaoh's body, with rich gifts for the afterlife, was laid to rest. The passageways were designed to be confusing, and some led to dead ends. This was to prevent grave-robbers who had managed to break into the pyramid from finding their way to the burial chambers.

After embalming and mummification, the body of the pharaoh was placed in a sarcophagus and carried to the pyramid on a sledge or ceremonial boat in ritual procession led by priests and followed by mourners. Once inside the pyramid, priests placed the sarcophagus in the burial chamber and also saw that the pharaoh was provided with all that he might need in the afterlife: this might take the form of vessels containing food and wine, and gold or other precious objects. The walls of the burial chamber were sometimes painted with scenes of daily life, or with spells that would ensure the safety of pharaoh's soul.

Workmen then sealed the chamber and as they left the pyramid they sealed the entrance, hiding it completely by filling it with the same limestone slabs that covered the rest of the pyramid.

The Egyptian pyramids were designed to keep the mummified body of the pharaoh for ever. However, tomb-robbers often found their way into the burial chamber, where they stole the treasures intended for the pharaoh's afterlife and sometimes disturbed the body. Because of this problem, the ancient Egyptians gradually stopped building pyramids and, from about 1570 BC, started burying their dead in secret underground tombs such as those in the Valley of the Kings.

Historical information from "Pyramid (architecture)," Microsoft(R) Encarta(R) 98 Encyclopedia. (c) 1993-1997 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


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