A pyramid is a monument with a square base and triangular sides. The ancient Egyptians built pyramids as tombs for their pharaohs (kings).
Early pharaohs were buried in mastabas. These flat-roofed buildings with sides that sloped in were usually constructed of mud brick. From a distance they looked like low, flat benches.
The mummies were buried deep underneath the mastabas in burial chambers. The shafts to these chambers could tunnel down as much as 80 feet (24 meters) below ground. Mastabas were often built close to each other, making up actual cities of the dead.
King Djoser wanted a larger and more imposing mastaba at Saqqara. The great architect Imhotep came up with the idea for the first pyramid. He stacked six mastabas on top of each other. Rather than using mud brick, which crumbled easily, he made the layers from stone.
Each layer was smaller than the one underneath, so they rose like a staircase into the sky. This type of pyramid is called a step pyramid. Miles of passages dug into the rock under the pyramid led to a chamber for the pharaoh’s body as well as to storage rooms for his burial goods.
Other pharaohs copied Imhotep’s design, but to save time or money, some used mud bricks for the interior and only put stone on the outside. Tomb robbers chiseled off the limestone, causing some of the buildings to collapse. Imhotep’s pyramid, on the other hand, has lasted for thousands of years, and tourists still visit it today.
Next in pyramid construction came the smooth-sided pyramid. These were built the way Imhotep’s were, but the builders filled in the stepped sides with stone to make the sides flat and smooth. The interior stone was rougher, but the outer layer was of polished limestone.
One of the most unusual shapes was the bent pyramid built for King Sneferu during the Fourth Dynasty. (A dynasty is a series of rulers from the same family.) It was similar to a smooth-sided pyramid, but rather than rising straight to a point, it bent inward at the top. It almost gives the appearance of the top of a prism.
All the pyramids after that went straight to a point at the top. Some say they were made this way to look like a ray of sun. Others suggest it resembles the sacred ben-ben stone of Egyptian mythology. This is the part of the earth that rose out of the waters first during the creation of the world. Whatever the reason, their well-known shapes can be seen from a great distance.
Pyramids had to be placed precisely for both religious and practical reasons. They were built on the west side of the Nile River. They needed to be above flood height. They also had to have a solid rock base to support their great weight. And the pyramids’ sides had to face north and south.
No one knows for sure how the Egyptians moved the massive 2-ton (1.8-metric ton) blocks into place without modern equipment. Historians think they used giant wooden logs to roll them across the desert. They also may have built large ramps to move the stone up to the next level as they built. If they did that, they must have taken the ramps down later.
Many people thought slaves built the pyramids. But farmers worked on the buildings during the flood season and were paid for their work.
Although pyramids appeared impressive from the exterior, the treasure they housed within was even greater. The storage rooms were filled with food, furniture, jewelry, wigs, chariots, and other possessions, along with shabtis, statues of workers who would do the dead person’s bidding in the afterlife.
The inner room contained the sarcophagus, a stone coffin. The burial chamber was painted with scenes from the deceased’s life. Scenes of music and dancing ensured that the person would enjoy the next life. False doors on the walls of the burial chamber were passages for the spirit to pass through.
The Great Pyramid
The three pyramids at Giza are smooth-sided pyramids. Built more than 4,500 years ago, they are still standing.
The largest, The Great Pyramid, rises about 482 feet (147 meters) above the desert floor. More than two million limestone blocks went into building it. It took about four thousand workers to set these huge blocks into place.