Ancient Egypt and the History of Pyramids

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: HISTORY OF ANCIENT EGYPT

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

Egypt is synonymous with pyramids, be it the first ever pyramid or the Great Pyramid at Giza. However, these pyramids weren’t always so grand. There was a Pharaoh who taught Egypt how to build truly great pyramids and put it on the world map.

An image of the Bent Pyramid in Dahshur, Egypt.
Bent Pyramid was one of the three Pyramids built by Sneferu. (Image: Homo Cosmicos/Shutterstock)

The history behind building pyramids was of hard work, resilience, and efforts. But the Pyramids did not get right, the first time. The pyramids in the desert often collapsed while they were being built. And Sneferu, considered to be the greatest Pharaoh, endured the disasters to figure out how to get them right. But Sneferu did more than just that: he made Egypt an international power, and set artistic standards that would last for thousands of years.

The Step Pyramids of Egypt

A closeup view of the Pyramid in Dahshur.
Sneferu made several changes to the pyramids for durability. (Image: Sergey-73/Shutterstock)

The build-up to the Step Pyramid was an architectural progression. Initially, there were burials in the sandpits which did not work. People were buried in rock-cut tombs in the ground so that the sand wouldn’t wash or be blown away. Then the next idea came in to bury the dead in a rock pit or a bench-like structure called mastaba, where people could go to pay their respects. Imhotep, the Architect for the Step Pyramid, finally got the idea of putting a three-layer mastaba for his Pharaoh Zoser on the Step Pyramid of Saqqara, the first building in stone in the history of the world.

The Step Pyramid, where the pharaoh Zoser was placed underground in a rock pit, was the same basic burial but a fancy mastaba. That was not a true pyramid with smooth sides. It was Sneferu who showed them how to do that.

Learn more about prehistoric Egypt.

Who Was Sneferu?

Only a few portraits of Sneferu are available, wherewith his receding chin, he does not look like a strong, great pharaoh. There was an incomplete monument of him, in stela, a round-topped stone carving, found in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

An engraving of the King Sneferu from his funerary temple of Dahshur.
King Sneferu was considered as an approachable Pharaoh in his time. (Image: Juan R. Lazaro/CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Sneferu was also the first pharaoh who carved his name in a cartouche, an oval that represented the king’s dominion over the land. He was an innovator who went on to do new things, which included attempting the first true pyramid.

First Pyramid by Sneferu

The first pyramid that Sneferu built was called the Meidum Pyramid. It looked more like a medieval tower than a pyramid shape, with sand at the base, almost 50-100 feet high.

Sneferu had built a step pyramid just like Zoser’s, but he also filled in the steps with beautiful white limestone to create a true pyramid, which did not work. The pyramid was never used for the reason that the limestone casing used to encase it was slipping, making the whole Pyramid unstable. The Meidum Pyramid was the first attempt at a true pyramid.

Learn more about Sneferu, the Pyramid Builder.

Innovations by Sneferu

Sneferu innovated things that were used by the next pharaohs. There was a passageway that led to a valley, where he had a temple built, called the valley temple. It was believed that the pharaoh’s body was mummified in this valley temple by a sacred ceremony where priests carried his body to the pyramid through the passageway for burial.

This temple was called the mortuary temple, located right next to the pyramid. It was more like a complex which was used by the pharaoh so that priests could come and make offerings.

Adding Features to the Pyramid

Sneferu added new innovations to the Pyramids, including the first aboveground burial which was way ahead of its time. Zoser, the builder of the Step Pyramid, was buried underground with just a Step Pyramid above him. Sneferu instead decided to have his body buried above the ground.

The pharaoh’s body was placed inside the Pyramid, with millions of pounds of stones on the ceiling of the burial chamber. To avoid cracks, a corbeled ceiling was made in the burial chamber where walls of stones were built, each layer moving inwards creating a corbeled ceiling. It looked like an arch made out of steps, stepping in, until at the top having only an inch or two for the last block. All the weight of the pyramid was distributed throughout the pyramid.

A corbeled ceiling was a clever way of distributing the weight of the Pyramid. Sneferu’s burial became the first aboveground burial because of the corbeled ceiling.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Bent Pyramid-The Inside Story

An image of Sneferu's Bent Pyramid.
The Bent Pyramid by Sneferu, which was never used. (Image: Diego Fiore/ Shutterstock)

After building an unused Pyramid, Sneferu started building the next one at Dahshur which was called the Bent Pyramid. It was named so because it started out at a good angle, and while getting to the top, it bent. But there were major problems with that pyramid. The corners of the Bent Pyramid were built on unstable ground which started shifting.

The walls had huge cracks in them which started to move inward. To keep them from further collapsing, cedars of Lebanon were used to hold the walls apart. A bend at the top was put because it required less stone and was finished faster. But that pyramid too was abandoned. The Bent Pyramid was nearly as large as the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Red Pyramid-Snefaru’s Third Pyramid

Sneferu built a third pyramid, the Red Pyramid which was called so because when it used to shine in the sun, it looked red, and that’s where Sneferu was buried. Red Pyramid was the first true pyramid in the history of the world. Sneferu, the pharaoh, showed the world how to build true pyramids, despite encountering numerous problems.

Common Questions About History of Pyramids

Q: Which Pyramids did Sneferu build?

Sneferu built three pyramids namely, Meidum, Bent, and the Red Pyramid which are believed to be the prominent ones.

Q: Which Pyramid was the first true Pyramid?

The red pyramid was the first large true pyramid which was built by Pharaoh Sneferu and that is where he was buried.

Q: Why was the Red Pyramid called so?

It was called the Red Pyramid because when the sun used to shine on it, it looked red.

Q: Why is the Bent Pyramid Bent?

Bent Pyramid started out at a good angle, and while getting to the top, it bent, that is why it is called the Bent Pyramid.

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