Dahshur Necropolis in Egypt

About Egyptian Pyramids


A map of the Pyramid field at Dahshur in Egypt


Dahshur forms the southernmost area of the Memphis Necropolis and contains a number of pyramid complexes and monuments. Dahshur has only recently been opened to the public, having been a military zone until 1996. As a result, the area is not as developed commercially as Giza, and there is a certain peace and tranquility to the site still. It is most noteworthy for being the site that best demonstrates the change from the "step" pyramid to the "true" pyramid that occurred during the Third and Fourth Dynasties.


The 3rd Dynasty Pharaoh Huni began construction on a true pyramid at Meidum, utilizing a step pyramid as a base for the construction. But it was his son, Snofru (2613-2589 BC), first Pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty, who would take monument-building to a new level. Snofru began by completing the work on his father's pyramid, then constructed a step pyramid of his own at Meidum. Yet once it was completed, Snofru had a design for a new monument, utilizing what he had learned in his previous efforts. Snofru's second pyramid was to be a true pyramid from the beginning, unlike Huni's, which had been built around a step pyramid "core."


Unfortunately, Snofru's plans were curtailed. As construction neared the halfway point, the angle of the sides was reduced from the steep 54 to a gentler 43. It is thought that this was done to alleviate stresses that had become evident in the lower part of the pyramid, either in the foundation blocks or the ground underneath. This resulted in a rhomboid or "bent" silhouette, and makes Snofru's pyramid the most distinct structure at Dahshur. It is also distinct for another reason: it still has much of its outer casing intact.


No doubt dissatisfied with a pyramid that appeared to "hesitate" on its rise to the heavens, Snofru began construction on a second pyramid approximately two kilometers to the north. This is the famous "Red Pyramid" (named for the red limestone used in its construction), the oldest true pyramid in Egypt and the immediate predecessor of the pyramids that would come later. It has a slope angle of 43, and is second in size only to the Great Pyramid at Giza, built by Snofru's son Khufu. In fact, the Great Pyramid is a mere 10 meters larger than the Red Pyramid. When completed, it must have been an incredible sight, for its name translates to "The Shining Pyramid."


Other major monuments at Dahshur date to the 12th and 13th Dynasties, but do not compare with the sheer scale of the works of Huni and Snofru. The White Pyramid of Amenemhet II, the Black Pyramid of Amenemhet III, and the Pyramid of Senusret III dominate a number of smaller monuments to minor rulers, nobles, and officials, telling of a fairly stable and peaceful period in Egypt's history. Interestingly enough, the Black Pyramid and the Pyramid of Senusret III are made of brick, not stone. Why the materials were switched is unclear, though it is known that at that time new construction methods were coming to Egypt from other countries as trade and foreign relations became foremost.


What is also unclear is why Senusret III, Amenemhet II and Amenemhet III were buried at Dahshur, when the traditional royal burial site had been Giza since the time of Khufu. We do find evidence of a cult of Snofru existing in the Middle Kingdom, and it may be that these pharaohs chose to have their pyramids built near to the tomb of the "father of pyramids" rather than at Giza.


Sadly, although brick was much easier to work with, not to mention cheaper compared to ton-weight granite blocks, it has not withstood the test of time. Though the Black Pyramid is reasonably intact, the White Pyramid is so damaged that we cannot even obtain a measure of the slope angle or its original height. The Black Pyramid contains a maze of rooms to foil tomb robbers, and it seems to have worked. Though robbers pilfered the burial chamber long ago, in 1993 a side room was found containing many precious funerary artifacts.


In addition to the pyramid complexes, Dahshur also contains a number of minor monuments. There are the companion temples to each pyramid and auxiliary tombs for members of the family and favored officials. There are also the mastabas of various princesses and queens, which contained many examples of Middle Kingdom jewelry, most of which are now in the Cairo Museum.