An Overview of Egypt Pyramids

About Egyptian Pyramids


by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston

>> Pyramid Index



The Great Pyramids of Egypt



Though everyone knows of the pyramids in Egypt, we are told of great pyramids all over the world. We are told of pyramids in Australia and pyramids in Greece, Spain and even the United States. We are told of pyramids under the oceans and pyramids in space. Besides the pyramids of Egypt, we certainly know of the pyramids in South Mexico down into South America. It also seems likely that pyramids exist in China, though their investigation has been limited, and we know of no formal archaeological investigation. It is very probable that the small Greek pyramids exist, but many of the remaining structures claimed to be pyramids are questionable. One pyramid in China, called the White Pyramid, is even rumored to be larger than the Great Pyramid of Khufu, though the China pyramids are made of earth, while the Great Pyramids of Egypt is made of massive stones.


True Pyramids

We can not really positively identify any true pyramids outside of Egypt. These are pyramids originally built with smooth sides that come to a point at the top. Most of the pyramids in Mexico, and most probably those in China were step pyramids, built up with successive "steps" of stone or other substances. Also, pyramids outside of Egypt appear to have been build for a different purpose than those in Egypt. While Egyptian pyramids most always have a man made substructure and are funerary in nature, we know of no pyramids outside of Egypt with such structures. Instead, other pyramids most often seem to have a temple, altar or chapel on the top step, and their purpose seems more oriented to that of a temple. It can also most likely be said that Egyptian pyramid complexes were more structured thAn those found outside of Egypt. Over very long periods of time, they often retained the same components and even a basic design.



Pyramids of Egypt - Great Pyramid and Sphinx in Egypt


Great Pyramid and Sphinx in Egypt


Many questions remain about pyramid's including persistent speculation, some of which is very wild. Some people seen to continue to believe that the pyramids of Egypt were built by aliens or an ancient, advanced race. Among other arguments, they provide the worldwide construction of pyramids, and the obvious difficulties involved with building these massive structures as evidence.


Traditional View of Egypt Pyramids

However, there are a number of facts that support more traditional views that Egypt's pyramids were, in fact, built by none other than the ancient Egyptians without outside assistance. These include:



Monolithic, smooth sided pyramids did not just suddenly appear in Egypt. There was an evolutionary period, leading to the great pyramids of Giza that began with simple mastaba tombs, expanded into step pyramids, which led to experimentation, some of which failed miserably, and culminating with the perfected structure. In addition, the decorative themes associated with pyramids also evolved over time.

Snofru's Pyramid at Medum Built with Too Steep of Slope



Pyramids of Egypt - Snofru's Pyramid at Medum



Pyramids fit within both a physical and theological context. Physically, they do not exist alone. They are almost always a part of a religious compound, and sometimes these compounds even fit within the larger context of the pyramid field, all of it related to the very specific religion of the ancient Egyptians. They do not honor a superior or ancient race, but rather their own well documented sun god.


Construction Methods:

We not only find the Egyptian's ancient stone cutting and other tools within the ruins of pyramids, we also find some of the ramps that they used, and evidence of other construction methods. These are contemporary tools, and construction methods that would have fit the times. Regardless, it would appear that pyramids built both inside and outside of Egypt most often are in some way related to sun worship, or at least some form of astronomical religious activity. In Egypt, pyramids were mostly built in the north, where the worship of the sun god, Re was most dominant. In fact all of the major pyramids were built not far away from Memphis and nearby modern Cairo. Most are located at Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, at Saqqara or nearby Abusir or Dahshur, or somewhat farther away, close to the Fayoum region. At least as regards pyramids, the north was at its zenith during the late Old Kingdom (5th Dynasty), when kings not only built their pyramid complexes, but also built sun temples. While the pyramid's built in Egypt seem to be all funerary in nature, to regard them as merely tombs is an oversimplification. It involved a complex of buildings because it was the dead pharaohs palace of the afterlife, where he was mystically transformed and resurrected as a full god. The pyramid itself represented the primeval mound from which the world arose from the ancient waters.


First Pyramids of Egypt


The first pharaoh to build a pyramid in Egypt was probably Djoser, of the 3rd Dynasty, It was an evolutionary step away from the mastaba tombs with their layer of stone over a substructure. In effect, the first pyramid builders simply stacked layer upon layer of stone in ever decreasing size atop one another until a step pyramid was built.


Pyramids of Egypt - Step  Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara in Egypt



Djoser's complex at Saqqara was most likely designed by the famous architect and priest, Imhotep, and was not only the first pyramid that we know of, but also the first great monumental stone structure that we know of in, or outside of Egypt.. However, like the pyramids in the Americas, it was not a true pyramid, lacking an outer, smooth casing. After Djoser, there was considerable experimentation directed towards building a true pyramid, evidenced by those such as the Bent Pyramid at Dahshure, as well as other greater failures, such as Snofru's pyramid at Meidum, which was the first to be planned as a true pyramid. At first, their attempts to build a true pyramid were foiled by designs with the sides of the pyramid at too steep a slope. However, by the time Snofru built his other pyramid at Dahshure, the Red Pyramid, they had worked this out, for it is the first of the successful, true pyramids.


The culmination of the grand, most monumental true pyramids came in the 4th Dynasty with the builders at Giza, though the Red Pyramid is indeed a colossus structure. However, for all our awestruck wonder at the great pyramids at Giza, this was certainly not the culmination or even the apex of pyramid building. Only in the 5th Dynasty do we see the form of the pyramid complex grow into maturity.


Pyramids did not have the same structure or follow the exact same guidelines throughout Egyptian history. The early pyramids, particularly Djoser's were very complex with many components. In these early pyramids, the placement of the subterranean chambers and corridors, as well as their number varied considerably from later pyramids.


Milestones in Egyptian Pyramids:


  • About 2630 BC: The Step Pyramid of Djoser designed by Imhotep is the first pyramid like structure completed, and is also the world's first known monumental stone building.
  • About 2575 BC: The Red Pyramid is built by Snofru as the first successful true pyramid, after a number of failures. It has smoothed, cased sides.
  • About 2551 BC: The Great Pyramid of Kufru is built, the largest pyramid ever constructed in Egypt, and may also be the first pyramid to have subsidiary queen's pyramids attached to the complex.
  • About 2465 BC: Userkaf's pyramid at Saqqara is the first pyramid with an entrance in the pavement of the pyramid's courtyard on the north side rather than on the face of the pyramid itself. Strangely, the mortuary temple in this pyramid is located on the south side, with only an offering hall on the east.
  • About 2375 BC: For the first time that we know of, we find pyramid text within the pyramid of Unas at Saqqara
  • About 2278 BC: The pyramid of Pepi II is the last to be built in the traditions of the Old Kingdom, as well as the last to build any monumental pyramid until the beginning of the 12th Dynasty and the Middle Kingdom.
  • About 1991 BC: Amenemhet I uses mudbrick to build his pyramid at Lisht. Now, not only is the complex named, but each component of the complex is also given a name.
  • About 1956 BC: Senusret I's pyramid at Lisht is built with more subsidiary pyramids than any complex built before, or after his time.
  • About 1877 BC: With the pyramid of Senusret II at Lahun, the builders become more concerned with security than tradition, and for the first time locate the entrance to the pyramid not under the north chapel in the center of the pyramid's north wall like many earlier complexes, but rather hid the entry passage in the pavement of the pyramid courtyard near the east end of the pyramid's south side. He also incorporates a more complex substructure suggestive of a move towards the worship of Osiris, and away from the traditions of the sun cult, probably signaling the coming end to the pyramid builders.
  • About 1817 BC: Amenemhet III becomes the last, large scale successful pyramid builder with his structure at Hawara. Both it, and his pyramid at Dahshur are built with a monolithic Burial chamber block with niches for the sarcophagus and canompic jars.


However, by the end of Egypt's 5th Dynasty, the complete nature of the pyramids evolved into somewhat simpler, standardized structures with all the necessary components. While the pyramids may not have been as grand as those of Giza, their theology had matured.



Pyramids of Egypt - A typical Pyramid Complex in Egypt

A typical Pyramid Complex in Egypt


With Unas, the last ruler of the 5th Dynasty, we find a pyramid complex with all the components and the proper layout, design and construction. This pyramid is oriented east-west. It had a pyramid, built with a local limestone core and fine white limestone casing, with a north entrance chapel, and beneath the pyramid, a substructure consisting of a descending entrance corridor, with a barrier, leading to the dead king's mortuary apartment directly under the vertical apex of the pyramid. The corridor first arrives at an antechamber, and to the right, or west is the burial chamber, while to the left (east) was a small annex chamber.



Components of Egypt Pyramids

There was a pyramid courtyard, a small cult pyramid, thought to be perhaps for the king's ka (soul) and a mortuary temple just to the east of the pyramid. The mortuary temple consisting of an outer section with an entrance hall and an open columned courtyard, which would often have a basalt floor. The columns supported an ambulatory around the outskirts of the courtyard. The inner sanctum of the mortuary temple had a five niche chapel and behind it an offering hall with a false door adjacent to the pyramid, and centered before it, an altar. The false door allowed the dead king to enter the offering hall in order to take his symbolic meals. Both the inner and outer sections of the mortuary temple had storage annexes to either side The inner and outer sections of the temple were also divided by a transverse corridor. Throughout the structure, liberal amounts of pink granite and fine white limestone were used to sheath walls and for other purposes.



Layout of the Pyramid of Unis at Saqqara in Egypt

Layout of the Pyramid of Unis at Saqqara in Egypt


This complex was surrounded by an enclosure wall. A causeway, often covered, connected the mortuary temple and pyramid to a small, valley temple, which in many cases was nothing more than a monumental gateway. In the valley temple, causeway, mortuary temple and substructure of the pyramid, all the proper decorative themes were mostly present, including now finally the famous pyramid text. While none are present at the pyramid of Unas, we might also expect to see subsidiary pyramids and tombs for relatives of the king within the outer enclosure wall, and near the complex there would have been a small town. While the pyramid was being built, workers and craftsmen would live in the town. Priests and others employed by the mortuary temple would live in a community such as this indefinitely, or at least as long as the king's cult retained worshipers. While Unas's pyramid was not the grandest, or the best preserved, it was a milestone in pyramid construction, with a balanced and complete design.


Pyramid of Unis at Saqqara in  Egypt


After Egypt's First Intermediate Period, the 12th Dynasty saw the resumption of monumental pyramid building, but these new pyramids were built of mudbrick cores and did not fair as well over time as the great pyramid's of some earlier builders. As time progressed, and the end of the pyramid age approached, pyramid construction began to again be less structured. Some traditional concepts, such as the door of the pyramid being located under the north chapel at the center of the pyramid's north face became less important than hiding the door from tomb robbers. It is probable that these pyramid builders forgot some of the skills of their predecessors, for often they have a difficult time placing the burial chamber under the pyramid's vertical axis.


Now, rather than queens having their own smaller pyramids within the complex, they are buried within their own chambers of the main pyramid. And even though some of the tradition is lost, some traditions strongly revert back to design concepts from Djoser's complex at Saqqara.


But with the coming of the Second Intermediate Period, the power structure of Egypt began to shift to the south, where the sun cult was not as prevalent as in the north. There would be some revivals later in Egypt's history, but for the most part this move signaled the end of the pyramid builders. Perhaps because of available resources, but most certainly also because of changing religious concepts, Egypt left the domain of the pyramid for the high decorative themes and more complex religious theology of the tombs on Thebes' West Bank. This was nevertheless an evolution, for we see many aspects of the pyramid complexes carried over into these new mortuary complexes.








Reference Number

Chronicle of the Pharaohs (The Reign-By-Reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt)

Clayton, Peter A.


Thames and Hudson Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05074-0

Complete Pyramids, The (Solving the Ancient Mysteries)

Lehner, Mark


Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05084-8

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul


Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

History of Ancient Egypt, A

Grimal, Nicolas



None Stated

Monarchs of the Nile

Dodson, Aidan


Rubicon Press

ISBN 0-948695-20-x

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2


Last Updated: June 20th, 2011