The first true pyramid was built in 2630 B.C. Pyramids were "designed to awe the ancient Egyptians, to impress them with their ruler's godlike strength,” one scholar said. The Old Kingdom pharaohs built pyramids for only a couple of centuries. Tombs were built at Giza until about 2152 B.C. The last pyramids were built around 1700 B.C. After that rulers were buried in cliff side or underground tombs like those found in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. The pyramids were plagued by grave robbers. The tombs in the Valley of the Kings could be more easily guarded.

According to Minnesota State University, Mankato: “The earliest known pyramid structure is that of the Pyramid of Meidum. There are two theories as to the pyramids construction. One states that the pyramid was started by Huni, Snefer's predecessor, the other that it was began and ended with Sneferu. Whatever the case, the reign of Sneferu went on to produce two more pyramids after Meidum. Meidum, however, was not always in it's rough state as is seen in the picture at left. As is evidenced by graffiti on the outside of the pyramid, the pyramid survived well into the time of the 18th Dynasty. Meidum still stands as a great attempt, if not a triumph of Egyptian architecture. Other pyramids constructed during the time of the Fourth Dynasty include, the Pyramid of Djeddefre, (created by the son of the Pharaoh Khufu), The Pyramids of Giza, The Sphinx, and many many other tombs, temples and pyramids. [Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato, +]

The reigns from Huni, the last king of the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom to Djedefre --- Radjedef the son of Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid ---in the middle of the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom is regarded by some scholars as the true Age of the Pyramids, a period of great technological and ideological innovation.Richard Bussmman of University College London wrote: "Different from the later Old Kingdom, the pyramids and court cemeteries of this period are located within a radius of seventy kilometers from Maidum in the south up to Dahshur, Giza, and Abu Rawash in the north. This wide geographical spread is typical of the early and mid-4th Dynasty. In the late 4th, 5th, and 6th Dynasties, the court cemeteries cluster around Saqqara and Abusir, closer to where an urban center formed, later called Memphis. The Manethonian copies insert a break before Sneferu, whereas the earlier annalistic tradition does not single out the early 4th Dynasty as a separate period. [Source: Richard Bussmman, University College London, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2015, ]

Bent Byramid of Dashoor

“The reigns from Huni to Radjedef date approximately to the mid-third millennium B.C.. However, the annalistic tradition offers conflicting information on the names of kings and the length of their reigns, especially for the 3rd Dynasty. If “year of counting” and “year after counting” refer to a strictly biannual rhythm, the entries in the Turin Royal Canon would contradict the contemporaneous 4th Dynasty evidence derived predominantly from graffiti on pyramid blocks . Absolute dates for the reigns of Huni to Radjedef vary between a “high chronology,” 2637 to 2558 B.C., and a “low chronology,” c. 2550 to 2475 B.C. Radiocarbon dates are in better agreement with the high chronology. Estimations of the length of the early to mid- 4th Dynasty significantly exceeding 100 years have not been proposed so far.

"Geographically, the archaeological and inscriptional evidence of the early 4th Dynasty concentrates on the Memphite cemeteries. The location of Huni’s tomb is unknown. Sneferu built the pyramid at Maidum and the Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid at Dahshur. The tombs of the 4th Dynasty courtiers and later officials at both sites have recently been reinvestigated. Khufu moved the court cemetery to Giza and buried huge boats next to his pyramid. The burial (?) equipment of Hetepheres, perhaps Khufu’s mother, was found secondarily deposited in a cache and yielded spectacular finds, such as wooden poles of a royal canopy, a bed, and a carrying chair. The pyramid and court cemetery of Radjedef is located at Abu Rawash. When Khafra returned to Giza, he embedded his pyramid and the sphinx in the infrastructure established by Khufu."

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Discovering Egypt; BBC History: Egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt; Egypt’s Golden Empire; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt; Ancient Egypt Magazine; Egypt Exploration Society ; Amarna Project; Egyptian Study Society, Denver; The Ancient Egypt Site; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East; Egyptology Resources

Fourth Dynasty (2613- 2494 B.C.) The Giza Pyramids Dynasty

The Fourth Dynasty (2613- 2494 B.C.) is when the Great Pyramids of Giza were built. The Egyptians was able to achieve this extraordinary feat because there was a long period of peace and no threats from outsiders and food was abundant and society was organized so that labor could be put to use building massive things like pyramids. The fourth dynasty originated from Memphis near present-day Cairo while the fifth came from in Elephantine in Upper (southern) Egypt. The transition from one ruling family to another appears to have been peaceful. The kings from the Fourth Dynasty were Sneferu 2613-2589, Khufu 2589-2566, Radjedef 2566-2558, Khafre 2558-2532 (son of Khufu), Menkaura 2532-2503 (grandson of Khufu) and Shepseskaf 2503-2498. The great pyramids were built by Khufu (Cheops), Khafre (Chephren, 2nd biggest) and Menkaura (Mycerinus). [Source: Mark Millmore,]

On the 4th Dynasty, Dr Aidan Dodson of the University of Bristol wrote: “The pyramids at Giza, on the outskirts of modern Cairo, are perhaps the most iconic of all Egyptian monuments, and they mark the high point in the engineering skills first displayed by Imhotep in the previous dynasty. The largest, the Great Pyramid... remains the most massive freestanding monument ever raised by humankind. |The 4th Dynasty was the period at which many of the institutions of the state appeared in mature form, and the art of this dynasty became firmly established in the canons that would endure until the end of Egyptian civilisation.” [Source: Dr Aidan Dodson, Egyptologist, University of Bristol, BBC, February 17, 2011]

Richard Bussmman of University College London wrote: "“The early 4th Dynasty is a true age of pyramids. The pyramids at Maidum, Dahshur, Giza, and Abu Rawash are the biggest ever built in Egypt. Pyramids also served as a template for royal representation in provincial Egypt in the late 3rd to early 4th Dynasty. On a morphological level, the early 4th Dynasty witnessed the emergence of the mortuary temple to the east of the pyramid. The focus of royal funerary culture shifted from the burial itself towards the mortuary cult, a process originating in the Early Dynastic Period. Over time, the royal funerary cult maintained a growing number of priests and became the center of royal representation and economy in the Old Kingdom. [Source: Richard Bussmman, University College London, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2015, ]

All the Giza Pyramids

Resources and Political Organization Used to Build the Pyramids

Pyramid building required social organization on an unprecedented scale. Large amounts of government resources were diverted to build the pyramids and royal tombs. Richard Bussmman of University College London wrote: "Royal evidence from across North Eastern Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean reveals that pyramid construction went hand in hand with increased exploitation of natural resources and interregional trade. Rock inscriptions near the turquoise mines of Wadi Maghara depict Sneferu and Khufu striking down an enemy. The iconic gesture claims Pharaonic superiority, perhaps mirroring also minor military quarrels with local Bedouin. The gneiss and basalt quarries at Widan el-Faras in the Northern Fayum and at Gebel el-Asr near Abu Simbel were exploited for 4th and 5th Dynasty pyramid temples. Cylinder seal impressions of Khufu and pottery sherds indicate royal quarrying activity at el-Sheikh Said during the 4th Dynasty. Khufu also left rock inscriptions in the travertine quarry of Hatnub some 15 kilometers further to the south. Copper processing is attested in a 4th Dynasty Egyptian outlier at Buhen, where seal impressions of Khafra and Menkaura were found. In Wadi Gerawi, a dam with a short-lived workmen camp attached to it, monitored the flow of water down into the Helwan area in the early 4th Dynasty. [Source: Richard Bussmman, University College London, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2015, ]

The infrastructure that went with pyramid building probably fostered the urbanization of the capital region. Although an increasing number of communities had inhabited the area since the Early Dynastic Period, the urban infrastructure around Memphis was still not strong enough to run the pyramid business with a sufficient number of people. The capital was probably not one single city but a series of villages and small towns, mirroring social models that prevail in the rural countryside.

“The view of the political center on 4th Dynasty provincial Egypt is guided by administrative needs developed through an infrastructure of nomes and domains. The decoration of the valley temple of the Bent Pyramid, for example, represents Egypt as a series of nomes populated by royal domains, the latter bringing offerings to the king. Although references to nomes predate the 4th Dynasty, the blocks from Dahshur are the first pieces of evidence for a fully-fledged system that embraces the whole of Egypt. The names of domains are composed of royal names, and the primary function of domains was the delivery of products for the pyramid cults. This suggests that domains were agricultural estates set up by kings for taxation. On a local level, the establishment of kingship was not self-evident. A series of small pyramids scattered across the Nile Valley and dated to the late 3rd or early 4th Dynasty are discussed in the context of royal colonization. Seidlmayer argues from evidence on Elephantine that the local pyramid was originally connected to a royal administrative center, but, similarly to the Early Dynastic royal fort on the island, was a short- lived affair. Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom seal impressions from Elephantine and other settlements, such as Elkab and Hierakonpolis, demonstrate that small towns maintained the administrative infrastructure in provincial Egypt. Judging by the later role of local temples as interfaces between the crown and provincial Egypt, the early shrines seem to have been the administrative nucleus of local communities already in the 4th Dynasty. The political core, however, did not recognize the role of towns and temples in provincial Egypt."

The building of the Great Pyramid was so expensive that the Cheops used "all manner of wickedness" to finance the project, including sending his daughter off to work at brothel. She reportedly asked of her clients to present her with a stone for her own pyramid which now rises 50 feet in front of the Cheops's pyramid.

The Greek historian Herodotus wrote in 430 B.C.: “The wickedness of Cheops reached to such a pitch that, lacking funds, he placed his own daughter in a brothel, with orders to procure him a certain sum — how much I cannot say, for was not told; she procured it however, and at the same time, bent of leaving a monument which would perpetuate her own memory, she required each man to make her a present of a stone. With these stones she built the pyramid which is midmost of the three that are in front of the great pyramid, measuring along each side a hundred and fifty feet."

Development of the Pyramids

The earliest form of pyramid, the step pyramid, dates back to the 3rd Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, around 3000 B.C.. The first, and probably the only step pyramid ever completed, is the Step Pyramid of Djoser built by King Djoser (Djoser, Djoser, Tosorthos and Dozer) at Saqqara. It consists of several steps. A descending passage from the north leads to the burial chamber. Underground galleries surround the pyramid on all but the south sides. The Step pyramid is not as aesthetically pleasing a true pyramid, which may explain why it was quickly abandoned. The Red Pyramid is a very early, if not the earliest example of a true pyramid. The first true pyramids were introduced in at the beginning of the 4th Dynasty around 2600 B.C.. Their basic structure and construction methods are similar to those of a step pyramid.[Source: Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston,]

Dr Joyce Tyldesley of the University of Manchester wrote for the BBC: “Pyramids did not come from a technological void. A clear evolution can be traced from the most ancient prehistoric graves to the splendours of the Giza plateau. 1) “Prehistoric Pit Graves: At the dawn of the dynastic age, around the time of unification, Egypt's dead were buried in oval pit graves in desert cemeteries. Here the bodies underwent a natural mummification as the hot sands drained away the body fluids, averting the onset of decay. Already there was a belief in life after death, and the dead were provided with grave goods. Eventually the elite started to protect the bodies of their dead with wooden and clay coffins, and sarcophagi (outer coffins). The pit graves were given wooden roofs and plaster or mud-brick linings and they became rectangular, sand-free tombs. Above ground a superstructure, perhaps a pile of stones or a low mound, marked the position of the grave. These flimsy superstructures have today vanished, although what lay below has sometimes remained. [Source: Dr Joyce Tyldesley, University of Manchester, BBC, February 17, 2011|::|]

2) “Mastaba Tombs of Saqqara: Egypt's highest ranking Old Kingdom civil servants were interred at Saqqara, close to Memphis and the temple of Re at Heliopolis. Here the burial chambers were gradually cut deeper until they passed into the bedrock. Lined with wood, their ceilings were topped with a low mound and then surrounded by a low, rectangular mud-brick building known as a mastaba after the Arabic mastaba (low bench). |Most mastaba superstructures were filled with storage chambers for grave goods, but this made them vulnerable to thieves. By the end of the 1st Dynasty the superstructure was being reduced in favour of extensive subterranean storage, reached by a stairway. Eventually the mastaba would become a solid, rubble-filled block. |::|

3) “Djoser's Step Pyramid: Djoser's pyramid has a stepped appearance. It is an extension of the mound found in mastaba tombs and is usually interpreted as a symbolic mound of creation, but can also be read as a stairway to heaven. Djoser's architect, Imhotep, built in stages. The tomb started life as an unusual square, solid mastaba, but a series of extensions saw it develop into a six-stepped pyramid with a rectangular ground-plan. Below ground, a warren of tunnels, galleries and rooms surrounded Djoser's burial chamber. Around the pyramid, his mortuary complex included courts and buildings, each with its own particular function, and its own particular magic. |::|

4) “Meidum Pyramid: At Meidum, 30 miles south of Memphis, King Snefru (the first king of the 4th Dynasty, who came to the throne around 2613 B.C.) built Egypt's first true, or straight-sided, pyramid. This started as a stepped pyramid, but as it neared completion the steps were packed with stone and the whole structure was cased in finest limestone. In its final form the pyramid stood approximately 311ft (95m) high. |Unfortunately the pyramid was unsound. Its heavy outer layers eventually slid downwards, leaving a square, three-stepped core standing in a mountain of sand and rubble and the ruins of the pyramid complex. We do not know when this disaster occurred, although as there are New Kingdom tombs incorporated in the rubble we know that the pyramid had at least partially collapsed by the time of the New Kingdom (which started around 1550 B.C.). |::|

5) “Bent Pyramid of Dahshu4: Snefru built two pyramids at Dahshur. His first was designed from the start as a true pyramid. But the 54 degrees angle proved too steep, and as the pyramid was being built on soft, silty clay, there was a problem with stability and subsidence. This was solved by adjusting the pyramid angle to a flatter 43 degrees, 147ft (45m) up the face. The reduced angle brought increased stability, but led to the pyramid's modern name, the Bent Pyramid. Snefru's second Dahshur pyramid, the Red Pyramid, was a successful true pyramid. It seems that this must have served as the king's eventual resting place. |::|

6) “The Great Pyramid: Khufu, or Cheops, built his pyramid on the Giza plateau, where he found firm bedrock and a convenient limestone quarry. His pyramid is a work of astonishing size and precision, standing 481ft (146.6m) high, with a slope of 51 degrees 50'. Its sides vary by less than 1.9ft (58cm) and are orientated almost exactly true north. Its base is almost completely level. It has been calculated that the base of the Great Pyramid could accommodate both the UK Houses of Parliament and St Paul's Cathedral with room to spare. |The pyramid holds three chambers linked by a system of passageways: the unfinished 'Subterranean Chamber'; the ill-named 'Queen's Chamber'; and the 'King's Chamber', where Khufu was buried in an enormous, plain, red granite sarcophagus. |::|

7) “Khaefre's pyramid and Sphinx: Khaefre, Khufu's son, built beside his father's pyramid. His is the smaller pyramid, but as it is built on higher ground, and has a slightly steeper angle, it appears the larger. Today Khaefre's complex is the most complete of the Giza three, while his is the only pyramid to retain some of its upper casing stones. The Great Sphinx crouches beside Khaefre's Valley Temple. This fabulous beast consists of the king's head, 22 times life-sized, perched on a massive lion's body. It is 236ft (72m) long and 65ft (19.8m) tall, making it Egypt's largest statue. As it is carved from a naturally occurring rocky outcrop, covered in places with a stone block veneer, the Sphinx shows differential weathering due to the three limestone strata included in its body. |::|


8) “New Kingdom pyramid, Deir el-Medina: The arrival of the 18th-Dynasty Theban kings at the start of the New Kingdom heralded the end of royal pyramid building in Egypt. Henceforth, most pharaohs would be buried in secrecy in the Valley of the Kings. |Now individuals felt free to include the pyramid form in their own tombs. Small-scale pyramids are found from Saqqara to Nubia, but the best known examples are those built by the workmen and officials of Deir el-Medina, the village of the royal workforce employed in the Valley of the Kings. Outside the village wall the hill-side displayed ranks of mud-brick pyramids, some of which still stand, combined with decorated rock-cut burial chambers. The pyramids frequently included a niche designed to house a stela (a kind of tombstone) or statue. “|::|

Imhotep, the Pyramid Architect

The ancient Egyptian architect Imhotep was the master mind behind the pyramids. In addition to being an architect and designing the first pyramid — which has lasted until today — he was a sculptor, poet priest, government official, astrologer, magician and a healer. One ancient inscription even gave Imhotep credit for saving his country from famine by convincing Khnum, the god of the first cataract, to let the floods return. After his death, Imhotep was worshiped as a god of wisdom. Small statues often show him as a learned man holding a papyrus scroll.

According to Minnesota State University, Mankato: Imhotep “was born a commoner during the Third Dynasty. He was very skilled and was dedicated to the ideals of his nation. Imhotep quickly rose through the ranks of the temple and court to become a vizier and the High Priest of Ptah. [Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato, +]

“He wrote many medical and didactic texts. He is best known, however, as the chief architect of the step pyramid at Saqqara. It remains today as one of the most brilliant architecture wonders of the ancient world. During the New Kingdom, Imhotep was deified and became the "Son of Ptah." The Romans Claudius and Tiberius inscribed their praises of Imhotep in the temples in Egypt. +\

Step Pyramids in Ancient Egypt

The first pyramid built that remains standing today is the Step Pyramid of Djoser built in 2700 B.C. It is regarded as the world’s first big stone building. Before this time the Egyptians burned their dead in brick structures called “ mastabas” . Step pyramids were designed to be a “staircases to heaven.” They were "not the symbol of a ladder but an actual one, by which the soul of the dead ruler might climb to the sky, joining the gods in immortality.”

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Step Pyramid of Djoser
The basketball- to oven-size stones used to make this pyramid were quarried several miles away from the pyramid site at a limestone cliff, called Tura, on the other side of the Nile. Tura was the name of the quarry where much of the stone used to build the pyramids was quarried and the limestone that was quarried there. Tufa limestone was transported 400 miles down river to Aswan where it was used for a pharaoh's burial chamber.

The stones of the pyramids were not cemented together; they relied on the angle of incline for stability. We are not exactly sure what the interior of step pyramids looked like. The disintegrated pyramid of Meidum near Memphis was a step pyramid with a core covered with six layers of Tura limestone blocks.

Saqqara (20 miles south of Cairo) is the home of ancient Egypt's oldest cemetery and was a religious center for the ancient capital of Memphis. Built on top of plateau that overlooks Memphis, it is famous for its mastabas (tombs) and step pyramids (the oldest large building in the world). Most of the buildings were built between 3,100 and 2181 B.C. The most famous of these is the Step Pyramid of Djoser, built in Third Dynasty of Old Kingdom for a pharaoh named Djoser (Djoser). It is possible to ride by camel from the Great Pyramids of Giza to Saqqara. This route passes by the pyramids of Abu Sir and Abu Gaurab that are otherwise difficult to reach.

Saqqara sits on the top or a barren, rocky escarpment above the green Nile Valley. It was established as a burial ground for Memphis. The cemetery area was huge. It stretched for 45 miles along the Nile. Many of the tombs are mastabas, which have been built above the ground. There was an entire cemetery devoted to mummified cats.

Step Pyramid of Djoser

Step Pyramid of Djoser (Djoser) was built in 2700 B.C., making it the oldest pyramid in Egypt and perhaps "the world's first construction project." Made primarily of stones about nine inches square, the step pyramid is roughly the same size as the smallest of the three main pyramid at Giza and is the oldest known stone building of its size. Comparable-size buildings in Mesopotamia were made of mud bricks.

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Step Pyramid Saqqara
The Step Pyramid of Djoser is comprised of six terraced levels — four built above ground, and two larger ones added later by excavating the ground underneath the original four. The pyramid is 200-feet-high and has a rectangular base that measures 597 feet from north to south and 304 feet from east to west. It was larger when it was built but weather and scavengers taking blocks have reduced its size.

A wall buttressed with reedlike columns, surrounds the step pyramid complex. Located on the south side of wall is an entrance colonnade and thirteen false entrances (immovable doors with great hinges) through which it is said the pharaoh's spirits could pass. There are also several false temples, which are filled with rubble instead of tombs. These false temples were constructed for similar reasons as the paper money and cardboard microwave ovens and motorcycles burned at Chinese funerals today. "They worked in the afterlife," said one archeologist, "precisely because they could not work in this one."

Archeologists believe it took hundreds of men about 35 years to build the step pyramid and the structures around it. Between the false entrances and the pyramid there is a large courtyard. A smaller ceremonial courtyard is situated in front of the deity chapels on the east side. There are also ruins of a Funerary Temple, other courtyards, an entrance hall, and a small temple. Mastabas (tombs) of lesser rulers surround the step pyramid, and the pyramid itself is believed to have been built on top of a mastaba built earlier. The tomb of the king is in a shaft below the pyramid.

The stones for the Saqqara pyramid was quarried several miles away on the other side of the Nile from a limestone cliff at Tufa. Ships carried the stone to the banks of the Nile, where a work force of men hauled the stones on sledges, lubricated with oil, to the building site where "master carvers shaped each block and put it in place.” Nearby is a ruined pyramid built by Pepi II, in 2250 B.C. It was originally 172 feet high, but now it is rubble. Altogether there are 13 pyramids in Saqqara, all of them older and smaller than the ones at Giza. Most are ruins.

Djoser, Creator of the Step Pyramid


Casey Boone of Minnesota State University, Mankato wrote: “Djoser was the most famous Pharaoh of the Third Dynasty and is credited primarily with the creation of the first step pyramid. There are numerous ways to spell his name including Djoser, Djoser, Zoser, Tosorthos, and Dozer. He lived from 2686-2613 B. C. E. He is described on monuments as the Horus Neterykhet, which means “the divine body.” According to the Turin King list, Djoser ruled for approximately 19 years. He was the second Pharaoh of the 3rd Dynasty, a dynasty that started the first golden age in Egyptknown as The Old Kingdom. [Source: Casey Boone, Minnesota State University, Mankato, +]

“It is believed that Djoser brought an end to a 7-year famine that had afflicted Egypt. He did this by rebuilding the Temple of the ram-headed God, Khnum, on the small island of Elephantine. This island is located by the Nile’s first cataract. Khnum is the god that supposedly controlled the Nile inundation. After the temple rebuilding was complete, the famine ended. This event is depicted in a story from Ptolematic times on a large and lengthy rock on the island of Sehel that is also located at the first cataract. This means that even after 2 millennia after his reign he was still remembered for his actions. +\

“Djoser is mostly known for his step pyramid at Saqqara and the surrounding temples. Saqqara overlooks the ancient capital of Memphis south of modern-day Cairo. In fact, it was Imhotep, Djoser's vizier or priest, that had the conception of the pyramid. Imhotep was also an architect, astronomer and a physician. He was in charge of the entire building process. Saqqara is the oldest stone building in the world. Until Imhotep, everything was made from mud-brick and wood. The pyramid was made from limestone that came from the Tura quarries. +\

“There is a huge stone wall surrounding the pyramid and courtyard that measures 597 yards from north to south and 304 yards east to west. The actual pyramid itself measures 558 feet north to south and 411 feet east to west. It is compromised of 6 unequal stages that rise 204 feet. The primary use of the pyramids was for various ceremonies in connection with Djoser’s afterlife. The pyramid was built to resemble a ladder, not to look like one but to act as one so that the dead Pharaoh could climb into the sky and join the immortality gods. +\

Sneferu, Builder of Three Early Pyramids

Black Pyramid of Amenemhet III
Sneferu, the founder of the 4th Dynasty, built the first true pyramid at Maidum, originally ascribed to his predecessor Huni, and two additional pyramids at Dahshur. The Great Pyramid in Giza surpasses the pyramids of Sneferu in size but not in total volume.

Dr Aidan Dodson wrote for the BBC: “Pyramids became straight-sided under Khufu's father, Seneferu, the new form apparently representing the rays of the sun. Seneferu's accession marked the beginning of the golden age of the pyramids. The greatest builder of them all, he erected three examples, with bases ranging from 144 to 220m (472 to 721ft) square. His multiple pyramids seem to have resulted both from a rapid evolution of religious concepts during his long reign, and a structural failure that led to the abandonment of the 'Bent' pyramid at Dahshur. The 'Red' pyramid, at the same site, became his eventual resting place. [Source: Dr Aidan Dodson, BBC, February 17, 2011]

Richard Bussmman of University College London wrote: "The closest one can get to a political history of the 4th Dynasty are the entries on the reign of Sneferu on the Palermo Stone. In his sixth to eighth year of counting, Sneferu built large boats of cedar and pine wood, seized 7,000 Nubian captives and 200,000 cattle, constructed the wall of the southern and northern land, created 35 estates, erected a double building (palace?), and furnished the palace with a wooden gateway. However, the Palermo Stone was compiled long after the 4th Dynasty, and the symmetric expressions and abbreviated writing style obscure the scale, location, and exact nature of the activities recorded. The numbers, e.g., of prisoners, create a fictional reality and caution against a too literal reading of the Palermo Stone.” [Source: Richard Bussmman, University College London, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2015, ]

Snefru's Pyramid, Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid

Dahshour (15 miles south of Cairo, west of the town of Dahshour) is a two mile long area in the southern part of the necropolis of Memphis. For many years this was a military area and tourists needed a special permission to visit it. In 1996, a group of five large pyramids, second in size on to the Pyramids of Giza, at Dahshour where opened to the public. The pyramids at Dahshour are among the world's oldest. In addition to Snefru's Pyramid, Bent Pyramid, and Red Pyramid, the site also contains gray granite remains of a forth pyramid and the white limestone dust of a fifth.

Snefru's Pyramid (at Dahshour) is one three pyramids built in 2600 B.C. to honor the pharaoh Snefru, the father of Cheops, the builder of the largest pyramid in Giza. Two of Snefru’s pyramids are in Dahshur. The original cedar beams from Lebanon can still be seen in one of them. One pyramid referred to as Snefru's Pyramid is located on the edge of lush irrigated land. It is 341 feet height and is much broader than the pyramids built later at Giza. The tomb was looted 4,500 years ago and a wooden wedge used by the thieves to pry open the three-and-a-half ton granite sarcophagus lid is still in place. One archeologist called it "an inside job" because the "robbers knew exactly how to get in here."

Bent Pyramid (at Dahshour) is the nickname of the other Dahshour pyramid, which has a rhomboidal shape. Built for Snefru, it is 344 feet high and measures 620 feet at the base. The top half of the pyramid inclines at an angle of 43̊ while the bottom half slopes at 54̊. No one has convincingly provided an explanation for the pyramid's shape. The angle was changed, some scholars believe, in the middle of construct to keep it from crumbling like the third, now-ruined Snefru pyramid in Maidum. It once was a 306-foot-high step pyramid with 51̊ angle of incline, the same as the pyramids at Giza. Others believe than angle was changed after the base began sinking in clay and cracked and forced the angles of the sides to be changed. The Bent Pyramid has two entrances and most of the original outer stones are still in place. Inside are cedarwood beams imported from Lebanon that are still in relatively good condition after more than 4,000 years.

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Red Pyramid plans

Red Pyramid (at Dahshour, north of the Bent Pyramid) get its color from the iron in underlying blocks of local limestone now exposed. The scholar Daniel Boorstin wrote it "was the earliest tomb known to have been completed as a true pyramid. It seems flat compared with the larger pyramids in the Giza group...The builders cautiously inclined this pyramid at an angle (43 degrees and 26 minutes) almost the same as the upper half of the bent Pyramid. Their caution was justified, for the basic structure has withstood the millennia. But the gentle slope made it easy quarry for stone robbers. Piece by piece over the centuries they removed the original covering of dressed white limestone, which once gave it a dazzling elegance, leaving it now with a distinctive color never intended by the architects."

Pyramids of Giza

The Pyramids of Giza are the only one of Seven Wonders of the World that survive today. They are huge mausoleums built for three pharaohs in the Old Kingdom — Cheops (father), Chephren (son) and Mycerinus (grandson) — and they once contained the pharaohs mummies. Of the three pyramids Cheops is the largest, Chephren is the second largest, and Mycerinus is considerably smaller than the other two. There are also some small pyramids and some tombs around the main pyramids.

The pyramids are believed to be monuments to the pharaohs’ life force as well as memorials to their lives. Their construction coincided with the development of sun worship in Egypt and its no surprise then that the sun strikes the tops of the pyramids long before it illuminates the dwellings below it. The pyramids may have represented the rays of the sun that the pharaohs used to climb into the heavens.

The Pyramids of Giza are man-made mountains of hewn stone. They are steeper than the pyramids built before them in Saqqara and Danshur because, wrote the scholar Daniel Boorstin, "the pyramid builders had now learned to increase stability by laying the stones of the inner limestone base at a slope...The exact quality of hewn stones inside remains one of the many mysteries. [The] outer structure of huge limestone blocks rests on an inner core of rocks."

Each pyramid was the focal point of a complex of subsidiary tombs and temples. A high boundary wall surrounded each complex. Only ritually clean priests and officials were allowed to enter. Access from the Nile was provided by a valley temple constructed at the edge of the river plain. During the funeral of a pharaoh buried in Giza, the funeral boat arrived via the river and was carried up a walled causeway to the mortuary temple at the base of the Pyramids, where the body was entombed.

The Pyramids are awe-inspiring for the size and shape and in imagining the labor involved in building them. Some of the best views of the Pyramids and the Sphinx are from barren hills around the plateau. It easy to reach these hills by foot or on the back of a camel or horse. All kinds of organisms live in the Pyramids. They include some foxes living near the top.

Giza pyramid complex

Building the Giza Pyramids

The pyramids of Giza are made from granite blocks, weighing as much as 70 tons, and limestone blocks, weighing up to 15 tons. The stones were mined on the other side of the Nile from the pyramids and transported to the pyramids by boat and sledge. In terms of how such large stones were put in place there is pretty good evidence ramps made of rubble were constructed around the pyramids and used to transport the blocks to where they were positioned.

Originally the pyramids were covered by a layer of carefully dressed white limestone casings that were brought from quarries on the east side of the Nile, cut in blocks and laid with exquisitely fine joints and polished. When these stones were in place the surfaces of the pyramid glistened like mirrors in the sun. Over the centuries the casings have been removed (most likely by scavengers getting material for other buildings or to make lime). Some were stripped off by Muslims for the buildings in Cairo. What we see today are the cores of the original pyramids. The cores of the larger pyramids were made of crudely cut limestone blocks, with the seams between filled with pieces of limestone and blobs of gypsum mortar. Smaller pyramids had cores with small stones, mud or mud brick retaining walls.

According to to PBS: “Some Egyptologists believe it took 10 years just to build the ramp that leads from the Nile valley floor to the pyramid, and 20 years to construct the pyramid itself. On average, the over two million blocks of stone used to build Khufu's pyramid weigh 2.5 tons, and the heaviest blocks, used as the ceiling of Khufu's burial chamber, weigh in at an estimated nine tons. Khufu's son, Khafre, who was next in the royal line, commissioned the building of his own pyramid complex which includes the Sphinx. Menkaure, who is believed to be Khafre's son, built the third and smallest of the three pyramids at Giza.

Thousands of laborers were used to build the pyramids. Some historians claim they were slaves forced into working by cruel supervisors. Other historians say the workers were reasonably paid and happy to have a job.

The Nile was once originally about a quarter mile from the pyramids and a temple stood on the shore of the river. A causeway from the temple passed some boats pits, a mortuary temple, an enclosure wall, subsidiary pyramids for the pharaoh's queens and finally led to the great pyramid itself. Today the riverside temple is about a half mile inland. At the base of Cheops are three small temples dedicated to wives or family members of the pharaoh.

Some scientists believe that the limestone blocks are not limestone blocks at all but rather concrete blocks that were formed in place. French scientist who first proposed this theory said Egyptian authorities prevented them from taking the samples to prove their theory. The theory is partly based on the narrowness of the joints between the rocks, which the scientists say is easy to create if the rock is formed but nearly impossible with quarried stones unless milling tools are available. If the theory is true it would end the need to explain how the massive stones were moved. Many think the theory is nonsense.

Gizah complex from a plane

Herodotus on the Giza Pyramid Kings

Herodotus wrote in Book 2 of “Histories”: “They said that Egypt until the time of King Rhampsinitus was altogether well-governed and prospered greatly, but that Kheops, who was the next king, brought the people to utter misery. For first he closed all the temples, so that no one could sacrifice there; and next, he compelled all the Egyptians to work for him...And so evil a man was Kheops that, needing money, he put his own daughter in a brothel and made her charge a fee (how much, they did not say). She did as her father told her, but was disposed to leave a memorial of her own, and asked of each coming to her that he give one stone; and of these stones they said the pyramid was built that stands midmost of the three, over against the great pyramid; each side of it measures one hundred and fifty feet. 127. [Source: Herodotus, “The Histories”, Egypt after the Persian Invasion, Book 2, English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920, Tufts]

“The Egyptians said that this Kheops reigned for fifty years; at his death he was succeeded by his brother Khephren, who was in all respects like Kheops. Khephren also built a pyramid, smaller than his brother's. I have measured it myself. It has no underground chambers, nor is it entered like the other by a canal from the Nile, but the river comes in through a built passage and encircles an island, in which, they say, Kheops himself lies. This pyramid was built on the same scale as the other, except that it falls forty feet short of it in height; it stands near the great pyramid; the lowest layer of it is of variegated Ethiopian stone. Both of them stand on the same ridge, which is about a hundred feet high. Khephren, they said, reigned for fifty-six years. 128.

“Thus, they reckon that for a hundred and six years Egypt was in great misery and the temples so long shut were never opened. The people hate the memory of these two kings so much that they do not much wish to name them, and call the pyramids after the shepherd Philitis, who then pastured his flocks in this place.” 129.

“After Mycerinus, the priests said, Asukhis became king of Egypt. He built the eastern outer court of Hephaestus' temple; this is by far the finest and grandest of all the courts, for while all have carved figures and innumerable felicities of architecture, this court has far more than any. As not much money was in circulation during this king's reign, they told me, a law was made for the Egyptians allowing a man to borrow on the security of his father's corpse; and the law also provided that the lender become master of the entire burial-vault of the borrower, and that the penalty for one giving this security, should he fail to repay the loan, was that he was not to be buried at his death either in that tomb of his fathers or in any other, nor was he to bury any relative of his there. Furthermore, in his desire to excel all who ruled Egypt before him, this king left a pyramid of brick to commemorate his name, on which is this writing, cut on a stone: “Do not think me less than pyramids of stone; for I excel them as much as Zeus does other gods; for they stuck a pole down into a marsh and collected what mud clung to the pole, made bricks of it, and thus built me.” These were the acts of Asukhis.”

Great Pyramid of Giza (Pyramid of Cheops, Khufu)

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Cheops Pyramid Interior
The Great Pyramid of Giza was built in honor of the pharaoh Khufu (reign ca. 2551 B.C.-2528 B.C.) and is the largest of the three pyramids constructed on the Giza plateau in Egypt. Considered a "wonder of the world" by ancient writers, the Great Pyramid was 481 feet (146 meters) tall when it was first constructed. Today it stands 455 feet (138 meters) high. [Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science July 19, 2016]

The Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu) is still one of the largest buildings ever created. The first and the largest of the pyramids at Giza, it is 756 feet square. covers 13 acres at its base and is made of 2.3 million blocks of stones. The stones weigh an average of two and half tons each and collectively weigh 6.25 million tons. The stones fit so well together that even a playing card can not be inserted between them. The structure took 25,000 workers 16 years to build.

The Pyramid of Cheops was built in 2550 B.C. and was the tallest monument in the world for 43 centuries until the Eiffel Tower was built in the 19th century. The base covers twelve and half football fields. It is said that you can fit all the cathedrals of Milan and Florence in the base and still have enough room left for St Paul's and Westminster Abbey of London and St. Peter's in Rome. Walking around the perimeter is equivalent to a walk of 11 city blocks.

The Pyramid of Cheops has an angle of incline of 51 degrees. The squareness of the north and south sides are off by only .09 percent, and the east and west sides by only .03 percent. The paved foundation on which the pyramid sits deviates from a true plane by an amazing .004 percent. Somehow this amazing precision was achieved without only the aid of a capstan, a pulley or even a wheeled vehicles.

The climb to the top of the Pyramid of Cheops takes about a half hour, but visitors are no longer allowed to make the ascent. Most of the stones are fitted so they are waist high. Originally the pyramid was 10 meters taller than it is now but wind and weather have whittled it down in size.

Pyramids of Chephren and Mycerinus

The Pyramid of Chephren (southeast of the Pyramid of Cheops) is the second largest pyramid by only a few feet. Built in 2520 B.C. with roughly the same structure and layout as Cheops, it is 471 feet high, 690 feet square and has an angle of incline of 53̊. The top of this pyramid is covered by limestone blocks, which originally covered the entire structure. There are two entrances on the north side. Chepren (also spelled Khepren and known as Khafre) was the son of Cheops. His burial chamber, like that of the Pyramid of Cheops, is at the center of the pyramid.

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Mycerinus pyramid
Dr Aidan Dodson wrote for the BBC: “After Khufu's death, he was succeeded by his son, Djedefre, who built his own pyramid about four miles to the north, at Abu Rowash. He made no attempt to match his father's monument for size-its area is less than a quarter that of the Great Pyramid-but instead built it atop a towering cliff. |Djedefre's obscure probable successor, on the other hand, began another giant pyramid, 200m (650ft) square, south of Giza at Zawiyet el-Aryan. This never got as far as the foundations, but another son of Khufu, Khaefre, built the last of the truly gigantic pyramids, back at Giza. His 215m (705ft) square 'Second' pyramid was then followed by Menkaura's 'Third' pyramid, only half the size. Later generations settled for even smaller examples-although with much larger and more lavishly decorated temples: the era of the giants had passed. [Source: Dr Aidan Dodson, BBC, February 17, 2011]

The Pyramid of Mycerinus is the smallest of the three main Giza pyramids. It is only about 190 feet high — less than half of the height of the other two — and considerably smaller in size. Built in 2470 B.C, it is distinguished by the fact that the lower part of its sides still retain their granite slab covering. The causeway to this pyramid passes by the great wall which separated the workers village and overseer tombs from the pyramid complex. The three pyramids are surrounded by several small pyramids, and hundreds of mastaba-tombs of the royal family members, nobles and high ranking people. The largest single block in a pyramid is a 320-ton stone in the Pyramid of Mycerinus (Menkaure).

The tunnel and burial chamber at Chephren underwent a $294,000, 10-month restoration in the late 1990s after a chunk of limestone fell from the ceiling of the burial chamber. A ventilationsystem was installed and the chamber was reopened to tourists. Nearby visitors can also see the remains of a valley temple and mortuary temple where the body of the pharaoh was embalmed. Its causeway passes near the sphinx.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato,; Mark Millmore,; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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