Pyramidal construction is as old as Egyptian history itself, going back to the beginning of the 3rd millennium B. C. , when the first monarchs were buried in large brick tombs called mastabas. These can be seen as evoking the primeval hill related to the conceptions of the very beginnings of life. In the 3rd dynasty (c. 2660-2600 B. C. ) king Netjerirkhet Djoser introduced the pyramidal shape with a great monument fashioned as a Step Pyramid, built with stone by his genius architect Imhotep within a vast funerary complex in the Sakkara area, close to Memphis, the capital.
The innovation was not only its shape – six overlaying mastabas – but also it made ample use of stone and was placed at the centre of an enormous walled complex. This complex also contained a cenotaph or subsidiary tomb on the south side, evoking the holy city of Abydos especially noted for the cult of Osiris, god of Eternity. This concept of a subsidiary tomb would later evolve into the small satellite pyramids built next to the Royal Tombs, to the south. The 4th dynasty (c. 2600-2500 B. C. registers remarkable advances, not only in terms of architectural splendour but also as far as technical innovation is concerned, most evident in the internal layout of the Royal Tombs and in the surrounding complexes. The transition between the Step Pyramid and the Pure Pyramid which will become the standard can be seen in the unfinished and much damaged Meidum pyramid which was probably commissioned by the pharaoh Huni, last monarch of the 3rd dynasty, and to Sneferu, founder of the 4th .
Sneferu ordered the construction of the two pyramids at Dashoor, which show a marked architectural evolution of the royal tomb: one is of the rhomboid type and the other, known as the “Red Pyramid”, is the first Pure Pyramid. Later on, on the Giza Plateau the three most famous pyramids in Egypt (and in the whole world) were erected for kings Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure (also known by their Greek names Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus, although these onomastic forms are losing ground).
The Khufu pyramid, known as the Great Pyramid, is remarkable not only on account of its size (it originally stood 147 metres high) and of the “astronomic” precision of its implantation (the four sides face the four cardinal directions with almost perfect precision) but also for the originality of its internal structure and layout. Contrary to previous usage, the Royal Chamber was moved towards the interior, after a first attempt, left unfinished, of placing it underground and slightly off-centre. The central position would be occupied at a later stage by the “Queen’s Chamber”, but this option too would be abandoned.
Finally, the most spectacular of pyramidal architectural solutions would be devised: a great ascending gallery leading to the Royal Chamber, the construction of which bespeaks of high technical skills in adjusting the huge stones and of a perfect mastery in finishing them. The Khafre pyramid originally stood 143 metres high, and the Menkaure pyramid, the smallest one at Giza, stood at 65 metres. The relative simplicity of the interiors of the pyramids built for Khafre and Menkaure both antedates and announces the organisation typical of the 5th and 6th dynasties’ pyramids while maintaining the funerary complex’s typical layout.
The number of the small surrounding pyramids built for the royal wives varies. During the 5th dynasty (c. 2500-2300 B. C. ) the favoured location for erecting pyramids was the Abusir area, although the first monarch (Userkaf) and the last (Unas) had their tombs built in Sakkara. The smaller scale of the royal pyramids is obvious when compared to those of the previous dynasty, but the funerary complexes were still impressive, particularly on account of their excellent and varied mural decoration both in the funerary temples and along the paved processional causeways.
An example of this is Sahure, the complex of which can be considered a paradigm of its epoch: the entrance of the pyramid faces north, the internal structure is stepped, and the architecturally simple royal chamber is positioned in the centre, level with the ground. The Unas pyramid is decorated internally with magical texts, which will later become customary (the famous «Pyramid Texts»). In the 6th dynasty (c. 2300-2180 B. C. ) pyramids were built with approximately 50 metres in height.
In spite of its poor present condition, the funerary complex of Pharaoh Pepy II can give us an idea of the spatial distribution typical of the period. It has a cult pyramid, located by a canal leading to the Nile, an ascending, paved processional causeway linking the cult pyramid to the funerary temple. The latter, after the first annexes, gave onto an elegant hypostyle patio and a chapel with several niches containing statues of the king. Beyond the encircling wall delimiting the Royal Pyramid, there is a series of small pyramids built for his consorts, each pyramid with its own funerary temple.
After Pepy II, many decades elapsed before anything deserving the name of pyramid was erected. This would only happen during t he Middle Kingdom – after the First Intermediate Period – when traces of pyramid construction are scant: we know of a modest pyramid built in Sakkara for king Qakare Ibi, of the 8th dynasty (under 20 metres high), and although no traces of such a monument have reached our day and age, literary tradition speaks of a pyramid, built for Merikare, of the 10th dynasty, located by the Teti funerary complex, in Sakkara. In the Middle Kingdom (c. 2040-1750 B. C. the mighty monarchs of the 12th dynasty have pyramids erected in the Fayum area (Meidum, Lahun, Licht and Hawara), notably the tombs of Senuseret I at Licht and Amenemhat III at Hawara. The average height of 12th dynasty pyramids is 100 metres, but they are mainly composed of an amass of rubble, loose stone blocks and brick, capped with polished limestone facing slabs, and they have long disintegrated into an inexpressive heap of ruins. The building of pyramids for pharaohs was abandoned during the New Kindgom (c. 1550-1070 B. CB. ), in favour of tombs excavated in rock hillsides (Valley of the Kings, in West Thebes).
And when the habit of hollowing-out hillsides to build tombs died out, some officials erected small brick pyramids over their funerary chapels thus appropriating some of the pharaonic symbology. Obelisks, those elegant monoliths of solar evocation, were topped by pyramid-shaped points, capped with metal. The kings of the 25th dynasty (c. 715-660 B. C. ), of Nubian origin (present-day Sudan), had their tombs built in the shape of pyramids, smaller in size and thinner. This archaic practice was continued further south by the kings of Meroe who, over a period of 1,000 years, would build pproximately 180 pyramids where some remnants of artistic production of the merotic kingdom were found. Besides the scientific study of ancient Egypt’s pyramids (pyramidology) there is a parallel approach best described as “pyramid mania”, which has produced many distorted, even appalling interpretations of the pharaonic pyramids and their purpose. One of the most non-sensical and inconsistent has to do with the purported relationship between Egypt and Central America, which apparently led to the construction of pyramids in both regions.
The truth is that there is a long-established practice of calling pyramids to the stepped constructions built in stone in Central America until the 16th century, the date of Spanish penetration. The oldest is the Cuicuilco pyramid, close to Mexico City (the old Tenochtitlan), which may well date from the end of the 2nd millennium B. C.. It has five stories topped by a sanctuary accessed by the exterior. This long access stairway petrifies a magical conception, evoking a link between the world of the gods and that of Man. Along the stairs, the celestial gods descend, and the infernal gods climb.
And so does the priest who was to officiate atop the monument in one of the most characteristic ceremonies of the different Mexican civilisations: the offering of the human heart to the gods. Thousands of captives were killed each year at the top of those pyramid-shaped temples, their hearts torn out while they still lived and their bodies thrown down the stairs. The sacred connotation of the stairs themselves is echoed in the number of steps of the great stairway of the Kukulcan pyramid at Chichen Itza: 364, plus the upper platform where the sanctuary stood, which was considered day 365.
As for the number of stories, they could be between seven and thirteen figures with celestial and symbolic significance. The Paleo-Mexican pyramids, erected by several peoples in the region (from the Mayas to the south, to the Toltecs, the Olmecs, the Zapotecs, the Totonacs and the Aztecs, among others) are massive structures, which in some cases were successfully added in height. A good example of this is the Aztec pyramid of Tenayuca, which reveals at least six stages in vertical and horizontal extension. In an impressive contrast of vertical and horizontal lines, the pyramids can look massive and immense such as the Temple of the
Sun at Palenque, or rise in steep verticality as in the Great Tikal Plaza (Guatemala). The highest Mexican pyramid was erected at Cholula (in its initial stages, an Olmec site), and was consecrated to Quetzalcoatl, wise and beneficial god. There are important zones of pyramid concentrations at Chichen Itza (pyramid of Kukulcan, the Maya name of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent), at Palenque, Teopalzolco, Monte Alban, «city of pyramids» in Teotihuacan, an urban centre, which started out as Olmec. The Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque proved to be an eight-story pyramid after the thick overgrowth was removed (1949).
It also revealed in its interior, through a staircase that ran from the top of the structure to the underground level, a funerary chamber with a sarcophagus containing what was thought to be the body of a king. Several valuables had been buried with the personality and thus this vast pyramid-shaped tomb is the exception confirming the rule: Mexican pyramids are places of cult, while the Egyptian ones are clearly royal tombs. In point of fact, there is no relationship between the concepts presiding over the construction of pyramidshaped structures in the two opposite sides of the Atlantic.
Indeed, there is no correspondence, whether in time or in space, between two worlds of such clearly distinct cultures. Furthermore, the function of the Egyptian and the Mexican pyramids are completely different, the latter seeming to have served some of the purposes achieved by the great towers erected in Mesopotamia by the Sumerians, the Assyrians and the Babylonians between 3000 and 500 B. C. , known as ziggurats. Hence we can state that, functionally and culturally, the Mexican pyramid is closer to the Mesopotamian ziggurat than to the Egyptian pyramid.