True Pyramids

True Pyramids


After Djoser died and was presumably triumphantly buried in his new pyramid, his successor Sekhenkhet (2611-2603) promptly began building another pyramid on a plot just to the west of Djoser’s.  It was to be even bigger with seven steps instead of six, but otherwise it was very similar.  Rapid progress was made with the underground chambers which were three quarters finished, when suddenly after a reign of only half a dozen years he died leaving the pyramid a mere  7 m, that is over 20 ft high.  With his death the pyramid was abandoned, sand blew over it and eventually the site was completely lost, and it was only in 1950 that the Egyptian archaeologist Zakaria Goneim rediscovered it and partly excavated it.  One of the interesting discoveries was that part of the ramp adjacent to the pyramid up which the building blocks were dragged was still in position when the building was abandoned.


His successor, Khaba (2603-2599) also began to build a pyramid – it did not do to try to take over your predecessor’s unfinished pyramid, you wanted one of your own.  He chose a site 20 miles to the north at Zawget El-Aryan.  However, he too died after only a short reign – four years accordingly to the Baines/Málek calculation: the relics of his pyramid were discovered by Lipsius in 1844.  It was clear that by now there was a pyramid building machine in full operation and it could not be stopped, and once one pyramid was abandoned work had to start on the next.


The next pyramid at Meidum was the first true pyramid.  The historian Manetho marked this by making the pharaoh who built it Snofru, or Sneferu (the vowels are not recorded), into the first pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty.  The separation into dynasties is purely arbitrary,  but he seems to have got the division right; the Fourth Dynasty was the Dynasty of the Great Pyramids.

Snofru was arguably the greatest pyramid builder of all as he built no less than three pyramids.  The first pyramid was a failure.  It was built at Meidum some 50 miles to the south of Memphis so it is an outlier of all the pyramids. It incorporated a number of innovations that made it the forerunner of all subsequent pyramids.  In the first place the burial chamber was set not in a deep underground pit, but on the old ground surface at the centre of the pyramid.  It was however approached by a long sloping passage which emerged about a third of the way up the side of the northern side of the pyramid.  However according to Kurt Mendelssohn it was set at an angle of exactly 28 degrees (but the other authorities do not mention this) and the pyramid was orientated exactly north/ south so that the entrance passage pointed at celestial north, or the North Star.  Then the pyramid was set on a bluff overlooking the Nile, and a causeway was constructed leading down to the Nile up which presumably the stones were originally dragged and which was subsequently used as a processional way.  Two temples were built: a valley building down by the Nile which has now sunk into the silt, and an upper mortuary temple as a gateway to the pyramid enclosure.  Above all it was intended to be encased with a smooth external slope like the pyramids that we know, rather than a series of steps as with the Step Pyramid, and a high quality lime stone was brought from the lime stone quarries across the Nile at Turah.

Subsequently however there was a great collapse and most of the casing of the pyramid and the top part slid down so that today the pyramid is a stark core surrounded by a vast skirt of collapsed debris.  When did this collapse occur?  Kurt Mendelssohn, a distinguished scientist who became a Professor at Oxford, studied the pyramids and argued that the collapse occurred soon after the pyramid was built while the next pyramid was being constructed, which was why the next pyramid alters its shape half way through.  This certainly makes sense, but unfortunately  excavations under the collapse have revealed material of 1000 years later, so it looks as if the collapse only occurred in the New Kingdom period, and that it continued as a proper successful pyramid for at least 1000 years.


The Bent Pyramid

The next pyramid to be built, again apparently by Snofru, was the Bent Pyramid.  For this a new site was chosen at Dahshur, halfway between Meidum to the extreme south and Sakhara opposite Memphis (Mendelssohn suggests that the reason for choosing so often a new site for a pyramid could simply be sanitary.  If it took 50,000 people at a time to build a pyramid, after a couple of years the site might have become so unsanitary that a move to a new site became desirable.  The Bent Pyramid was begun along the same lines as Dahshur, but then about halfway up it changes its angle from 54 degrees to 43 degrees, which is why   it is called the Bent Pyramid. Mendelssohn argues that that this was because the pyramid at Meidum collapsed at this point and it was decided to build pyramids at a lesser angle.  However if the collapse at Meidum only took place in the New Kingdom, the reason for the changed angle remains mysterious. One would like to investigate again  the date of the original collapse at Meidum.

Having completed the Bent Pyramid,  Snofru then went on to build a third pyramid half a mile away known as the Red, or North  Pyramid.  This is built throughout at the lower angle and it is the only pyramid where the original outside surface still remains more-or-less intact, which is why in its gleaming red exterior it is known as the Red Pyramid.  But in building no less than three pyramids, and possibly a fourth smaller one, Snofru certainly moved more stones than did his successor Khufu in building the Great Pyramid.  But the pyramid building machine was now in full swing and when Snofru died the personnel were all ready to begin the construction of the greatest pyramid of all – the Great Pyramid.


On to The Great Pyramid