Who built them?
Over the years, our modern thinking on pyramids has evolved considerably. Over the years there have been many theories as to who built them, from the idea that they were constructed by some lost and mysterious culture to the crazy notion that aliens built them!
For years it was also believed that the pyramids were built by Jewish slaves. The Bible story of Moses taught many of us that the Jews were indeed slaves to the pharaoh but we now know that the idea they built the pyramids is hugely inaccurate.
Most of the pyramids were built long before the Jews were slaves in Egypt and recently-discovered pyramid workers' tombs have shown that they were paid craftsmen, not slaves, and they had their own city at Giza. Egyptologists also have discovered proof that many labourers worked on the Pyramids during periods when farming and harvesting were impossible such as when the Nile flooded.
Evolution of the pyramid
Egyptian pyramids went through many changes before they took on the familiar shape that defines them today. During the early days of the Egyptian civilization both Pharaohs and commoners were buried in the same fashion and the first Egyptian tombs were simple pits dug in the sandy desert, lined with a reed mat.
However, as Egyptian religious beliefs developed, wealthy pharaohs were buried with their valuable possessions considered necessary for their journey into the afterlife. Of course, these artefacts drew the attention of grave robbers and so the simple pit became a rectangular hole lined with mud bricks or timber. The hole was then covered by a mound made of bricks, supported by timber poles. These covered mounds were known as mastabas.
Over time the interior of these mastabas became increasingly elaborate to confuse grave robbers. The tunnel that accessed the actual burial chamber was filled with sand, rubble, and stone barriers. The entrance was then disguised to look like part of the wall.
The First pyramid
As developments of burial chambers continued, more and more elaborate constructions appeared, with several chambers, false doorways, servants burial chambers and so on. The first pyramid-shaped tomb was created by the architect Imhotep for King Djoser in the 27th Century BCE (before the Common Era).
Essentially this was a tomb built on four levels and made of stacked mastabas that became smaller as they reached the top.
The design of King Djoser's pyramid has become known as the 'step pyramid' because its shape literally formed steps reaching to the sky. These steps were believed to act as a ladder that the dead king took to reach the gods.
After the creation of the first step-pyramids, the design was modified to have smooth, limestone faces, resembling shimmering, white mountains. The first tomb built in this way was for King Sneferu. It was believed that this high structure was bringing the dead Pharaoh closer to the sun god Re, or Ra.
The Great Pyramid
The most iconic of the royal tombs however was built as the tomb for Khufu. Located at Giza, the Great Pyramid is the last of the 'Seven Wonders of the Ancient World' that still survives. Although built to be the tomb of Pharaoh Khufu, his actual tomb was never found.
It has been estimated that the Great Pyramid took over 2,300,000 blocks of stone to build, each with an average weight of two and a half tons. The total weight would have been 6,000,000 tons and in its prime it soared into the sky at a height of 482 feet.
Building the impossible
One of the major problems for the early pyramid builders was working out how to move huge quantities of rock. Some carvings in tombs showed that brute force was often used, with eighty men dragging a two-ton block of stone on a sled, but this was not very efficient.
Other methods suggested by modern Egyptologists include the idea that a huge cradle-like machine was used to roll the stone relatively easily. Several of these devices have been excavated in various New Kingdom temples and although it is unknown if the Egyptians used this method, modern experiments show it could have worked.
We do know that wood and rubble was used to seal up the cracks between these blocks of stone and that, however they were built, it would take a damn long time!
The Pyramid Age
From the time of Sneferu more and more pyramids were built, with almost all of the kings that followed adding to their number. This has become known as the Pyramid Age, lasting from Sneferu's reign and for around one thousand years.
However, this golden age came to a rather abrupt end with the Amhose I, the founder of the 18th Dynasty and Egypt's New Kingdom. This Pharaoh built the only royal pyramid in southern Egypt and possibly the last one ever built. After Amhose's death, kings from this period, which included some of the most famous such as Tutenkamun, chose to make their tombs less ostentatious and obvious.
Instead of constructing great mausoleums to reflect their own power and strength, they decided to hide their tombs in the hills of the West Bank of Thebes, in what is now modern Luxor. Although smaller pyramids were still constructed by private wealthy individuals, such as in the Deir el-Medina necropolis, there were to be no more majestic pyramids built for the kings and queens of Egypt.
Today there still remain over 100 pyramids dotted around Egypt, but many of these are relatively unknown to anyone who is not an ancient Egypt enthusiast. Most of them are grouped around and near the City of Cairo, just south of the Nile Delta.
Iconic as a lasting testimony to a once great civilization, the pyramids of Egypt remain the main destination for tourists to the country and although other countries such as Mexico boast their own ancient pyramids, those in Egypt are the most recognised and celebrated. They will also remain a source of fascination for humankind for many years to come.