Tomb or Temple?

Original Egyptian tombs were no more than mounds with sloping edges and flat tops, called mastabas. King Djoser’s architect layered six sequentially smaller mounds, one upon the other, forming the first ‘Step-Pyramid’. Later, at Medum, King Snefru ordered the building of a step pyramid, filled in with stone and covered with a limestone casing. The first of these smooth-walled buildings tapered toward the top and others, though evenly inclined, were rather squat in appearance.

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The two parts to this mastaba Tomb of Khentkawes, are easily seen: base (45 x 45 x 10 metres), cut from the natural limestone bedrock; superstructure, 11 courses (7.5 m height) of limestone blocks . [Image per kairoinfo4u, flickr]

The pyramids, built in the lifetime of a single king, served to aid in the pharaoh’s movement from this life to the next[1], to help achieve immortality. Mostly constructed during the Fourth Dynasty (2680-2560 BC) of the Old Kingdom, the pyramids consisted of elaborately decorated passageways leading to underground rooms, or rooms deep inside the pyramid, where the pharaoh’s embalmed and mummified body—together with gifts and necessities for the afterlife, gold, oils, etc.—was laid to rest. The scenes were highly colored vignettes drawn from the Book of the Dead, and related subjects.

As in earlier mastaba tombs, the Step Pyramid’s burial chambers are underground, hidden in a maze of tunnels, probably to discourage grave robbers. Intended to hold his mummified body, Pharaoh Djoser’s Step Pyramid, at Saqqara, began as a traditional, flat-roofed mastaba. By the end of his 19-year reign, in 2611 B.C., it had risen to its six-stepped layers, standing 62 meters high. It was the largest building of its time.

Step Pyramid of Djoser [Wikimedia Commons]

Extensive use of stone—here and there carved—made the tomb more durable than that of its mud-brick predecessor. Such pioneering techniques led ancient historians to credit the chief designer, Imhotep, with the inventing of stone architecture. The Step-Pyramid complex, enclosed by a 10-meter wall, included courtyards, temples, and chapels, covering nearly 40 acres—the size of seven modern city blocks. The tip of the pyramid was cloaked with a dark-coloured stone, and the limestone polished to shine brightly in the sun and to reflect moonlight. Excavations at Giza discovered funerary boats remnants — the king’s body presumably brought by boat up the Nile to the pyramid site and mummified in the Valley Temple, prior to placing in the pyramid for burial.

Snefru’s son, Khufu (Cheops), finally built the Great Pyramid of Giza. He constructed a 481-foot high pyramid (higher than the Statue of Liberty) whose sides rose at an angle of 52 degrees — compared to about 41 degrees in previous tombs[2]. A large square base, equivalent to 52 suburban quarter-acre blocks (13 acres), achieves this with great structural integrity. Each side of the pyramid is 230m long with no more than 8 inches difference in length to any other side, and the whole structure perfectly oriented to the compass cardinals.

Consistent with the geometric principles of the ‘Golden Ratio’ and ‘Squaring the Circle’, The Great Pyramid of Cheops’ geometry sacredly represents divine order. Built on the west bank of the Nile, the southern wall’s descending passage also points directly to the Star of Orion — revered by Ancient Egyptians. This 4,500-year-old religious building is the only one of the famous Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that still stands.

Estimated at over two tons weight each, the largest of the 2,300,000 blocks of stone weighs as much as fifteen tons. Sledges, slid over ground first made slippery by liquid and sand, moved the larger pieces. Ramps brought the blocks up to their position in the pyramid, and the outer layer of casing stones was finished from the top down and the ramps dismantled as the work was completed. Khufu’s son, King Khafre (Chephren), and a successor, Menkaure (Mycerinus), had two other major pyramids built at Giza, respectively.

Great Pyramid of Giza [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Egyptians had copper tools. Such chisels, drills, and saws would cut the relatively soft stone. Burial chamber walls and exterior casing of later pyramids, however, were made of hard granite. Sand, used with these tools, could have provided the requisite abrasive properties for this more difficult task. Once orientated to the cardinals, pyramids would be leveled with water-filled trenches.

In the 5th century B.C., Herodotus speaks of 100,000 men employed for three months a year for twenty years, building the Great Pyramid. Modern estimates are much smaller. Herodotus visited the site at a time when the great pyramid was already 20 centuries old, its truths eroded with time[3]. The Egyptians quarried the stone upon the Giza plateau itself. The blocks were kept in the quarry until the flood season. The limestone and granite, for the casing and for specific chambers, came from Tura and Aswan, respectively.

Egyptian farm labourers—and not Jewish slaves—built the pyramids, as part of their tax payment[3]. They worked 3-4 months of each year when the Nile-plain was in flood, inundated fields’ precluding farming. Barges made use of the floodwaters to transport the stone blocks. Ultimately, removal of almost all the cover of the pyramids sourced limestone for later mosques in Cairo.

Egyptians built somewhat smaller pyramids for more than one thousand years after the height of the Fourth through to the Sixth Dynasties, for instance in the Deir el-Medina necropolis, by private individuals. Late Period Nubians, who ruled Egypt, also built relatively small pyramids with much steeper sides, though constructed in Nubia itself.

Nubian pyramids of the ancient Kushitic Kingdom of Meroë [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Today, the pyramids number over one hundred. Undiscovered pyramids surely lie beneath the sand. All but a very few are grouped around and near the City of Cairo, just south of the Nile Delta. Otherwise, we are aware of only one other royal pyramid — in southern Egypt (at Abydos) built by Ahmose, founder of the 18th Dynasty and Egypt’s New Kingdom[4]. This may have been the last royal pyramid to have been built in Egypt.

Grave robbers discovered the tombs and their wealth. Egyptian architects became adept at designing passageways that plugged with impassable granite blocks, creating secret hidden rooms and decoy chambers. Thieves seemed to be smarter though, and with almost no exception plundered each of the great tombs of the Egyptian Kings. Later, Egyptians buried their kings in hidden tombs cut into rock cliffs in the hills of the West Bank of Thebes (“Valley of the Kings” in modern Luxor), for further protection.

Other pyramids in the world certainly exist, but their purpose, for the most part, was different to those of ancient Egypt. The most famous are those located in Mexico, and to its south[5]. These appear to be temples and not tombs. In Egypt, all but a select few of the pyramids were built as tombs, sometimes to hold the physical body of a pharaoh (as well as other individuals), sometimes to hold the soul of the deceased (as in the case of the small cult pyramids built next to the larger ones). Otherwise, the purpose of only a few small, regional stepped pyramids remains elusive.

The pyramids are precise geometric, engineering, astronomical and religious architectural constructs, built by the ancient Egyptians with the greatest care and with the highest regard for their divine kings and the king’s journey to and through the other world following the ritualistic and expansive embalming and burial process. Built in the lifetime of a king, the pyramids where built for the lifetime of a king — and beyond. They were, purely and simply, designed to stand (and protect) the divine pharaoh forever.


  1. Tomb History, Dartmouth College
  2. Pyramid, Encyclopedia Smithsonian
  3. Pyramids, Unmuseum
  4. Pyramids, Tour Egypt

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