The rituals surrounding death have occupied a major space in the life of every human civilization that has ever existed. In fact, our habit of interring and memorializing our dead is the one behavioral trait that most clearly and universally separates us humans — we creatures who have come unstuck from time — from all of the other animals on our planet. Thus ancient Egyptian culture is anything but unique in concerning itself with death and the dead.
Nevertheless, one can all too easily believe, gazing upon the monuments and artifacts the Egyptians left behind, that death filled an almost absurdly large space in their culture in comparison to most others. More than a few Egyptologists have lamented this perception over the years, saying that it gives us a distorted image of Egyptian civilization. To judge it only from its pyramids and mausoleums, as so many tend to do, is to imagine the entirety of Egyptian culture as one enormous death cult. Such a view is deeply ahistorical. Egypt was a place, many Egyptologists emphasize, that was mostly concerned with the activities of life — with love and learning, conquests and commerce, with the agriculture and the architecture of the living rather than the dead.
Still, the fact remains that the most majestic monuments ancient Egypt left behind really are almost uniformly monuments to death. So, if not quite an enormous death cult, the land certainly was as deeply concerned as any civilization has ever been with what happens after we breathe our last breath. Perhaps this was a noble, even courageous thing; instead of attempting to ignore the inescapable fact of life that is eventual death, as so many of us do today, the Egyptians embraced and celebrated it with the best their civilization had to offer. But even if so, the question remains: how did death come to fill such an unusually large space in Egyptian life? Somewhere in the answer to this question ought to be our key to understanding the Pyramids of Giza, those colossal monuments to the individual dead which can so easily strike us today as so colossally pointless.
Like most other primitive cultures, the first Egyptians to settle by the banks of the Nile felt a need not just to bury their dead but to commemorate the places where they had done so. Inevitably, the markers they installed varied in size and durability in accordance with the riches and renown of the interred. Thus the Egyptians marked the graves of their rulers, those with the most wealth and status of all, by raising great mounds of earth over them which could persist for generations. These mounds, most of which have been erased by time despite their makers’ best intentions, are the oldest ancestors of the Pyramids of Giza.
But these mounds of earth were — or in time became — more than just huge tombstones. Already long before Egypt was first united under the pharaoh known as Narmer, its rulers’ final resting places were being endowed with a rich symbolism hearkening back to the very beginning of the world.
According to Egyptian myth, the universe once consisted only of water, the physical embodiment of a primeval god known as Nun. But then the water receded to reveal a single mound of earth. Upon the mound sat Atum, the creator god. From his perch, he made the heavens and the earth as the Egyptians knew them. A ruler’s burial mound thus became a deliberate evocation of the place where Atum had stood as he did his work, emphasizing the ruler’s direct kinship with the gods and his absolute authority over all of mortal creation.
By the time of Narmer, artificial burial mounds were being replaced by tombs dug out of natural hillsides which could serve the same symbolic purpose. And then these too were joined or superseded by another evocation of the primeval mound: flat-roofed, rectangular buildings of mud-brick which Egyptologists have come to call mastabas — the Arabic word for “bench,” which they greatly resemble from a distance.
A large number of mastabas dating from the centuries immediately after that of Narmer are found at Saqqara, an ancient center some 18 miles (30 kilometers) south of the Giza Plateau. Not overly impressive-looking in their current ruined state, they were once beautifully painted and surrounded by temples and courtyards. Some are the tombs of pharaohs, others those of more minor nobility and other prominent citizens.
As I noted in an earlier chapter, the Egyptians themselves of later generations divided their history into a series of numbered dynasties, and this scheme has been retained by modern scholars. There are 31 dynasties in all, stretching from Narmer in circa 3000 BC to Darius III, whose reign expired in 332 BC. Each of the transitions between dynasties presumably represents a break of one type or another in the standard order of succession. But, because that order is still imperfectly understood — it appears not always to have been the eldest son of a pharaoh who inherited the throne — it’s sometimes difficult to say much more than that, especially when we speak of these shadowy years of the extremely distant past.
Still, we do know that the First and Second Dynasties, stretching from roughly 3000 to 2700 BC, were a time of hillside tombs and mastabas. But then, when we get to the Third Dynasty and Djoser, its first pharaoh, the era of pyramids begins.
Shockingly little is known about Djoser himself. It’s possible that that wasn’t even his real name; the first reference to it in Egyptian records on papyrus dates from more than 1200 years after he supposedly lived, while the only name to be found in the burial complex traditionally attributed to him is Netjerikhet. By whatever name, though, he will forever be remembered for the so-called “stepped pyramid” erected in his honor at Saqqara, the first of its type ever to be built in Egypt. Amazingly, we even know who came up with the concept, at least according to traditional Egyptian legend. His name was Imhotep.
As the popular historian Will Durant reminds us, Imhotep was the first “real” person known to history: “not a conqueror or a king but an artist and a scientist.” He is recorded history’s first Renaissance man, one who achieved greatness strictly through his own innate abilities. In addition to being, according to hieroglyphs found engraved on the base of Djoser’s pyramid, his pharaoh’s “builder, carpenter, sculptor, vase maker, and engraver,” he achieved so much in such other fields as medicine, science, and the arts that later generations would come to worship him as a god of knowledge despite his commoner status during life. Still, his most enduring achievement of all is the stepped pyramid he built for Djoser.
The structure is a hugely important one in Egyptian history for reasons that transcend even its distinctive shape. For it marks the point where the most ambitious of the country’s architects abandoned the relatively fragile material of mud-brick in favor of the more durable one of limestone. Indeed, as far as we know, Djoser’s stepped pyramid was the first monumental building constructed purely in stone in the history of the world.
The tomb apparently began as a fairly conventional mastaba in terms of form, albeit constructed on an unusually grand scale. But as construction continued over many years, the form of the structure began to morph into something Egypt had never seen before. From a single rectangular building, it evolved into a tiered pyramidal shape of six levels, 197 feet (60 meters) in height. It essentially became, in other words, six mastabas stacked on top of one another, each successive one of them smaller than the one upon which it was erected. One proposed if by no means definitive etymology of our word “pyramid,” which traces it back to an ancient Greek word meaning a form of cake, makes an uncanny sort of sense in this context: the Pyramid of Djoser can easily be pictured as an immense wedding cake in stone.
In addition to evoking the primeval mound at the beginning of creation, the pyramid’s shape thus came to represent a staircase for the pharaoh entombed within it to ascend on his way up to heaven. To ensure that Djoser’s soul would feel at home whenever he chose to visit his tomb, a place to which the Egyptians believed it would remain connected through eternity, the pyramid was surrounded with a scale model of the living pharaoh’s palace courtyard . Below the pyramid, archaeologists have found a tangle of passages and chambers, which were apparently altered, added onto, and sometimes abandoned as the structure above them evolved — a trait Djoser’s pyramid shares with many of its progeny. Within the underground tangle are replicas of the pharaoh’s living quarters, pantries, and even what Egyptologists speculate to be a re-creation of the chambers of the royal harem. The pharaoh’s mummy was presumably laid to rest in a central granite vault far below the surface of the desert. (This last must remain speculative because, like most other ancient Egyptian monuments, Djoser’s stepped pyramid was robbed long, long ago.)
Along with more sophisticated construction techniques, the stepped pyramid and all that surrounds it testify to a strengthening national government. Djoser’s burial complex was constantly changed and expanded throughout the nineteen years ancient Egyptian historians traditionally attributed to his reign, absorbing the labor of hundreds if not thousands of workers at any given time throughout that period. Of the materials used to build his pyramid, only the relatively low-quality limestone employed for its rough, unfinished interior portions could be quarried onsite at Saqqara. Both the higher-quality, polished limestone of its exterior surfaces and the granite that lined its interior chambers had to be quarried elsewhere and shipped down the Nile on barges. Building the pyramid and all that surrounded it was an enormous public-works project on a scale never before undertaken, the equivalent of an Apollo Program or Manhattan Project for the nascent state of Egypt.
In a classic chicken-or-the-egg scenario, building pyramids and other forms of pharaonic tombs both drove and was driven by the development of Egypt as a strong, centralized nation-state. Essentially useless though the final structures were in conventional economic terms, their real economic and political value was to be found in the very act of building them. The power and glory of Egypt, for at least three long stretches of history the richest nation in the world, were forged in this crucible of personal pride and royal one-upsmanship. “As Egypt embarked on pyramid building,” writes the Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson, “the pyramids were building Egypt.”
A cult of death makes for an unusual engine of earthly prosperity to say the least. But then, there was a physicality to the Egyptian conception of the afterlife, accompanied by a practicality in preparing for it, that lends meaning to the relationship. Looking upon the chairs, beds, makeup, even dead or living pets and servants that were entombed along with the pharaohs to lend them aid and comfort in the lands beyond the living, many of us have wondered at the departure they represent from the more ethereal conception of the afterlife of more familiar religions. The more judgmental among us may see it all as a sign of barbarism, of a primitive people still unable to think beyond the physical realm. Certainly most of us have shuddered at the staggering egotism involved in a pharaoh’s expending so many resources and lives just to gratify himself after death. Perhaps some of us have wondered as well how the Egyptian people could have been so cowed as to put up with such things for so long.
We should temper our rush to judgment, however, with a full understanding of the role the pharaoh played in Egypt. Much of Egyptian culture derived from the difficult-to-translate word of maat, which meant truth, justice, rightness, orderliness, harmony, balance — all of these things and somehow more. When maat held sway, the Nile rose and fell as it should and the crops, livestock, and people that depended upon it thrived. When the maat was out of joint, the result was floods or famine, disease or invasion. The Egyptians had nothing like our concept of history as progress — as a coherent narrative of concrete event begetting concrete event, leading us ever onward to some imagined future state of ultimate prosperity and enlightenment. To them, history was static and eternal — or at least it ought to be, if they could keep it that way by playing their own appointed roles in the universal equilibrium. To the Egyptians, then, history was a labor of maintenance rather than perfecting; the land which the gods had bequeathed to them was already perfect.
It’s true that, as we’ve already seen in various ways, ancient Egypt was in reality neither static nor unchanging, even if change did tend to take place at a fairly glacial pace compared to what we’re used to today. From their remove of millennia, able to view things on a scale of centuries rather than days, months, years, or even decades, modern Egyptologists are ironically better equipped to observe the changes which Egypt underwent than were the actual Egyptians who lived much closer to them. So, just to state the most immediately obvious example, we can clearly see the slow changes in Egyptian burial practices which this chapter chronicles, thanks to the benefit of our archaeological hindsight.
Of course, the Egyptians too must have been at least vaguely aware of these changes at some level. They even made some effort to record the things that had happened before, through their rolls of pharaohs and dynasties and their tracking of the levels of the Nile from year to year. Yet they didn’t seem to process an historical chronology in the same way that we do — or, stated perhaps more accurately, it just wasn’t as important to them. “It is as if the ancient culture had lived entirely in the present,” writes the historian John Romer, “that the lists of kings had not been made for historical purposes at all, but to define the continuing office of kingship itself.” To Egyptians of this early period especially, time was not an arrow but a wheel, an eternal recurrence of that which had already been and would always come to be again. This, one might even say, was the real essence of maat.
Millennia after the time of the pharaohs, Edmund Burke wrote that the state is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Nowhere was this truer than in ancient Egypt. The pharaoh was the conduit through which the eternal maat flowed, the temporal source of all justice and order. Thus the people’s treatment of him determined their land’s fate from year to year just as much as his own royal decrees. And in some ineffable way, this spiritual symbiosis between ruler and ruled continued even after the pharaoh died.
As with so much else in Egpytian life, the worship extended to both the living pharaoh and his dead ancestors had a mythical origin story as its basis. A god known as Osiris was the first pharaoh. But Seth, the god of both the underworld and the barren red land of the desert, murdered him in a jealous rage, chopped his body to pieces, and seized the mantle of pharaoh for himself. But then Isis, Osiris’s sister and wife, gathered the pieces of the fallen god together again, reviving her husband just long enough to conceive with him the child Horus. She then raised Horus in secret until he was old enough to topple Seth and take back the throne.
Horus became the special patron deity of his direct descendants — said descendants being, of course, every mythical or historical pharaoh who followed him. The Egyptian practice of wrapping a dead monarch in swaddling, thereby to preserve and hold his body together for an afterlife, evoked Isis’s binding of Osiris, the deed responsible for the entire line of Horus. “An Egyptian mummy was not just a preserved corpse,” notes the mythology expert Geraldine Pinch. “It was the transformed image of the person it had once been.” Tellingly, a picture of a mummy was used to represent both sleep and death in Egyptian hieroglyphs. So, the tomb of a pharaoh was far more than a mere grave or memorial; it was his spiritual and physical home for the eternity of his second, godly life.
Thus, while ancient Egypt was without a doubt thoroughly out of step with our modern egalitarian sensibilities in countless ways, the tombs of the pharaohs are more than monuments to rapacious despotism. And yes, the Egyptians were deeply concerned with the processes of death, but not merely out of some purposeless morbidity. They were concerned with them because, in their eyes, those processes really were the source of life as well. The tombs the people maintained, and the offerings they made in them, were a great spiritual engine which helped to maintain the maat, and were thus just as important as the living pharaoh of the age.
Still, all conduits of the maat were not equal; some pharaohs were unquestionably more successful than others in mobilizing this cult of death. Those pharaohs who immediately followed Djoser didn’t leave behind any final monuments as lavish as that of their predecessor; it appears that they lost the race against their own encroaching mortality. While at least two of them tried to build an immense stepped pyramid of their own, neither of those monuments was completed before or after their deaths — proof that even in Egypt, royal authority could only extend so far in the face of limited resources. Huni, the last pharaoh of the Third Dynasty, apparently gazed upon the disappointments of his predecessors and opted for a more gradual sort of memorial project: instead of a single tomb built on a huge scale, he built a series of six or seven smaller stepped pyramids down the length of the Nile, each of them a symbol of royal authority for the people in its region and a convenient vacation home for his immortal spirit after his death.
And then came Sneferu, the first pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty, who likely assumed the throne around 2600 to 2575 BC. In terms of sheer mass of stone erected, he would become the greatest single pyramid builder of them all, exceeding even the achievements of his descendants Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, those three legendary builders of pyramids on the Giza Plateau.
Sneferu would also be remembered in the later annals of Egypt as one of the greatest of all the pharaohs in other ways — wise, energetic, munificent by the standards of his lineage, even in his way jolly, his reign marked by national power and prosperity. Archaeological evidence as well supports the idea that it was a time of energy and innovation. Egypt’s population had now reached some 1.5 million, more and more of whom could now devote themselves to trades other than subsistence farming. New forms of sculpture and pottery appeared, hieroglyphic writing grew more complex and ornate, and architecture reached new heights in scale and grandiosity even outside the royal tombs. In fact, modern Egyptologists, following a modified version of the tripartite model of Egyptian history first developed by Karl Richard Lepsius, consider Sneferu’s reign to mark Egypt’s point of transition from a formative “Early Dynastic” period to the true Old Kingdom, the first of the three peaks of Egyptian splendor and influence. The true Age of the Pyramids, in other words, was nigh.
In an extraordinary testament both to Egypt’s burgeoning wealth and his own power, Sneferu managed to complete no fewer than three monumental pyramids during his reign, which the ancient annals claim to have lasted for more than fifty years. Many modern Egyptologists hew to a figure closer to thirty years — but, as we’ll see, such a figure only further exacerbates our sense of disbelief that he could have built so much in one lifetime.
The first of Sneferu’s would-be tombs was a stepped pyramid built at a virgin site by the name of Meidum, 62 miles (100 kilometers) south of the Giza Plateau. While its style was similar to that of Djoser’s pyramid — a layer cake of mastabas — Sneferu’s was even larger, reaching 302 feet (92 meters) in height over its eight courses. The largest structure ever built on earth to that point, it was seemingly a tomb with which any pharaoh could be satisfied.
But Sneferu wasn’t satisfied; when, following what may have been as many as fifteen years of labor, his pyramid was complete, he decided to start all over again. His next project would mark the end of the era of the stepped pyramid, giving us in its place the more gradated conical structure we generally associate with the word “pyramid” in the context of ancient Egypt today. Stepped pyramids aren’t unique to Egypt; quite a number of other Bronze Age cultures built them. The gradated pyramid, however, is something else entirely.
With their very different view of history, the ancient Egyptians didn’t see things in terms of chronological development and social evolution, as we do when we engage in such neat formulations as saying that the burial mound begat the mastaba which begat the stepped pyramid which begat the gradated pyramid. Nor did they share our modern obsession with individual genius and individual credit; they regarded the maintenance of their civilization as a collective process under the guidance of the pharaoh, whose divine beneficence was the real source of everything achieved by his subjects during his reign. Only in vanishingly rare cases, such as that of the legendary Imhotep, did some of the pharaoh’s glory fall to others. It’s thus difficult to assign credit for the last and greatest formal innovation in Egyptian pyramid building. The best we can do is conjecture that the gradated pyramid was perhaps the brainchild of Nefermaat, Sneferu’s chief vizier, the closest equivalent to Imhotep in his court. But, unlike his legendary predecessor, Nefermaat wasn’t a commoner made good. He held the royal title of “king’s son,” and he may indeed have been one of Sneferu’s sons or grandsons, albeit one outside of the line of succession. Then again, he may also have been his brother or cousin; the family tree of the pharaohs was a tangled and ingrown one, with brothers and sisters not infrequently marrying one another, and its royal heraldry was even more complicated.
The form of the gradated pyramid reflected the growing preeminence in Egyptian religion of Ra, the god of the sun. By the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty, he was becoming conflated in various ways with Atum, the creator god; one story had it that, after the latter had stood upon the primeval mound and created the world, he had become a newborn child named Ra. More than a thousand years after the time of Sneferu, the clout of the sun god among the Egyptian pantheon would become so overwhelming as to lead the pharaoh Akhenaten to briefly replace his land’s traditional religion with one of the world’s earliest incarnations of monotheism, worshiping the sun alone. For now, though, it merely led to the belief that the pharaoh was an embodiment of Horus while living, but became one with Ra after death. Not coincidentally, the first cartouches began to appear in hieroglyphic writing during this period; their encircling lines represented the sun disk, thus associating the pharaoh whose name was found inside the circle with the sun god.
The same association led to the most iconic structures of all Egyptian history. Ra radiated light and goodness — maat — upon the people through the medium of the pharaoh. Nefermaat — or someone! — imagined a gradated pyramid in the image of this idea: a structure shaped like light radiating down from the sun. Instead of being a stairway to heaven, this new take on the pyramid would — to coin a phrase — “beam” the pharaoh’s soul up to his rightful place in the firmament. And it would likewise be charged with meaning and purpose for those earthbound creatures who merely looked upon it from afar. Coated with smoothly polished white limestone of the very best quality, the sheer faces of the pyramid would dance and shimmer and dazzle in the rays of the desert sun as the light from above mixed with the spirit of the pharaoh interred inside. It would be both a symbol of and a living embodiment of Ra, a locus of spirituality more potent than any temple.
That, anyway, was the idea. It appears that Nefermaat botched his first actual attempt at this new style of pyramid, which he built on another virgin site known as Dashur, not far from Saqqara. He had designed the pyramid to slope upward at the steep angle of 60 degrees. Had it been possible for the workmen to complete it according to this original plan, it would have reached 405 feet (123 meters) in height, just 77 feet (23.5 meters) short of the later Pyramid of Khufu at Giza. As it happened, though, when the workers reached a height of about 130 feet (40 meters), the structure began to shift on its foundation and crack alarmingly up and down its length. The soft desert surface beneath it was falling in upon itself, unable to support this enormous weight of limestone.
The workers tried everything they could think of to bolster the collapsing pyramid: shoving plaster and stones into the cracks, shoring it up from inside with timber. It was all to no avail. At last, they built a supporting skirt around the existing structure with a more modest angle of 54 degrees, then continued building upward at an angle of 43 degrees from the point where all the problems had started. The final monument has a still-impressive height of 344 feet (105 meters), but it’s a warped, deformed creation — so much so that it’s long been known by the undignified appellation of the Bent Pyramid. Sneferu, judging that such a sorry structure was hardly suitable to become the seat of his eternal soul, told Nefermaat to try again — to build a second gradated pyramid next to it, and for Ra’s sake and his own to get it right this time.
Fortunately for everyone concerned, Sneferu’s final pyramid is a far more aesthetically satisfying creation than its predecessor. Standing 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) away from the Bent Pyramid, on a much more stable bedrock foundation, it’s long been called the Red Pyramid due to the reddish cast of the local sandstone used for its interior, which has been exposed ever since the removal of its smooth outer casing many centuries ago. It has almost the exact same height as the Bent Pyramid, but its builders erected it on a much broader base, with an angle of ascent throughout its height the same as that of the upper portion of its predecessor. Thanks to these measures, they encountered none of the problems that had plagued them while building the Bent Pyramid. The first perfect Egyptian pyramid of the mature style, the Red Pyramid demonstrates if nothing else that this was a culture well able to learn from its mistakes, and to do so quickly at that when there was urgent need.
The Red Pyramid remains an awe-inspiring sight even today, even after it’s been stripped of the smooth white covering that must once have dashed and sparkled so majestically in the sun. Certainly in the time of Sneferu, it must have seemed just the piece of divine architecture the pharaoh had been longing for all along. Not only the first perfect gradated pyramid built in Egypt but the third largest ever constructed, it was supposedly completed in only about ten years, in a desperate frenzy to outrun the mortality of the aging pharaoh’s earthly body. Modern estimates are that 5000 workmen must have labored upon it year round in order to complete it in such a time frame.
And then, presumably not terribly long afterward, Sneferu died.
With the exception of the heart, which was believed to be the seat of his intellect and identity, his internal organs were all removed from his corpse, to be entombed alongside it in canopic jars. Then the body was packed in natron, a naturally-occurring salt compound, for a month or more, until it was completely desiccated. Finally, it was wrapped tightly in linen bandages, upon which artists painted a likeness of the pharaoh as he had looked in life.
The final journey of a pharaoh to his tomb was the most elaborate ceremony known to the ancient Egyptians, an occasion for music, dancing, prayers, and countless sacrifices to the gods whom he was about to rejoin. In this case, Sneferu’s son Khufu, the heir to the throne, likely conducted the funeral rites, which took the form of a drama vaguely reminiscent of a Christian passion play. Khufu himself would have played the role of Horus, whose mythical role he would embody while he remained on earth, and Sneferu’s queens would have taken the roles of other divine personages. We can only imagine the full spectacle of grief and joy. The king is dead! Long live the king!
In the early twentieth century of our own epoch, explorers of the Red Pyramid found fragments of a male skeleton therein along with linen mummy wrappings. A French scientist who examined them claimed that the remains belonged to a man who was past middle age but not yet elderly, small of stature but with a strong constitution. Was this Sneferu? We can only speculate.
We can say for sure, however, that Sneferu left behind him a truly astonishing legacy in stone. In terms of sheer mass, he built more than any of his successors, mobilizing his entire nation in the service of his ambitions for his life after death. It’s been estimated that his construction crews averaged as many as 115,000 cubic yards (88,000 cubic meters) of stonework per year during his reign, a work rate never to be surpassed in all the long history of ancient Egypt that was still to come. In all, they set almost 8 million tons of limestone blocks one upon another. This record too is destined never to be broken; it is literally more stone than any other workforce in the entire history of our planet has ever employed.
And yet it would be Sneferu’s son Khufu who would go down in history as the greatest pyramid builder of them all. For, despite assuming the throne when his people had only just perfected the art of the pyramid in the abstract, he would raise one so high that it would take humanity another 4000 years to build to such a height again.
(This series's cover art is by KennyOMG, and is utilized under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)