Whenever we think about pyramids, we restrict ourselves to thinking only about the pyramids that were built in Egypt; however, there are thousands of pyramids around the world, including more than 100 in Egypt, twice of that in Sudan and dozens in the Middle East and China. Pyramids were first built in Egypt when the nation was one of the richest and most powerful civilizations of the world. Pyramids constitute an integral part of Egyptian history.
Before pyramids took the shape of a structure with triangular tops, they were usually mastabas packed on top of each other creating a structure whose exterior looked like stairs. The first of this kind, the stepped structure, was the Pyramid of Djoser. After Djoser, the stepped pyramids became the norm for royal burials. Mastabas were essentially ancient Egyptian tombs, rectangular in shape and were made of mud bricks. Before pyramids were built, the elite were buried in the mastabas.
It was the belief of ancient Egyptians that the souls of the dead pharaohs (kings) climbed the stairs leading them to heaven. This led people to believe that the Egyptian gods had chosen the Pharaohs to be the communicator between the people and God. Ancient Egyptians believed that the spirit of the pharaohs remained in their bodies even after their death and hence, preservation of the body was necessary for continuation in his afterlife. To properly care for the spirits of the pharaohs, their corpses were mummified and everything that they would need in the afterlife was buried with them, including gold vessels, food, furniture and other offerings.
Common people wanted to keep the king’s status intact even after his death since they believed that the king became Osiris, the god of death. The new pharaoh, in turn, became Horus, the falcon god who served as the protector of the Sun God, Ra.
The pyramids are shaped in such a way that it is believed to represent the shining beams of the sun descending on the Earth, however, not all the pyramids were constructed with a pointed triangular top. Some of them, like the Pyramid of Djoser, were flat at the top. The massive size of the pyramids signifies that the pharaohs played a very important role in ancient Egyptian society.
In the later Old Kingdom pyramids, the builders of pyramids inscribed written accounts of events in the King’s reign on the walls of the burial chambers, along with the rest of the interior. Known as pyramid texts, these are the earlier significant religious compositions from ancient Egypt. All the Egyptian pyramids were built on the west bank of the Nile river which, being the direction of the setting sun, was associated with the realm of the dead in Egyptian mythology.
The largest pyramid is the one in Giza, popularly known as the Pyramid of Giza, also known as the Pyramid of Khufu and the Pyramid of Cheops. It is the only remaining wonder of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Pyramid of Giza was made as the burial tomb for Pharaoh Khufu. Like other pyramids, Khufu’s pyramid is surrounded by rows of mastabas where relatives or his officials were buried to accompany and support him in the afterlife.
The Egyptians believed that the part of the night sky around which the stars appear to revolve was the physical gateway into the heavens. One of the narrow shafts that led from the main burial chamber through the entire body of the Great Pyramid points directly towards the centre of this part of the sky. This suggests that pyramids may have been designed to serve as a means to transport the deceased pharaoh’s soul directly to heaven.
After the Pyramid of Khufu, the second-largest pyramid was made for Khufu’s son Khafre. In front of the Pyramid of Khafre, there is a guardian stone carved in limestone with the head of a man and the body of a lion. This was known as the Great Sphinx and it was the largest statue in the ancient world. In the 18th dynasty (1500 B. C.) the Great Sphinx was worshipped as it was considered to be the image of the god Horus.
There are several rumours that these magnificent pyramids were built by slaves but they have proved to be false. A historian of Greek origin named Herodotus was responsible for the rumour about the slaves. Skeletons excavated from the area around the pyramids show that the workers were probably native Egyptian agricultural labourers. Herodotus wrote that it took about twenty years to build and required the labour of 100,000 men but later archaeological evidence suggests that the workforce might have been actually around 20,000 only.
Considering the fact that more than two million huge pieces of limestone were used in building the pyramids at one time, there is still no knowledge about who carried the stones or how they were lifted during the construction process and hence, a large part of the history surrounding Pyramids remains shrouded with mystery.
Unfortunately, in both ancient and modern times, several robbers have removed most of the bodies and funeral goods from Egypt’s pyramids, destroying their exteriors as well. The pyramids no longer reach their original heights as most of their smooth limestone coverings have been removed. Nevertheless, millions of people continue to visit the pyramids each year, drawn by their towering grandeur and the enduring allure of Egypt’s rich and glorious past.