When most people mention Ancient Egypt the first thing that
comes to mind is the Pyramids. To construct such monuments required a
mastery of art, architecture and social organization that few cultures
would ever rival. The pyramids are said to have built Egypt by being
the force that knit together the kingdom's economy. Their creations
were so substantial, that the sight of these vast pyramids would take
your breath away. Today, the valley of the Nile has an open air
museum so people can witness these grand monuments.
Obsessed with the afterlife, Egypt's rulers of 4,500 years ago
glorified themselves in stone, thereby laying the foundation of the
first great nation-state. A Pyramid is an enormous machine that helps
the king go through the wall of the dead, achieve resurrection and
live forever in the happiness of the gods. The start of the Old
Kingdom is said to be the building of the Djoser's monument. The
construction of Step Pyramid of Pharaoh Djoser began around 2630 B.C.
and was designed to awe the ancient Egyptians, to impress them with
their rule's godlike strength. It was the world's first great
construction project; indeed, it was the world's largest building.
Djoser, the second king of the 3rd dynasty, hired an architect
called Imhoptep who for the first time constructed a tomb completely
of stone. Imhoptep is considered the preeminent genius of the Old
Kingdom. He assembled one workforce to quarry limestone at the cliff
of Tura, across the Nile, another to haul the stone to the site where
master carvers shaped each block and put it in place.
The Step Pyramid is a terraced structure rising in six unequal
stages to a height of 60 meters, its base measuring 120 meters by 108
meters. The substructure has a system of underground corridors and
rooms. Its main feature being a central shaft 25 meters deep and 8
meters wide. The step pyramid rises within a vast walled court 544
meters long and 277 meters wide, in which are the remnants of several
stone edifices built to supply the wants of the king in the here
after. Towering limestone columns were shaped to mimic the sway and
droop of leafy plants. Immovable doors hung on great carved hinges.
Facades called false doors through which the pharaoh's ka, or vital
force, was presumed to pass, lay recessed within walls. The interiors
of dummy temples were packed with rubble. Everything about the place
bespoke illusion. The Step Pyramid was a ladder. Not a symbol of a
ladder but an actual one, by which the soul of a dead ruler might
climb to the sky, joining the gods in immortality.
No one knows why the Egyptians created this fantastic scene,
but some archaeologists speculate that there was an Old Kingdom belief
that a work of art, a building, had power and utility in the afterlife
in direct proportion to its uselessness in the real world. In this
view, each false door, each dummy temple worked in the afterlife
precisely because it could not function in this one.
On the north side of the pyramid is a small stone cubicle,
with a pair of tiny holes in its facade. When you look through these
holes, you see two eyes retuning your stare, the blank gaze of a life
size statue of Djoser sitting on the throne. The holes are there for
the pharaoh to look out perhaps at the stars in the northern sky
called the Imperishables because they never set.
Many believe that the building of Djoser's pyramid complex,
which was accomplished by hundreds of workers from across the land,
served to join those provinces into the world's first nation-state.
During the Old Kingdom, which began around 2700 B.C. and lasted some
550 years, each pharaoh after Djoser marshaled a vast portion of his
country's manpower and wealth to build his own tomb and ensure his
To build such outstanding monuments required a preciseness of
architecture, and years of endless labor from so many Egyptians. The
kingdom developed a funerary tradition around the worship of their
divine pharaohs, both living and dead. Every aspect of life was
affected. The Egyptians dug a network of canals off the Nile to
transport stone for the pyramids and food for the workers, and a
simple, local agriculture became the force that knit together the
kingdom's economy. The need to keep records of the harvest may have
led to the invention of a written language.
Yet after five and a half centuries this flourishing
civilization collapsed, plunging Egypt into disorder. Perhaps the
seeds of the collapse were planted in the soil of the civilization
that, for all its grandeur, seemed obsessed with the idea that its
dead rulers must live forever.
The daily life of the workers constructing the pyramids was
one of repetitive toil. On wooden sledges across the sands, workers
hauled the giant stone the largest granite blocks weighing as much as
seventy tons-that built the pyramids. Egypt created a vast
agricultural empire, yet all the irrigation was done by hand. Farmers
filled two heavy jars from the canals, then hung them from a yoke over
Recent excavation of the graves of pyramid workers reveals
that some were missing limbs or had damaged spines the human cost of a
national compulsion to glorify gods and deify the souls of kings. Two
generations after Djoser's reign, the center of the Old Kingdom moved
north to the barren plateau of Giza. Three 4th dynasty pyramids were
erected here, they are included among the seven wonders of the world.
The norther most and the oldest of the group was built by Khufu, the
second king of the 4th dynasty called the Great Pyramid, it is the
largest of the three the length of each side at the base averaging 775
3/4 feet and it height being 481 2/5 feet. The middle pyramid was
built by Khafre, the fourth of the eight kings of the 4th dynasty; the
structure measures 707 3/4 feet on each side and was originally 471
feet high. The southernmost and last pyramid to be built was that of
Menkaure the sixth king of the 4th dynasty. Each side measures 356 ½
feet and the structure's completed height was 218 feet.
Each monument originally consisted of not only the pyramid
itself, which housed the body of the deceased king, but also an
adjoining mortuary temple and a sloping causeway temple near the Nile.
Close to each pyramid were one or more subsidiary pyramids used for
the burials of members of the royal family.
To the south of the Great Pyramid near Khafre's valley temple
lies the Great Sphinx. Carved out of a knoll of rock, the Sphinx has
the facial features of King Khafre, but the body of a recumbent lion;
it is approximately 240 feet long and 66 feet high. The sphinx guards
Khafu's vallytemple and causeway.
Around 2465 B.C.- halfway through the Old Kingdom-pyramids
suddenly became less important. No one knows why, but many scholars
have suggested that after Khufu's pyramid, which took roughly 23 years
to buil, the kingdom grew weary with each pharaoh's effort to outdo
his predecessor. Several pharaohs died before their pyramids were
completed, perhaps a cause of embarrassment or even horror among the
Never agian would a king build his pyramid on a truly colossal
scale. Instead the religious focus shifted from the pyramid itself
toward the mortuary temple that stood just east of it. The funerary
culture was growing more sophisticated, even as the pharaoh's
unlimited power was beginning to erode.
The pyramids will always be a constant reminder of, the vast
architecturial accomplishments of Egypt's Old Kingdom. A mystical
gateway for a pharaoh's leap to immortality, a pyramid drew resourses
from throughout the king's domain and beyond.