1902 Encyclopedia > Pyramid


PYRAMID. This name for a class of building, though first taken from a part of the structure, and mistakenly applied to the whole of it by the Greeks, has now so far acquired a more definite meaning in its geometrical sense that it is desirable to employ it in that sense alone. A pyramid therefore should be understood as meaning a building bounded by a polygonal base and plane triangular sides which meet in an apex. Such a form of architecture is only known in Middle Egypt, and there only during the period from the IVth to the XIIth Dynasty (before 2000 B.C.)-having square bases and angles of about 50o. In other countries various modifications of the tumulus, barrow, or burial-heap have arisen which have come near to this type; but these when formed of earth are usually circular, or, if square, have a flat top, and when built of stone are always in steps or terraces. The imitations of the true Egyptian pyramid at Abydos, Meroe, and elsewhere are puny hybrids, being merely chambers with a pyramidal outside and porticos attached; and the structures found at Cenchreae, or the monument of Caius Sestius at Rome, are isolated and barren trials of a type which never could be revived: it had run its course in a country and a civilization to which alone it was suitable.

In the earliest monuments of Egypt there are three types, which were ruled by the external shape. For the never could be revived: it had run its course in a country and a civilization to which alone it was suitable.

In the earliest monuments of Egypt there are three types, which were ruled by the external shape. For the temples (such as those of the kings of the Ivth Dynasty at Gizeh) varied in shape according to their arrangements; but the pyramid, the obelisk, and the mastaba are designs whose importance was outward; and these types, which started apparently at the same epoch (the earliest actually dated examples of each being all within the two reigns of Seneferu and Khufu), only lasted during the life of that archaic system to which they belonged. The pyramidtype faded out in the middle kingdom (XIIth Dynasty); the obelisk was adapted in later times to a different purpose, as a member of bilateral temple decoration, instead of a solitary monument complete in itself and surrounded by an enclosure, as it was in the old kingdom; and the mastaba gave way to the rock-hewn chapel or the bastard pyramid.

In considering the origin f the pyramid type there are three theories tobe dealt with – (1) that it is merely a higher and refined form of the tumulus; (2) that it was derived from the mastaba; (3) that it was a fresh idea, an invention de novo. The objection to the first view is that there is no graduated series of examples of lesser sizes before the large ones, possibly not any before the very largest, and that tumulus or mound burial is unknown in Egypt, ancient or modern; and to accept this view we must suppose that all the earlier stages were wrought in another land, and that the pyramid-builders migrated into Egypt when at the height of their architectural power. But their history does not agree to this, and in no other land can we find their training-ground. The second view is strongly suggested by the facts before us in Egypt. The only buildings that have been reasonably supposed to be earlier than the great pyramid are the two so-called pyramids of Sakkara and Medum. These structures are not and never were true pyramids; they are mastadas added to by successive accretions at various times, again and again finished off with a polished casing, only to be afresh enlarged by coast of rough masonry and another fine casing on the outside, until they have been extended upwards and around into a great stepped mass of masonry (Petrie, Pyramids, &c., p. 147), the successive faces of which rise at the characteristic mastaba angle of 75o (or 4 and 1). These buildings then present the outline of a pyramidal pile, broken by successive steps, and it is but one stage further to build in one smooth slope from base to top; such a form would readily he designed when once it was intended to build a large mass complete at once on one uniform plan, as certainly was the case for the largest pyramids. The third view has some support in the absence of any datable pyramids before the largest and the second largest that ever existed, and in the steady deterioration of work that is known to have taken place. remembering also what bold steps architecture has taken occasionally in later times (as in the Pantheon and St Sophia) without a series of graduated examples, we should not condemn this view too readily by a priori reasoning.

It is certain that the pyramids were each begun with a definite design of their size and arrangement; at least this is plainly seen in the two largest, where continuous accretion (such as Lepsius and his followers propound) would be most likely to be met with. On looking at any section of these buildings it will be seen how impossible it would have been for the passages to have belonged to a smaller structure (Petrie, 165). The supposition that the designs were enlarged so long as the builder’s life permitted was drawn from the compound mastabas of Sakkara and Medum; these are, however, quite distinct architecturally from true pyramids, and appear to have been enlarged at long intervals, being elaborately finished with fine casing at the close of each addition.

Around many of the pyramids peribolous walls may be seen, and it is probable that some enclosure originally existed around each of them. At the pyramids of Gizeh the temples attached to these mausolea may be still seen. As in the private tomb, the false door which represented the exit of the deceased person from this world, and towards which the offerings were made, was always on the west wall in the chamber, so the pyramid was placed on the west to the temple in which the deceased king was worshipped. The temple being entered from the east (as in the Jewish temples), the worshippers faced the west, looking toward the pyramid in which the king was buried. Priests of the various pyramids are continually mentioned during the old kingdom, and the religious endowments of many of the priesthoods of the early kings were revived under the Egyptian renaissance of the XXVIth Dynasty and continued during Ptolemaic times. A list of the hieroglyphic names of nineteen of the pyramids which have been found mentioned on monuments (mostly in tombs of the priests) is given in Lieblein’s Chronology, p. 32. the pyramid was never a family monument, but belonged-like all other Egyptian tombs- to one person, members of the royal family having sometimes lesser pyramids adjoining the king’s (as at Khufu’s); the essential idea of the sole use of a tomb was so strong that the hill of Gizeh is riddled with deep tomb-shafts for separate burials, often running side by side 60 or 80 feet deep with only a thin wall of rock between; and in one place a previous shaft has been partially blocked with masonry, so that a later shaft could be cut partly into it, macled with it like a twin-crystal.

Turning now to the architecture of the buildings, their usual construction is a mass of masonry composed of horizontal layers of rough-hewn blocks, with a small amount of mortar; and this mass in the later forms became more and more rubbly, until in the VIth Dynasty it was merely a cellular system of retaining walls of rough stones and mud, filled up with loose chips, and in the XIIth Dynasty the bulk was of mud bricks. Whatever was the hidden material however there was always on the outside a casing of fine stone, elaborately finished, and very well jointed; and the inner chambers were of similarly good work. Indeed the construction was in all cases so far sound that, had it not been for the spite of enemies and the greed of later builders, it is probable that every pyramid would have been standing in good order at this day. The casings were not a mere "veneer" or "film," as they have been called, but were of massive blocks, usually greater in thickness than in height, and in some cases (as at South Dahshur) reminding the observer of horizontal leaves with sloping edges.

Inside of each pyramid, always low down, and usually below the ground level, was built a sepulchral chamber; this was reached in all cases by a passage from the north, sometimes beginning in the pyramid face, sometimes descending into the rock on which the pyramid was built in front of the north side. This chamber, if not cut in the rock altogether (as in Menkaura’s), or a pit in the rock roofed with stone (as in Khafra’s), was built between two immense walls which served for the east and west sides, and between which the north and south sides and roofing stood merely in contact, but unbounded. The gable roofing of the chambers was formed by great sloping cantilevers of stone, projecting from the north and south walls, on which they rested without pressing on each other along the central ridge; thus there was no thrust, nor were there any forces to disturb the building; and it was only after the most brutal treatment, by which these great masses of stone were cracked asunder, that the principle of thrust came into play, though it had been provided for in the sloping form of the roof, so as to delay as long as possible the collapse of the chamber. This is best seen in the pyramid of Pepi (Petrie), opened from the top right through the roof. See also the Abusir pyramids (Howard Vyse) and the king’s and queen’s chambers of the great pyramid (Howard Vyse, Piazzi Smyth, Petrie). The roofing is sometimes, perhaps usually, of more than one layer; in Pepi’s pyramid it is of three layers of stone beams, each deeper than their breadth, resting one on another, the thirty stones weighing more than 30 tons each. In the king’s chamber (Gizeh) successive horizontal roofs were interposed between the chamber and the final gable roof, and such may have been the case at Abu Roash (Howard Vyse).

The passages which led into the central chambers have usually some lesser chamber in their course, and are blocked once or oftener with massive stone portcullises. In all cases some part, and generally the greater part, of the passages slopes downwards, usually at an angle of about 26o, or 1 on 2. These passages appear to have been closed externally with stone doors turning on a horizontal pivots, as may be seen at South Dashur, and as is described by Strabo and others (Petrie). This suggests that the interiors of the pyramids were accessible to the priests, probably for making offerings; the fact of many of them having been forcibly entered otherwise does not show that no practicable entrance existed, but merely that it was unknown, as, for instance, in the pyramids of Khufu and Khafra, both of which were regularly entered in classical times, but were forced by the ignorant Arabs.

The pyramids of nearly all the kings of the IVth, Vth, and VIth Dynasties are mentioned in inscriptions, and also a few of later times. The first which can be definitely attributed is that of Khufu (or Cheops), called"the glorious," the great pyramid of Gizeh. Ratatef, who appears next to Khufu in the lists, is unknown in other monuents; he is perhaps the same as Khnumu-Khufu, apparently a co-regent of Khufu, who may have been buried in the so-called queen’s chamber of the great pyramid. Khafra rested in the great pyramid, now known as the second pyramid of Gizeh. Menkaura’s pyramid was called "the upper," being at the highest level on the hill of Gizeh. The lesser pyramids of Gizeh, near the great and third pyramids, belong respectively to the families of Khufu and Khafra (Howard Vyse). The pyramid of a Men (ka?) ra at abu Roash is probably also of this period. The pyramid of Aseskaf, called "the cool," is unknown, so also is that of Userkaf of the Vth Dynasty, called the "holiest of buildings." Sahura’s pyramid, the north one of Abusir, was named "the rising soul," much as Neferkara’s (of the soul." Raenuser’s pyramid, "the firmest of buildings," is the middle pyramid of Abusir. The pyramid of Menkauhor, called "the most divine building," is somewhere at Sakkara. Assa’s pyramid is unidentified; it was "the beautiful." Unas not only built the mastaba Farun, long supposed to be hispyramid, but had a pyramid called "the most beautiful of buildings" at Sakkara, which was opened inn 1881 (see Recueil des Travaux, by M. Maspero, iii., for those opened at Sakkara). In the VIth Dynasty the "pyramid of souls," built by Ati (Rauserka), is unknown. That of Teta, "the most stable of buildings," was opened at Sakkara in 1881, as well as that of Pepi (Rameri), "the firm andf beautiful." The pyramids of Rameren, "the beautiful rising," and of Neferkara, "the firm life," are unknown. Haremsaf’s pyramid was opened at Sakkara in 1881. Of the last two kings of the VIth Dynasty we know of no pyramids. In the VIIth or VIIIth Dynasty most probably the brick pyramids of Dashur were erected. In the Xith Dynasty the pyramid, "the most glorious building," of Mentihotep II. is mentioned, and the mud pyramid of one of the Antef kings is known at Thebes. In the XIIth Dynasty the pyramids, the "lofty and beautiful" of Amenemhat I. and "the bright" of Usertesen II. are known in inscriptions, while the brick pyramid at Howara may be most probably assigned to Amenemhat III., who appears to have built the adjoining temple.

Of the architectural peculiarities of some particular pyramids some notice must now be given. The great pyramid of Gizeh (Khufu’s) is very different in its internal arrangements from any other known (see vol. ii p. 385 sq. and vol. vii. p. 771 sq.). The greater number of passages and chambers, the high finish of parts of the work, and the accuracy of construction all distinguish it. The chamber which is most normal in its situation is the subterranean chamber; but this is quite unfinished, hardly more than begun. The upper chambers, called the "king’s" and "queen’s," were completely hidden, the ascending passage to them having been closed by plugging blocks, which concealed the point where it branched upwards out of the roof of the long descending passage. Another passage, which in its turn branches from the ascending passage to the queen’s chamber, was also completely blocked up. the object of having two highly-finished chambers in the mass may have been to receive the king and his co-regent (of whom there is some historical evidence), and there is very credible testimony to a sarcophagus having existed in the queen’s chamber, as well as in the king’s chamber. On the details of construction in the great pyramid it is needless to enter here; but it may be stated that the accuracy of work is such that the four sides of the base have only a mean error of six-tenths of an inch in length and 12 seconds in angle from a perfect square.

The second pyramid of Gizeh has two separate entrances (one in the side, the other in the pavement) and two chambers (one roofed with slabs, the other all rock-hewn); these chambers, however, do not run into the masonry, the whole bulk of which is solid so far as is known. This pyramid has a part of the original casing on the top; and it is also interesting as having the workmen’s barracks still remaining at a short distance on the west side, long chambers capable of housing about 4000 men. The great bulk of the rubbish from the work is laid on the south side, forming a flat terrace level with the base, and covering a steep rock escarpment which existed there. The waste heaps from the great pyramid were similarly tipped out over the cliff on its northern side. Thus the rubbish added to the broad platform which set off the appearance of the pyramids; and it has remained undisturbed in all ages, as there was nothing to be got out of it. The third pyramid was cased around the base with red granite for the sixteen lowest courses. The design of it has been enlarged at one bound from a small pyramid (such as those of the family of Khufu) to one eight times the size, as it is at present; the passages needed therefore to be altered. But there is no sign of gradual steps of enlargement : the change was sudden, from a comparatively small design to a large one. The basalt sarcophagus of this pyramid was ornamented with the panel decoration found on early tombs, unlike the granite sarcophagi of the two previous pyramids, which are plain. Unhappily it was lost at sea in 1838.

Farther south are the pyramids of Abusir, the most complete account of which is in the work of Colonel Howard Vyse. Next come those of Sakkara. The construction of the step-pyramid or cumulative mastaba has been noticed above; its passage are very peculiar and intricate, winding around the principal chamber, which is in the center, cut in the rock, very high, and with a tomb-chamber built on the bottom of it, which is closed with a great plug of red granite, a circular stopper fitting into a neck in the chamber roof. A doorway faced with glazed tiles bearing a king’s standard existed here; the tiles were taken to Berlin by Lepsius. The other pyramics of Sakkara are of the VIth Dynasty, of Unas, Pepi, Haremsaf, &c. They are distinguished by the introduction of very long religious texts, covering the whole inside of the chambers and passages; these are carefully carved in small hieroglyphics, painted bright green, in the white limestime. Beyond these come the pyramids of Dahsur, which are in a simple and massive style, much like those of Gizeh. The north pyramid of Fadhur has chambers roofed like the gallery in the great pyramid by successive overlappings of stone, the roof rising to a great height with no less than eleven projections on each side. The south pyramid of Dashur has still the greater part of its casing remaining, and is remarkable for being built at two different angles, the lower part being at the usual pyramid angle, while the upper part is but 43o. This pyramid is also remarkable for having a western passage to the clambers, which was carefully closed up. Beyond the Memphilic group are the scattered pyramids of Lisht, Illahun, and Howara, and the cumulative mastaba of Medum. Illahun is built with a framework of stone filled up with mud bricks, and Howara is built entirely of mud bricks, though doubtless cased with fine stone like the other pyramids.

Beyond these there are no true pyramids but we will briefly notice those later forms derived the pyramid. At Abydos a large cemetery is covered with more than a hundred mud-brick chambers, the outsides of which are sloped to the form of an acute pyramid, and which have a door (or in later forms a large chamber) projecting on one side. These differ from true pyramids in (1) having an attachment more or less large on one face, (2) being always built on a square plinth, (3) having the principal face generally south, and but rarely to the north, (4) not being oriented, and (5) having the chambers occupying the greater part of the structure. The sizes are about 18 feet wide and 24 high, with a chamber 11 feet wide and 13 high, and in the later has less acute forms 20 feet base and 21 in height (see Mariette, Abydos, Description des Fouilles, ii. 43). At Thebes are also some similar structures belonging to the kings of the Xith Dynasty; the tomb-chamber is, however, in the rock below. The size is not so insignificant, but is under 50 feet square. These, like those at Abydos, are not oriented, and have a horizontal entrance, quite unlike the narrow pipe-like passages sloping down into the regular pyramids (see mariette, in Bib. Arch. Trans, iv. 193). In Ethiopia, at Gebel barkal, are other so-called pyramids of a very late date. They nearly all have porches; their simplicity is lost amid very dubious decorations; and they are not oriented. They are all very acute, and have flat tops as if to support some ornament. The sizes are but small, varying from 23 to 88 feet square at Gebel barkal and 17 to 63 feet square at Meroe. The interior is solid throughout, the windows which appear on the sides being useless architectural members (see Hoskin’s Ethiopia, 148, &c). The structures sometimes called pyramids at Biahmu in the Fayum seem to have no possible claim to such a name, though they are certainly of early work. Judging by the account of Herodotus (which seems intended to apply to them), by the present name (Pharaoh’s thrones), and the actual remains, it appears that they were two great enclosed courts with sloping sides, in the centers of which were two seated statues raised on pedestal high enough to be seen over the walls of the courts. This form would appear like a pyramid with a statue on the top’ and a rather similar case in early construction is shown on the sculptures of the old kingdom. Obelisks then were single monuments (not impairs) and stood in the midst of a great courtyard with sides sloping like a mastaba; such open courtyards on a small scale are found in the mastabas at Gizeh, and are probably copied from the domestic architecture of the time.

On the vexed question of inscriptions on the pyramids it will suffice to say that not one fragment of early inscription is known on the casing of any pyramid, either in site or broken in pieces. Large quantities of travelers’ "graffiti" doubtless existed, and some have been found on the casing of the great pyramid; these probably gave rise to the accounts of inscriptions, which are expressly said to have been in many different languages.

The mechanical means employed by the pyramid-builders have been partly ascertained. The hard stones, granite, diorite, and basalt were in all fine work sawn into shape by bronze saws set with jewels (either corumdum or diamond), hollows were made (as in sarcophagi) by drilling with tools like our modern diamond rock drills (which are but rein vented from ancient sources, see Engineering, xxxvii. 282), and small articles were turned in lathes fitted with mechanical tool-rests and jewel-pointed tools. The details of the questions of transport and management of the large stones remain still to be explained.

Works referred to above.- Colonel Howard Vyse, Operations at the Pyramids, 1840; Professor C. Piazil Smyth, Life and Work at the Great Pyramid, 1867; W.M. Flinders Petrie, Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh, 1883. ( W. M. F. P.)

The above article was written by: William Matthew Flinders Petrie, D.C.L., Litt.D., LL.D., Ph.D.; Edwards Professor of Egyptology, University Coll., London; excavated Naukrates, Am annd Defenneh in Egypt, 1880-1901; author of Stonehenge, Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh, Season in Egypt, Racial Portraits, Historical Scarabs, Ten Years' Digging, Historical Egypt, Tel el Amarna, Syria and Egypt, Royal Tombs of tthe Earliest Dynasties, etc.

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