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The Egyptian pyramids: When, how and why

The pyramids. What could be more majestic and mysterious than these pointy tombs in the deserts of Egypt? Not a lot to be honest with you. The only thing more mysterious I can think of is who actually likes those coffee-filled chocolates you always get lumbered with?

Anyway, back on track – let’s take a look at the frankly amazing buildings which inspire such curiosity even today.

How old are the pyramids?

Pyramids at Giza Credit: Keith Yahl (CC BY 2.0)

How long have pyramids been around? It turns out it’s been quite some time. The earliest of the 118-138 (I’m not sure where the confusion comes from) identified Egyptian pyramids is named the Pyramid of Djoser which is near Memphis (not Elvis’s turf).

Pyramid of Djoser Credit: Sharp Photography (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This was built between 2630 BC and 2611 BC during the Third Dynasty (So they could build amazing monuments but did they have travel insurance? pffft). It was built by the architect Imhotep, who gets a pretty bad (w)rap in those Mummy films.

Pyramids of Giza Credit: Jerome Bon (CC BY 2.0)

Even the most famous pyramids, the complex at Giza, which took 85 years to build, were built over 4,500 years ago. This means that Cleopatra, that famous Ptolemaic Pharaoh, was born closer to the moon landings of 1969 AD than she was the building of these great monuments.

How were the pyramids built?

So how were the pyramids built? Slowly and carefully. Prior to the first pyramids, in the Early Dynastic period of Egypt’s very long history, nobles and the rich were buried in squat mounds known as mastabas. Then Imhotep came along and pondered what it would look like it you stacked progressively smaller mastabas on top of each other.

It turns out you get a stepped pyramid, which the soul of the dead Pharaoh could stroll up to nip into heaven (where his soul would be weighed against a feather). For this feat of engineering, Imhotep was actually deified by the Egyptians who followed him. Not a bad turn for someone who basically stacked some cups.

And why do the pyramids look the way they do?

El Castillo at Chichen Itza Credit: Lfyenrcnhan (public domain)

So how did we get from funky step pyramids (much like those in South America) to the pointy magnificence we know and love? Well, it’s a long and winding road with a number of dead ends. They tried buried pyramids and layer pyramids, but neither was suitably impressive for those oh-so-modest pharaohs.

Bent Pyramid Credit: Ivrienen (CC BY 3.0)

But once a chap named Snofru came along in around 2575 BC, some progress was made. He built a step pyramid and later had it encased to smooth it off and look more like a “true” pyramid. However this pyramid managed to implode when some farmers removed some of its casing stones, so it wasn’t a complete success. Snofru wasn’t put off, however. He pressed on and had another pyramid built, but this one didn’t go to plan either. It started to disintegrate during its construction, and they had to reduce its 54 degree angle to 43 degrees. This gave the pyramid a rather bent look but one I’m rather a fan of.

Red Pyramid Credit: Ivrienen (CC BY 3.0)

Not to be deterred, Snorfu proved that the third time’s the charm, and he built the Red Pyramid just to the north of the bent one. This one worked out fine and set the template for many pyramids to follow. Building pyramids must have run in his family, however, as his son Khufu built the most famous pyramid complex of all time at a little spot called Giza.

So there you have it, hopefully we’ve all learnt a thing or two about pyramids today. Now for some reason, I really fancy a Toblerone.

If you fancy seeing the pyramids for yourself (and why wouldn’t you?!) don’t forget your Egypt travel insurance!