True Pyramids

True Pyramids

After Djoser died and was presumably triumphantly buried in his new pyramid there were two false starts and three not quite right pyramids before we come on to the building of the Great Pyramid.  His successor Sekhenkhet (2611-2603) promptly began building another pyramid on a plot just to the west of Djoser’s.  It was to be even bigger with seven steps instead of six, but otherwise it was very similar.  Rapid progress was made with the underground chambers which were three quarters finished, when suddenly after a reign of only half a dozen years he died leaving the pyramid a mere  7 m, that is over 20 ft high.  With his death the pyramid was abandoned, sand blew over it and eventually the site was completely lost, and it was only in 1950 that the Egyptian archaeologist Zakaria Goneim rediscovered it and partly excavated it.  One of the interesting discoveries was that part of the ramp adjacent to the pyramid up which the building blocks were dragged was still in position when the building was abandoned.

His successor, Khaba (2603-2599) also began to build a pyramid – it did not do to try to take over your predecessor’s unfinished pyramid, you wanted one of your own.  He chose a site 20 miles to the north at Zawget El-Aryan.  However, he too died after only a short reign – four years accordingly to the Baines/Málek calculation: the relics of his pyramid were discovered by Lipsius in 1844.


The Meidum pyramid, surrounded by its ‘skirt’ of collapsed material

Then came Snofru or Sneferu (the vowels are not recorded) who can be claimed to have been the greatest pyramid builder of all for he built no less than three pyramids – indeed in terms of stones moved, he moved more stones than did the builder of the Great Pyramid.  His first building was a failure.  This is little known because it was built at Meidum, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Saqqara, a long way away from all the other pyramids.  But this is the pyramid that collapsed and today can be seen with the central core still in tact, surrounded by a skirt of sand and rubble.  This was to be the first true pyramid, instead of being built as a series of steps it was designed to have a smooth regular outline.  However it was built with the slabs of stone facing inwards as on the Step Pyramid, a design that was intended to provide stability but which did the reverse, and the building was never completed, and the outer cladding collapsed.  When did this happen?

The Bent Pyramid with much of its casing still intact.

Kurt Mendelssohn, an Oxford Professor of Physics turned Egyptologist argued that the collapse occurred when the pyramid was still being built and led to a complete redesign of the next pyramid, the Bent Pyramid.  However excavations have found material of the New Kingdom under the collapsed material suggesting that the collapse came later.  Possibly the answer is that the surrounding skirt is of two periods: the inner skirt is in fact the ramp up which the stones were dragged to form the pyramid and is composed mostly of sand and gravel.  And that the pyramid was abandoned as being unstable before it was completed and the collapse came about years later.

However the problem of pyramid design continues with the next pyramid, which is called the Bent Pyramid. This was built on a new site at Dahshur, 40 kilometers north of Meidum and only 8 kilometers south of Saqqara.  It is called the Bent Pyramid because halfway up it changes angle from 54 degrees to 43 degrees and was clearly redesigned, and Kurt Mendelssohn argues quite logically that this change of design came about when the Meidum pyramid collapsed. However if the collapse at Meidum only took place in the New Kingdom, the reason for the changed angle remains mysterious. One would like to investigate again  the date of the original collapse at Meidum.

I think this is the Red Pyramid. I took this photo in 2000 and I am not quite certain I have identified it correctly.

Having completed the Bent Pyramid,  Snofru then went on to build a third pyramid half a mile away known as the Red, or North  Pyramid.  This is built throughout at the lower angle and thus appears somewhat squat.  It was originally encased with gleaming white Tura limestone, but this was all robbed off in the Middle Ages so only the inner core of local stone remains which is red in colour, which is why it is called the Red Pyramid.

But in building no less than three pyramids, and possibly a fourth smaller one, Snofru certainly moved more stones than did his successor Khufu in building the Great Pyramid.  But the pyramid building machine was now in full swing and when Snofru died the personnel were all ready to begin the construction of the greatest pyramid of all – the Great Pyramid.

On to The Great Pyramid