Why were the Pyramids built?

Step Pyramid
© Photo copyright Larry Orcutt

In about 450 B.C. the ancient historian Herodotus reported that there were underground chambers beneath the Great Pyramid at Giza. "These chambers," he wrote, "King Cheops [Khufu] made as burial chambers for himself ..." (History, 2:124). Diodorus (c.80-20 B.C.) added more detail:

And though the two kings [i.e. Khufu and Khafre] built the pyramids to serve as their tombs, in the event neither of them was buried in them; for the multitudes, because of the hardships which they had endured in the building of them and the many cruel and violent acts of these kings, were filled with anger against those who had caused their sufferings and openly threatened to tear their bodies asunder and cast them in despite out of their tombs. Consequently each ruler when dying enjoined upon his kinsmen to bury his body secretly in an unmarked place. [Library of History, 1:64]

Strabo also wrote that the pyramids served as "tombs of kings" (Geography, 17.1.33). After the Arab conquest, knowledge that royal burials were accompanied by a wealth of gold and jewels motivated treasure-hunters to invade the pyramids using any measure necessary. Apocryphal tales of pyramid riches abound, such as Masoudi's description of early plunderers of the Great Pyramid: "They also discovered, in a large hall, a quantity of golden coins put up in columns, every piece of which was of the weight of 1,000 dinars [c. 9 lbs. or 4 kg.]. They tried to take the money, but were unable to move it." (In Vyse, Operations Carried On at the Pyramids of Gizeh in 1837, Vol. II, p. 329)

Most Egyptologists also believe that the pyramids were meant to serve as tombs for the pharaohs. There are many reasons why they hold this to be true. One is that the pyramid structure represents just one point in the long continuum of the evolution of tomb design. Long before dynastic kings ruled Egypt, tombs were little more than open pit graves. In time, modifications were made. The pit was lined with crude brick and roofed with wood, and the number of chambers increased. The tomb was surmounted by a modest superstructure: a mound of gravel with an outer layer of mud, probably in imitation of the Primal Mound, the epitome of creation and regeneration. By the 2nd Dynasty, brick corbel roofs had been introduced as building technique advanced. Such a roof took the appearance of a dome or vault. At this time, the "mastaba" superstructure (so called because of its bench-like shape) was common. These were rectangular in plan, with flat roofs and walls that slope outward to the ground. By the end of the 2nd Dynasty, royal tombs were subterranean chambers cut deeply into the stone, accessed by stairways, with mastaba structures above them. The 3rd Dynasty saw the true pyramid-shaped superstructure take form, first as a stepped pyramid (successive tiers of mastabas built upon one another and descending in size to the top; see photo above) and then as a true pyramid with smooth sides. The "Pyramid Age" reached its apex at the beginning of the 4th Dynasty with the construction of the pyramids at Dashur and Giza, but by the end of that dynasty, pyramids had become smaller until its last pharaoh, Shepseskaf, reverted to the mastaba shape for his tomb. Though pyramids would again be built in the 5th Dynasty, they would be of inferior quality and materials. Pyramid tombs remained popular through the 13th Dynasty, though none would rival those of the Pyramid Age in size or endurance. By the 18th Dynasty and on, following several pyramid revivals, royal tombs had largely become underground tombs with no superstructure.

The pyramid did not exist as an isolated structure. It represented only one element, though a primary one, of the pyramid complex. Other elements commonly included a satellite pyramid, other small pyramids for queens, a mortuary temple, a valley temple, and a causeway between them, and also offering shrines, funerary boat pits, and mastaba tombs for other family members and nobles. The main complex was surrounded by a temenos wall and was frequently a part of a larger necropolis, or "city of the dead." Thus, its location was another indication that the pyramid was intended as a tomb.

In the 5th Dynasty, beginning with perhaps Unas, the walls of pyramid chambers were decorated with the Pyramid Texts, a collection of utterances that served as spells with certain functions for the dead (such as protection from harm, various rituals performed at the royal funeral, etc.) These text would later become the Coffin Texts and finally the Book of the Dead that was placed with the deceased. The purpose of these utterances, wrote W. Stevenson Smith, were "to aid the king in the transition between his earthly functions and the position which he was to assume amongst the gods after death." (The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt, p. 440 n. 31). Such texts are clear indications of the pyramid's funerary function. Smith added that "the function of the pyramid temple, on the basis of its architecture, wall reliefs, statuary, and relevant inscriptions, is the promotion of the corporeal afterlife of the dead king through the funerary cult, his continued victories over his enemies in the hereafter, the continuance of his kingship, and his deification, all achieved through the building and decoration programme of the pyramid complex." (P. 440, n. 31)

Another reason why Egyptologists believe that pyramids were tombs is because the ancient Egyptian record explicitly states as much. For example, the Papyrus Abbott describes the inspection of "sepulchers of former kings" under Ramesses IX. The pyramid of 17th Dynasty Sobekemsaf II was inspected:

It was found, that the thieves had broken into it by mining work through the base of its pyramid, from the outer chamber of the tomb of the overseer of the granary of King Menkheperre (Thutmose III), L.P.H., Nebamon. The burial-place of the king was found void of its lord, L.P.H., as well as the burial-place of the great king's-wife, Nubkhas, L.P.H., his royal wife; the thieves having laid their hand upon them. The vizier, the nobles, and the inspectors made an examination of it, and the manner in which the thieves had laid their hands upon this king and his royal wife, was ascertained. [Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, IV.517]

Much has been made of the fact that of all the pyramids of Egypt that have ever been explored, never once has the mummy of a pharaoh been found within. Mummy parts have been found in pyramids. Such discoveries include part of a mummified foot in the pyramid of Djoser; a right arm, skull fragments, and various other bones in the pyramid of Unas; an arm and shoulder in the pyramid of Teti; fragments of a mummy in the pyramid of Pepi I; mummy wrappings in the pyramid of Pepy II, and charred bones in the pyramid of Amenemhet III. In the center satellite pyramid of Menkaure, Perring and Vyse found a skeleton of a young woman in the sarcophagus within. They also found, in the main pyramid, part of a wooden coffin believed to be Menkaure's along with some mummy fragments. But never has an extant mummy been found in any pyramid, nor have any parts of a mummy been identified with certainty as those of a king. Critics of the pyramid-as-tomb theory claim that such mummy parts, rather than being detritus left after the robbers hacked away the mummies for jewels and gold, represent parts left from intrusive burials made long after the pyramid was built. Burials of this type are common in areas and tombs around the various pyramids.

The absence of mummies has invited all manner of odd theories about the pyramids' function. It has been claimed that they served as power plants, water pumps, astronomical observatories, sources of ill-defined "pyramid power" energy vortices, guidance beacons for alien spacecraft, and sites of mystery initiation ceremonies. In order to hold such a view, however, it is necessary to ignore the provenance of the pyramid and its place in the context of the overall pyramid complex and necropolis.

"To suppose that the pyramid's only function in ancient Egypt was as a royal tomb," wrote Miroslav Verner, "would be an oversimplification." (The Pyramids, p. 45) Alexander Badawy observed that "The main incentive in the evolution of the tomb was the fear from plunderers." (A History of Egyptian Architecture, p. 37) It is notable that some kings had more than one tomb; indeed, some had more than one pyramid. Amenemhet III, for example, had two pyramids built for himself, one at Dahshur (containing his granite sarcophagus) and one at Hawara (containing his quartzite sarcophagus). There is a type of tomb called a cenotaph (from the Greek kenotaphion, or literally, "empty tomb"), a symbolic false tomb never intended to be a repository for the king's actual material body. The cenotaph served every function as a real tomb, and also provided an additional location for the perpetuity of the king's funerary cult. Taking all these factors into consideration, one might be tempted to conclude that, if the pyramids were not meant to be the literal tombs of the pharaohs, they were meant to be cenotaphs, and the king's mummy was buried elsewhere.

In any case, that the pyramids were tombs is clear, and to deny this observation is to ignore a substantial body of corroborating evidence.

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