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Engineering the Pyramids
By Dick Parry
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Dick Parry
All rights reserved.
Origins and Purpose
Throughout the more than three millennia of pharaonic rule, those Egyptians of high status who could afford it concerned themselves to an obsessive degree with their welfare in the afterlife. Leading and wealthy citizens took elaborate precautions to ensure their continued existence after death, which they believed depended upon the preservation of their earthly body. Their tombs, often constructed of stone or excavated deep into solid rock, were much more elaborate than their homes and palaces, which, for the most part, consisted of sun-dried mudbrick.
An early form of tomb was the mastaba, the name deriving from the Egyptian for a bench which it resembled in outward appearance. It consisted of a burial chamber below ground level, which housed the body, surmounted by a squat superstructure of sun-baked mudbrick containing cells intended for storage of wine jars, food-vessels, hunting implements and other necessities for enjoying the afterlife to the full. A significant development in the IV Dynasty saw stone replace brick, the interior of the superstructure often consisting of a low-grade local limestone, with an outer facing of fine quality Tura limestone.
The unification around 3100 BC of the two greatly differing geographic regions of Egypt – the elongated narrow Nile valley of the Upper, or southern, largely arid region and the fan-shaped Lower, or northern, productive marshy region – gave rise to a remarkable civilisation lasting over 3,000 years under pharaonic rule. Although the two regions continued to be administered separately, the wearing by the pharaoh of both the separate white and red crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt symbolised their unification, which remained substantially intact throughout the pharaonic period – in part attributable to the wisdom of Menes, the first pharaoh, in establishing the capital at Memphis, some 24km south of modern Cairo, and near the junction of the two regions.
Menes put in hand major construction works to fortify the city, which helped serve his own glorification and, perhaps even more important, also required a workforce of several thousand people from various parts of the country, which may well have helped cement the concept of unification. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, writing around 450 BC and quoting information given to him by priests in Egypt, Menes had Memphis built on land reclaimed from the Nile by diversion of the river from a point some 100 furlongs (20km) south of the city. A dam or embankment gave protection against flooding from the river and the city was enclosed within a white wall of limestone. These efforts were the forerunners of the great construction works to come, to include pyramids and other tombs, temples and canals.
Of the one hundred or so pyramids built in ancient Egypt only seven completed pyramids were constructed entirely of well fitted stone, and all seven date from the III Dynasty (which was the last of the Early Dynastic period) and the IV Dynasty (which was the first of the Old Kingdom period). Approximate dynastic dates are given below, together with the names of the pharaohs associated with the construction of these major pyramids. Pyramids continued to be built for nearly one thousand years after the end of the IV Dynasty, but since most consisted of mudbrick with limestone casing, very few have survived in recognisable form.
Djoser had in his court the first great polymath in history, whose accomplishments in the fields of astronomy, medicine and construction led to his deification by later generations of Egyptians. His name was Imhotep. Commissioned by Djoser to build his tomb, Imhotep first constructed a mastaba of limestone blocks 63m square and 8m high, each face of which he oriented towards one of the four cardinal compass points. Viewing the completed structure, Djoser may have been less than impressed with its unspectacular appearance; as god-king of a united Egypt he must surely have felt the need for something more imposing to satisfy his ego and to protect his mortal remains. Alternatively, Imhotep himself may have had grandiose ambitions to leave behind something to be remembered by (a sentiment not unknown among architects today), and on completion of the mastaba convinced Djoser – if he needed convincing – that a much larger structure would more fittingly match the great man's stature. Imhotep extended the mastaba, first into a four-stepped pyramid and finally into a six-stepped pyramid. Technologically it was a great advance.
Once established, the pyramid form became the standard for the tombs of succeeding pharaohs. These were built largely from blocks of local limestone where available. A development after the step pyramid was an outer casing of fine Tura limestone, floated across the Nile and dressed to give a smooth exterior and thus a true pyramid. Increasingly elaborate precautions taken to thwart tomb robbers included the incorporation of multiple tomb chambers, chambers below natural ground level and within the structure, blind corridors, false entrances and stone portcullises which dropped down behind the burial parties after they had left the tomb chambers. All to no avail. Over the centuries the tomb robbers still managed to gain entry to the tomb chambers and carry off treasures of great value buried with the pharaohs – a bewildering array of priceless items intended for the pharaoh's use in the afterlife, including gold knives and gold vessels, alabaster pots, silver trinkets, gold-sheeted couches and chairs.
The pyramids were not isolated structures. They stood in the midst of attendant constructions including, in some cases, subsidiary pyramids for the queens and mastaba tombs for nobles and the pharaoh's close family members. Boat pits contained craft to convey the pharaoh to his heavenly abode and a massive limestone wall often surrounded the pyramid complex. An integral feature of each pyramid was the mortuary temple, the exact purpose of which is open to some dispute as the rooms and doorways seem to be too small for the funeral procession. Reflecting as they do some of the features of the royal palaces, they may simply have been intended to provide an eternal familiar residence for the deceased king. A sloping causeway linked the mortuary temple to the valley temple situated at the entry to the whole complex.
Whether in the mortuary temple or elsewhere, the pharaoh's body underwent lengthy ritualistic and purification processes followed by mummification before interment. These served to ensure both the afterlife of the deceased pharaoh and the transfer of his physical and spiritual powers to the new pharaoh.
The seven completed stone pyramids of the 3rd and 4th Dynasties and three uncompleted pyramids are listed below with the corresponding pharaohs and locations.
Stone pyramids of the 5th and 6th Dynasties were much inferior to their predecessors, with limestone casing covering poorly fitted smaller stones and mud mortar or debris in the gaps. Badly degraded, and some never even completed, they are not considered further here.
Apart from Djoser, the pharaoh of the Step Pyramid, the remaining four pharaohs associated with the other six completed pyramids were all in direct father–son relationships. The first of these, Snofru, was the son of Huni, the last king of the III Dynasty, a rather shadowy figure for whom the Meidum Pyramid may have been originally intended. Notwithstanding that the completion of three major stone pyramids (and one minor pyramid) during his 24-year reign must have placed an enormous strain on the resources of the country, later generations throughout pharaonic history revered the memory of Snofru, according him epithets such as 'The Beneficent King'. Clearly a very energetic ruler with a strong hold on the levers of power, he not only provided a son to be his successor, but also two of his other sons served as viziers (in effect, prime ministers) during both his reign and that of his son Khufu. He is recorded as having conducted campaigns against Libya and Nubia, in the latter case taking 7,000 prisoners to be employed on the royal estates and possibly on pyramid construction. In one single year he had forty loads of cedar wood shipped from the Lebanon port of Byblos to Egypt, most of which would have been intended for ship building and for use in pyramid construction.
In contrast to his father, Khufu suffered a tarnished reputation at the hands of later priests, who claimed that he had brought all kinds of misery down on the country, forbidden his subjects to practise their religion and closed the temples. It is possible he was confused with, or seen in the same light as, the much later New Kingdom pharaoh Akhnaten, who recognised only one god, the sun-god Aten, and consequently earned the hatred of the powerful Theban priesthood. Herodotus makes it clear he is simply recording the accounts given to him by the priests, who also told him that Khufu forced his subjects to labour as slaves on his works. There is no evidence to support any of these claims. The sheer magnitude of the Great Pyramid may have influenced the belief that he enslaved the labour force to achieve his ends, but ironically the volume of pyramid building in the reign of his much revered father exceeded that of Khufu by 40 per cent. With tongue clearly in cheek and no doubt to entertain his audience, Herodotus relates a story of how Khufu sent his daughter to a bawdy house and instructed her to charge a specific sum in order to bolster the king's dwindling finances. In addition to this charge, on her own initiative to ensure she would be remembered after her death, she asked each customer to donate a block of stone, managing to acquire sufficient of these to build the middle of the three subsidiary pyramids close to the Great Pyramid.
Khufu should have been succeeded by his eldest son Kawab, the issue of his senior queen Mertiotes, and who even married his own sister Hetpheres II to ensure his succession. But it didn't happen. By somehow disposing of Kawab, Ra'djedef, another son but by an unknown queen, succeeded his father and immediately attended to the ceremonies required to ensure Khufu's eternal life in the afterworld, and probably to buttress his own position. He reigned for only about eight years, to be usurped in turn by Khafre, another son of Khufu by yet another wife. Khafre did not see the need to complete the pyramid intended for Ra'djedef at Abu Roash, 8km to the north of the Great Pyramid, and chose to build his own pyramid immediately adjacent to that of his father, and only slightly smaller. Again, it may have been the sheer size of his pyramid which led later generations to conclude he was no less a tyrant than his father, in contrast to his own son, Menkaure, whose much smaller pyramid – and indeed the last Giza pyramid – may have served to give him a much enhanced reputation. According to the account by Herodotus, Menkaure reopened the temples, abolished slavery and had the greatest reputation for justice of all the monarchs who ruled Egypt. He obviously won the approval of the priests.
While there can be no doubt that the purpose of the pyramids was to protect forever the mortal remains of the deceased pharaoh, no identifiable body remains have been found in any of the major pyramids, added to which three pyramids are attributed to the one pharaoh, Snofru. However, two of these may have been deemed unsatisfactory to receive the remains of the god-king, the Meidum Pyramid having partially collapsed, apparently around the time of its completion, and the Bent Pyramid showing signs of settlement and structural distress during construction, to the extent that the builders hastily finished it off at a flatter slope angle to try and limit further movements. They must have been in two minds about what to do, as the structural movements continued to increase. It would have been more logical to have finished it off as a mastaba-like flat-topped structure at the height they had reached when they realised some change in design had to be instituted (presumably the height where the change in slope occurs), but the compulsion to achieve a pyramid-like shape apparently took precedence over the more logical solution. Clearly anticipating the likely reaction of the pharaoh, or perhaps by order of the pharaoh, the builders immediately put in hand the successful construction of the North Dahshur Pyramid, about 2km away from its southern neighbour, adopting the flatter slope used to finish off the Bent Pyramid. Unusually, human fragments were found in the burial chamber, but these have not been positively identified as remains from a royal mummy.
During the period of about 160 years separating the construction of the Step Pyramid from that of Menkaure's Pyramid at least two, and probably three, stone pyramids were started but never finished, and indeed very little progress was made in their construction. In each case the pharaoh for whom they were intended reigned for only a short time: eight years in the case of Sekhemkhet and Ra'djedef, four years in the case of Khaba and perhaps a similar period for the IV Dynasty Nebka, who may or may not have existed and reigned in the brief period separating Khafre and Menkaure. The seven 'completed' pyramids all belong to pharaohs who reigned for periods ranging from eighteen to twenty-six years. This suggests that the builders ceased construction if the pharaoh died before his pyramid was complete, or at least substantially complete, as the pyramid of Menkaure, who reigned for the shortest period of eighteen years, was finished off by his successor, Shepseskaf, whose own tomb took the form of a huge mastaba in South Saqqara. Although tomb chambers have been found below the unfinished pyramids, there is no evidence of any interments in these and it is highly unlikely that any use was made of them. This raises the question of what happened to the remains of the pharaohs who commissioned them; presumably these received 'lesser' burials because of, or somehow related to, the shortness of their reigns.
The possibility has been raised many times by Egyptologists and others that the pyramids had symbolisms or functions additional to, or even transcending, their obvious role as mass structures protecting the bodies of the pharaohs. Some see them as stairways by which the pharaoh's spiritual self could ascend to its heavenly abode – which raises the question of why the faces were rendered smooth, which would have made the ascent more difficult. Even more unlikely is the suggestion that they symbolise the rays of the sun breaking through cloud. In fact the pyramid form followed inevitably from considerations of structural stability, once the decision had been made to upgrade from the bench-like mastabas to huge towering structures of masonry to protect the bodies of the pharaohs.
Adopting the pyramid form rather than building higher and higher mastabas, with their vertical or near-vertical sides, offered several advantages, doubtless well known to the ancient builders. Despite a partial collapse at Meidum the pyramid shape is fundamentally the most stable practical form which can be achieved with mass masonry construction. Furthermore, for specific base and height dimensions, it uses a minimum of masonry, and the quantity required diminishes rapidly with height, so that only a small amount has to be lifted to the upper parts of the structure. When the pyramid has reached one-third of its height, two-thirds of the masonry has already been placed; and when it reaches mid-height, 87 per cent has been placed. The complete lack of records relating to their construction suggests that the Egyptians simply viewed the pyramids as mass masonry structures to protect the mortal remains of the pharaoh, but with no religious significance in themselves.
Although the masonry masses of the pyramids may not have had any religious purpose their contents certainly did, a factor which may conceivably have had an important bearing on the selection of sites for their construction. A plausible argument has been put forward by Bauval and Gilbert that the dispositions of the three major pyramids on the Giza plateau correspond to the relative positions of the three stars in Orion's belt and, further, that the brightness of the individual stars corresponds to the sizes of the pyramids. The importance of this observation lies in the fact that the Orion constellation is associated with the Egyptian god Osiris. Bauval and Gilbert also point out that so-called ventilation shafts in the Great Pyramid, emanating from the tomb chambers, are aligned to the constellations of Orion and Sirius, the latter being associated with the goddess Isis, the wife of Osiris. These shafts would have facilitated the ascent of the souls of the dead to their permanent celestial abodes.
Excerpted from Engineering the Pyramids by Dick Parry. Copyright © 2013 Dick Parry. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
One Origins and Purpose,
Two Evolution in Pyramid Design,
Three The Tomb Chambers,
Four Basic Aids to Construction,
Five Construction Preliminaries and Operations,
Six Stone Sources and Quarrying,
Seven Herodotus on Pyramid Construction,
Eight Levers, Rockers and Cranes,
Ten Rolling Stones,
Twelve The Workforce,
Appendix: Sliding and Rolling: Some Simple Mechanics,