The Egyptian pyramids are surrounded by an aura of mystery so thick, that some people believe they were built by aliens. However, they were built by real people for an actual purpose: to serve as the final resting place for pharaohs and queens.
Generally speaking, the pyramids in Egypt are mostly filled with solid stone and are therefore quite solid. However, they do include some small hollow chambers and passageways.
The pyramids reflect the cult of death and afterlife which was at the center of the Ancient Egyptian Religion, as it was practiced in Egypt from the early days of the Old Kingdom, through to the waning days of the Middle Kingdom.
Why Were the Pyramids Built?
One of the main challenges any ruler’s faces is establishing their authority. Ancient rulers typically tried to do so by claiming some form of divine authority. In the case of the Pharaohs, they claimed to occupy a position between the mortal and the divine.
When a Pharaoh passed away, it was believed they transformed into Osiris, Lord of the Underworld and Judge of the Dead. The magnificence of the pyramids was meant to reflect the glory of what was now in essence, the home of a god.
However, a part of the Pharaoh’s soul remained behind in the pyramid. It was to maintain the comfort of this part of the Pharaoh that his body was mummified. For this reason, treasures, food, and even furniture were left in the tomb as well.
The pyramids are often surrounded by the tombs of their officials and notables. These smaller tombs flat-roofed structures with inward sloping sides known as mastabas. Their placement and size strongly imply their inferiority as mere mortals before the godliness of the Pharaoh.
As spectacular as the pyramids are today, they must have been even more jaw-dropping at the time. When they were constructed, the pyramids had been finished with smooth white limestone coverings which shimmered in the sun.
These were since stripped, alongside most of the mummies and treasures within, by generations of vandals and robbers. The removal of materials has also taken away from the imperious heights the pyramids once reached.
The Pyramids of Giza
When people think of the pyramids, the first thing that comes to mind is the massive ones outside Cairo in Giza. The biggest one amongst them is the Great Pyramid, built for Pharaoh Khufu around 2580-2560 BCE.
This marvel, at 481 feet high, was the tallest man-made structure in the world for almost 4,000 years. The structure is mostly solid, weighing an estimated 80 million tons.
It contains only three known chambers, one for the queen, another for the Pharaoh, and an unfinished third one. The chambers are quite small, the Queen’s one measuring 18.9 by 17.2 ft and around 20 feet high. Meanwhile, the Pharoah rests in a chamber of a similar height measuring 34.4 by 17.17 feet. The rest of the massive structure (756 feet from side to side) is solid.
There are no hieroglyphics inside these chambers as writing did not appear inside the tombs until a much later period.
The chambers are connected and to the entrances through very narrow passages, usually less than 4 feet in height.
The Decline of the Pyramids
After reaching their height, both literally and figuratively, in the Old Kingdom period: pyramids became smaller and less important. Not coincidentally, this reflected the diminishing political power and economic capabilities of the Pharaohs and their kingdoms.
Unable to maintain the same trappings of divinity, not least of which being the massive pyramids of yore, the Pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom period lost some of their quasi-divine status.
Perhaps in an attempt to make up for the lack of splendor, it was in the years of decline that hieroglyphic writing began to appear regularly within the pyramids. These are the earliest known religious texts, referring as they did to the process by which the Pharaoh would ascend to the heavens.
The earliest texts appear around 2400-2300 BCE and become increasingly common later on. These texts were just written and, unlike the Book of the Dead, did not include illustrations.
They often included an overview of the greatest accomplishments of the Pharaoh, and sometimes even discussed their personalities.
The actual utilitarian purpose of the pyramids, as a grave for a human being, was far outshone by the symbolic importance of the structure. Therefore, only the small part of it that had a practical use was hollow.