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The Pyramid Builders

Giza Plateau at Sunrise

During the Old Kingdom, Egyptian civilization really came of age. The power of Egypt expanded considerably through the four dynasties of the Old Kingdom. This was probably due in part to the increasing centralization of government and the creation of an efficient administrative system. The concept of kingship changed too, with greater emphasis being placed on the the divine nature of the office. The king was considered to the incarnation of Horus, and from the fifth dynasty, son of the sun god Re. At the same time, the advances begun in previous centuries, in building, technology, hieroglyphic writing and artistic representation, reached new heights in the Old Kingdom. This can be seen best in the spectacular program of pyramid construction, which reached its height in the 4th Dynasty. Djoser's step pyramid at Saqqara, the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza and the Sphinx are among the most remarkable structures in the world.
Step Pyramid of Djoser The earliest important pharaoh of the 3rd Dynasty (2686-2613 B.C.E.) is Djoser, who had to overcome political infighting. Djoser probably managed to extend his rule as far south as Aswan, at the First Cataract on the Nile, which later became the official southern boundary of Egypt. The name Djoser appears only in later records, and is thought to have been his birth name. The pharaohs had up to 5 names, not all of them are known. Djoser's Horus name was Netjerikhet, which was used on all his monuments. 

Djoser's pyramid and it's surrounding mortuary complex is recognized to have been the first entirely stone building in the world. The architect who created this wonder was Imhotep, Djoser's vizier, who was later deified. The pyramid started off as as simple mastaba, but was subjected to many revisions. One mastaba after another was placed on top of the last, until the structure finally consisted of 6 step pyramid 62 meters high covering an area of 109 x 125 meters. Its substructure, which is were the final resting place of the pharaoh was, consists of a honeycomb of shafts and tunnels, many of which were dug by robbers. A mummified foot was found in one of the passages, and may be the only remains of the king. Other members of the royal family were also buried in the substructure; a small child of about 8 was found in an alabaster coffin. As the structure was enlarged, these other tombs were sealed with no access.
Close to the northern entrance of the tomb is a serdab of finished Tura limestone. The serdab housed a life size statue of Djoser of painted limestone that served as a residence for his Ka, or spirit. The Ka could partake of the food offerings that were left on an alter that was on the outside of the serdab through two small holes that were drilled through the wall.  Djoser

Facing the pyramid on the south side of the enclosure is the South Tomb. Three carved relief panels set within the frames of its false doors show the king performing the heb-sed ritual, a ritual performed by the king every 30 years after his coronation which reaffirms his fitness to rule. On one panel he wears the White Crown of Upper Egypt as he runs the race. This tomb perhaps served as a burial place for Djoser's viscera, which were removed during the embalming process. With his mummy buried in the pyramid, the king thus fulfilled the requirement of having both a northern and a southern tomb, an act that symbolized the Two Lands of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Layout of Djoser's Funerary Complex

Between the South Tomb and the pyramid lies a wide courtyard with a complex of buildings on the east side known as the heb-sed court. This court has been gradually restored over the years. Its structures were false dummy buildings, which made perfectly good sense since it was intended to be used by the spirit. The whole complex was surrounded by a high wall of white limestone in the Palace Facade style. Thirteen false doorways were set into the wall, with one real door actually opening into the complex, into a long colonnaded hall of fluted columns which were used to support a wall behind them. The hall opens into the large court south of the pyramid. This court ones contained 2 Jubilee festival alters, but only the bases survive today.

Djoser's reign lasted about 19 years, and was succeeded by Sekhemkhet in around 2649. According to Manetho, an Egyptian priest during Ptolemaic times, the rest of the kings of the 3rd Dynasty were of no importance. Huni, the last king of the Dynasty, began construction on his pyramid at Meidum, which is 50 miles south of Cairo. It was to be the first true pyramid with a square base. It was constructed as a step pyramid with loose packing stones added before it was encased in white Tura limestone. Now it rises to about 214 feet with only 3 of the original 7 steps remaining at an angle of 72 degrees. The outer casing of limestone either collapsed from lack of bonding between them, or was pillaged over the years as an easy source of building materials. There is much debate over which scenario is true. Anyhow, buy the time of the New Kingdom, it was thought that Snefru built this pyramid, as a New Kingdom tourist left a graffito saying as much. In all likelihood, Snefru probably finished the pyramid for his predecessor and father-in-law.
Pyramid of Huni at Meidum With the end of Huni's reign of 24 years in 2613 B.C.E. came the end of the 3rd Dynasty. He was succeeded by one of his sons, but from a minor wife, probably Meresankh. Snefru married Hetepheres, the daughter of a more senior queen, consolidated his claim to the throne, and founded the 4th Dynasty. He ruled from about 2613 to  2589 B.C.E. 

Again the royal burial site was moved, this time to Dashur to the north. Here Snefru built 2 pyramids for himself, the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid. Scholars have for some time debated which one came first, but it now is generally accepted that the Bent Pyramid was first. It started out at a steep 54 degrees and then halfway up changes to a more gentle 43 degrees. The exact reason for this change is not known. It was once thought that Snefru had died during its construction and to finish the pyramid in time the slope was reduced. However, it is generally thought today that the foundation was unstable and the slope was reduced to lessen the weight of the structure. Indeed, some of the passages inside the pyramid are cracked due to the weight they hold. The Bent Pyramid is further unique among pyramids that besides the northern entrance, which is about 40 feet above ground level, it also has a second western entrance.
The Red Pyramid is the first true pyramid still remaining. Its name comes from the color of the stone in the evening sun. It is thought that Snefru was buried here, although his body has never been found. Snefru must have had command of great amount of resources to be able to build 2 pyramids for himself (some say he had one or two other "test" pyramids as well) and to finish his fathers pyramid as well. He ruled for about 24 years.  Relief of Snefru at Cairo Museum

Snefru was succeeded by his son Khufu, who reigned from about 2589-2566 B.C.E. He too reigned for about 24 years. His greatest achievement was the building of his pyramid, a monument that was to be recognized as the first of the Seven Wonders of the World, and the only one still standing today. He chose not to build at Dashur as his father had, but moved to Giza, north of Saqqara where Djoser had built.
The Great Pyramid of Khufu The Great Pyramid, as it is known, was originally 481 feet, and over 4500 years was the tallest building in the world. All resources were channeled into the building of his pyramid, and it was said that it took 20 years to build at a cost of 1600 talents, or $7.5 million. Just how it was built is not known. Some have speculated that a straight ramp was built that stretched far out into the desert to drag the stones up, others saying that a spiraling ramp was built around the pyramid that grew in height as the pyramid did. Small models of a pulley system have been found, that when built up, allowed for 3 men to easily lift blocks of stone weighing over 2000 pounds. A larger system could have allowed 7 or 8 men to lift stones the size of those used on the Great Pyramid. 

The exterior of the pyramid was cased with white Tura Limestone, which was later scavenged during the Middle Ages to build Cairo. To the east of the pyramid stood a Mortuary Temple measuring 171 x 132 feet, and on the bank of the Nile a Valley Temple was built. Nothing but the basalt floor remains of the Mortuary Temple, and the Valley Temple is now under a modern village. Nobles and courtiers were buried around the pyramid.

In 1925 the tomb of Queen Hetepheres was found on the eastern side of the pyramid at the bottom of a 99 foot shaft. It remained exactly as it had when sealed in antiquity. Its contents included a large alabaster sarcophagus with a canopic chest, various gold, alabaster and copper vessels, and a quantity of furniture, including a large dismantled canopy frame, two armchairs, a bed and a carrying chair, all of which have been reconstructed.  Her sarcophagus was empty, but it had been used as her viscera were still in the canopic chest. It seems that her original tomb near her husband Snefru had been robbed and Khufu had a new tomb dug for her. However none of the priests wanted to be the one to tell the king that the body of his mother had been destroyed, so they resealed her sarcophagus and buried it.

Furniture of Hetepheres Canopic Jars Holding the Viscera of Hetepheres

In 1954 another discovery was made next to the Great Pyramid. On the southern face of the pyramid, a pit was discovered with the remains of an intact wooden ship. Made of cedar, probably from Lebanon, the boat measured 141 feet. It had been dismantled to fit into the pit, and was in 650 parts when discovered. It was reconstructed and is now in a museum around the pit that it was found in. Another pit lies nearby, but undisturbed.

Khufu was succeeded by his son Djefere, who only ruled for a short time. After Djefere, Khafre came to the throne in 2558 B.C.E. He had a prosperous reign of roughly 24 years. He built the second pyramid and the Great Sphinx at Giza. His pyramid complex set the standard for the rest of the Old Kingdom tombs: A pyramid connected to a Mortuary Temple and Valley Temple by way of two causeways.
Pyramid of Khafre Khafre had his pyramid built at the highest point of the Giza plateau, making it appear larger then it really is. In fact, it looks larger than the Great Pyramid. However, it is only 447 1/2 feet, 33 1/2 feet smaller than Khufu's was originally, before it lost the top 30 feet. Now the Great Pyramid is only 3 1/2 feet taller. Khafre's pyramid is the only standing pyramid to still retain its limestone casing stones though. 

His Valley Temple, located on the edge of the cultivation is rather impressive. It is the largest building to survive other than the pyramids themselves. It was built of local limestone, but the walls were then covered with slabs of red granite from Aswan. One of the finest pieces of ancient Egyptian art was found here: A larger than life statue of Khafre with the Horus falcon, made of polished diorite.
Khafre also built the Sphinx, using some unused rock from the Great Pyramid. It represents Re-Herakhte, the sun god as he rises at dawn, though the face was created in the likeness of Khafre. It stands 66 feet high and is 240 feet long. For much of time it was covered with sand, but was recently unburied. Since then, it has deteriorated considerably.  Sphinx
Menkaure's Pyramid The smallest and final pyramid to be built on the Giza Plateau was built by Menkaure. Menkaure, also known as Mycerinus, was the son of Khafre by his wife Khamerernebti. His pyramid was surrounded by modest rock hewn tombs for his courtiers, possibly marking a decline in the royal coffers. His pyramid is the only one to be cased in both granite and limestone. Even though his pyramid is not as impressive as the others on the Giza Plateau, much more art work survives of Menkaure. Many statues of him and his wife have survived.

After the end of the 4th Dynasty, pyramid building declined dramatically. In fact, most pyramids built after this time are either severely deteriorated to the point were they are impenetrable or are disintegrated to the point were they are nothing but a pile of stone chips and rubble. One of the reasons for this is that many were made with mud brick interiors that were then cased in more durable materials. As the mud brick eventually gave way, the casing stones collapsed. The reason for this change in building materials is under debate. Some argue that it was easier to make the interior out of mud brick, some claim that it was quicker, and others argue that it is cheaper. All are valid arguments.

After the start of the 5th Dynasty, the only pyramid that is distinctive is the pyramid of Unas. Unas ruled from approximately 2356 - 2323 and was the last of the 5th Dynasty kings. He had built for him, at Saqqara, a small pyramid with a great causeway leading to his funerary temple. The causeway is decorated with reliefs showing grief stricken, impoverished peoples suffering during a drought. Indeed, the Nile was not rising as it should during this period. This is the first example of showing that not all was well. Pharaohs usually liked to 'rewrite' history to make them look like gods. His pyramid is also the first to be inscribed inside. The only other pyramid before this to be decorated in any fashion was the Step Pyramid of Djoser in the Third Dynasty.

Layout of Unas' Pyramid Complex

This prosperity could not be sustained, and the 6th Dynasty saw the decentralization of power and an increase in the power of local officials. The Old Kingdom ended in political fragmentation and anarchy, around 2180 B.C.E.