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Exploring the Ancient Pyramids

From the ancient civilizations of the Near East to the native peoples of Central America, pyramid building has been a common architectural design for thousands of years.

What is so appealing about the shape of a pyramid? Ancient rulers liked these artificial mountains for their great height (allowing them to commune with the gods) and commanding visual presence over flat river valleys. On a practical level, a pyramid concentrates most of its building on the lower half, so fewer stones have to be hauled to the top. The lower stories act as scaffolding for constructing the upper ones. Tomb and temple, straight-sided and stepped, pyramids assume a variety of functions and forms.

Building an afterlife: Egyptian pyramids

The ancient Egyptians built, for their rulers, more than 80 pyramids along the banks of the Nile near modern-day Cairo from 2700 to 1640 B.C. The pyramids were designed according to three forms:

  • Step pyramid
  • Bent pyramid
  • Straight-sided pyramid (the most common type)

Limestone for the pyramids was quarried on the east bank of the Nile, transported on boats, and then dragged from the river to the building site on wooden sleds with runners. No one knows exactly how the pyramids were built, but the heavy blocks were probably dragged up a straight or spiral ramp that grew as the pyramid rose in height. The exterior surfaces were covered with better quality stone and smoothed with copper chisels and stone hammers. The summit of the pyramid was often covered in gold.

The spiritual significance of pyramids

Egyptians believed that after death, pharaohs became gods and their souls traveled to the sky or sun. With their stepped or triangular sides, pyramids acted as staircases for this spiritual journey. The Egyptians also believed that the preservation of the body was essential to the immortality of the soul. They thought that if people needed the protection of buildings while alive, they also needed it after death. The pyramids protected the king's body and the goods that were to be taken to the next world. Some experts claim that the pyramids represented the rays of the sun that linked the reigning pharaoh to Ra, the sun god.

The pyramids were built on the west bank of the Nile by Egyptian laborers — not slaves. They were only too happy to work for the king, who fed and clothed them and promised to care for them in the afterlife. Some of the laborers were also given a funeral plot on the grounds of the pyramid that further guaranteed their afterlife.

Each pyramid was only part of a larger funerary complex arranged in a line that led from the banks of the Nile River. Along the riverfront was a temple (probably used to mummify the king), connected by a covered causeway to another temple (used for sacred rites) at the foot of the pyramid. Rectangular tombs for the king's family and courtiers, called mastabas, were built around the pharaoh's pyramid. The queens — pharaohs had many wives — had smaller pyramids of their own.

The pyramids of Giza

The majestic pyramids of Giza, near Cairo, have been a tourist attraction for thousands of years. When the Greek historian Herodotus visited them in the 6th century B.C., he gave them the names by which they are still known.

The largest pyramid is called the Cheops pyramid or Great Pyramid. It was built around 2550 B.C. for Khufu. The pyramid is surrounded by three small pyramids and rows of small tombs. This awesome structure stands about 480 feet tall with a square base measuring 756 feet on a side. (The Great Pyramid is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing.)

The second pyramid, 9 feet shorter than its neighbor, is named Chephren, which is Greek for Khafre, who was Khufu's son or younger brother. It was finished in about 2520 B.C. Next to it stands the Great Sphinx, an immense sculpture representing the head of Khafre on the body of a crouching lion.

Smaller still, at 218 feet high, is the third pyramid built by Khafre's successor, Mycerinus or Menkaura in 2490 B.C. To the south are three smaller pyramids, including one covered in granite that may have been the tomb of Menkaura's favorite wife, Queen Khamerernebty.

What's so remarkable about these structures is the precision of their construction. The bases from which they rise are absolutely level, and the joints between the stonework are extremely narrow. Originally, the pyramids were covered in smooth limestone, most of which has been pillaged over centuries for other buildings, except for a small area at the top of Cheops.

By 2000 B.C., the Great Pyramids were abandoned by Egyptian rulers after robbers continually looted their tombs. Pharaohs went on to build tombs and temples in the rocky cliffs and hillsides of the Valley of the Kings at Thebes, not far from Luxor. The temples were not places for communal worship but a meeting place between a god and his or her representative on Earth, the pharaoh. These buildings were not pyramidal in shape, but instead were tiered into the hillside with sloping walls. Inside, the temples were divided into halls, courtyards, and sanctuaries. In some of the halls, rows of heavy stone supports, carved and painted with plant-inspired decorations, created the effect of a forest. Two of the most famous temples are the Great Temple of Amun at Karnak (begun in 1530 B.C.) and the Temple of Luxor (begun in about 1400 B.C.).

Pyramids in the Americas

Hundreds of years after the Egyptians mummified their last pharaoh, the Incas of Peru, the Mayas of Central America, and the Aztecs of Mexico built their own pyramids. Construction of these immense sacred structures began in the region around 200 B.C. and continued for another 1,000 years. In the Americas, pyramids were mostly used as temples and were built of stone and adobe with steps and terraces rising to a flat top. Priests climbed the stairs to altars on platforms where they conducted sacred rites and sacrificed humans to the gods. A few pyramids were built over tombs.

Monumental in scale, pyramids were a prominent part of early Mesoamerican cities. Dominating the ancient city of Teotihuacan near Mexico City is the Pyramid of the Sun (A.D. 50). This pyramid, rising from a 712-foot square base to a height of 187 feet, was the largest of several temples built in this city, which flourished from 200 B.C. to A.D. 750 as a major religious center.

The Mayas of Central America built some of the most magnificent pyramids between A.D. 250 and 900. Although many of these stone monuments were constructed during medieval times, they followed ancient forms and traditions. Here are some striking examples:

  • The Temple of the Magician in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula was part of a large Mayan city called Uxmal that flourished around A.D. 600-900. The pyramidal temple is one of several stone structures built in the architectural style known as Puuc ("low hill" in Mayan). Lower stories are rather plain, while upper sections are richly decorated with ornate carvings and mosaics. Mayas would often build a new temple over an existing one, and in this structure, five stages of construction have been found.
  • The Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque was dedicated to Mayan ruler Hanab Pakal, who has been called the "Mesoamerican Charlemagne." The 75-foot-high pyramidal temple was part of a city built from the sixth to the ninth centuries in the Mexican Chiapas highlands. The ruins of Palenque also include terraces, plazas, burial grounds, and a ball court — all with expressive stone carvings. In 1952, the tomb of Pakal was found in a crypt at the bottom of a staircase inside the pyramid.
  • El Castillo (Spanish for "the castle"), a 98-foot-high pyramid, was built by the Itzas, a Mayan-speaking people, at Chichén Itzá (meaning "the mouth of the well of the Itzas") in Yucatan, Mexico, in the 12th century. Stairways rise on all four sides of the pyramid to a temple dedicated to the plumed serpent god, Kukulcán, at the top. Serpent motifs decorate the staircase and other parts of the structure.
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