A series on Ancient Egyptian Religion (Part 6)
So, I know what you’re asking.
Shouldn’t a post on pyramids be in an “architecture of Ancient Egypt” series instead of a religion series?
Well, yes and no.
I mean, it could be in an architecture series, sure. (In fact, such a series may be coming down the pipeline.)
Can you guess what I’m about to say? If you’ve been paying attention, you might be able to.
Like just about everything else in Ancient Egypt … Say it with me now:
Pyramids had religious significance.
Interestingly, what exactly that significance was is up for debate. In what ways? Let’s find out!
You might remember from my first few posts last fall that pyramids were 1) tombs for the rich and famous and 2) built during the Old and Middle Kingdoms of Ancient Egypt. For reference, the building timeframe is roughly from about 2660 BC to 1760 BC. By the time the New Kingdom was established, the Egyptians had gotten wise to the fact that if you build a giant, unprotected structure over a fantastically rich person’s grave, you basically have only succeeded in hosting a massive free-for-all for grave robbers.
That said, there were a few more scattered attempts at pyramids during the New Kingdom and beyond, but in general, by that time, royal burial rituals had gone underground (literally).
Now, it’s also important to remember that pyramids did not spring from the collective mind of Ancient Egyptian engineers fully formed. Again, if you remember some of my earliest posts, you may remember these pictures:
The first image of the Pyramid of Djoser (also known as the Step Pyramid), dates from the Third Dynasty (around 2660 BC). This is the first known attempt of the Ancient Egyptians to build a pyramid. Obviously, you can see they still had a ways to go.
The second image shows the pyramid known as the Bent Pyramid. This dates to the Fourth Dynasty, around 2600 BC. Engineers started with a 54 degree angle of inclination, and then midway through switched to a 43 degree angle. It’s uncertain whether this was intentional or not. Surely the shallower angle up top helps maintain the structure’s integrity. I’m betting the engineers switched halfway through when they realized their error!
The third image is the coup de grâce of pyramids. This is the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza. It’s also from the Fourth Dynasty, but later than the Bent Pyramid – it was completed around 2560 BC. It’s surrounded by other pyramids (take a look at the featured picture at the top of this post!), and is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It’s also the only one left remotely intact.
Yes, you read that right. It’s not intact. Once upon a time, the Great Pyramid and others in Ancient Egypt were encased in smooth white limestone, often with a gleaming metal cap, called a pyramidion, on top. Over time, it has all been stripped away.
There were many, many other pyramids built during the Old and Middle Kingdoms, and you can see from the dates given above that the Ancient Egyptians mastered the art of pyramid-building relatively quickly. So, the question, then, is: Why? Why did the Ancient Egyptians feel the need to build such structures? Such structures, I might add, as took decades to build.
Like many things in ancient history, there is argument regarding what exactly the Ancient Egyptians intended the pyramid to accomplish from a religious perspective. But, there is no doubt that their construction was fueled by the peoples’ beliefs. So, let’s look at what we do know, as well as some unproven but reasonable theories.
Firstly, pyramids did not stand alone out in the desert. They were surrounded by temples, cemeteries, and often other pyramids. It is clear that many rituals involving many people were performed both in and around a pyramid.
It’s also pretty certain that the Ancient Egyptians viewed the pyramid as a symbol of what they believed was the primordial mound from which the world was created. From this perspective, the pyramid would actually be a symbol of new life. There is also speculation that the pyramid symbolized rays of the sun, shining down on the tomb within. This would explain the (often golden) pyramidion set on top of the pyramid.
Interestingly, pyramids were always built on the western bank of the Nile river. In fact, almost all tombs were located there. This is because the Ancient Egyptian religion associated the setting of the sun in the west with the idea of new life or rebirth. Further, we have three bodies of religious work called the Pyramid Texts, The Coffin Texts, and The Book of the Dead, all used in Ancient Egypt. In short, these were rituals and spells used during funerals. Interestingly, a direct translation of the name for “The Book of the Dead” in Egyptian would be: “Book of Coming Forth by Day.” What seems clear is that the Ancient Egyptians believed a good burial was key to rebirth in the afterlife.
It’s important to note, though, that the Ancient Egyptians did not view the pyramid as the only way to eternal life. Many pharaohs and the wealthy were buried in tombs or other structures, and those same funerary texts have been found associated with those burials.
I wish we had more definitive knowledge of what the Ancient Egyptians believed was the significance of pyramids, but like so many other aspects of Ancient Egyptian history, and ancient history in general, that knowledge has been lost to time. In many ways, the pyramids remain the greatest mystery Ancient Egypt has left behind.
Join me next week, as we go on a slight tangent and talk about the equally mysterious (?) sphinx, often associated with the pyramids.
(Do you have any questions you want me to answer? Topics you want me to cover? Comment below, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @headdeskliz .)