Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Eleven

The First Victory over Death

In Egypt, from 2686 to 2566 BC, Third and Fourth Dynasty pharaohs build houses for the dead

BACK DOWN IN EGYPT, the pharaohs of the Third Dynasty began their own version of the epic quest to conquer death.

In relative peace, the early Third Dynasty pharaoh Djoser made his own expeditions to the copper and turquoise mines of the Sinai.27 The Egyptian bureaucracy began to settle into shape; Egypt was divided into provinces, each watched over by a governor who reported to the royal family. Djoser did his own bit of empire-building, pushing Egypt’s southern border as far as to the First Cataract. According to a later tradition, recorded in an inscription at Aswan, he dedicated some of this newly conquered land to the local deity Khnum, in gratitude for the ending of a seven-year famine.1 “Seven” may simply be a traditional expression of “too long” either way, this goes a long way to support the theory that diminished Nile floods had been causing difficulties for the pharaoh’s claim to divine power.

By Djoser’s day, the pharaoh’s role as a buffer against change had solidified into ritual. A relief shows Djoser taking part in a jubilee festival, the heb-sed festival, in which the king took a ceremonial run around a race course. He was expected to win this physical contest, suggesting that in some way his strength was linked to the good of his country. Winning the heb-sed race reaffirmed the pharaoh’s power to protect Egypt and to assure the continuing, regular rise and fall of the waters.

The fact that the Egyptians felt the need for a renewal festival at all suggests a certain fear that the pharaoh’s power might fade if not ritually reinforced. The pharaoh was undoubtedly still credited with a kind of divinity, but the struggles of the first two dynasties had made his human side very obvious. When an idea begins to lose some of its original heart-stopping force, it becomes surrounded with ritual and structure, a supporting affirmation that wasn’t necessary before. In this case, charismatic leadership gave way to a machinery of rule and succession. Natural displays of power became enshrined in festivals; the mortal side of the pharaoh was blotted from view by an exercise of the national will.

When Djoser did finally die, he wasn’t buried in the traditional graveyard at Abydos. He had already built his own tomb all the way back north, at Saqqara. He also abandoned the traditional mud brick of the Second Dynasty tombs. His tomb would be stone, and it would last forever because it was not a departure place for his spirit’s journey to the next world. It was a place where the pharaoh still lived.

Laid out around Djoser’s tomb was an entire city for his spirit. A heb-sed course was built to the south, so that the king could continue to run his rejuvenating race. Around the tomb complex, buildings recreated in stone the materials of traditional Egyptian houses: walls of stone, carved to look like reed matting; stone columns shaped into bundles of reeds; even a wooden fence with a part-open gate, chiselled from stone. The reeds and wood would not disintegrate; they would remain on earth forever. So would the pharaoh’s spirit. In a small chamber called theserdab, a life-sized statue of Djoser sat, facing east, wrapped in a white limestone cloak. The wall of the serdab had two drilled eye-holes, so that the statue could look out at the rising sun. Below the eye-holes was an altar where priests offered food; Djoser could feast spiritually on the aromas.

Far from travelling to the realm of Osiris (with or without sacrificed courtiers), the pharaoh was still very much present: using the buildings, eating the sacrifices, rejuvenating himself, and Egypt, on the heb-sed course. There was no more need to sacrifice attendants for his comfort. The living could tend him, in his city of the dead.

AT THE CENTER of the city of the dead, built overtop of the tomb itself, stood the first Egyptian pyramid: the Step Pyramid. Six levels of stone blocks rose up stepwise to a height of around two hundred feet. Beneath it, shafts reached down into the tombs of the royal family, dug beneath the lowest layer.

Apparently Djoser’s vizier, Imhotep, thought up, designed, and directed the building of this odd structure. Manetho tells us that Imhotep was the first man in history to design a building of hewn stone. We don’t know exactly what inspired Imhotep to come up with this novel sort of tomb, although archaeologists have suggested that the Step Pyramid’s shape is simply an extension of an early Egyptian form. The graves at Abydos were roofed over by stone-walled and square-topped covers, or buildings, called mastabas. The Step Pyramid is, in essence, a huge mastaba with five smaller mastabas stacked on top of it. Perhaps Imhotep designed a huge mastaba tomb for the center of Djoser’s complex, and then started stacking other mastabas on top of it.

But there’s no compelling reason to stack mastabas. More likely, Imhotep borrowed the shape for the Step Pyramid from the Sumerians, who used stair-step temples called ziggurats for their worship. Given the extent of trade routes in the ancient world, Egyptians undoubtedly saw these temples rising against the Sumerian sky.

The function of the Sumerian ziggurats themselves is not entirely clear. They may have been designed by default. At the holiest places in Sumer, like the ancient city of Eridu, the temples that grew shabby were knocked down and ceremonially sealed within a layer of hard-packed earth and clay. A new temple was then built on top. Done enough times, this produced a steplike series of platforms, each layer surrounded by a retaining wall to keep the earth in place. It is possible that, over the course of a few centuries, the stepwise construction became an accepted form in its own right: hallowed by age, and useful because the top of the ziggurat, where Sumerian priests carried out rituals that remain unclear, was close to the sky.28 The tops of the ziggurats may have been pedestals for the gods, places on earth where they could set their feet.29

We’re not exactly sure what Djoser’s spirit was intended to do with the Step Pyramid, but Imhotep’s innovation earned him a whole array of honors. A statue of Imhotep dating from Djoser’s reign lists his titles on its base; he is the Treasurer of the King of Lower Egypt, First after the King of Upper Egypt, the Palace Administrator and High Priest of Heliopolis, servant of the sungod.2 After his death, he was also honored as the greatest priest and wise man of Egypt. Not too long afterwards, he was deified as the god of medicine, another field of endeavor created by men to ward off death.3

The Step Pyramid, the first of the great Egyptian pyramids, shows more than an effort to redefine death as the absence of the body and the presence of the spirit. It shows the beginning of a new kingdom of Egypt, a peaceful and united one with an orderly bureaucracy. Djoser reigned only nineteen years, which was a relatively brief time span for such a huge building project in stone. In those nineteen years, stone had to be quarried with copper tools and brought from a fair distance; according to Herodotus, the stone for the pyramids was quarried from the mountain range east of Egypt and west of the Red Sea.4 The pyramid itself needed to be constructed by an organized workforce of strong men who could be spared from farming and fighting. Pyramid-building required prosperity, peace, and tax money; Imhotep’s title of “vizier” or “chancellor” suggests that the overseeing of tax collection was part of his job. For the first time, Egypt had a formal Internal Revenue.

Only a strong and well-to-do state could order workers to the quarries and afford to feed and clothe them. Egypt had reached a new level of prosperity and organization. For this reason, the beginning of the pyramid age also marks the beginning of a new era in Egyptian history: the “Old Kingdom of Egypt.”

There are nine surviving efforts at pyramid-building in the first two Old Kingdom dynasties, some more successful than others, but all displaying the same mastery of men and resources. After Djoser, the next pharaoh, Sekhemkhet, attempted the same feat. We don’t know much about Sekhemkhet except that he apparently suffered from insecurities; in a classic display of mine-is-bigger, Sekhemkhet’s pyramid was planned to rise seven steps, not six as Djoser’s had. But Sekhemkhet’s pyramid was never completed. He died six years into his reign, and the construction on the Unfinished Pyramid halted at the first layer.

The fourth king of the Third Dynasty, Khaba, also built a pyramid. Khaba’s Layer Pyramid was constructed not at Saqqara, but a few miles farther north, presumably over into the Lower Kingdom, although tensions at this point between the north and south seem to have ebbed. It too was (in all likelihood) to have seven steps, bringing it to a higher place than Djoser’s. Khaba’s reach exceeded his grasp; this pyramid too remained unfinished. The final pyramid of the Third Dynasty, the Meydum Pyramid, was also unfinished; it was built by the Third Dynasty’s last king, Huni, and it would have had eight steps.

Unlike the two that came before, this pyramid was finished off by the first king of the next dynasty. From our perspective, the Fourth Dynasty is distinguishable from the Third mostly because the Fourth Dynasty kings finally got the pyramid thing right.

Snefru started off with a bang. First, he finished off the Meydum Pyramid and put a few innovations into place. For one thing, the Meydum Pyramid’s burial chamber was in the pyramid itself, rather than in the ground below or nearby, as had been the case for the Step, Layer, and Unfinished Pyramids that preceded it. He also gave the Meydum Pyramid a causeway—a broad path leading down from the pyramid to a “mortuary temple,” a sacred building to the east, facing the rising sun, where offerings could be made. Both of these innovations became standard a little later on.

Most interesting of all is the attempt Snefru apparently made to coat the Meydum Pyramid with a casing of some kind. The first four pyramids had all been step pyramids, with the stairlike sides of ziggurats. But the heaps of rubble around the Meydum Pyramid show that workmen tried to cover the steps with a smooth layer of facing stones.5

Had this worked, the Meydum Pyramid would have been the first of the familiar smooth-sided pyramids that we know. However, Snefru’s architect (who was not deified later on) did not have the skills of Imhotep. The pyramid collapsed. The remaining core of the Meydum Pyramid still juts up like a half-eaten wedding cake, surrounded by heaps of collapsed stone.

No one was ever buried in the failed pyramid. Nor did the tiny, windowless temple at the end of the causeway really strike anyone as a spectacular achievement. A few centuries later, some Egyptian wandering past the drab little box scribbled on it “The Beautiful Temple of King Snefru,” the first example of sarcastic graffiti in history.

Snefru didn’t give up. We know little about this first pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty, apart from records of now-standard expeditions to the mines of the Sinai and to the trading ports of Lebanon. (There is also a random story in the Westcar Papyrus of a day when Snefru, bored, ordered the twenty most beautiful girls from his harem to row him around on the palace lake, dressed in nothing but fishnets.) But he was, if nothing else, tenacious. He turned from the failed Meydum experiment and began a new pyramid, this one in a new location: Dahshur, a little bit south of Saqqara.

From the beginning, this pyramid was different. It was designed from the start to be slope-sided, with a smooth facing of limestone which made it glitter in the sun.

Much speculation has been centered around the pyramids, but one of the more fascinating unsolved mysteries is why Snefru, who has not been given enough credit for inventing a new architectural form, thought up the innovation of making the pyramids smooth-sided rather than stepped. Did this have some religious significance? Did it symbolize a new way of thinking about the pyramids—as markers on the landscape, rather than centers of a complex for the spirit?


11.1. Bent Pyramid. The sides of the Bent Pyramid change angle sharply. Photo credit Richard Seaman

We have no idea. But Snefru’s new smooth-sided pyramid became known as the Bent Pyramid for the unfortunate reason that Snefru still hadn’t quite managed to figure out the angles. The pyramid was to have smooth and very steep sides—but partway through the construction, Snefru and his chief of works seemed to realize that their measurements were off. If the pyramid continued up at its current steep angle, the weight of the stones over the relatively narrow base would likely collapse it. So they made a quick alteration in the angle, with the result that the pyramid turned out hunch-shouldered; one of its sides makes a right-hand turn.

This pyramid was completed, but never used. Snefru hadn’t yet managed to build an eternal resting place to his satisfaction. Near the end of his reign, he began work on his third pyramid.

The Northern Pyramid, which stands a little more than a mile north of the Bent Pyramid, was wider, broader, and shorter than the pyramids which came before. The Bent Pyramid had shifted its steep angle from 52 degrees to a more gradual 43 degrees; the Northern Pyramid was designed from its conception with sides that sloped at a 43-degree angle. In this last attempt, Snefru’s design was so well planned that even now, over four thousand years later, no cracks have appeared in the walls or ceilings of the chambers that lie beneath two million tons of stone weight.

The Northern Pyramid (also nicknamed “the Red Pyramid,” since the limestone facing began to flake off and left the red sandstone beneath to glow in the sun) was probably Snefru’s final burial place. Archaeologists found a body in it and shipped it off to the British Museum for identification; it was lost on the way and never found again.

Wherever Snefru’s body ended up, the implication of his triple-building project suggests that Egyptian beliefs about the still-present nature of the dead pharaoh had solidified into ritual. Snefru was determined to make a final resting place for himself that was not only a good place for his spirit to walk after death, but also would stand apart from the walking-places of the pharaohs who had come before him. In some sense, death had now been tamed. The pharaohs had settled into the fairly comforting belief that they would still live among their people. Now, they could give attention to outdoing the pharaoh that had come before.

The fact that Snefru was able to complete one pyramid and build two more suggests that Egypt was now even richer, and more peaceful, and more subject to the authority of the pharaoh, than ever before. Snefru’s son Khufu inherited his power and exercised it to its fullest.30He continued on in the military expeditions that had become, more or less, usual for an Egyptian king; he sent expeditions to the Sinai; he traded for turquoise; and he planned his own pyramid.

According to Herodotus, Khufu reigned for fifty years. Egyptologists reckon on a reign about half this long, but twenty-five years was long enough for him to begin the biggest building project in history. His pyramid, the Great Pyramid, was laid out with a full complex, based on Snefru’s perfected designs: the pyramid itself, a causeway leading down to a valley temple, a temple for offerings to the east, and three smaller pyramids, probably for Khufu’s queens.

The pyramid, built in a new location, on the Giza plain, peaked at 481 feet. Its slope is 51º52´, sharper than Snefru’s successful Northern Pyramid but not quite as steep as the failed Bent Pyramid; Khufu’s chief of works had benefited from the example of his predecessors. The sides of the Great Pyramid are remarkably even; each is right around 755 feet long, and even with the others to within 8 inches. The northern shaft that gives onto the King’s Chamber was designed to point to the Pole Star.

Although we know very little for certain about Khufu’s life, various stories about his reign have trickled their way down to us. One tells us that in order to provide water for the hundreds of thousands of workers who labored on the Great Pyramid, Khufu built the world’s first dam: the Sadd al-Kafara, twenty miles south of Cairo. The lake created by the dam, which was almost eighty feet thick at the bottom, was thus the world’s first public reservoir. Another records that the builder of the Great Pyramid was scornful of the gods and spent years in sneering until he repented and composed a set of Sacred Books.6 And Herodotus writes that, in order to build the Great Pyramid, Khufu “reduced Egypt to a completely awful condition…and also commanded all the Egyptians to work for him.”7 He adds, primly, “He was a very bad man.”


11.1 Pyramids of the Old Kingdom

Herodotus, who has all of the pharaohs in the wrong order, is far from reliable on this subject, and the Sacred Books have never been found; probably they never existed. But the tradition of Khufu’s evil, which echoes down from more than one source, is an interesting one. To build his monument—a stone structure with something like two and a half million blocks of stone in it, each block an average weight of two and a half tons—Khufu mobilized one of the largest work forces in the world. Even if the laborers were not reduced to abject slavery, the king’s ability to recruit such an enormous number of workers keenly illustrated his ability to oppress his people. The pyramids themselves stand as signposts to that power.

The stories of Khufu’s cruelty suggest that his willingness to exercise power, for his own gain, at the expense of his people, did not go over particularly well. His ambition also led to impiety; he was so busy building that he closed down the temples and told the people to stop offering sacrifices. One particularly acid story related by Herodotus tells us that Khufu, running low on funds and needing to raise a little more money, installed his daughter in a room with orders to entertain any men who might want to visit her and pass the cash along to him; she did so, but told every man, as he left her, to pile a stone at the worksite for her. The result was the middle Queen’s Pyramid, which stands near the Great Pyramid and which would have represented some kind of world record of courtesanship.8

By Khufu’s day, the original purpose of that first necropolis built by Imhotep had been well obscured. The Great Pyramid and the monuments that came after are the oldest surviving example of what we call “monumental architecture”—buildings which are much more elaborate in size or design than practicality requires. In the words of archaeologist Bruce Trigger, “The ability to expend energy, especially in the form of other people’s labour, in non-utilitarian ways, is the most basic and universally understood symbol of power.”9 The less necessary and useful the pyramids were, the more they testified to the power of their builders. The house of the spirit had become the glittering testament to power.

Almost all that we know of Khufu is centered around his pyramid. His other accomplishments, whatever they were, are lost to history.

THE GREAT PYRAMID has been at the center of more theories than any other structure (possibly barring Stonehenge) in history. Pyramid theories range from the rational-but-difficult-to-prove to the out and out ridiculous. Among them: the layout of the Pyramids on the Giza plain reproduces on earth the constellation Orion (possibly, but too many stars are missing to make this compelling); the Great Pyramid is at the geographical center of the earth (this only works if you use a Mercator projection, which is unlikely to have been a common practice of the ancient Egyptians); the Egyptians used an energy coil called the “Caduceus Coil” which tapped into the “planetary energy grid” and allowed them to levitate the blocks into place. Charmingly, if anachronistically, “the main control panel for the grid is the Ark of the Covenant.”10 It has also been suggested that the Great Pyramid was built by the residents of Atlantis, who sailed from their mythical continent in mythical boats to build the pyramids, for no particular reason, and abandon them. Other theorists insist that mathematical calculations show that the Great Pyramid is a “scale model of the hemisphere,” and that whoever built it “knew the precise circumference of the planet, and the length of the year to several decimals.”11

The granddaddy of weird pyramid theories was Erich von Däniken, a Swiss hotelkeeper who turned writer in the early 1960s and published a book called Chariots of the Gods. Däniken insisted that the pyramids could not have been built by the Egyptians because they didn’t possess the necessary technological ability; and, further, that the pyramids suddenly appeared without any precedent, which meant that they had most likely been built by aliens.

It is true that the Egyptians were not inclined to abstract mathematical thought. However, sighting the straight lines of a pyramid’s base is not that complicated a task; it requires competent calculation, but not a grasp of higher mathematical concepts. The task of moving the huge blocks is an enormous one, but this, again, was a merely mechanical difficulty. Herodotus says that the blocks were hauled up earthen ramps, a task which is far from impossible; experiments have shown that a hundred men are capable of lifting a two-and-a-half-ton block of stone with a papyrus rope,12 particularly if balls of the hard mineral dolomite are slid beneath the stone to act as rollers.

As for Atlanteans and aliens, the progression of failed pyramids before Khufu shows clearly enough that pyramid-building didn’t spring full-blown from the head of some alien race. The pyramids travelled, in an easily traced line of development, right straight from Djoser’s original city for the spirit to Khufu’s gargantuan resting place. They stand as testaments, not to alien visits, but to the Egyptian reluctance to release power in the face of death. Gilgamesh had gone into the mountain and would not come again. But for the Egyptians, who could always see the house of the king’s spirit looming in the distance, the might of the pharaoh was ever present.


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