The Egyptian Empire is characterized by a sense of continuity and timelessness that we can see even in the remains of today's Egypt. Herodotus wrote: "Concerning Egypt itself I shall extend my remarks to great length, because there is no country that possesses so many wonders, nor any that has such a number of works that defy description." The wonders he speaks of are most likely the pyramids. These are the best-known of the Egyptian wonders because of the impressive planning, engineering, and labor it took to erect them.
The pyramids mark the zenith of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, and they are symbols of how religion shaped the Ancient Egyptian society. By this time, all of Egypt had been united under the rule of the pharaoh. These rulers were to the people like gods on earth and also the embodiment of the state. The pyramids were more than just royal tombs. They served as vessels through which the state expressed its power, religious ties, and the need for cosmic stability. In fact, the Egyptian word for a "pyramid" literally means 'a place of ascension,' for they were merely dwelling places on the way to eternal life.
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The Egyptian belief was that their other self, the ka, would continue living after they died. The pyramids played an important role in the quest for immortality by serving as a place in which to store all the necessities and the possessions needed for the afterlife. The ka needed sculptures and images for the preservation of its identity.
There have been many theories about the unique shape of these buildings. The architecture of the pyramids was derived from the mastaba. --a square tomb with angled walls. The architect Imhotep constructed the first pyramid--step pyramid of King Djoser at Sakkara (3). The step pyramid is just basically several mastabas on top of each other. From their appearance it is easy to see why these pyramids were said to be staircases to heaven.
There have been only a handful of the pyramids excavated that have not been pillaged by grave robbers. Pharaoh Khafre had the foreknowledge to guard his tomb with the great Sphinx. The Sphinx Temple and Khafre's pyramid together with Khufu's and Menkaure's pyramids are located at Giza, part of Greater Cairo today. Only one of these buildings, though, is considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops). Presumably it took about 20 years to build it, with the help of a complex system of ramps and long levers. The building consists of more than 2 million blocks of stone, each of which weighs several tons. The surface was originally smoothed by an outer casing which has disappeared over the years. It was initially 145.75 m (481 ft) high, but has lost some of its height due to the natural processes of time.
It is no wonder why these pyramids are considered to be some of the most astonishing structures of the ancient world. Likewise the Egyptians, who somehow erected these cosmic gateways, are equally amazing. Even through modern day technology we hardly can begin to imagine how they did it. Perhaps the answer lies deep within the massive stone structures known as the pyramids (6).
1. Kleiner, Fred, Richard G. Tansey, Gardner's Art Through the Ages. (Orlando, FA; Harcourt Brace Co, 1996).
2. Matthews, Roy T, F. DeWitt Platt, Western Humanities.. (Mountain View, CA; Mayfield Publishing Co., 1995).
3. Murray, Margaret, The Splendor that was Egypt . (New York; Hawthorn Books, 1963).
4. Sullivan, Richard E., Dennis Sherman, John B. Harrison. A Short History of Western Civilization. (Palatino; McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1994).
5. Wood, Michael, Legacy - The Search for Ancient Cultures. ( New York, NY; Sterling Publisher Co., 1994).
6. http://pharos.bu.edu/ Egypt/Wonders/pyramid.html
Edited by: Erika L. Witowski
Researched by: SoJeong Kim
Written by: Turid Tangen
September 25, 1996
Text copyright 1996-1999 by David W. Koeller. All rights reserved.