Early Third Dynasty kings faced serious internal political problems and could not yet afford to concentrate on tomb-building. They granted large estates, herds, and rich gifts to trusted nobles who promised to keep the provinces quiet. These nobles enjoyed enormous local power and prestige, setting up a dangerous pattern repeated throughout the dynastic era: powerful local nobles becoming too wealthy and independent.
Besides putting down internal squabbles, kings were also busy obtaining reliable supplies of the industrial materials they needed and the luxury goods they craved. Third Dynasty kings began extensive mining in the Sinai Peninsula, especially for copper and turquoise. Keeping the mines open often meant military action against local Bedouin tribes.
Keeping prized gold flowing north from Nubian mines was a problem faced by kings throughout the dynastic era. Third Dynasty king Djoser extended the boundary of Upper Egypt to the first cataract at Aswan to help secure the southern trade routes.
Djoser’s success at managing internal affairs let him turn attention to his tomb. He wanted to do something different, and had just the man to do it: his brilliant vizier (chief official), Imhotep. Imhotep designed the world’s first pyramid, the Step Pyramid, at Saqqara. The Step Pyramid is a stack of successively smaller mastabas (the Arabic word for “bench”; it is a small, oblong tomb with sloping sides and a flat roof) piled atop one another. It measures 467 feet by 393 feet, and is 200 feet tall. It was the first all-stone building in the world.
The Old Kingdom
The Old Kingdom spans Dynasties 4 through 8, a period of 495 years from 2625 B.C.E. to 2130 B.C.E. It was the age of the great pyramids. The rule of the god-king was absolute. He alone was privileged to enjoy eternal life. As chief priest, he controlled the Nile and the inundation, and made sure the sun rose every day. As leader of an increasingly prosperous country, he commanded enormous power and wealth. Old Kingdom kings poured all of Egypt’s resources into ensuring that their afterlives would be as luxurious and glorious as possible.
For a few hundred years at the height of the Old Kingdom, all Egypt’s wealth—stone, gold, and gems, every peasant’s labor, every artisan’s skill, the central government, and the entire religious establishment—were harnessed for a single goal: building royal tombs. Advances in architecture, astronomy, surveying, construction, quarrying, stonework, sculpture, art, and hieroglyphic writing were focused on designing, building, decorating, and maintaining the king’s tomb and vast necropolis—a city of the dead, where tombs were laid out like a well-planned town.
Like Djoser, later kings also wanted pyramids. And now they had the wealth to build on a large scale. They tried several designs. During his 40-year reign, Fourth Dynasty king Sneferu built at least two pyramids of different designs: his Bent pyramid, and the Red Pyramid, both at Dahshur. The Bent pyramid was an attempt to build a true, smooth-sided pyramid. But during construction, it almost collapsed. So the builders had to reduce its almost 54-degree angle of incline to 43 degrees halfway up, resulting in a curiously asymmetrical profile. The Red Pyramid is a smooth-sided (not stepped) structure, making it the first true pyramid. Unlike the Great Pyramid and others in the Giza Plateau, the Red Pyramid at Dahshur rises at a 43-degree angle of incline.
Sneferu’s son, Khufu, was the biggest builder of all. He spent his entire 25-year reign getting ready for his afterlife. It still holds many mysteries. The Great Pyramid of Khufu, second king of the Fourth Dynasty, is the only one of the seven wonders of the ancient world still standing. Khufu took the art and science of pyramid building to heights it had never achieved before, and never would again.
Khufu built his pyramid and necropolis at the edge of the desert on the northwestern corner of the Giza Plateau, southwest of modern Cairo. No one had built there before. When fully developed, the complex stretched over four miles long. It included the Great Pyramid (surrounded by an eight-foot high wall) and a huge mortuary temple for the king’s funeral. A 2,700-foot-long paved causeway led to the Valley Temple by the Nile. At least five pits held boats in which Khufu’s spirit could sail the heavens.
The vast necropolis included hundreds of mastabas for royals, nobles, priests, and officials. Villages housed construction workers and priests to tend to the king’s cult after his death. There were three small pyramids for Khufu’s queens, and a small cult pyramid—a very small pyramid used in religious/magical rituals and ceremonies during the king’s funeral, and afterward as a site of rituals for his mortuary cult. It may have been meant for the king to use in some (unknown) way during his afterlife. It was excavated only recently, and its precise meaning and use within the necropolis is still a hot topic of debate among Egyptologists.
Khuit Khufu—Khufu’s Horizon, as the Egyptians called the Great Pyramid—was the largest, most complex, and best built of all the pyramids. When first built, it rose 481 feet into the desert sky. (The top 31 feet, including the capstone, are long gone.) The pyramid’s base covers about 13 acres. Each of the four sides is 755 feet long at the base. Until 1889, when the 1,045-foot Eiffel Tower was built in Paris, it was the tallest artificial structure on earth. It held this record for more than 4,000 years.
More than 2 million limestone blocks, weighing an average of two and-one-half tons each (some weigh up to 15 tons), were stacked, with amazing accuracy, in 210 ascending rows. The blocks in the lowest row are five feet tall; the blocks at the summit are 21 inches tall. The outer walls are slightly concave (bowed inward) to increase stability. The Pyramid was topped with a gold-covered pyramidion (pyramid-shaped capstone).
No one is sure exactly how the Great Pyramid was built or how long it took. Egyptian priests told Herodotus it had taken 20 years. He calculated that the project would have required more than 100,000 workers. Modern Egyptologists believe it was more like 15,000. The pyramid builders had mostly stone-age tools. But they also had unlimited manpower, religious motivation, excellent organization, strong leadership, and plenty of time.
For measuring, the builders used ropes and sticks, a plumb bob (a weight at the end of a string), leveling staffs, and a set-square to mark angles. For cutting limestone, they used flint knives, copper chisels, long copper saws, and wooden wedges. A stonecutter, recognizing natural seams in the rock, pounded in wooden wedges, soaked the wedges, and waited for the heat of the sun to expand the wood. The wood split the rock at the seams. Harder stone was pounded free with diorite slabs, using pumice or quartz sand as an abrasive.
Most of the blocks were quarried from limestone outcrops near the site. The outer casing was fine white limestone from Tura, east of the Nile. (Most of the casing blocks are long gone, used to build medieval Cairo.) The pink granite for the burial chamber and sarcophagus (the outer stone coffin) was floated on barges from quarries near Elephantine.
At the time the Great Pyramid was built, the Egyptians had donkeys and oxen, but no horses. They did not use pulleys or wheels. The massive blocks were probably raised using earth and mud-brick ramps. The design of the ramps is a subject of much controversy. On flat ground and slight inclines, the blocks were dragged with heavy flax ropes over oiled rollers made of wood or stone.
The Great Pyramid was not built by slaves. Manual laborers, drafted from all over Egypt, worked under a core of architects, engineers, master builders, stonemasons, artisans, and scribes. Draftees were mostly farmers who had nothing to do while their fields were underwater as a result of the inundation. They worked for a season, then returned home.
The Pyramid’s interior is a complex maze of chambers, tunnels, shafts, and corridors. There is much controversy about the purpose and nature of some of these features, and whether there might be still-undiscovered features inside, or beneath, the Great Pyramid.
Khufu’s son, Khafre, built his slightly smaller pyramid complex near his father’s. He added a unique touch: the Great Sphinx. A reclining lion with a human head and Khafre’s face, this guardian of the necropolis, carved from a natural outcrop of limestone, is 60 feet tall and 240 feet long.
King Menkaure’s pyramid, the third at Giza, is only half the height of the Great Pyramid. In fact, the huge pyramids of Sneferu, Khufu, and Khafre were a departure from the normal scale of the vast majority of pyramids. Many scholars think that after Khafre the emphasis turned to temples and their decoration.
As they observed the sun and the other objects in the sky, the astronomer- priests of the popular sun god Re at Heliopolis made many discoveries. They documented the movements of celestial bodies, and learned to calculate the passage of time based on the rising and setting of stars and constellations. They understood the geometry of angles and were skilled at surveying land. They guarded their scientific knowledge closely.
Because its priests possessed so much useful knowledge, the solar cult became wealthy and powerful. The first kings of the Fifth Dynasty finally realized that building lavish tombs for themselves while ignoring the rest of the country was not wise. They quickly saw the advantages of being associated with Re’s powerful cult. Fifth Dynasty king Userkaf built the first temple to the sun god. His successors built many more.
Fifth Dynasty pyramids were not as well built at their Fourth Dynasty predecessors: They were constructed with rubble or mud-brick cores covered with stone casings. When the outer stone was stolen for other buildings (as always happened, sooner or later), the pyramids crumbled. Since the pyramids could not be relied on to stand forever, kings started looking to magic to ensure a comfortable afterlife. The tomb of the last king of the Fifth Dynasty, Unas, contains the first known example of the Pyramid Texts, which are hundreds of magic spells to help the dead king navigate the dangers of the underworld on his way to paradise.