Pyramids are iconic symbols of the strength and technological prowess of ancient pharaohs, and they continue to dominate the landscape of the Egyptian skyline today.
But when were the pyramids initially constructed? And what was the motivation behind building them in the first place?
Pharaoh Djoser, who ruled Egypt approximately 4,700 years ago, is credited with construction of the first pyramid in the country.
Around 3,500 years ago, the final pyramid to be erected in ancient Egypt specifically for a king was completed for Ahmose I.
This took place more than a millennium later. After then, the Valley of the Kings became the location for the burial of Egyptian kings and queens in underground tombs.
To phrase it another way, the construction of the ancient Egyptian pyramids took place between the years about 2700 and 1500 B.C. Given this information, the age of the first pyramids is roughly comparable to that of Stonehenge, which was initially constructed between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago.
But the pyramids predate other ancient constructions such as the Parthenon (447 B.C. ), the Great Wall of China (220 B.C. ), and the Colosseum (A.D. 80) by a significant amount of time.
On the other hand, the Neolithic temple at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey dates back much further, to between 11,000 and 12,000 years ago.
Related: What is the significance of the three different writing systems on the Rosetta Stone?
The earliest pyramid ever built in Egypt
Before it was enlarged into a step pyramid, the pyramid of Djoser was initially constructed as a sort of rectangular tomb called a mastaba (an Arabic term meaning “bench”).
Today, we know this tomb as Djoser’s pyramid. It is composed of six layers.
According to inscriptions found in antiquity, the construction of the step pyramid was supervised by a man named Imhotep.
Marc Van De Mieroop, a professor of history at Columbia University, told Live Science in an email that Imhotep is generally considered as the first architect in Egypt to build in stone and is attributed with the creation of Djoser’s step pyramid complex.
Imhotep is also credited with creating the Great Pyramid of Giza. “His name, together with that of Djoser, appears in an inscription, and it describes him as the chief of sculptors.
According to Van De Mieroop, he was recognized as a wise man in subsequent periods of ancient Egyptian history.
What motivated the Egyptians to construct the pyramids?
It is still a mystery to researchers just why it was that ancient Egyptian pharaohs opted to be buried in pyramids.
It’s possible that one of the reasons was to provide more protection from people robbing tombs. An Egyptologist by the name of Reg Clark noted in his book “Securing Eternity: Ancient Egyptian Tomb Protection from Prehistory to the Pyramids” (American University in Cairo Press, 2019) that in earlier times, thieves broke into the low-rising mastaba tombs of pharaohs by tunneling in from the top.
These tombs belonged to the pharaohs. Clark stated in his writing that the step pyramid, which had six tiers stacked one on top of the other, would have provided security against this strategy.
“Many Egyptologists have suggested that the step pyramid formed a kind of’stairway’ for the king to ascend to the sky, but I suggest that [it was built] because it is the most efficient and economical way to create a virtual ‘hemisphere’ of protection over the underlying substructure,” Clark told Live Science in an email.
“It is the most efficient and economical way to create a virtual ‘hemisphere’ of protection over the underlying substructure.”
In contrast, the mastabas that were utilized by earlier pharaohs were formed of mudbrick; this was significant since stone is more difficult to enter, as observed by Clark. Another significant innovation was the utilization of stone in the construction of the step pyramid.
There is a possibility that religious considerations had a significant role.
In an email to Live Science, Miroslav Verner, an emeritus professor of Egyptology at Charles University in the Czech Republic, stated that “probably religious reasons were behind” the initiative to build pyramids.
Verner wrote in his book “The Pyramids: The Archaeology and History of Egypt’s Iconic Monuments” (American University in Cairo Press, 2021) that when Djoser came to power, the influence of the sun cult and the sun deity Ra (also written Re) was expanding.
This information may be found in the book. It’s possible that the expanding influence of the sun cult led to a desire to construct buildings that were elevated to greater heights than before.
Verner mentioned that there was a phrase in an ancient document that dated back approximately 4,400 years that said, “may the sky make the sunlight strong for you, may you rise up to the sky as the Eye of Re” (Raymond Faulkner’s translation).
One of the questions that might be asked is whether the construction of the step pyramid led to an increase in interest in the sun religion, or whether the construction of the step pyramid led to an increase in interest in the sun cult.
The question being asked is, “Which came first, the egg or the chicken?” In an email to Live Science, a researcher named Massimiliano Nuzzolo from the Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw shared their findings.
After the erection of the step pyramid, according to Nuzzolo, there was a rise in the number of people interested in the sun cult.
According to Nuzzolo, “this incredible architectural enterprise may have also influenced and perhaps even pushed for a change in the religious ideology, which ultimately reflected on a major emphasis on the solar aspects of the kingship.”
Designed to last a thousand years
Regardless of the motivations behind the construction of pyramids, Egyptian pharaohs were responsible for their construction for more than a century. At Dahshur, the first true pyramids—that is, pyramids with flat sides—were constructed during the reign of the pharaoh Sneferu, who ruled around 2575 to 2551 B.C.
These included the Bent Pyramid, which got its name from its peculiar inclination, and the Red Pyramid, which got its name from the color of its stone. Khufu (ruled circa 2551 to 2528 B.C.) was responsible for the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza, which is the only one of the seven ancient wonders of the world that is still standing today.
During his reign, Khafre (ruling circa 2520 to 2494 B.C.) also constructed another enormous pyramid at Giza, in addition to the Great Sphinx.
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