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Pyramids can be found in many parts of the world in a wide variety of contexts and functions (for example, tombs, temples), from remains in Egypt and Central America to modern reconstructions. When we think of pyramids, however, no better examples exist than those from ancient Egypt, especially the pyramids at Giza. The term pyramid is derived from the Greek pyramis, meaning “wheaten cake.” Although the ancient Egyptians knew pyramids as mer, they also referred to a pyramid capstone or the tip of an obelisk as ben-ben, which alternatively refers to a conical loaf of bread.


The main age of the royal pyramid building occurred mainly from Dynasties 3-13, and as late as the early 18th dynasty (circa 2686-1550 B.C.), after which Egyptian royal tombs became mainly subterranean, rock-cut galleries, while many 18th- to 30th dynasty (circa1550-332 B.C.) elite private tombs adopted pyramidal chapels above subterranean burial chambers. An estimated 100 Old Kingdom to Middle Kingdom pyramids concentrate in an area focusing near present-day Cairo, while northern Sudan contains Egyptian-derived pyramids at Meroe and Napata, built by the Dynasty 25 Kushite and later Meroitic kings and royal families to the south of Egypt.

The Main Pyramid-Building Period

In the Dynasties 4-6 (circa 2575-2150 B.C.), Egypt's pharaohs built pyramids in a 42-kilometer span extending from Giza southward to Abusir, Saqqara, and Dashur. Dynasty 4 saw the advancement of the stepped form to sloped sides while Dynasties 5-6 had smaller pyramids, but larger and more elaborately decorated temples.

Egyptian pyramid complexes had various features in common: a pyramid with a burial chamber, a satellite pyramid for the king's spirit-double (ka), a mortuary temple, an enclosure wall around these components, and a causeway leading to a temple (a focus for embalming and the royal mortuary cult) and harbor in the Nile Valley. Although the mortuary temple's orientation changes from north-south to east-west from Dynasty 3 to Dynasties 4-6, the Old Kingdom's pyramid entrance remains aligned to the north to the circumpolar stars. At the advent of Dynasty 4, King Sneferu (circa 2575-2551 B.C.) built a transitional pyramid at Medium, which was first stepped, but soon became a true pyramid with flat sides. At Dashur, he also built the Bent and Red Pyramids, the former of which has a curious shape due to its angle being changed midway though construction.

The Dynasty 4 necropolis at Giza contains the single surviving ancient Seven Wonders of the World; it represented a new royal cemetery and symbolized the consolidation of state power. The Great Pyramid, built by Khufu (circa 2551-2528 B.C.), rises to 146.50 meters, with sides measuring 230.35 meters each. Its core contains massive stone masonry and chambers filled with sand for stability in earthquakes. The interior contains a series of three, superimposed chambers, beginning with an incomplete chamber (30 meters below ground), connected to a northern entrance emerging in the lower face of Khufu's pyramid. Khufu's sarcophagus remains inside the uppermost “king's chamber,” which is accessed via the “great ascending gallery” lined with red ...
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