INTRODUCTION TO PYRAMIDS
During Egypt's Old Kingdom (time line), the pharaohs established a stable central government in the
fertile Nile Valley. Perhaps the greatest testaments to their power were the pyramids and other tombs built
to shelter them in the afterlife.
Kings of the Dead
Ancient Egyptians believed that when the pharaoh died, he became Osiris, king of the dead. The
new pharaoh became Horus, god of the heavens and protector of the sun god. This cycle was symbolized by the rising
and setting of the sun.
Some part of a dead pharaoh's spirit, called his ka, was believed to remain with his body. And
it was thought that if the corpse did not have proper care, the former pharaoh would not be able to carry out his
new duties as king of the dead. If this happened, the cycle would be broken and disaster would befall Egypt.
To prevent such a catastrophe, each dead pharaoh was mummified, which preserved his body. Everything
the king would need in his afterlife was provided in his gravevessels made of clay, stone, and gold, furniture, food, even doll-like representations of servants, known as ushabti. His body would continue to receive food offerings long after his
Tombs Fit for Kings
To shelter and safeguard the part of a pharaoh's soul that remained with his corpse,
Egyptians built massive tombsbut not always pyramids.
Before the pyramids, tombs were carved into bedrock and topped by flat-roofed structures
called mastabas. Mounds of dirt, in turn, sometimes topped the structures.
The pyramid shape of later tombs could have come from these mounds. More likely, Egyptian pyramids were modeled on a sacred, pointed stone called the benben. The benben symbolized the rays of the sun; ancient texts claimed that pharaohs reached the heavens via sunbeams.
Who Built the Pyramids?
Contrary to some popular depictions, the pyramid builders were not slaves or foreigners. Excavated
skeletons show that they were Egyptians who lived in villages developed and overseen by the pharaoh's supervisors.
The builders' villages boasted bakers, butchers, brewers, granaries, houses, cemeteries, and probably
even some sorts of health-care facilitiesthere is evidence of laborers surviving crushed or amputated limbs.
Bakeries excavated near the Great Pyramids could have produced thousands of loaves of bread every week.
Some of the builders were permanent employees of the pharaoh. Others were conscripted for a
limited time from local villages. Some may have been women: Although no depictions of women builders have been
found, some female skeletons show wear that suggests they labored with heavy stone for long periods of time.
Graffiti indicates that at least some of these workers took pride in their work, calling their
teams "Friends of Khufu," "Drunkards of Menkaure," and so onnames indicating allegiances to pharaohs.
An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 workers built the Pyramids at Giza over 80 years. Much of the
work probably happened while the River Nile was flooded.
Huge limestone blocks could be floated from quarries right to the base of the Pyramids. The
stones would likely then be polished by hand and pushed up ramps to their intended positions.
It took more than manual labor, though. Architects achieved an accurate pyramid shape by running
ropes from the outer corners up to the planned summit, to make sure the stones were positioned correctly. And
priests-astronomers helped choose the pyramids' sites and orientations, so that they would be on the appropriate
axis in relation to sacred constellations.
From stone pusher to priest, every worker would likely have recognized his or her role in
continuing the life-and-death cycle of the pharaohs, and thereby in perpetuating the glory of Egypt.
NEXT: Egypt's First Pyramid >>