Egyptian Pyramids: Definition, Facts & Structure

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  • 0:01 Egyptian Pyramids
  • 0:50 Step Pyramid
  • 1:44 Bent Pyramid
  • 2:31 True Pyramid
  • 3:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Trenton Mabey

Trenton has a master's degree in global history and has developed college Asian history courses.

In this lesson, we will discuss the construction of the Egyptian pyramids. Learn about the evolution of pyramids from underground tombs to the true pyramid form.

Egyptian Pyramids

The Egyptian pyramid is one of the most common symbols representing the ancient Egyptian civilization. The best known pyramids are the three pyramids of Giza, the three primary pyramids on the Giza plateau; however, these are not the only pyramids in Egypt. Egyptian pyramids evolved over time to more grandiose tombs for the pharaohs, demonstrating improvements in ancient architecture and culminating in the pyramid complex at Giza.

The construction of pyramids as royal tombs occurred during the Old Kingdom in Egyptian history, specifically during the 3rd and 4th dynasties, 2686-2494 BC. Beginning with the construction of step pyramids, the evolution of pyramid architecture then progressed to the bent-side pyramid of Dashur, and finally to the true pyramid like those at Giza.

The Step Pyramid

The earliest dated pyramid is the step pyramid built for the King Djoser in the 3rd dynasty in Saqqara. The pyramid of Djoser consists of six steps, a revolution in the construction of royal tombs. But let's give credit where credit is due: King Djoser did not design the pyramid - the royal architect Imhotep is credited with the architectural design of the earliest Egyptian pyramid. The pyramid stretched to a little over 200 feet high. The design is adapted from earlier tomb designs called mastabas. A mastaba is an underground tomb topped with a rectangular, flat roofed structure usually made of mud bricks. Imhotep created a series of mastabas laid on top of each other to create the step pyramid. The tomb of Djoser was located underground like earlier tombs marked only by the mastabas, with the only difference being the step pyramid marking the tomb.

The Bent Pyramid

The bent pyramid of Dashur shows the transition from step pyramids to the later true pyramid. Built under the order of Snofru, the first pharaoh of the 4th dynasty, the bent pyramid is the first Egyptian attempt at creating the true pyramid. Construction of the bent pyramid started with the sides ascending at about a 54-degree angle, but halfway up the angle was changed for the remainder of the construction to the slightly less angular 43 degrees. This change in angle gives the pyramid the bent shape. Similar to the step pyramids, the tomb for the bent pyramid was also constructed underground. Learning from his mistake, Snofru built another pyramid on the same site called the Red Pyramid. Construction of the Red pyramid was a success and is considered the first true pyramid completed.

The True Pyramid

The final evolution in the development of the Egyptian pyramid is exemplified by the pyramids of Giza: the true pyramid structure which was developed during the 4th dynasty. The pyramids of Giza were constructed with quarried limestone blocks with an average weight of 2.5 tons each. The quarried blocks were moved from the quarry, across the Nile River, and up the sides of the pyramids as they soared higher with each year. The pyramids were given a coating of limestone upon completion to give the appearance of smooth sides. It is estimated that a single pyramid took 10,000 workers more than 30 years to build. It is still unknown how the ancient Egyptians constructed these marvels of architecture.

Another significant difference between the true pyramids and the early pyramid structures is the placement of the royal tomb. In a true pyramid, the pharaoh's tomb was moved above ground and into the actual structure of the pyramid. There are three pyramids on the site at Giza for the pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. The largest of these pyramids, also known as the Great Pyramid, was built for the pharaoh Khufu and rises over 400 feet above the desert sands.

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