The pyramids are the most distinctive and best-known feature of ancient Egypt. The pyramids are the symbols of ancient Egyptian civilization and reflect the great power of the Egyptian kings, known today as pharaohs. Today there are at least 118 known pyramids, all of which were constructed during the Old Kingdom (2575 BCE to 2150 BCE). The pyramid did not suddenly appear, but evolved. Part of this evolution is seen during the reign of Sneferu, the first pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty.
During Sneferu’s long reign, he had three pyramids constructed: one at Meidum in the desert between the Nile Valley and Fauym, and two at Dahsur, on the plateau south of Saqqara. During Sneferu’s reign there was great innovation and daring experimentation in the construction techniques and the shape of the royal tomb. Egyptian pyramid construction underwent some very important changes during this time: the evolution to the construction of smooth-faced structures.
Sneferu’s first pyramid, constructed at Meidum, looks more like a tower than a pyramid. It started off as a step-pyramid, originally conceived as having seven steps and then expanded to eight. The step design was then transformed into a smooth-sided pyramid by filling in the steps with a limestone casing. However, this proved to be unstable.
The pyramid’s burial chamber was unusual in that it was placed above ground and it had a vaulted ceiling. The construction of the burial chamber involved a false vault, known as a corbelled ceiling, which was made with a system of progressively projecting stone blocks. While this was the first time this construction feature was used, it continued to be incorporated into later pyramids.
The passage to the burial vault is shown above.
Next to the royal pyramid at Meidum was a small secondary pyramid. Almost all of the later pyramids followed this example and included a small satellite pyramid.
Sneferu’s pyramid at Meidum does not appear to have been completed and it was not used.
The Meidum pyramid stands 65 meters (213 feet) high and measures 144 meters (472 feet) at the base.
The Bent Pyramid of Dahshur:
After ruling for about 15 years, Sneferu abandoned the construction of the Meidum tomb and had construction started on a new pyramid at Dahshur. This was conceived as a smooth-faced pyramid from the beginning.
Sneferu’s second pyramid is known today as the Bent Pyramid since it starts at 54 degrees and then changes to 43 degrees which gives it a bent appearance. The corners of the pyramid were built on unstable ground which necessitated structural changes during its construction.
In the initial stages of construction, the traditional method of laying stones that sloped inward was followed. Even with the reduced angle (the step pyramids had a slope of 72 to 78 degrees), there were still problems. About half-way up, it was clear that the inward leaning courses increased stress on the pyramid. At this point, the builders changed to set the courses horizontally without the lean. From this point, the pyramid has a decreased slope which gives it a pronounced bend.
There were two entrances to the pyramid: one located low on the north and the second located fairly high on the west. Both entrances have passages leading to the burial chamber which is below ground level. The burial chamber was huge: it had a 55 foot vaulted ceiling. However, since the pyramid was not stable at the corners, cracks formed. Cedar beams were then used to brace the collapsing walls.
While the funerary complex associated with the Bent Pyramid included a Valley Temple and a causeway, it was never used.
The Bent Pyramid is 101 meters (332 feet) high and measures nearly 187 meters (619 feet) at the base.
The Red Pyramid of Dahshur:
While workers were still building the Bent Pyramid, Sneferu started construction of his third pyramid which is known as the North Pyramid or the Red Pyramid (it is called “red” because of the color of the stone used in its construction.) This is located about a mile away from the Bent Pyramid. Having learned from the Bent Pyramid, this one was built with the 43 degree angle.
The burial chamber is relatively simple and linear. There is a sloping corridor which leads to two almost identical antechambers and to the burial chamber. The burial chamber, like Sneferu’s earlier pyramids, has a corbelled vault.
The Red Pyramid stands 104 meters (341 feet) high and measures 220 meters (722 feet) at the base. This was the world’s tallest structure until the Great Pyramid of Giza was constructed by Sneferu’s son.
Sneferu was buried in the Red Pyramid. Snefru was the pharaoh who showed Egypt how to build pyramids.