The Egyptian funerary architecture developed in monumentality during the Old Kingdom with Djoser, pharaoh of the 3rd dynasty. Thanks to this sovereign, but especially to the ingenuity of his architect Imhotep, we have the transition from the mastaba (Arabic word meaning literally “bench”) to the pyramid, which becomes a royal burial or funerary temple.
The first pyramid
Djoser had the mastaba built inside his funerary complex in Saqqara, on a square plan; in a second time he added a stepped superstructure, raising the monument gradually with other levels, until it reached a height of about 60 meters. For this reason, it was necessary for the construction of the pyramid to choose a place with a solid rocky ground, which was able to support the weight of the structure.
Other pharaohs followed Djoser’s example, having other step pyramids built; then with Snefru, founder of the 4th dynasty, there was a turning point: from a step structure, the pyramid was transformed with smooth faces.
With Snefru’s successor, Pharaoh Cheops, perfection was achieved: the dimensions of the monument, in fact, are the result of complex geometric and astronomical calculations. The Greek historian Herodotus (5th century B.C.) states that it took thirty years to build it, involving a hundred thousand men (reliable figures, according to modern historians) for cutting, transporting and laying the stones.
What the pyramid was hiding
Like the other pyramids, the one built by Cheops was not accessible from the outside, while on the inside it contained some funerary rooms. The cell for the burial of the pharaoh, generally located at the base of the building, here is exceptionally almost at the center, surmounted by 9 granite monoliths. It was entirely covered by slabs of white limestone, on which hieroglyphs were carved. Finally, at the top of the imposing structure the pyramydion stood out, the tip of the pyramid, consisting of a single block of granite covered with electrum – an alloy of gold and silver – which reflected sunlight over long distances.
Egyptian architects designed a sort of labyrinth to try and make the pharaoh’s funeral chamber inaccessible. In spite of these precautions, however, the pyramid was repeatedly violated by grave looters, who, having penetrated the interior, took away everything precious that was kept there. The construction technique was realized through the method of the wrapping ramp, built around the pyramid and made with various layers of bricks, easily removable at the end of the works.
The funerary complexes of the 4th dynasty
The pyramids of Chefren and Menkaure (more commonly known as Mycerinus) in Giza reproduce, on a smaller scale, the features of Cheops’ pyramid, but with a richer aesthetic value, playing on the contrast of color between the granite used at the base of the structure and the layer of limestone above.
Djoser’s successors also added an access ramp and the so-called “valley temple” or “lower temple” (also known as the “welcoming temple”), which became an integral part of the funerary complex; this was a building whose main function was to prepare the deceased ruler for the journey to the afterlife. To make the access easier, an artificial canal was often dug, connecting the Nile to the temple, on whose quayside the funeral procession or sacred boats docked to worship the sovereign.