the age of the pyramid -- 7/13/15

Today's selection -- from The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor by Martin Meredith. The period from roughly 2700 BCE to 2500 BCE was the age of the pyramid in Egypt, and one of these was so massive that it remained the tallest building in the world for the next thirty-eight centuries:

"The pharaonic system established during the First Dynasty eventually encompassed every aspect of life in Egypt. ...

"All this was sanctified by ceremonies, rituals and royal writs proclaiming the reigning pharaoh to be a living god, the earthly incarnation of the supreme celestial deity, Horus. ... The notion of divine kingship became deeply embedded in Egyptian consciousness. As manifestations of the divine, the pharaohs were seen as the guarantors of stability and prosperity, in this life as well as the next.

"Much of the wealth that First Dynasty pharaohs and their entourages enjoyed was directed towards building increasingly elaborate tombs and funerary enclosures, designed to provide them with every comfort for the afterlife. The trend continued during the Second Dynasty when stone as well as mud bricks were used for the first time. The funerary buildings for the last of the Second Dynasty kings, Khasekhemy, were constructed on a monumental scale. The perimeter walls, made of mud-brick, were more than sixteen feet thick and nearly sixty feet high. The tomb consisted of fifty-eight rooms with a central burial chamber made of quarried limestone. Khasekhemy's funerary possessions included huge quantities of copper tools and vessels, pottery vessels filled with grain and fruit, and a fleet of boats to help him navigate into the afterlife. The quest for eternity became an abiding preoccupation. Egypt's pharaohs expected to continue to reign after death, traversing the heavens in the company of gods.

"During the Third Dynasty, further leaps were made in tomb design. At a site on the edge of the desert escarpment at Saqqara, overlooking the capital city of Memphis, an Egyptian nobleman named Imhotep supervised the construction of a pyramid of six steps to house the tomb of Netjerikhet (Djoser), a pharaoh who reigned in the twenty-seventh century BCE. The Step Pyramid at Saqqara was the first monument in the world to be built entirely of stone. Rising to a height of 204 feet, it was the tallest building of its time. And its construction marked the beginning of the Pyramid Age.

Stepp Pyramid at Saqqara

"Compared to all previous structures, the logistical undertaking at Saqqara was immense. Pyramid building required a highly organised supply system involving quarries, mines, shipyards, storehouses, workshops and a labour force of thousands. The pyramid itself consisted of 600,000 tons of limestone blocks. Its main burial chamber was made up of ten blocks of granite, each weighing twelve and a half tons, which had been transported by river barge from quarries at Aswan. But the construction went further. The pyramid was set within a forty-acre complex of buildings enclosed by a mile-long rectangle of perimeter walls built of fine white stone. It is estimated that the quantity of copper chisels needed to cut such a vast assembly of stone blocks would have amounted to seventy tons' worth, delivered to workshops from newly opened copper mines in the eastern desert.

"The peak of pyramid building came a century later during the Fourth Dynasty -- about 4,500 years ago. Shortly after ascending to the throne, King Khufu ordered the construction of a burial place grander than any of the tombs built for his predecessors. The site he chose was the Giza plateau, further downstream from Saqqara. Over a period of twenty years, a labour force numbering tens of thousands -- stonemasons, toolmakers, craftsmen, quarry workers and haulage crews, many of them peasant conscripts -- worked relentlessly to complete the monument before the pharaoh's death. The scale of the endeavour was extraordinary. By the time Khufu's Great Pyramid was complete, it consisted of 2.3 million blocks of stone, each weighing on average more than a ton, reaching a height of 480 feet; the slopes of the outer surface were covered by a layer of polished white casing stone that glittered in the sun. The entire edifice was engineered with remarkable precision. The base, extending over more than thirteen acres, was a near-perfect square closely aligned to the four cardinal points of the compass, with a precise orientation to true north. In later ages, the Great Pyramid was regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It remained the tallest building in the world for the next thirty-eight centuries.

"Khufu's son, Khafra, added his own pyramid complex at Giza. It reached a similar height but included a striking additional feature: alongside the causeway leading to his pyramid, facing eastwards towards the rising sun, stood a huge guardian statue of a recumbent lion with a king's head that later became known as the Great Sphinx. Measuring 200 feet long and rising to a height of 65 feet above the desert floor, it served as a dramatic symbol of royal power.

"Khafra's successor, Menkaura, built a third pyramid at Giza, but it was on a much smaller scale. Egypt's pharaohs could no longer sustain the economic drain of funding such colossal monuments."


Martin Meredith


The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor


PublicAffairs a Member of the Perseus Books Group


Copyright 2014 by Martin Meredith


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment

<< prev - comments page 1 of 1 - next >>