Mound to Mountain: The Evolutionary Path to Building the Great Pyramid
Pyramids were built for over a millennium in ancient Egypt. During that time, we can discern a definite trend in their development, experimentation, ambition, and the peak precision in building the Great Pyramid of Khufu, followed by a long period of architectural decline.
So far, we have traced the earliest mounds at Abydos over 7,000 years ago to the burial and funerary mounds of Pharaoh Khasekhemwy circa 2680 BC. These were symbols of resurrection and royal divinity, ripe with magical potential. They were still, however, relatively unimposing. When did the Egyptian mounds first become mountains? The biggest leap forward on the road to building the Great Pyramid occurred under the 3rd Dynasty Pharaoh Djoser and his famous architect: Imhotep.
Bronze statuette of Imhotep; Ptolemaic Period; now in the Louvre, Accession #: E-4216. (Louvre Museum, CC0)
A Fusion of Former Features
Imhotep was not mummified alive as per The Mummy, but was, ironically, worshipped as a god by later Egyptians. He was the first architect to turn small mud brick graves into large stone ones, and at Saqqara, he built the largest stone structure then on earth. It remains the world’s oldest stone building, instantly recognizable today as the Step Pyramid.
The Step Pyramid of Djoser today. (Dennis Jarvis / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Imhotep’s powers of imagination did not stop at upgrading his building material from mud brick to limestone blocks. As suggested by Egyptologist David O’Connor, Imhotep brilliantly fused the concepts of the actual burial tomb mound with the magically-potent funerary mound, and surrounded it by a large stone wall. The Step Pyramid Complex would at long last bring together the features of the burial tomb with the funerary enclosure into one new integrated holy space. However, a problem remained.
Evolution in the ornate facades of mastabas and enclosure walls, which would have originally been brightly painted, as per this reconstruction on the left. The middle picture is of the Shunet El-Zebib, built by Khasekhemwy out of thousands of mudbricks, while the far-left picture shows the evolution to limestone blocks at the Step Pyramid, a generation later. The material was upgraded to increase its longevity, but the crenulated niches and overall architectural style were retained. (Images, Left to Right: Franck Monnier/ CC BY-SA 3.0, isawnyu/ CC BY 2.0, Neithsabes / Public Domain)
Egyptologist Günter Dreyer first identified this problem, suggesting that because the new stone enclosure walls would have blocked Djoser’s mastaba from sight, it needed to be higher to be seen. Ruling a country recently reunited by his father, he needed an innovative new symbol of status and power. A towering tomb visible above the enclosure walls was the perfect solution.
At first, Imhotep only added three layers to the original mastaba, but ambitiously decided to continue building, eventually extending the pyramid north and west and creating six layers that could be seen above the walls. This created the impression of six giant “steps” which would have originally been revetted with polished white limestone blocks. He may have been inspired by the First Dynasty stepped mastaba of Anedjib (S3038) discussed in Part I.
Djoser’s Step Pyramid, from Sir Banister Fletcher, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method (17th ed. (1946). Visible are the original mastaba structures and both pyramid additions, all built using inclined, accretionary layers of limestone bricks. Also visible is the sarcophagus in the burial chamber, made of granite beams. (Sir Banister Fletcher (1866-1953), Public Domain)
Imhotep was responsible for several other innovations in the Step Pyramid that would later appear in the Great Pyramid. For example, he introduced the sloping descending passageway that pointed north, to the “Imperishable Stars” that would one day be home to the eternal Pharaoh.
Deep inside the Pyramid, the recent clearing of the burial chamber has revealed for the first time in centuries the king's sarcophagus. This was made of huge beams of Aswan granite, just like the Great Pyramid’s King’s Chamber. Aswan granite held the magical potential of creation, and Djoser’s sarcophagus was created entirely from them, encasing his body in the protective and renewing powers of the granite. This massive box has recently been reconstructed and can now be visited.
View looking down through the Step Pyramid’s burial shaft towards the granite sarcophagus of king Djoser, recently renovated and opened to the public. The King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid was really just an enlarged sarcophagus like this. (Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities)
However, there were problems with the Step Pyramid. Its underground burial chamber had a flat roof that was already beginning to crack and fail before the Pyramid was complete. Imhotep brought in huge cedar logs to shore up the collapsing masonry, but he quickly realized that a flat ceiling would be nearly impossible to achieve. He never did solve this architectural riddle, which was only finally solved in building the Great Pyramid.
Imhotep and the architects who followed faced another major problem. They had to consider that mastaba tombs were inevitably robbed. How could they design a burial for Pharaoh that would keep his body safe while also defying the cunning tomb robbers? Their ingenious answer was to build bigger and better - the largest and most structurally perfect buildings in history. The idea was to be large enough to overwhelm thieves, and precise enough to avoid collapsing.
Shifting from Stars to the Sun
The famous Pharaoh Sneferu inaugurated the Fourth Dynasty, Egypt’s richest and most powerful, around 2610 BC. He oversaw a shift in pyramid theology away from the northern stars to the eastern sun. Sneferu built his first pyramid at Meidum, and today it looks more like a steep-walled medieval fortress. This bizarre structure lies abandoned in the desert, its exterior sides now missing, its stelae left blank, its burial chamber unused. It does however offer numerous architectural clues.
Sneferu’s first pyramid, at Meidum. The exterior walls have collapsed and now surround the steep-sided hulking inner core. Sneferu was never buried here, but it nonetheless holds many clues to pyramid evolution. By Neithsabes. (Public Domain)
First, it was built at an angle of 51° 50’, the same angle as the Great Pyramid. This angle represented 14/11, a sacred ratio to the Egyptians. Second, it was built using the method of accretionary surfaces, or inclined surfaces designed to lean in on themselves. It has been suggested this style developed by simply adding onto the tilted blocks of the original funerary mounds at Abydos. Third, it contains the first corbelled ceiling, comprised of beams stacked progressively closer until they converged.
Cross-section drawing of the Meidum pyramid, by Flinders Petrie, 1911; from“Pyramid,” Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.), v. 22, 1911, p. 684, fig. 1. (W. M. Flinders Petrie, Public Domain)
Sneferu is known today as the “King of the Pyramids” because he ultimately commissioned three for himself, failing twice before finally succeeding. The first at Meidum collapsed disastrously, but left Sneferu enough time to try again, albeit with numerous modifications. Built at Dashur, north of Meidum, his next pyramid had chambers not under the pyramid, but set up within the structure.
Sneferu’s second pyramid, at Dashur. Called the “Bent Pyramid”, with most of its limestone casing blocks still in place. By Ivrienen. (Ivrienen / CC BY 3.0)
Sneferu’s architect was his eldest son, Neferma’at, who designed an increasingly complex interior for his father, one composed of two separate entrances and many chambers. Here we see the continued use of large portcullis blocking stones, the first use of multiple rooms inside a pyramid, more elaborate roof corbelling, and even a corbelled niche that prefigures the mysterious corbelled niche in the Queen’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid (likely meant for a statue of the king).
Close-up isometric view of the Bent Pyramid, showing the locations of the corbelled notch (like the Queen’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid), portcullis stones, and corbelled ceiling of the main but unused burial chamber (author modified). (R.F. Morgan, CC BY-SA 3.0)
However, during the course of construction, the burial chambers began to collapse. Huge cedar beams were wedged between the stones to support the roof, but it was too late. The structure became fundamentally flawed, and the decision was made to change its aggressive slope of 60° to 54.4°, and to finish the pyramid at the reduced angle of 43.9°. The inclined accretionary form of building was also abandoned, and the structure was completed using horizontally laid courses of masonry. This created a pyramid with two distinct slopes, giving it the name the “Bent Pyramid”.
Interestingly, further design innovations can be seen in the smaller pyramid to the south of the Bent Pyramid. Called the “cult” pyramid, this was a structure one-fifth the size of the main pyramid. Its purpose has never been fully explained, but these cult pyramids can be found associated with Pyramids for centuries afterwards. Inside this smaller pyramid can be found a burial chamber with a corbelled ceiling, as well as an entrance to the north.
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However, it is the pyramid’s ascending passageway that offers the biggest clue to pyramid innovation. The tunnel up to the burial chamber was taller than usual, and filled with granite plugs, key features of the later Great Pyramid. While these plugs remain in the “up/un-used” position, those in the Great Pyramid were slid down to block the entrance (thieves eventually tunnelled around them). These seemingly inconspicuous features of the smaller pyramid therefore foreshadow the amazing ascending passage, Grand Gallery, and granite plugs of the Great Pyramid.
Schematic view of the interior of the smaller cult pyramid beside the Bent Pyramid, showing both descending and ascending passageways and a corbelled burial chamber high in the structure. (MONNIER Franck / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Many Egyptologists believe that as soon as flaws developed in the Bent Pyramid, Neferma’at quickly began work on a third Pyramid, employing what he had previously learned at Meidum and on the Bent Pyramid. This new pyramid, the “Red Pyramid”, would be the first true flat-sided pyramid in history, meant to mirror the sun’s rays, and was called “Sneferu Shines”.
Sneferu’s third and final pyramid, called the “Red Pyramid” because it appears red in the setting sun, was built just north of the Bent Pyramid at Dashur. (Sturm58 / CC BY-SA 3.0)
It would not be built with the former accretionary method but with horizontal layers, its slope angle would be reduced to 43°, and it would have two large, corbelled antechambers before the burial chamber, foreshadowing the corbelled Grand Gallery.
Corbelling in the burial chamber of the Red Pyramid, showing where tomb robbers “dug-out” Sneferu’s burial (which was sunk into the ground). (Jorge Láscar Melbourne / CC BY 2.0)
Sneferu was ultimately buried in the Red Pyramid, and his son Khufu, destined to rule, immediately set his sights on a location for his tomb even closer to Heliopolis, the increasingly powerful religious center of Atum-Ra. He selected Giza, a center of private tombs from the first dynasties. It was here, sometime circa 2590 BC, that Hemiunu, son of and successor to Neferma’at, planned out the most ambitious pyramid yet for his uncle Khufu: larger, more precise, with flat-lying masonry and bigger internal chambers. It would be called the Akhet-Khufu, the “Horizon of Light of Khufu”. Today, we call it the Great Pyramid.
Hemiunu’s Masterpiece – Culmination of Creativity
To build the most precise stone structure ever, Hemiunu realized that he needed to start by creating a perfectly flat area. He knew that one corner of the Bent Pyramid was situated on gravel and was thus already beginning to collapse. Therefore, he had the bedrock carved away until an area of flat space was created (while retaining an original rocky mound in the center and northeastern corner). He then laid down huge pavement stones, creating an extremely flat area.
Statue of Hemiunu, architect behind the building of the Great Pyramid and half-brother to Khufu, the king. The statue is noted for its realism, now at the Roemer- und Pelizaeusmuseum, Hildesheim, Germany. (Einsamer Schütze, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Nearly every feature of the Great Pyramid had been developed by this time: corbelled ceilings and niches, ascending and descending north-pointing passageways, portcullis doors, blocking stones, and the 14/11 slope angle. However, a number of specific features would be new: flat and gabled ceilings, the junction of ascending and descending passageways, and the so-called “air shafts”.
While Imhotep had attempted a flat roof for Djoser’s burial chamber in the Step Pyramid, his roof was too wide and ultimately collapsed after the structure was expanded. This resulted in the development of corbelling to redistribute weight away from a chamber, first seen in the Meidum Pyramid. However, for a project as ambitious as building the Great Pyramid, corbelling would be insufficient.
Hemiunu took his inspiration from the long granite beams of Djoser’s sarcophagus and turned Khufu’s entire burial chamber into a large sarcophagus. He used the same stone, Aswan granite, for the chamber’s roof, but he stacked five more layers of beams on top, separated by void spaces “or “relieving chambers”. These chambers were important not to relieve stress on the chamber, as conventionally believed, but to redirect that stress away from the adjacent Grand Gallery.
Interestingly, these granite roofing beams did begin to crack while the Pyramid was under construction. Archaeologists have found ancient mortar set into the cracks from the original builders, who placed it there to monitor any further cracking. Hemiunu even tunnelled into the first “relieving chamber” to ascertain the extent of the damage and if the upper beams had cracked. Fortunately, they hadn’t, and the construction proceeded.
Cross-section drawing of the King’s Chamber and the chambers above, built of granite beams and a limestone gabled roof high enough not to direct stress onto the Grand Gallery. You can also see the original tunnel made by Hemiunu (red arrow) to inspect the roof beams after he noticed them cracking from below while building the Great Pyramid. (Millennial Dawn, 1891, by C. T. Russell (1852-1916)/ CC0)
Architect Jean-Pierre Houdin, along with Egyptologist Bob Brier and computer technician Richard Breitner, did a study in which they modelled the physics of the King’s Chamber and showed it cracked exactly where predicted, given the weight calculations. Visitors today can still see these cracks in the roof – proof that this building is close to but not entirely “perfect”.
Perhaps the most unique innovation introduced by Hemiunu was the junction of the ascending and descending passageways. Uncertain how to build it, he did what any engineer might do: he built a scale model. Flinders Petrie found this scale model while surveying the Giza Plateau, calling it the “Trial Passages”. Located just east of the Great Pyramid, these small tunnels are an exact replica of the section in the Pyramid where the ascending passage splits off the descending passage. Hemiunu and his workers built this model to fully prepare themselves for the full-size version. Rarely is such evidence of innovation found, a literal “blueprint in stone”.
We can therefore recognize the huge amount of learning that went into building the Great Pyramid and can trace the evolution of nearly every one of its design features in earlier structures. We can also demonstrate how the burial chamber of the king was progressively raised inside the pyramid structure, likely to mirror his spiritual ascent to the stars.
Nils Billing, in his article “Monumentalizing the Beyond”, notes that “the move ‘upwards’ into the pyramid core that followed with this novel shape (flat sides) should be regarded as an internal expression for the wordplay on “pyramid” as found in the later Pyramid texts”. The pyramid hieroglyph is translated as “to ascend”, giving a spiritual significance that likely began centuries earlier with the primitive burial and funerary mounds.
Evolution of an Eternal Edifice
Following the Great Pyramid, the size, scope, and overall quality of royal tombs steadily declined, and they would never again be as grand or precise. This is a big reason why author Graham Hancock has argued the Great Pyramid was not built by Old Kingdom Egyptians – it is too precise. However, Egyptologist Mark Lehner and the late engineer Glen Dash discovered several small errors in its original surveying, noting that “the base is not quite square” - the north and west sides are slightly longer than the south and east sides.
In addition, the majority of the interior blocks were only roughly hewn and assembled, with the cracks between them being filled with rock chips and more importantly gypsum mortar. Made by heating gypsum crystals, found in the nearby desert, with quartz sand and shells, the Egyptians could make a mortar that set as hard as concrete. Only the outer casing blocks, the very outer skin of the Pyramid, were carefully fit together with maximum precision.
Detailed look at the precise casing stones that revetted the Pyramid, plus the flat foundation pavement stones on which the Great Pyramid was constructed. You can see how the majority of the blocks were not cut perfectly. (Jon Bodsworth / CC0)
The traditional model of Khufu’s construction of the pyramid has only been reinforced over the years. Lehner has spent years excavating an entire worker city beside the pyramids, and has delineated areas for barracks, bakeries, butcher-shops, and breweries for thousands of people. Numerous large mastaba tombs of Khufu’s elite have been found extending to the west of his pyramid, including the large tomb of the Great Pyramid’s architect himself, Hemiunu (G4000).
The Western Cemetery, full of mastaba tombs from the 4th Dynasty, just west of the Great Pyramid. Seen looking down from the summit of Khafre’s Pyramid. (Peter Der Manuelian 1982, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Digital Giza – the Giza Project at Harvard University)
Lehner and his team have also used sediment core analysis to identify where Giza’s harbour would have been, originally created by digging canals to the Nile and used when the Nile flooded. This massive ancient building effort has been independently confirmed in recent years through the discovery of the oldest papyrus in the world - the Diary of Merer.
The Diary of Merer, the oldest papyrus in the world, dating back 4,600 years ago. (Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities)
Found at Wadi al Jarf in 2013, on the coast of the Red Sea, this ancient papyrus describes the daily routine of Inspector Merer. He was an official under the vizier Ankhhaf, and he oversaw the transport of fine white limestone casing stones to the Pyramid during Year 27 of the king’s reign.
His ancient words ring out as he describes mooring near the Pyramid, unloading the stone blocks, and then sailing back to repeat the process: “Cast off in the morning from Tura, sail down river towards Akhet-Khufu (Great Pyramid), spend the night there.” The next day it was back to Tura for more blocks: “Cast off in the morning from Akhet-Khufu, sail upriver, spend the night there.”
In a manner of speaking, this papyrus lets us listen to the actual men working on the Great Pyramid; their voices still survive. It was men like Merer and his crew who took the Pyramid from mound to mountain, who helped realize one of the most amazing engineering feats and mythological monuments in history.
For eternal as the stones of the Pyramids are, so too are the voices of those who designed and built them. Perhaps none are as poignant as that of the high priest of Thoth himself, Neferma’at, son of Sneferu and designer of his pyramids. Inscribed in his tomb, his epitaph still echoes from 4,600 years ago: “He is one who made his gods in writing that cannot be erased”.
Top image: The experiences with the Step (Dennis Jarvis / CC BY-SA 2.0), Meidum (Public Domain), Bent (Ivrienen / CC BY 3.0), and Red (Sturm58 / CC BY-SA 3.0) pyramids all helped architects with building the Great Pyramid.
By Jonathon A. Perrin
Jonathon is a petroleum geologist who has helped excavate numerous prehistoric Native sites in Canada. With a degree in geology and archaeology, his passion is writing about ancient mysteries and uncovering the subverted truths of history. He has penned two books (his first, Moses Restored, is on Amazon), and several articles for Atlantis Rising magazine under Editor J. Douglas Kenyon.
Ancient Origins Tours provides special access to the enigmatic Sphinx monument and Great Pyramid during private visits in September 2021. Join us for this unique experience of a lifetime! The trip will include writer and author Andrew Collins, who first visited Egypt three decades ago, and has conducted many years of work in the country, rediscovering Giza’s lost cave world in 2008, today known as Collins’ Cave.
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