From the earliest times the ancient Egyptians believed in life after death. To enjoy this Afterlife, they believed a person needed a tomb, food, objects from everyday life, and a preserved body.
In Predynastic times the Egyptians buried their dead in cemeteries in the desert away from their homes. These graves were just shallow pits in which the bodies were placed on reed mats. Several valued objects of the dead person were placed around the body. We call these objects grave goods.
From these humble beginnings, more complicated burials followed and although the body was wrapped in linen, mummification was still unknown. The bodies were put in coffins and placed in large rectangular tombs. This type of tomb developed into the mastaba tombs, named after the low bench seats placed outside modern Arab houses.
At first only kings were buried in this type of tomb, but later the nobles and other high officials were buried in mastaba tombs around the pyramids of their pharaohs.
The Pyramid Age started during the Third Dynasty where the pyramid can be seen as a further development of the mastaba tomb. At Saqqara, Imhotep, the architect of Djoser’s tomb, built the well-known Step Pyramid, the first monumental stone building. The Step Pyramid began as a mastaba and then changed several times before it developed into a six-step pyramid. A high stone wall surrounded the Step Pyramid tomb complex. The next step was the true pyramid.
The Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza is regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Khufu was the second ruler of the Fourth Dynasty. Khafre and Menkau-Ra built two more pyramids in the same area. Around the three pyramids are the mastaba tombs of the relatives and court officials of the kings. Near Khafre’s pyramid is the well-known Sphinx, a crouching lion with the face of a man, cut from a natural outcrop of limestone.
Originally the pyramid complex included an enclosure wall, mortuary temple, causeway to the river, and a valley temple, where the body was mummified. The pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkau-Ra were undecorated, but Unas, the last king of the Fifth Dynasty, was the first to inscribe his tomb with magic spells known as the Pyramid Texts. Some of the pharaohs of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties continued to build pyramids, but these were small and not well built. At the same time the nobles and officials continued building their own mastabas.
By the close of the Middle Kingdom and after 700 years of pyramid building, it was clear that despite all the efforts of the pyramid architects tomb robbers were still able to get inside the pyramids and rob them. New ways had to be found to ensure that the pharaohs had their eternal peace. The kings of the New Kingdom tried to solve this problem by using the valley west of Luxor for burial purposes.
It is in this Valley of the Kings where Howard Carter discovered the now famous burial chamber of Tut-ankh-amun in 1922. Close friends and relatives were also buried within the Valley of the Kings, whereas the queens and young children were buried in the Valley of the Queens nearby.
How were the pyramids built?
This is a question that has baffled Egyptologists, and the rest of the world, for centuries. Modern day engineers and historians have presented a number of theories in an attempt to explain how the ancient Egyptians constructed such sophisticated monuments without the knowledge of pulley systems or even the wheel. It is important to remember that being a desert country, Egypt also did not have any trees to use in their construction resource.
One of the most popular theories is that they used a system of huge sleds to drag and transport large blocks of stone from quarries to the construction site. Another school of thought is that Egyptians had knowledge of advanced technology that has since been lost to civilisation.
Mastaba of Ptah-Hotep Saqqara (c) Iziko Photo Archives.
Tomb of Merneptah, son of Ramses II, in the Valley of the Kings (c) Iziko Photo Archive.
Pyramids at Khufu, Khafre and Menkau-Ra at Giza.
Step pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, from the 3rd Dynasty.