1. Education

Egyptian Pyramids

Purpose of the Egyptian Pyramids and the Egyptian View of Death


Giza Pyramids

Giza Pyramids http://egypt.travel-photo.org/cairo/pyramids-in-giza-after-closing-hours.html

Michal Charvat.
O Shawtaby, If 'the deceased' be summoned
To do any work which has to be done in the realm if the dead
To make arable the fields,
To irrigate the land
Or to convey sand from East to West;
"Here I Am", you shall say, "I Shall Do It".

-From Book of the Dead

What do you think happens to your body/soul/mind when you die? Will you become part of the cosmos or the food chain? Will you ascend to Heaven where you'll continue to exist, but on a spiritual plane?

Egyptian Way of Death

If you lived in Ancient Egypt, you probably believed you would use your body in the afterlife(1) -- even if your innards were removed and stored in a canopic jar(2). When you died your soul or ba would fly out of your body and spark your double (ka), which would then travel to the otherworld. However, it would need to return to your body, since without the physical body, the ka would die. Since your body had to be preserved for the re-entry, the Egyptians developed embalming.
“To protect themselves, they had artists fashion model servants and tools which were placed in their tombs.... called shawabty figures or ushabty, which means "answerer." When a courtier in the hereafter needed something, he called on one of these models to do the work.”(3)
If you were a pharaoh, destined to join the other gods -- not only would you need your body, but all the other accoutrements of status, from gold to slaves. Pyramids served to house this paraphernalia of eternity.

Observation of the decay of corpses buried in pits probably led the Egyptians to believe they needed better techniques for preservation of the body for the afterlife.

"In the earliest times they were buried in shallow oval pits dug in the sand with a few goods which they would need in the afterlife: some food, bowls and jewelry. The sun was scorching hot and the sand extremely dry so bodies dried out very quickly. It is possible that sandstorms revealed dead relatives perfectly preserved, this may have been why the people believed that their bodies must be preserved in order to reach the next life."(3)

From Mastaba to Pyramid


The first pyramids are referred to as mastabas, although technically, mastabas precede the actual pyramids. Mastabas were relatively low, rectangular, flat-roofed burial mounds for the pharaohs. They were made of mud brick or stone and looked like benches.

Step Pyramid

In about 2780 B.C. the architect Imhotep stacked six progressively smaller mastabas one on top of the other for King Djoser. This, the first step pyramid, still stands at Saqqara, near Memphis.

Bent Pyramid

During the reign of Snefru, founder of the Fourth Dynasty (2680-2560 B.C.), the sides of a step pyramid were filled in with stone and covered with lime. This was a necessary step in the evolution of the straight-sided pyramid, but there was an intermediary step -- the bent pyramid. Halfway up the pyramid, the angle was a steep, but then for the top half, the incline was more gradual (only about 43 degrees).


During the reign of Khufu, (Cheops) Snefru's son, the straight-sided Pyramid of Giza, angled at about 51 degrees, was built.(4)

Children's Books

  • Egyptian Pyramid, by Elizabeth Longley
    Heavy-duty pages "step-cut." Discusses the Egyptian belief that their ruler was a living god, who, upon death, joins the other gods. Explains ba, canopic jars, and judgment after death. From The Nature Company Watch It Grow series.
  • Pharaohs and Pyramids, by Toni Allen
    An Usborne Time Traveller Book. Chapters include: Giving a Feast, Visit to a Temple, Going to School as well as chapters about death and the pyramids. Examines the role of virtue in determining what happens after death, e.g., liars are devoured.
  • Pyramids, by James Harpur
    1997, Barnes & Noble. Like other books on pyramids, this one is not restricted to Egypt, not even Mesomaerica, but includes the Ziggurats of Sumer and the Tower of Babylon among its chapters. Good timeline.
  • Pyramids, by Anne Millard
    Sections on The pyramid age, Building a pyramid, A royal funeral, New Kingdom Tombs, and Pyramids of the Americas. Good on step pyramids.

(1)From Joanne O'Brien's article on social and political history, and the religion of Ancient Egypt:
[URL = []]
(2)[URL = [ http://www.dia.org/galleries/ancient/egypt/70.619-.622.html]]
(3)[URL = []]
(4)[URL = [ http://www.si.edu/resource/faq/nmnh/pyramid.htm]] The Egyptian Pyramid
Text copyright © March 10, 1998 N.S. Gill

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.