pyramid. The true pyramid exists only in Egypt and Sudan, though the term has also been applied to similar structures in other countries. Egyptian pyramids are square in plan and their triangular sides, which directly face the points of the compass, slope upwards at approximately a 50° angle from the ground and meet at an apex. The pyramids of Sudan, associated with the African kingdoms there, are later and smaller but greater in number.
The prototype for the pyramid are the mastabas of the Old Kingdom (2680–2565 b.c.), which are rectangular in plan and have only two sloping sides. After these came the step-pyramid at Sakkara, built c.2620 b.c., which soon evolved into the straight-sided true pyramid. This monumental structure was developed around the IV dynasty and continued to be the favored form for royal burial through the VI dynasty.
Each monarch built his own pyramid in which his mummified body might be preserved for eternity away from human view and sacrilege. As a result of the lack of sophisticated machinery, the construction of each pyramid took many years and required measureless amounts of building materials and labor. Entrance into a pyramid is through an opening in the northern wall. A small passage, traversing lesser chambers, leads to the sepulchral room deep beneath the surface. Stone blocks forming a gable divert the weight of the great masonry masses over these chambers. Though the pyramids were usually built of rough stone blocks laid up in horizontal courses, many were constructed of mud bricks with a stone casing.
The three pyramids of Giza near Cairo, all of the IV dynasty, are the largest and finest of their kind. The Great Pyramid of Khufu or Cheops (begun c.2680 b.c.) was designated one of the Seven Wonders of the World and is the largest pyramid ever built. A solid mass of limestone blocks covering 13 acres (5.3 hectares), it was originally 756 ft (230 m) along each side of its base and 482 ft (147 m) high. It has several passages, two large chambers in addition to one beneath the ground level, and two small air chambers for ventilation.
Although not true pyramids, pyramidical structures were also built by the Mesopotamians and by the Maya of Mexico and Central America. Mesopotamian ziggurat was square in plan and built up in receding terraces. Mayan pyramids, built in steep, receding blocks, also were topped by ritual chambers, and in some cases, possessed an interior crypt. Stepped funeral pyramids dating from the 4th cent. b.c. were discovered in the 1990s in the Altai region of Siberia. The Romans built small pyramidical tombs of which the most famous was the Pyramid of Cestius (62 b.c.–12 b.c.) in Rome. Built of concrete faced with marble, it has an interior tomb vault and is 116 ft (35 m) high. Many modern architects have admired pyramids for their pure geometry. In the reconstruction of the Louvre in Paris, architect I. M. Pei added a pyramidal entrance pavilion (1987–89).
See I. E. S. Edwards, The Pyramids of Egypt (rev. ed. 1961); P. Tompkins, Secrets of the Great Pyramid (1971); K. Mendelssohn, The Riddle of the Pyramids (1974).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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