There are 118 different pyramids in Egypt. Although most people only know the biggest and most striking of them, the three lined-up pyramids of Keops, Khafre, and Menkaura in the Giza plateau, these are just the top of the stony iceberg. No wonder, since they are one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Here we will take a look at the lesser-known Egyptian pyramids, from the prototypical step-pyramid of Djoser to the unfinished pyramid of Baka in Zawyet el-Aryan, and from the abandoned pyramid of Abusir to the bent pyramid that Snefru tried to build in Dahshur. These monuments provide important information about the rulers of Egypt’s Old Kingdom, but also help put the Giza pyramids in perspective.
10. Step-Pyramid of Djoser: The First of the Egyptian Pyramids
King Djoser was probably the founder of Egypt’s Third Dynasty, around 2690 BCE. This was the first time in history that the whole of Egypt was unified under a single kingdom, and Djoser decided that such achievement deserved an enduring symbol. He commissioned his chancellor Imhotep to build a huge stone monument, and the architect designed and executed a step pyramid that still towers 60 meters over the sands of the desert. Djoser was so pleased with the results, that he made Imhotep a god, and he was worshipped in later times as a deity of medicine and healing.
The Egyptian Pyramid of Djoser consists of six levels of limestone terraces, stacked one on top of the other, each one smaller than the one below. It was the central part of a huge funerary complex that was surrounded by a limestone wall, with only one entrance. Inside the Pyramid, a long and tight corridor leads to the tomb shaft, placed in the middle of the construction. Thirty meters down the shaft, the burial chamber housed the sarcophagus of Pharaoh Djoser. The Egyptian king died around 2645 BCE (the Egyptians never recorded the death of their rulers), not knowing that he had started a trend that many pharaohs after him would try to mimic. Some were successful, and some of them were not.
9. The Unfinished Pyramid of Baka
Not every king and figure of the Old Kingdom could complete a Pyramid during their lifetime. Most of the pyramids in the area of Zawyet el-Aryan are unfinished. Of the one known as Baka Pyramid, only the shaft remains. This has been a priceless find for the archaeologists who try to understand how these monuments were built. Unfortunately, this Egyptian pyramid sits within a restricted military area since 1964. Excavations are forbidden, and military shacks have been built over the original necropolis. The current state of the burial shaft is uncertain. This fact makes the unfinished pyramid of Zawyet el-Aryan an almost complete mystery.
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While it is formally known as the Pyramid of Baka, a son of pharaoh Djedefre, it is unclear whether he was the original owner. Since Italian archaeologist Alessandro Barsanti published drawings of his own (not facsimiles), scholars have tried to interpret the signs within the cartouche that contains the name of the owner. Different readings have been proposed, such as Nebka (His Ka [soul] is the lord), Nefer-Ka (His Ka is beautiful), and Baka (His Ka equals his Ba [another soul-like entity]). Perhaps this mystery will not be solved until Egyptologists are allowed to study the monument again.
8. The Bent Pyramid of Sneferu: One of Three Egyptian Pyramids
Pharaoh Sneferu, the founder of the 4th Dynasty in ancient Egypt, did not build just one pyramid, but at least three. He chose the flats of Dahshur for his experiments, the second of which is the construction known today as the Bent Pyramid. It receives this name because it rises from its base at an angle of 54 degrees. As the angle of the slope changes drastically around the middle of the pyramid, it gives it a tilted or bent-like appearance.
Several theories have tried to explain the strange appearance of this Egyptian pyramid. While originally it was proposed that it had been a miscalculation, nowadays scholars tend to think that it was the failing health of the pharaoh that precipitated its completion. In any case, this is the first real smooth-sided Egyptian pyramid built in ancient Egypt, and the quality of its construction is attested to the superb state of preservation.
7. The ruined Pyramid of Djedefre
King Djedefre was a son of pharaoh Khufu, who built his pyramid in Giza. Djedefre chose the plateau of Abu Rawash for his own funerary monument and instructed his architects to make it similar in size to that of Menkaure (also in Giza). The result was Egypt’s northernmost pyramid, known as the ‘lost pyramid’ because today it is but a pile of rubble. The reasons behind the state of this pyramid are still unknown. Theories range from a construction error that resulted in the collapse of the building, to it being left unfinished due to the short span of Djedefre’s reign, to the Egyptian pyramid’s stones being removed by Romans during Emperor Octavian’s conquest of Egypt. However, as demonstrated by Egyptologist Miroslav Verner, what probably happened was a centuries-long process of antiquities looting, stone robbing, and destruction that started no later than the New Kingdom.
6. An Abandoned Egyptian Pyramid in Ancient Egypt
Abusir is located a short distance north of Saqqara, and it is the resting place of several 5th Dynasty rulers. There is also a sun temple and a number of mastaba tombs (a type of construction associated with earlier Egyptian kings). While, on this site, there were originally 14 Egyptian pyramids, belonging to Userkaf (founder of the 5th Dynasty) and four other pharaohs, only four remain standing to this day.
The abandoned pyramid at Abusir belongs to Neferefre who died prematurely. As work on his great pyramid was underway, his successors decided that it should be finished as a Mastaba, which is a much shorter and easier monument. A mortuary temple was hastily built to house the mummified body of the king while constructors finished the botched pyramid. The mummy of Neferefre was then transported to the abandoned pyramid by his younger brother, Nyuserre.
5. Lahun Pyramid
The Pyramid of Senusret II is unique on this list for a number of reasons. To begin with, it was built during the Middle Kingdom, 1,000 years after the Old Kingdom pyramids. The Middle Kingdom of Egypt witnessed a revival of old traditions, including pyramid building, and Senusret II chose the secluded area known as el-Lahun to build his.
Also, while most Egyptian pyramids were made of limestone, Senusret’s was made of mudbrick, a material that had been used in mastabas but never on pyramids. In antiquity, a small, black granite piece called a pyramidion topped the pyramid. Remnants of this piece were found by excavators in the 20th century CE. The pyramid of Senusret II was recently opened to visitors, after an extensive restoration process.
4. Pyramid of Unas
Unas was the last pharaoh of the 5th Dynasty. He was also the first to have the so-called pyramid texts inscribed on the internal walls of his funerary monument. According to Egyptologists, the outside appearance of Unas’ pyramid is crude, following the lowering of construction standards by the late 5th Dynasty. But the inside boasts some of the most impressive hieroglyph writings ever made in an ancient Egyptian building. The Egyptian pyramid texts are the earliest body of literature from Egypt, and were designed to be read by a priest during rituals. Their purpose was for the deceased (they were carved in queen’s tombs as well) to have a successful transit into the Afterlife. The texts provided guidance for the Akh (spirit) of the deceased and ward off the most common threats to the deceased and to the tomb.
3. The Pyramid of Meidum
One of the earliest Egyptian pyramids in history, the Pyramid of Meidum was also the first straight-sided one. Unfortunately, the outer limestone casing has collapsed, leaving the inner structure exposed, and giving it the strange appearance it has today. While this may not be the look its builders had in mind, it is priceless for Egyptologists who want to know exactly how pyramids were built.
The pyramid of Meidum consists of a mostly solid superstructure that conceals a long staircase that leads to a central burial chamber. Apparently, the staircase was never completed, as the walls are raw and there are wooden support beams still in place. It may have originally been devised for pharaoh Huni, of the 3rd Dynasty, but was finished during the 4th Dynasty by Sneferu, the great pyramid builder. It stands within a large mastaba field, a hundred kilometers south of modern-day Cairo. According to experts, the reason for the collapse of the outer layers was the unevenness of the soil, as it was built on sand rather than rock. Later on, pyramid builders learned their lessons and started choosing rocky outcrops and plateaus for their monuments.
2. The Red Pyramid
After a series of unsuccessful attempts, including the pyramid of Meidum discussed above, Sneferu’s first successful pyramid was emplaced in Dahshur, a rocky site on the west bank of the Nile. It is the one known as Northern or Red Pyramid due to the reddish hue on the outer limestone blocks. Its original name was, appropriately, ‘Snefru appears in glory’, and its four sides boast a constant slope of 43° 22’ throughout.
Scientists believe that this pyramid was the final resting place of Sneferu himself, although this has not been confirmed by medical pathologists. The remains of a mummy were found inside the Red Pyramid in the 1950s, but a proper medical examination has still not been conducted. However, archaeological work on Dahshur is currently progressing rapidly and excavations have recently yielded impressive discoveries, including the remains of a possible unknown pyramid.
1. The Egyptian Pyramid of Nyuserre
The Pyramid of Nyuserre was constructed for Nyuserre Ini, of the 5th Dynasty. He was the youngest son of Neferirkare, whose unfinished pyramid he completed. He did in fact complete a series of monuments left unfinished by earlier pharaohs. After that, he began building his own funerary complex in Abusir. There, he had a step-pyramid built and covered in limestone blocks to give it smooth sides. Unfortunately, thieves and the elements contributed to its present ruin. Exploration inside the pyramid has been halted due to the high risk of cave-ins, and the inner chambers may still hold priceless treasures and information on the crucial time in Egyptian history that was the Old Kingdom.