Dynasty 4, The age of building. The Great Pyramids

Sneferu who founded the Fourth Dynasty, is best known to us today for his prodigious building program. The so-called “Collapsed Pyramid” or “Ruined Pyramid” at Meidum is thought by many Egyptologists to be his first building project. Originally, the Meidum pyramid was a step pyramid, but it appears that Sneferu later ordered the steps to be “filled”, an attempt at building a true pyramid.

The Great Pyramid

The Great Pyramid

A somewhat disputed theory is that the pyramid actually collapsed catastrophically and the mound of rubble around the base is what remains, but no bodies, scaffolding, tools, or the like have ever been found in the mound. The more widely accepted theory is that the pyramid was “quarried” for stone in later times; indeed, the Arabic writers of the 1100s CE report that the pyramid had five steps, while today it has only three.

Sneferu also built two pyramids at Dahshur, not far from Meidum, and these were planned as true pyramids from the start. The first is known as the “Bent Pyramid” owing to the way its slope angle changes partway up from 55 to about 43. This change is believed to be due to subsidence that was noticed while the pyramid was still being built; the accurate cutting and laying of the blocks was not yet what would be seen at Giza. The second, and the first successful true pyramid, is the North Dahshur Pyramid or “Red Pyramid”, so called for the red color of its sandstone blocks in the sun, and built entirely at the “safer” reduced slope.

Sneferu’s son Khufu is even more famous; the Great Pyramid at Giza was built for him. The largest pyramid ever built, it contains millions (estimates vary from two to four million) blocks of sandstone,7 most of them weighing more than two tons apiece. Several smaller “satellite” pyramids were built in its shadow, most likely for Khufu’s wives. Two large boats were also buried in pits adjacent to the pyramid, and were discovered in the 20th Century. The boats are believed to have been used to transport the royal mummy and funeral goods up the Nile at the time of the burial.

While there is much controversy regarding the purpose and technique of pyramid construction, no more satisfactory hypotheses have been proposed than the traditional ones: that the pyramids were built as monuments and tombs for the pharaohs, and were accomplished using systems of ramps, levers, and rollers which were simple in principle but sophisticated in planning and execution.

Khufu’s successors added to the monumental complex on the Giza plateau. Khafre built the second-largest pyramid, an associated funerary temple, and (according to most Egyptologists) the Great Sphinx. Khafre’s pyramid is the central of the three great ones at Giza, and appears in most photographs to be larger than Khufu’s because it stands on bedrock some ten meters higher than Khufu’s, while the pyramid itself is less than three meters shorter. Khafre is perhaps even better known, however, as the builder of the Great Sphinx. The Sphinx’s head is carved to a scale of 30:1—unprecedented in Egyptian art, and not to be repeated until the New Kingdom.

Menkaure added the third pyramid at Giza, and a number of larger than life size statues of Menkaure, his wife, and various goddesses, of surpassing quality, were found at the pyramid. The remaining pharaohs of the Old Kingdom continued building pyramids in Lower and Middle Egypt, and presiding over the solar religion which characterized the period. However, for unknown reasons, Menkaure’s immediate successor Shepseskaf returned to Saqqara for his tomb and built a gigantic mastaba, known today as the Mastaba el-Fara‘un, instead of a pyramid.

The last king of the Fourth Dynasty was Khentkawes, probably the widow of Shepseskaf, the first woman believed to have ruled Egypt alone. Khentkawes’s tomb at Giza is carved into an outcropping of bedrock that remained when the rock around it was quarried for the construction of the pyramids. The presence of a “town” of maintenance settlements and tombs in its vicinity suggests that the queen was indeed regarded as a ruler in her own right and that the Egyptians did not see anything particularly amiss about the arrangement. The queen’s titles are listed in the tomb as “The King of Upper and Lower Egypt, and Mother of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt”. This suggests that the founder of Fifth Dynasty, Userkaf, was actually her son, a fact lost in the ancient lists of rulers.

The Old Kingdom (2707-2170 BC)

With the end of the Second Dynasty, Egypt history into what is called the Old Kingdom - a period encompassing the Third through Eighth Dynasties. The greatest achievements of the Old Kingdom are still visible nearly 5,000 years later: the pyramids. However, the existence of these monumental structures is dwarfed by the sheer scope of the economy, government, and popular will needed to create them.

The first pharaoh of the Old Kingdom, king Nebka, begins the Third Dynasty. However, his predecessor, Djoser, the builder of the first pyramid, overshadowed his reign. Djoser, the son or son-in-law of Khasekhemui, worked with his trusted assistant and architect, Imhotep, to create a monument worthy of the pharaoh in the after life. They built upon the idea of the mastabas used by previous pharaohs in Saqqara. Their novel idea was to take the mastaba, which looked like a raised building with a flat top, and build a smaller mastaba on top of the first, and so on, until they created a series of mastabas that reached to the heavens themselves. Thus was born the first, or the step pyramid.

After Djoser, the remaining pharaohs in the Third Dynasty, Djoserti, Khaba, Mesokhris, and Huni, attempted but failed to build their own step pyramids. Most of their tombs have yet to be found.

Snefru's first two pyramids were step pyramids like Djoser's. His final pyramid began as a step pyramid, but later was finished off in true pyramid form. This was the first of its kind. Although not without problems. As the pyramid neared completion, the ground underneath it gave way, and it collapsed upon itself. This resulted in the now-famous outline known as the Bent Pyramid. This failure, however, taught later pyramid builders to use a less steep gradient. Advancements in construction design and pyramid location also contributed to more stable edifices. At the time of their construction and for almost 2,500 years afterwards, the pyramids sported a sheath of polished white marble. Reflections of the rising and setting sun could be seen for dozens of miles in all directions. When Arabs conquered Egypt in the 7th Century AD, they stripped the marble from what they saw as the work of godless pagans and used it to build their palaces in Cairo.

Snefru’s son, Cheops, used these advances to create the amazing Great Pyramid. However, outside of the Great Pyramid, there is little record of Cheops as pharaoh. There are some claims that he was cruel and abusive, but there is little evidence to support this. What is known about Cheops is that, during his 30-year reign, he mobilized the entire state to create a wonder so magnificent that, not only does it stand to this day, parts of its construction are still mysteries. Also, recent studies have begun to point to Cheops as the creator of the mysterious Sphinx, another of Egypt's wonders. These studies point to the lack of a beard on the Sphinx (the royal beard was a concept that came later in Egypt’s culture) and the style of the architecture as proof that it was created during Cheops’ rule. His successor and son, Djedefre, attempted to build his own temple but failed due to an untimely death.

The next pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty was Djedefre’s younger brother, Chephren. Chephren was in his mid-20’s when he assumed the throne and began work on his pyramid in the hopes of making it as monumental as his father’s. Chephren’s pyramid falls nearly 10 feet short of the Great Pyramid. Chephren’s reign also marks the decline of the great pyramid-building era.

Although later pyramids were built, none rival those created by Cheops and Chephren. The Fourth Dynasty ended quietly under the reign of the pharaohs Bikheris (who followed Chephren), Mycerinus, and Shepseskaf, who returned to the creation of a mastaba for his tomb.

The Fifth Dynasty, ruled over by the pharaohs Userkaf, Sahure, Neferirkare, Shepseskare, Neferefre, Niuserre, Menkauhor, Djedkare, and Unas is relatively unremarkable. Of note is the reduction in scale of monument building and the rise of mortuary temples in place of pyramids as the burial place for the pharaohs.

The Dynasty 6 was as peaceful as the last, but marked a decline in the Old Kingdom. While mortuary temples were used extensively during the Fifth Dynasty, the first pharaoh of this period, Teti, returned to the pyramid as a tomb. However, his pyramid, while technically sound, remained on a much smaller scale than those of the Fourth Dynasty, keeping roughly the same size as the mortuary temples of the Fifth. The decline continued through the peaceful reigns of the first four pharaohs of this time. Userkare, Pepi I (who also built a pyramid), and Nemtiemsaf I followed Teti.

The reign of the next pharaoh, Pepi II, seems to have been the point where the Old Kingdom truly began to fall apart. Pepi II ruled peacefully for 60 years of his life, an immense length of time for a pharaoh. While he completed his pyramid, society fell into idleness and stagnation. Pepi allowed his control of the government to slip, and regional governors realized that they no longer needed the Empire. They could control their own smaller state fine by themselves and not have to worry about the pharaoh looking over their shoulders.

After Pepi II left the throne, Nemtiemsaf II and Nitocris each reigned for two or fewer years and eventually a succession of nameless rulers took over as the kingdom slipped into its first Intermediate Period.