Who Built the Pyramids of Egypt?
The Pyramids of Egypt were built some 4,500 years ago in many different locations on the West Bank of the Nile river. Though the most famous pyramids are the ones at Giza, several of which are still among the largest structures ever built, there are Egyptian pyramids to be found from Djoser to Abu Sir.
Because there are so many different pyramid sites and because little is known about some of them, it is impossible to point at one person or group of people and say “They built the Egyptian pyramids.” We can, however, take a look at a few people known to have built pyramids.
The Builders of the Pyramids
The great Egyptian engineer and builder Imhotep is considered to be the first Egyptian to conceive of the Pyramids. Before Imhotep, Egyptians of means (including Pharoahs and other royalty) were buried in mastabas, bench-like tombs with lots of room inside for the trappings of the dead that Egyptians seemed obsessed with. Imhotep was the first to think of “stacking” many of these mastabas on top of each other, creating a stepped pyramid structure.
Imhotep’s design was important because it emulated the creation story of Egpytians, namely that there was once a primordial mound from which the world was created. Imhotep’s first attempts at pyramid building still exist, though they are eyesores compared to the later pyramids at Giza. The first was built as a tomb for Pharoah Djoser, though today it looks more like a bulging wall or decrepit fort than a traditional pyramid.
The Shape of the Pyramids
The shape of the pyramids was intended to provide a stairway to the afterlife, thus the “steps” leading up to a peak. Imhotep’s earliest attempts have not held up over time, so it is impossible to say what the original pyramids actually looked like. One thing is for sure, the pyramids were not always crumbling and weathered. At the time of their construction, it is assumed that the stones were a bright color, perhaps even white, smooth and gleaming in the sun as it set over the Nile.
Other Pyramid Builders
Imhotep is the most famous name in pyramid construction–over time, the dynastic rule of the Pharoahs was weakened, and so was their ability to keep building these massive scale projects. Later pyramids are hastily constructed, much smaller than the famous pyramids at Giza, and some were so poorly put together that we’ve lost them altogether.
The “last” pyramid built used a special technique intended to reduce building time. The pyramid of Senusret II at el-Lahun is built around a natural hill of limestone that stands about 12 meters high. This allowed for faster construction, as a natural core existed on which to build the rest of the pyramid.
Did Slaves Build the Pyramids?
It is taught in school that slaves toiled tirelessly to build these massive tombs, but that isn’t a totally accurate answer. While some of the people who worked on the construction of the pyramids were no doubt indentured servants, they were often paid in large tax breaks and given food, water, and other necessities while working. In fact, there is record of payment made to some pyramid construction workers and contractors. The concept of slavery in Egypt is far different from what we think of today, and while some criminals worked on the Pyramid for free, most of the workers were paid in some way.
The Egyptian pyramids are fascinating, part mystery, part historical anomaly. The actual construction methods are pretty much unknown, though scientists have made inferences based on modern construction methods. Many pyramids are still being discovered and mapped, as the desert sands reveal new structures. Maybe some day we’ll find the next big clue in the quest to figure out who built the pyramids.
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