PYRAMID, the name for a class of buildings, first taken from a part of the structure, and mistakenly applied to the whole of it by the Greeks, which has now so far acquired a more definite meaning in its geometrical sense that it is desirable to employ it in that sense alone. A pyramid therefore should be understood as meaning a building bounded by a polygonal base and plane triangular sides which meet in an apex. Such a form of architecture is only known in Middle Egypt, and there only during the period from the IVth to the XIIth Dynasty (before 3000 B.C.)—having square bases and angles of about 50°. In other countries various modifications of the tumulus, barrow or burial-heap have arisen which have come near to this type; but these when formed of earth are usually circular, or if square have a flat top, and when built of stone are always in steps or terraces. The imitations of the true Egyptian pyramid at Thebes, Meroe and elsewhere are puny hybrids, being merely chambers with a pyramidal outside and porticos attached; and the structures found at Cenchreae, or the monument of Caius Sestius at Rome, are isolated and barren trials of a type which never could be revived: it had run its course in a country and a civilization to which alone it was suitable.
The origin of the pyramid type has been entirely explained by the discovery of the various stages of development of the tomb. In prehistoric times a square chamber was sunk in the ground, the dead placed in it, and a roof of poles and brushwood overlaid with sand covered the top. The 1st Dynasty kings developed a wooden lining to the chamber; then a wooden chamber free-standing in the pit, with a beam roof, then a stairway at the side to descend; then a pile of earth held in by a dwarf wall over it. By the IIIrd Dynasty this dwarf wall had expanded into a solid mass of brickwork, about 280 by 150 ft. and 33 ft. high. This was the mastaba type of tomb, with a long sloping passage descending to the chamber far below it. This pile of brickwork was then copied in stonework early in the IIIrd Dynasty (Saqqara). It was then enlarged by repeated heightening and successive coats of masonry. And lastly a smooth casing was put over the whole, and the first pyramid appeared (Medum).
It is certain that the pyramids were each begun with a definite design for their size and arrangement; at least this is plainly seen in the two largest, where continuous accretion (such as Lepsius and his followers propound) would be most likely to be met with. On looking at any section of these buildings it will be seen how impossible it would have been for the passages to have belonged to a smaller structure (Petrie, 165). The supposition that the designs were enlarged so long as the builder's life permitted was drawn from the compound mastabas of Saqqara and Medum; these are, however, quite distinct architecturally from true pyramids, and appear to have been enlarged at long intervals, being elaborately finished with fine casing at the close of each addition.
Around many of the pyramids peribolus walls may be seen, and it is probable that some enclosure originally existed around each of them. At the pyramids of Gizeh the temples attached to these mausolea may be still seen. As in the private tomb, the false door which represented the exit of the deceased person from this world, and towards which the offerings were made, was always on the west wall in the chamber, so the pyramid was placed on the west of the temple in which the deceased king was worshipped. The temple being entered from the east (as in the Jewish temples), the worshippers faced the west, looking towards the pyramid in which the king was buried. Priests of the various pyramids are continually mentioned during the old kingdom, and the religious endowments of many of the priesthoods of the early kings were revived under the Egyptian renaissance of the XXVIth Dynasty and continued during Ptolemaic times. A list of the hieroglyphic names of nineteen of the pyramids which have been found mentioned on monuments (mostly in tombs of the priests) is given in Lieblein's Chronology, p. 32. The pyramid was never a family monument, but belonged—like all other Egyptian tombs—to one person, members of the royal family having sometimes lesser pyramids adjoining the king's (as at Khufu's); the essential idea of the sole use of a tomb was so strong that the hill of Gizeh is riddled with deep tomb-shafts for separate burials, often running side by side 60 or 80 ft. deep, with only a thin wall of rock between; and in one place a previous shaft has been partially blocked with masonry, so that a later shaft could be cut partly into it, macled with it like a twin-crystal.
The usual construction of pyramids is a mass of masonry composed of horizontal layers of rough-hewn blocks, with a small amount of mortar; and this mass in the later forms became more and more rubbly, until in the VIth Dynasty it was merely a cellular system of retaining walls of rough stones and mud, filled up with loose chips, and in the XIIth Dynasty the bulk was of mud bricks. Whatever was the hidden material, however, there was always on the outside a casing of fine stone, elaborately finished, and very well jointed; and the inner chambers were of similarly good work. Indeed the construction was in all cases so far sound that, had it not been for the spite of enemies and the greed of later builders, it is probable that every pyramid would have been standing in good order at this day. The casings were not a mere “veneer ” or “film,” as they have been called, but were of massive blocks, usually greater in thickness than in height, and in some cases (as at South Dahshur) reminding the observer of horizontal leaves with sloping edges.
Inside of each pyramid, always low down, and usually below the ground level, was built a sepulchral chamber; this was reached in all cases by a passage from the north, sometimes beginning in the pyramid face, sometimes descending into the rock on which the pyramid was built in front of the north side. This chamber, if not cut in the rock altogether (as in Menkaura's), or a pit in the rock roofed with stone (as in Khafra's), was built between two immense walls which served for the east and west sides, and between which the north and south sides and roofing stood merely in contact, but unbonded. The gable roofing of the chambers was formed by great sloping cantilevers of stone, projecting from the north and south walls, on which they rested without pressing on each other along the central ridge; thus there was no thrust, nor were there any forces to disturb the building; and it was only after the most brutal treatment, by which these great masses of stone were cracked asunder, that the principle of thrust came into play, though it had been provided for in the sloping form of the roof, so as to delay so long as possible the collapse of the chamber. This is best seen in the pyramid of Pepi (Petrie), opened from the top right through the roof. See also the Abusir pyramids (Howard Vyse) and the king's and queen's chambers of the great pyramid (Howard Vyse, Piazzi Smyth, Petrie). The roofing is sometimes, perhaps usually, of more than one layer; in Pepi's pyramid it is of three layers of stone beams, each deeper than their breadth, resting one on another, the thirty stones weighing more than 30 tons each. In the king's chamber (Gizeh) successive horizontal roofs were interposed between the chamber and the final gable roof, and such may have been the case at Abu Roash (Howard Vyse).
The passages which led into the central chambers have usually some lesser chamber in their course, and are blocked once or oftener with massive stone portcullises. In all cases some part, and generally the greater part, of the passages slopes downwards, usually at an angle of about 26°, or 1 in 2. These passages appear to have been closed externally with stone doors turning on a horizontal pivot, as may be seen at South Dahshur, and as is described by Strabo and others (Petrie). This suggests that the interiors of the pyramids were accessible to the priests, probably for making offerings; the fact of many of them having been forcibly entered otherwise does not show that no practicable entrance existed, but merely that it was unknown, as,
- The vertical height was named by the Egyptians pir-em-us (see E. Revillout, Rev. Ég., 2nd year, 305-309), hence the Greek form pyramis, pl. pyramides (Herod), used unaltered in the English of Sandys (1615), from which the singular pyramid was formed.
- For figures of geometrical pyramids see Crystallography, and for their mensuration see Mensuration.