To understand the origin of the ancient Egyptian pyramids one must go back to the very beginning, the beginning of the world as the Egyptians saw it.
Understanding The Ancient Egyptian Pyramids
For at this time there was only a watery void called “Nun”, which contained the essence of all creation. Out of this chaotic yet creative soup arose a mound, just as the mounds of fertile silt teeming with life emerged as the waters of the annual Nile flood receded.
On that mound of creation appeared the sun god Ra-Atum, embodiment of life and goodness, and the source of energy, light and warmth. From him the rest of creation issued forth as he rose in the sky, only to plunge back into the chaotic void with every sunset to be recreated again.
For the Egyptians, creation unfolded not once, but continuously. By linking up with this cosmic cycle, they too could emerge reborn.
The Mound of Creation
The ancient Egyptian pyramid was essentially this mound of creation, a cocoon in which the king underwent the transformation, or recreation, into an eternal, transfigured spirit called an “akh”. Journeying to the sky, he was united with the ancient Egyptian gods and resurrected each morning.
But the pyramid itself was only one part of the “resurrection machine”. Like all gods, the king was in permanent need of the sustenance and offerings, which were provided to him on earth. Thus, the pyramid alone was not enough to ensure a good afterlife.
In time elaborate complexes developed which incorporated the ancient Egyptian pyramid and offering places, ranging from small chapels to a vast series of interconnected temples and estates, to service the needs of the deceased pharaoh on earth.
Their continuous development can be understood not only in terms of technological innovation and evolving religious beliefs, but also of the desire to ensure the absolute and eternal power of the resurrection machine to do its job.
The Journey to the Next World
The great ancient Egyptian pyramids of the Fourth Dynasty’s king Khufu are truly unbelievable constructions, which stand as the last remaining of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World on the Giza Plateau.
The immense size of these constructions invites comparison with the most ambitious human projects of any age, and they have never ceased to fire people’s imagination.
It was the hope of every Egyptian to be reborn after death, to attain an afterlife with the sun god Ra and be resurrected with each sunrise, and to join with Osiris in the cyclical regeneration of nature and plant life with the receding of the annual Nile flood. These are not opposing beliefs, but a complementary interweaving of the varying cycles of creation with which the Egyptians linked their own eternal rebirth.
However, neither the annual rise of the life-giving waters of the Nile nor the re-emergence of the sun each morning was guaranteed. Eternal night and the cessation of plant life were constant threats, which had to be averted so that creation could begin again. In the same way, formidable obstacles had to be overcome for resurrection to be achieved.
The journey to the next world was perilous: demons waited to sidetrack the unprepared; judgments were made. Most people had to depend on their family to provide the proper equipment and chant the appropriate spells to help them attain the afterlife. But the king could call upon the resources of the entire country in his bid for immortality. The greatest manifestation of this is seen in the ancient Egypt pyramids of the Giza Plateau, the Giza Pyramids.
The Old Kingdom was the great age of pyramid building in Egypt. They would continue to be built for another 500 years, but priorities were changing.
At the beginning of the New Kingdom, the pyramid form was turned over to the officials of the realm to build over their rock-cut tombs. The king had different plans. In about 1500 BC King Thutmose I instructed his architect, Ineni, to build him a different kind of tomb.
The Valley of the Kings
On the West Bank of the Nile opposite Thebes, Egypt’s most important religious center in the New Kingdom, Ineni found the perfect spot: a deep canyon dominated by a more enduring monument, a huge pyramid-shaped mountain, today called el-Qurn.
Even more compelling, this peak and the massif of which it was a part, when viewed from the city of the living, resembled the hieroglyphic sign for the horizon, specifically the western horizon and the entrance to the underworld.
Behind it was the perfect place to build a city of the dead. Here Ineni burrowed deep into the rock; long stepped corridors spiralled down to a burial chamber, a winding way symbolic of the landscape of the underworld.
Being certain that the body of his pharaoh would be secure; he left a touching inscription on the walls of his own tomb at Thebes. It reads, “I supervised the excavation of the tomb of His Majesty alone, no one seeing, no one hearing”.
Nearly thirty pharaohs would eventually be buried in what is now known as the Valley of the Kings.
At the edge of the cultivated fields each king built his palace of eternity, or “Mansion of Millions of Years” as it was called, reviving a tradition dating back to Egypt’s first kings.
Their immortality was reinforced by the stunning array of texts and pictures which decorated their tombs, and was assured in the increasingly elaborate mortuary temples and temples of state, where the king was portrayed both with and as the god Amun-Ra, the chief god of Thebes.
These new mounds of creation, embellished with the tribute from a far-flung empire, would become the focus of the king’s creative urge, and would now speak of his power and the glory. And like the ancient Egyptian pyramids, they continue to stun and amaze.