Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

Pharoahs and Pyramids

Steve Muhlberger

After the initial unification, Egypt oscillated between two extreme positions on a very slow rhythym. At one extreme, Egypt was united under a single monarch. This was perhaps the normal state of affairs.  There were three long periods before 1000 B.C. where Egypt was unified: Altogether this accounts for 1700 years. The Kingdoms are separated by Intermediate Periods, adding up to about 200 years, when Egypt was divided between minor kings who controlled only part of the country.

Only in the New Kingdom is there much drama to this story, and we will put that off to a later lecture. Otherwise, Egyptian history is little more than a very long list of kings, distinguished from one another mainly by the form of their tombs and the inscriptions on those tombs. Today I'm going to talk about those tombs.

Sir Alan Gardiner, one of the most important Egyptologists of the first half of our century, said:

[Popular preconception] credits the Ancient Egyptians with no thoughts beyond death and mummification. The Egyptologist knows that never was there a race more fond of life, more light-hearted, or more gay [i.e. cheerful]. (p. 91)

So why do most of us suffer from this preconception? There are two reasons. One is simply a matter of the distribution of evidence. The Egyptians buried their dead at the edge of the desert, where the incredible dryness has preserved their efforts almost untouched. Living Egyptians, however, inhabited a flood plain that was covered with water every year for long periods.  It is thus much easier to learn about dead Egyptians than about living ones; and furthermore, (and  much easier to learn about Upper Egypt than Lower).

The other reason for our great awareness of the Egyptian way of death is that some of them at least were very much concerned with it and especially with physical resurrection. Those so concerned were the rich and the powerful, the ones who always leave the most evidence behind, in any society.

The idea of resurrection and eternal life was, in Egypt, intimately connected with the idea of kingship. No one in Egypt told the monarch, as they told Gilgamesh in Uruk, that he was doomed to pay the common debt of humanity, to enter a dusty, shadowy underworld if he survived at all. Not at all. In Egypt, the mighty kings convinced themselves at an early date that if they were properly prepared, that they could live forever. Much of the vast surplus of food and material that they controlled, as rulers of the most populous state on earth, was devoted to such preparation. Whatever the ordinary Egyptian was like, however light-hearted and life-loving he or she was, preparing the monarch for a glorious eternity was a prime factor in Egyptian history for thousands of years. In that sense, the Egyptian obsession with death is no illusion.

Before saying more about this subject, though, we should look briefly at Egyptian religion as a whole.

Although Egypt was an old and unified state, religion in Egypt was even older. Each nome or district had its ancient shrines and divine patrons, many of which were animal-headed spirits. The kings of Egypt combined these diverse cults into the official religion of the state, but they were unable to turn it into a consistent system. So there were many gods and godesses, some of whom were recognized as regional variants of one another, with slightly different qualities or attributes in different districts. Just as Marduk in Babylon took on the characteristics of earlier attributed to Enlil in Nippur, Re the sun-god of Heliopolis was identified with Atum the creator-god, and Amun, a royal god, was also identified with Re.

The big difference between Egyptian and Mesopotamian religion was in the position of the king.  In Mesopotamia, the king, important as he was in religious terms, was merely the highest of mortals, beneath the line that separated divinities from humans. In Egypt, however, the king was a unique being who straddled that line. He was far more important than any priest -- he was the magician who himself linked heaven and earth, who assured the continuation of life, especially the life-giving cycle of the Nile flood.

It is possible that predynastic kings had been ceremonially killed when his physical powers began to fail. The dead king returned to his supernatural source of power, from where he still looked over his people; the new king, a new and vigorous incarnation of the same divine power, took over the active and visible role. The importance of dead kings was a key tenet of the official religion of Egypt, which was also the official ideology of power. The king became closely identified with Osiris, the god who died and was resurrected.Osiris was the divine past of the monarchy, and the symbol of its eternal nature. Osiris was not only the resurrected god, he was the ruler and judge of the afterlife. The idea of resurrection was not an idle fancy or a mere symbol to Egyptian kings -- it was a practical goal to be achieved by practical and strenuous measures.

Where did the idea come from? The usual answer is that natural mummification (a result of Egypt's dry climate) inspired it.  Natural mummification apparently impressed the Egyptians with the possibility that the dead, under the right conditions, could survive death.

Before dynastic times began, however, physical survival after death was already closely associated with the semi-divine king. Under his hill of sand, he was still alive and exerting his spiritual powers. From later practices, it seems likely that offerings and sacrifices were made at the hill of sand that covered him. He was being fed. After a while, a mere hill was not good enough -- Royal tombs in the form of mastabas (a modern word for "bench") were created The mastabas turned into elaborate houses of the dead, with compartments for food, drink and other necessities. Below the structure, in the tomb, were the treasures that would accompany the king to the afterlife. On the outside of the structure, there was a temple where rites and sacrifices for and to the dead person were performed.

Artificial mummification began in the mastaba era of pre- and early dynastic times, around 3000 B.C. The Egyptians knew that these elaborate tombs would not preserve the body as well as the sands had. Also, it was taken for granted that the body had to be preserved if the owner was going to have the use of it in the afterlife. Early efforts in this direction were fairly primitive, but they slowly became more elaborate.

Ritual preparations were equally necessary. The theory of resurrection went something like this: the dead king would awake in his tomb, shaking off the sleep of death, and ascend to heaven on a boat steered by a celestial ferryman. In the sky, the king would meet the heavenly gods, who might welcome him or judge him. To win admittance to their company, the right prayers and magic spells would be necessary.

The pyramids of the Old Kingdom have the appropriate texts inscribed on the passageway from the burial chamber. These so-called Pyramid Texts explore every possible tactic to obtain the desired eternal life. The king identifies himself with powerful gods, and affirms his family connection with them; the king threatens the gods, asserting his power to rule over them; in a few early versions, the king is described overcoming and eating the gods. Likewise the king says that he is immune from any judgement to come; but if he is judged, he is a righteous sort who has done nothing wrong and need not worry about condemnation. In later versions of the myth, the dead man comes before a heavenly tribunal. His heart was weighed against Ma'at, which means "right order," to see if he was worthy of the afterlife. Thoth, the scribe of the gods, conducted this test. If the dead man failed, the Eater of Souls devoured him, and he was either entirely annihilated, or somewhat inconsistently, condemned to eternal punishment. If the dead man passed, then Osiris installed him among the gods.

Because we know so much about these rituals and beliefs, it is easy to assume that they were central to the religion of all Egyptians. But this is probably not true. In early dynastic times, certainly, one almost had to be a king to hope for eternity. Just dying was not enough. The proper procedures, which were long, complicated and expensive, had to be completed, and these procedures were available only to the merest handful: the king, his immediate family, and, perhaps, a few nobles especially favored by him.

In another way, however, the rituals of resurrection were central to Egyptian life. Everyone helped to pay for the king's preparations.

This can be seen most dramatically in the Old Kingdom. It was in this time that the pyramid was invented. The pyramid is really nothing more than a development of the older mastaba.

The king who first desired a higher, more elaborate mastaba was Netjerykhet Djoser. The engineer who made it possible was named Imhotep. Sprague de Camp tells the story of how Djoser and Imhotep turned the traditional tomb into something new: the step pyramid, a structure very like the ziggurrat of Sumeria, except that Imhotep had stone available to him. The result is that while all the ziggurats are in ruins, Djoser's step pyramid is still standing in Saqqara. It is 60m (204 ft.) high and quite an impressive piece of work. The inscription on the side of the pyramid recounts Imhotep's triumph as an architect, making him one of the best known private citizens of the Old Kingdom.

Djoser, a Third Dynasty king, who died about 2611, set the style for his immediate successors. The first king of the Fourth Dynasty, Sneferu, topped Djoser by creating the true pyramid around 2550.

On the true pyramid the faces are not large steps or terraces, but are nearly smooth, at least from a distance. This was accomplished by first building a step pyramid, then filling in the terraces with packing blocks. Then the whole thing was covered in high quality casing stones.

The three pyramids of Giza, near modern Cairo and ancient Thebes, were built by three of Sneferu's next four successors. They are still the largest stone buildings in the world. The great pyramid of Khufu (known in Greek as Cheops), 146m or 481 feet high, is taller than every other stone building except for the 13th c. cathedral at Cologne in Germany. Its base covers 13 acres (5 ha), and it contains almost 6 million imperial tons of stone, more than 2,000,000 separate blocks, some weighing as much as 50 tons apiece.

The effort that went into the Great Pyramid is staggering. About 2000 years after it was built, a guide told Herodotus that it had taken the efforts of 100,000 slaves over twenty years. As L. Sprague de Camp says, the work was not done by slaves, but by impressed farm laborers, probably working mostly in the off season. If the number of 100,000 was anything more than a guess, the Pyramid could have been completed in far less than the time given.

H.W.F. Saggs gives these calculations. If an average worker can drag a quarter of a ton up a gentle slope indefinitely, it would take him a whole day to move that weight the average distance from the quarries or the river (where boats landed the finer stone) up to the average height of stones within the pyramid. The six million tons of stone would thus take 24 million man-days to move. If most of the workers were only available in the 90 days of flooding each year, when there was little else for them to do, this time is equivalent to 270,000 man-years. If there were indeed 100,000 workers (not including specialists like engineers and quarry-masters) the whole job could have been done in a little under three years. Even if Saggs is wrong by a factor of two, the pyramid could have been built in six years.

A certain amount of haste is probable, because no king could be quite sure that his successor would take proper care of his monument. After all, he would be working on his own tomb.

However long it took, the fact that the Great Pyramid was built at all is a measure of the power of Egyptian monarchs in the Old Kingdom. Not only was the Great Pyramid far larger than any ziggurrat of the third millenium -- they covered about an acre, the pyramid 13 acres; not only was the pyramid only the centerpiece of a big temple complex, dedicated to the service of the king after death; but two more pyramids and two more complexes and the Sphinx were all built in less than a century. There they stood, absorbing much of the disposable surplus of the richest country in the world, not just during construction, but afterwards, when sacrifices commensurate with the buildings were continuously offered at the various temples.

To any contemporary, it might well have seemed a manifestation of god-like power; certainly there was nothing to match the devotion of so much wealth and so many people's efforts to the service of a single man anywhere in the ancient world.

There was no fourth great pyramid at Giza, and the effort of supporting the rites of the other three may have help cause the downfall of the Fourth Dynasty. Other dynasties returned to the pyramidal form. There are at least 47, including those never finished, and there may be more crumbling in the desert. After 1640 B.C., no more were built.

But this does not mean that the royal cult of resurrection went into eclipse. If tombs changed their form and became less impressive in sheer bulk, more care was lavished on the bodies of the royal dead, and increasingly on other, less exalted figures.  Embalmers worked over the centuries to perfect their art.  In the 21st dynasty, after 1080 B.C., the internal organs were being treated outside the body and then put back in. Other cosmetic measures were taken to make the body look as much as possible like a healthy living one.

After this, even the Egyptians flagged. Mummification of one sort or another was practiced right into Christian times, but after about 1000 B.C., it was less careful and more formalistic, as if even the practitioners had lost some faith in their trade.

Or perhaps not. The exercise was religious, not scientific.The knowledge of human anatomy gained by generations of embalmers had no effect whatever on Egyptian medical theory or practice. Those concerned with the dead were interested in ritual correctness, not the benefits that wider studies might bring here and now.

H.W.F. Saggs has said: "The cultural significance of mummification does not match its curiosity value. It was in no sense important in the general history of human civilization, and it is noteworthy mainly as a major example of perverted human effort sustained over several millenia {p. 128}."

I have a similar feeling about the Egyptian state and the high literate culture it supported. The state was a vast machine created to support a tiny aristocracy in luxury not only in this world but in the next. The culture of that aristocracy and its literate servants served to justify the whole exercise. Even Gardiner, with his respect for the fun-loving ancient Egyptian people, admits that most of what we know from the official inscriptions of Egypt is bragging by the kings and abject praise from their courtiers. If you want the truth about Egyptian conditions, says Gardiner, you've got to turn to fiction, which survives in substantial amounts from the Middle and New Kingdoms. In fiction, "the authors were able to depict existing conditions and to vent their feelings with a freedom impossible when the predominant intention was that of boasting (p. 61)."

What I wonder is how the average peasant on the river bank felt about all this. Were they cynical? Were they accepting? As Sprague de Camp says, we cannot interview them. I suspect that whatever else they were, the peasantry was very, very patient. They had to be: they supported on their backs one of the oddest and most expensive religious cults ever recorded.


L. Sprague de Camp, The Ancient Engineers
John Baines and Jaromir Malek, Atlas of Ancient Egypt (New York, 1980) (NU)
Sir Alan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharoahs (Oxford, 1961)
H.W.F. Saggs, Civilization Before Greece and Rome (London, 1989)
William E. Dunstan, The Ancient Near East (Toronto, 1998)
William W. Hallow and William Kelly Simpson, The Ancient Near East: A History (Toronto, 1998)
This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.