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Main Page - Part 1 of 6 - Next Part

Part I
Introduction - The Graves of the Neolithic Egyptians - Mastabas

The Pyramids of Giza - The Great Pyramid of Khufu stands right behind the three smaller pyramids. The middle one is that of Khafre and the one in the back is of Menkaure.


All the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World are now destroyed -- the Hanging Gardens of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, the gigantic gold-plated statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Mausoleum of King Maussollos -- Persian satrap of Caria -- at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Helios at Rhodes, the Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria -- all of them. Only one of the Wonders still stand and provoke as much awe as it used to back in the 2nd century BC, when the list of the Wonders was first compiled. This is the Great Pyramid of Giza -- the grandest and the oldest of them all. The Great Pyramid was constructed in the Giza plateau south of Cairo, sometime around 2560 BC -- during the Old Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt. If you have ever visited the Great Pyramid, you may have wondered how it was possible for the Ancient Egyptians to build a structure of such proportions without cranes, bull-dozers, and other monstrous machines that are used today to build even a 40-storey building! Sometime back in the seventies, an amateur Norwegian 'archaeologist' Erik von Daniken and others even tried to prove that the working behind the Pyramids was of Aliens!! Even today, some people believe that. Well, no matter how interesting that hypothesis might sound, archaeologists give us a perfectly logical explanation of how the building of Pyramids evolved.

One thing I must add  here is that, almost all the pyramids of Egypt were built during the oldest era of the Kingdom -- the Old Kingdom period (c. 2650-2184 BC). This was a Golden Age for Pyramid construction. The later pyramids were structurally weak and not so large as were these -- many of the later ones can be found with only their bases roughly intact.


Looking down on a Badarian Neolithic Burial Pit

The Egyptians did not start building pyramids right from the beginning. Long before tomb-building and mummification attained perfection, the Neolithic people of Egypt -- who are associated with the Badarian culture (c. 4000 BC) -- used to bury their dead in oval pits of 4 or 5 feet depth. The body, as shown in the figure, is surrounded by pottery jars once containing food, sometimes grain, the earliest examples of domesticated wheat or barley ever found. A few small objects of copper have been found even in the earliest of such Egyptian graves, which therefore belong to the end of the Late Stone Age. The graves of the people were simple - the dead were laid to rest on their left sides facing the west, in a fetal position and wrapped in matting. They were buried with fine grave goods - beautiful ceramics, decorated plates, bowls and dishes, cosmetic utensils including makeup palettes, ointment spoons, decorative combs and bracelets, necklaces and copper beads and pins. They also usually had an ivory or clay female figure (which may have been fertility doll or idol) placed in the grave with the deceased. Unfortunately many of the graves were robbed soon after burial.

The Badarians were in turn succeeded (or superimposed) by the Naqada Culture (c. 4000 - 3000 BC) -- the predecessors of the Ancient Egyptian people. We will have some more discussions on Prehistoric Egyptian Peoples some other time! Anyway, it is quite clear that burial was very important to these Neolithic peoples, and this view paved the way to the construction of large tombs and pyramids. Later burials had markers on them -- influential people had mounds or platforms constructed on their burial-pits or graves.

The Graves of the Neolithic Egyptians

Mastaba façade with ox-skulls at Saqqara from First Dynasty (c. 3000 BC) - the Upper portion of the Mastaba has been denuded in the course of time. This particular Mastaba is surrounded by 56 subsidiary tombs.

During the Pre-dynastic and Early Dynastic (c. 3050 - 2890 BC) Eras, we find new type of tombs for the burial of the Kings and Nobles of Egypt. Upper and Lower Egypt were not yet unified under one crown - but their civilization was already flourishing. The new tombs were the immediate predecessors of Pyramids -- they are called 'Mastabas', the Arabic word "mastaba" meaning "bench". These were so called because the shapes of these were like platforms. The actual grave was beneath the platform. The early mastabas were massive rectangular structures having a palace façade but no entrance. These are now seen at Saqqara, Giza and Tarkhan. Most of the marking structures are now destroyed.

First Step on the Path to Pyramids: The 'Mastabas'

Three-dimensional rendering of a Mastaba
Collected from Digital Egypt for Universities

A hole would be dug out large enough to insert a sarcophagus or coffin. The pit at times was over 30 feet deep. After the mummy of the noble with its coffin was put into the pit, it would be closed with sand and several layers of sun-dried mud-bricks would be used to construct a platform above. Usually one or more shafts lead from the mastaba core to the burial chambers of the tomb owner and his family. Some mastabas would have skulls of oxen attached to the platform, like a marker, as shown in the photo of the Saqqara Mastaba. Later on, the mastabas would be built even before the death of the person for whom it was. Some of them would have several underground corridors and rooms for offerings inside which are decorated with reliefs or paintings. Some rooms or separate tombs were provided for 'side burials' -- during the early period, many of the Pharaoh's servants would be sacrificed and buried in these rooms -- for the purpose of serving their master of this life in his life after death. Later mastabas had all the rooms dug out in the bedrock, and a platform constructed above. Many had the king's insignia marked on a stone stele near the tomb.


A 3-D reconstruction of the Mastaba of Nefermaat (4th Dynasty) at Meydum. This Mastaba has a colorful interior decoration.
Collected from Digital Egypt for Universities

So, the ancient architects and builders had ample time to do their practice with smaller mastabas, before they dared to do something like pyramids!

The religious philosophy of the Ancient Egyptians required that their bodies be preserved so that they can be resurrected to unite with the 'soul'. It is for this necessity that they needed carefully planned tombs -- which can hold out robbers who would break into them to loot the treasure supplied for the afterlife or destroy the preserved bodies or mummies.

One more thing to add! All these mastabas were dug out in the bedrock with tools built of stone! The hardest metal known to the Pre-dynastic Egyptians was copper -- some samples of bronze have also been found. But these were not hard enough to break stone. So, they used a hard mineral called 'dolerite' to make their digging and stone-cutting tools. This situation did not change for over a thousand years to come -- when iron was introduced in Egypt from Anatolia. So, even the Great Pyramid of Giza was probably constructed with dolerite-tools!



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