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Last Part - Part 6 of 6 - Main Page


Part VI
After Giza - Kushite Pyramids

After Giza : The later Old Kingdom pyramids

The first pyramid texts adorn the burial chamber of King Unas

Pyramid Texts in the Pyramid of Unas, Saqqara, from Old Kingdom Era

Menkaure died c. 2472 BC. But pyramids continued to be built. The Giza pyramids had set a standard for future construction. Within these standards, the later Pharaohs continued to add their own innovations. But Giza was certainly at the peak of the Pyramid age. After the Fourth Dynasty, the Fifth Dynasty kings decided to change their cemetery to Saqqara, then to Abu Sir, then again to Saqqara. These pyramids can still be seen there, but they are badly damaged. These were mostly built of small limestone pieces -- which are easy to carry. The Fifth Dynasty King Unas' (ruled c. 2375-2345 BC) comparatively small pyramid at Saqqara boasts the first 'pyramid texts' -- these spells for afterlife are still seen today with their blue pigments of color. Among the other famous pyramids from late Old Kingdom are those of Sahure, Neferirkare, Niuserre, etc. -- all these are located at Abu Sir. Most of the pyramids of Fifth and Sixth Dynasty have a height of around 53 meter (the highest of them 72m) -- compared to Khufu's 146.59 meters. Pharaoh Pepi II's (ruled c. 2278-2184 BC)  is the last most notable pyramid before the First Intermediate Period with a base length of 78.75m.

The pyramid of Neferirkare Kakai (ruled c. 2477-2467 BC) at Abu Sir. This is the tallest of the series (105m base length, 70m height). Although it looks like to have degraded to a hill, it is the best preserved.


The Middle Kingdom Pyramids

During the decentralized feudal state of Egypt of the First Intermediate Period, pyramids were built by the chiefs and rulers of different regions. They claimed for themselves the Peaceful Afterlife in pyramids like the Pharaohs themselves. After this state of confusion was over with the emergence of the Middle Kingdom (dynasties 12, 13 and 14) around c. 2055 BC, the new rulers were quite the more enthusiastic about continuing pyramid building. But they figured out more economic ways of building their tombs. Most of the pyramids of the Middle Kingdom Pharaohs have stone framework and mud-brick core -- a more economical and easy way to build tombs, because mud-bricks could be made on the construction site and were easier to work on. These pyramids, however, had beautiful limestone casing on the outer faces like their predecessors, so they probably looked very beautiful. A Pharaoh from the 11th dynasty, just before Middle Kingdom, Mentuhotep I (ruled c. 2055-2004 BC), went a step farther and gave Egypt its first terraced tomb. This is located at Deir-el-Bahri. The entire tomb was a mortuary temple topped by a pyramidal structure. Pharaohs from the Middle Kingdom era preferred the site of El-Lisht, halfway between Meydum and Saqqara, for their tombs. The biggest of the pyramids from this age is that of Senusret I, with a base of 107m. The other big pyramids have bases around 105m.

Reconstruction of the Mortuary Temple of Mentuhotep I (or II, ruled 2055-2004 BC) from 11th Dynasty at Deir-el-Bahri in West Thebes. Before the Middle Kingdom, he conquered both Upper and Lower Egypt, and proclaimed himself the Protector of the Two Lands. His tomb was cut deep into the bedrock behind and underneath the building.
Collected from The Absolute Egyptology site

After the dismantling of the fine white casing stones, the whole Hawara pyramid belonging to Amenemhet III (ruled c. 1817-1772 BC) has decayed to a pile of mud-brick rubble. Under the sand are the scanty remains of the attraction that brought tourists here already in Roman times - 'The Labyrinth'. This was a Mortuary Temple. The Greeks used to say that this was the prototype of the Labyrinth of King Minos of Crete.
Collected from The Absolute Egyptology site

Today, a huge mountain of earth can be seen at Hawara, this was the pyramid of Amenemhet III, all the outer casing stones have been quarried away long ago. The mud-brick core has degraded into a huge pile of earth. The last notable pyramid from the Middle Kingdom is that of Khendjer at South Saqqara  with a 52.5m base which was built around 1750-60 BC, some 700 years after Menkaure's death. Another unidentified pyramid (thought to have belonged to Ai I) from the same time at South Saqqara has a base of 78.75m. The pyramid culture survived until the end of Middle Kingdom -- when the Asiatic Hyksos invaded and conquered Egypt. After they were rooted out around 1539 BC by Ahmose, the New Kingdom or Empire age of Egypt was established. Now, the pyramids gave way to rock tombs hidden in remote places, to keep the pharaohs' eternal sleep undisturbed. The underground tombs were a less obvious and more secret means to protect the Pharaoh and his treasures from robbers. The total number of pyramids in Egypt today, of all sizes, small or large, intact or destroyed, is 117, excluding the much later Nubian pyramids of 25th dynasty (c. 747-716 BC) of Late Kingdom Period.


Kushite Pyramids of Nubia

The Nubians south of Egypt proper were for centuries under Egyptian rule. They adopted many Egyptian customs, like their writing system of hieroglyphics, many of their gods and goddesses -- although in some cases, we find their resistance to some gods imposed on them by the Egyptians. During the late period around 8th century BC, Lower Egypt was overrun by the mighty Assyrian Army. The Egyptian rule was weakened. During this time, the Nubians claimed the supreme throne of the 'Two Lands' and declared their king the Pharaoh. Their army swept into Thebes, the capital of Upper Egypt, and subdued the Feudal lords. Although they were under constant pressure from the Assyrians, they managed to keep their power uncurbed mainly in Upper Egypt and Nubia. The kingdom they established is called the Kushite Kingdom, after 'Kush' -- the name Egyptians gave Nubia. The Nubian Pharaohs formed the 25th Dynasty, until they were ousted from Egypt by the Egyptian Pharaoh Psammetik in 664 BC. But they continued to rule in Nubia until much later. The Nubians were also the founders of Ethiopian kingdoms in a later era. The Kushite kings revived the tradition of pyramid building and chose several sites around modern Egypt and Sudan for their cemeteries. Their pyramids can now be seen at the ancient capital of Meroë, al-Kurru and Nuri, in Sudan. These pyramids are no match for the Egyptian giants, but they are far more numerous, around 180 in total -- if counted beyond the 3rd cataract on the Nile. The angle of inclination of Nubian pyramids are steeper than their Egyptian counterparts.


Illustration showing relative locations of the el-Kurru pyramids of the 25th Dynasty. Tomb 'A' is of Kashta (conquered Egypt around 747 BC), B - Piankhi (ruled 747-716 BC), C - Shabaka (712-698 BC), D - Tanutamun (664-657 BC).
Collected from Ancient Egypt - History & Chronology

Plan of Taharka's pyramid (ruled c. 690-664 BC) at Nuri. It is the most elaborate of the Nubian pyramid
Collected from Ancient Egypt - History & Chronology

El-Kurru lies on the right bank of the Nile and contains pyramids from Egypt's 25th Dynasty kings. The pyramid of Piankhi, founder of the dynasty, had a base of 8m and angle of 68°. Total of 4 Pharaohs and 14 Queens were buried here. The Kings' pyramids had 8 to 11m bases, while the queens' had bases of 6 to 7m square.

The Kushite pyramids at Nuri. Notice the steeper angles.
Collected from Ancient Egypt - History & Chronology


Later kings from the 25th dynasty had their cemetery at Nuri, containing the burials of 21 kings and 52 queens and princesses. The first to build a pyramid here was the second last Pharaoh of 25th dynasty, Taharqa. His pyramid had 51.75m square base and was 40-50m high. Taharqa's subterranean chambers are the most elaborate of any Kushite tomb. The Nuri pyramids were generally much larger than those at el-Kurru, reaching heights of 20 to 30m. The last king to be buried at Nuri died in about 308 BC.


After 308 BC, the Meroitic Kingdom rose to prominence, and kings began build pyramids at the cemetery of Meroë (modern al-Marawwi in Sudan, 120 miles north of Khartoum), between the 5th and 6th cataracts. Meroë remained the royal cemetery for 600 years, until 350 AD, when the Khushites' successors of Axum converted to Christianity. The step-sided pyramids of Meroë were built of sandstone, 10 to 30m high.

Illustration showing the locations of the pyramids at Meroë. Meroë was a cemetery for a long time after the Kushites lost control of Egypt. The Meroitic kings thrived as their capital was a leading industrial and commercial centre.
Collected from Ancient Egypt - History & Chronology

Pyramids at Meroë.
Collected from Ancient Egypt - History & Chronology


Although it is commonly assumed that the Nubian pyramids were inspired by the great pyramids in Egypt, but in fact these smaller steeper pyramids bear a closer resemblance to the non-royal 'private' tombs of the New Kingdom. These private tombs became popular towards the end of the 18th dynasty (c. 1550 - 1292 BC), when the pyramid was no longer the exclusive prerogative of the king.



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