Ancient Egypt has long been a source of mystery and intrigue to people all over the world. From the amazing structure of the pyramids to the hieroglyphs and mummies that lay inside, people are captivated by ancient Egyptian society and religion. But, what religious, and/or burial function did the pyramids play in Ancient Egyptian society? To answer this question, I have researched Ancient Egypt and I will briefly go over my findings.
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The origins of the pyramids, stretch all the way back to the mythological stories of the ancient Egyptians. The Egyptians were obsessed with death, so its ironic that the pyramids were inspired by a story of creation and then used for burial in death. In Egyptian mythology, the world was formed from out of the depths of an ocean that was the bereft of life. When these waters parted the sun rose for the first time; and as the waters the Egyptians called Nu, parted, a pyramid shaped mound arose as the first part of earth, and the first sign of life (River). This mythological imagery is said to have reflected the reality of the Egyptian environment. The Nile flooded the land during the summer months and receded leaving a fertile soil to be seeded with crops, which was the source of Egypt’s bounty and life (River).
The earliest pyramids were bench-shaped mounds called mastabas (Smithsonian). Mostly dated around 2770 B.C., the step-pyramid of the pharaoh Zoser was erected by his chief builder Imhotep (Ralph et al.). It stands on the west bank of the Nile River at Sakkara. Just like later pyramids, it contains various rooms and passages, including a burial chamber for the pharaoh. One million tons of limestone were quarried, hauled, and fitted into place to a summit about 200 feet high (Ralph et al.). How the pyramids were built with such advance structure that was so tall and large has caused much debate and speculation. We know for sure that building these massive tombs required a large work force. In the past it was thought that this was done by slave labor, but now it is believed that it was done mainly by the Egyptians themselves. The people required to build the pyramids was something that the Egyptians already had because they had a massive work force to produce food. During the summer months, when the Nile was at its flood stage, there was little or nothing for farmers to do, so they could be employed on massive building projects without detrimental effects to the Egyptian agricultural economy (Ralph et al. 63).
One of the most famous Egyptian pyramids is the Great Pyramid of Giza. It was built for Khufu during the Fourth Dynasty; it is the largest, with a massive height of 480 feet and is the last standing of the original Seven Wonders of the World (Handwerk). The Giza pyramid tells us much about ancient Egypt. The tomb art that covers the walls depicts scenes of every aspect of life in ancient Egypt (Handwerk). Tomb art and hieroglyphs that line the pyramids give us much of the knowledge that we have about ancient Egypt today.
Late last year the mystery of how the pyramids were built may have come a little closer to being answered. A team of archaeologists discovered a ramp with stairways and a series of what they think are postholes in an ancient Egyptian quarry (Rawlinson). This suggests that hauling huge blocks of stone to build the pyramids may have been faster than previously thought. They think that builders were able to haul from both directions because of the inclusion of steps and postholes on either side of a rampway, and that those below the block may have used the posts to create a pulley system, that those above could pull simultaneously. Though this still proved a large work force was necessary it suggests that the work could have been done much more quickly than ever thought (Rawlinson).
Now that we know at least in part, how the pyramids were constructed, its time to try and understand why and what purpose they served. During the nineteenth century, when Egyptology was emerging as a new discipline, scholars discovered that the pyramids were, tombs for Egyptian kings (Krebsbach & Lambrecht). They also began to understand that the Egyptians including those who built the pyramids believed that their pharaohs were living gods who could ascend to eternal life only be means of a proper burial. Egyptians thought that pyramids incorporated the power of life itself and the force that made it possible for new life to emerge; just as the first pyramid emerged in the mythological story of creation (Dunn). These beliefs made the pyramids an essential part of Egypt’s religious beliefs and burial practices. Essentially the pyramids during Old Kingdom Egypt were more than just tombs, they were part of expansive temple complexes and played an integral role in religious life (Krebsbach & Lambrecht).
Religion played a very influential role in Ancient Egypt, leaving its impress on politics, literature, architecture, art, and even the conduct of daily affairs (Ralph et al. 56). According to Petrie, the purpose of religion to the Egyptian was to secure the favor of the god (Petrie 111). To the ancient Egyptians death wasn’t the end of life but the beginning of a new form of existence, especially for their pharaohs. Besides their power to give new life to the deceased, not much else is known about the role of the earliest pyramids in the afterlife (Dunn).
The Egyptians religion during this time was based on having multiple gods, or polytheism. This is important because burial practices of mummification and the pyramids reflect the Egyptian’s religious beliefs of the afterlife. Egyptian’s believed that they had two souls; the Ka that is a twin of a person, and stays with the body even after death, but was independent of a man and could move, eat and drink when it wanted (Seawright). Then the Ba another spiritual entity was seen as a human headed bird that hovered over the deceased in the hieroglyphics, it was the part of the soul that could travel between the worlds. During the Age of the Pyramids, it was believed that only the Pharoses had a Ba (Seawright).
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In preparation for the afterlife the ancient Egyptians would mummify their dead. With their belief that after a person died, they made a journey to the next world, they needed a well-preserved body to make this journey. Elaborate versions of mummification were reserved for Pharaohs and the highest levels of Egyptian society but mummification was a cornerstone of Egyptian religion (Rank). Mummification took about 70 days to complete and special priests embalmed, treated and wrapped the body. Though all the other organs were removed the heart was left inside the body because they believed it to be the center of being and intelligence (Smithsonian).
According to Ralph, “Not only were bodies mummified, but wealthy men left rich endowments to provide their mummies with food and other essentials” (Ralph et al. 57). Grave goods as they are now called, were placed in tombs and pharaohs pyramids to provide the dead with what they would need in the afterlife. Everything from food to valuables such as objects of gold and silver, board games, chests, chairs and clothing were found in ancient Egyptian tombs (Mark). Food and drink offerings to the dead were expected to be made daily by families. In tombs of the upper-class nobles and royalty there was an offerings chapel that included an offering table. Family members would leave the food and drinks on the table. It was believed that the deceased soul would supernaturally absorb the offerings and then return to the afterlife (Mark). For those families who were too busy and could afford it a priest (known as a Ka priest) could be hired to perform the rituals (Mark). They thought that they would be haunted by their loved one’s ghost if they forgot to bring food and drinks until this wrong was righted.
The pyramids played a crucial role in religious and burial functions in Ancient Egyptian society. Through burial in the pyramids the pharaohs ascended into eternal life not necessarily in the way the Egyptians thought they would; but in the history of their lives that has now been forever preserved in the pyramids. We the people of the future help them to live on in our study of them and their ways of life. If not for the pyramids ancient Egypt would not be viewed with such awe and wonder.
- Dunn, Jimmy. “Tour Egypt.” Why the Ancient Egyptians Built Pyramids – A Matter of Religion, www.touregypt.net/featurestories/pyramidreligion.htm.
- “Egyptian Mummies.” Smithsonian Institution, www.si.edu/spotlight/ancient-egypt/mummies.
- Handwerk, Brian. “Pyramids at Giza.” National Geographic, 23 Mar. 2017, www.nationalgeographic.com/archaeology-and-history/archaeology/giza-pyramids/.
- Krebsbach, Jared, and Eric Lambrecht. “What Was the Importance of Pyramids in Ancient Egypt?” What Was the Importance of Pyramids in Ancient Egypt? – DailyHistory.org, dailyhistory.org/What_Was_the_Importance_of_Pyramids_in_Ancient_Egypt?
- Mark, Joshua J. “Grave Goods in Ancient Egypt.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 11 May 2019, www.ancient.eu/article/1049/grave-goods-in-ancient-egypt/.
- Rank, Scott M. “Mummies in Ancient Egypt and the Process of Mummification.” History, 25 Apr. 2018, www.historyonthenet.com/the-egyptians-mummies.
- Rawlinson, Kevin. “New Discovery Throws Light on Mystery of Pyramids’ Construction.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 6 Nov. 2018, www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/06/new-discovery-throws-light-on-mystery-of-pyramids-construction.
- River, Charles editor. The Egyption Pyramids:The Origins and History of the World’s Most Famous Monuments. Kindle ed.
- Seawright, Caroline. “Life After Death.” The Ancient Egyptian Concept of the Soul, 26 Mar. 2001, www.thekeep.org/~kunoichi/kunoichi/themestream/egypt_soul.html#.XNdOjI5KjIW.
- “The Egyptian Pyramid.” Smithsonian Institution, www.si.edu/spotlight/ancient-egypt/pyramid.
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