Grand tombs and gateways to the afterlife—the pyramids of Egypt are among the world’s most magnificent monuments. Their massive size and simple shape fascinate people.
Ancient peoples in the Americas and the Middle East also built pyramids. But the largest and best known were constructed in Egypt more than 3,500 years ago. Around 100 pyramids still stand on the west bank of the Nile River.
ROYAL RESTING PLACES
Pyramids were lavish tombs built only for royalty and other high-ranking people. The ancient Egyptians believed that the spirits of dead people could live on only if their bodies survived. So they preserved dead bodies by making them into mummies. Mummies are dried-out bodies wrapped in linen bandages. The ancient Egyptians buried the mummies securely inside pyramids.
Many treasures were buried with royal mummies. The ancient Egyptians believed that all of the items a person used in life would also be needed after death. They buried thousands of items with pharaohs and other important people. These items were made of the richest materials, such as gold and jewels. Some mummies even had coffins made from solid gold!
Pyramids were holy places, where spirits passed into the afterlife. Hieroglyphs (picture writing) were carved inside to guide each spirit on its journey. Priests made offerings at nearby temples to help the spirits.
BUILDING A PYRAMID
Building a pyramid was an enormous project. The largest, the Great Pyramid of King Khufu, measured an astonishing 482 feet (147 meters) high. That’s 50 stories high! Thousands of laborers worked for years to build it. They cut millions of huge stone blocks. These blocks could weigh as much as 33,000 pounds (15,000 kilograms)! The laborers dragged them up earthen ramps using ropes, wooden rollers, and muscle power.
The pyramids’ shape developed from boxlike brick tombs, built one on top of the other. The first true pyramid was designed for the Egyptian king Sneferu, who died in 2551 bc. Workers laid stone blocks on a square foundation, then added layers on top, each smaller than the one below. They covered the resulting stair-step shape with stone slabs to create smooth, sloping sides.
Inside, each pyramid had rooms for the dead person and for the treasures to be used in the afterlife. Entrances were hidden by secret passages and doors. Even so, most pyramids were looted by grave robbers. The robbers found most of the hidden rooms and stole the treasures.