Pyramid (Gr. ), the geometrical term for any solid contained by a plane polygonal base and other planes meeting in a point, applied to various monumental and temple structures of several nations. The most famous pyramids are those of the ancient Egyptians, and with few exceptions are the tombs of kings. The theories that they were astronomical monuments, or large storehouses, or, as Prof. Piazzi Smyth holds, memorials of a system of weights and measures, intended to be universal, and built with the aid of divine inspiration, are not supported by the accounts of the ancients, nor by the Egyptian inscriptions and other testimony. The facts that the pyramids are found in the midst of a necropolis, that they contain sarcophagi and mummies, and that the inscriptions on the tombs of many priests mention as a special honor that the deceased officiated at the funeral services held at the pyramids, seem to prove that they are tombs and nothing else. As the Egyptian tombs have always borne one and the same character, and only the manner in which they were adorned varied with the tastes of the period, their age may be determined with great certainty.
For the first eleven dynasties, or previous to about 3000 B. C, the tombs were in the form of a mastaba, or merely rectangular walls looking like unfinished pyramids, and their interior was richly decorated with sculptures and paintings, referring either to the life of the deceased or to the gods of the current religious system. During the middle empire, and until about 1600 B. C., the mastaba was superseded by small pyramids, and by the speos or halls cut into the rocks, and the divinities were seldom represented upon them. In the next period, until about 340 B. C, excavated tombs prevailed, and the statuary and images of the deceased were superseded again by those of a mythological nature. The pyramids are only enlarged mastaba, and belong as such to the first period. Each one was commenced over a sepulchral chamber excavated in the rock, and during the life of the king for whom it was intended the work of building up the structure over this chamber went on, a very narrow and low passageway being kept open as the courses of the stone were added, by which access from the outside was secured to the central chamber. At the death of the monarch the work ceased, and the last layers were then finished off and the passageway closed up.
The piles were constructed of blocks of red or syenitic granite from the quarries of Asswan, and also of others of a hard calcareous stone from the quarries of Mokattam and Turah. They were of extraordinary dimensions, and their transportation to the pyramids and adjustment in their places indicate a surprising degree of mechanical skill. Their thickness varied from more than four to less than two feet, and when arranged one upon another forming steps up the outer slopes, the thickness of the stones determined the height of these steps. Those near the top are of the thicker stones, but the blocks are of moderate length compared with those near the base. The foundations for the structures were excavated in the solid rock, sometimes to the depth of 10 ft., and upon this the great stones were arranged and built up layer upon layer, and one shell succeeding another, the spaces within being filled in with smaller stones closely packed. To quarry and move the immense blocks to the pyramids and then raise them to their places required no little engineering skill, notwithstanding an unlimited amount of human labor was at command.
Near the summits the number of men that could aid in raising the huge stones must have been comparatively small for want of room, and it seems that some mechanical power must have been employed besides any which we know they possessed. The probability of this is confirmed by the fact that cavities in the stones have been found, which appear as though they might have been worn by the foot of derricks turning in them. The three pyramids of the Memphis group stand upon a plateau about 137 ft. above the level of the highest rise of the Nile, not far apart, and nearly on a N. E. and S. W. line. Like the other pyramids of Egypt, their four sides are directed toward the cardinal points. The largest of them, known as the great pyramid or the pyramid of Cheops (Khufu or Shufu), covers at present an area of between 12 and 13 acres. Its dimensions have been reduced by the removal of the outer portions to furnish stone for the city of Cairo. Thus despoiled, the walls have lost their smooth finished surface, in which state they were left by their builders, who, beginning at the top, filled in with small stones the angles formed by the recession of each upper layer, and bevelled off the upper edges of the great blocks, till reaching the base they left each side of an even surface sloping at an angle of 51° 50'. By stripping off the outer casing the courses of stone appear in the form of steps, which, though ragged and unequal, can be ascended even by ladies.
The great pyramid has 203 of these steps, the lower ones being 4 ft. 10 in. high. The horizontal surfaces were nicely finished, and the stones were joined together with a cement of lime without sand. The masonry of the great pyramid con sisted originally of 89,028,000 cubic feet, and still amounts to 82,111,000 ft. The present vertical height is 450 ft., against 479 ft. originally, and the present length of the sides is 746 ft., against 764 ft. originally. The total weight of the stone is estimated at 6,316,000 tons. The only entrance is on the N. face, 49 ft. above the base, and about 24 ft. E. of the central line. The masonry about it is much broken away, and the piles of broken stones reach up from the ground nearly to its level. This passageway (marked a in the adjoining illustration) is only 3 ft. 11 in. high and 3 ft. 5 1/2 in. wide; it leads down a slope at an angle of 26° 41' a distance of 320 ft. 10 in. to the original sepulchral chamber, commonly known as the subterraneous apartment, and beyond this 52 ft. 9 in. into the rock, with an area in this portion of only 2 ft. 7 in. in width and 2 ft. 8 in. in height.
It is supposed that it was intended to excavate another chamber at the end of this passage, and that it was not done on account of the monarch continuing to live until it was found expedient to close up the mouth of the passage with the external casing of masonry. The sepulchral chamber (c) is 46 ft. long by 27 ft. in width, and its height is 11 1/2 ft. The entrance passage, 63 ft. long, connects with a branch passage, which rises at an angle of 26° 18', and thus extends 124 ft., when it becomes level and runs 109 ft. further. This connects with several chambers and passages. One situated nearly in the central portion of the pyramid, and 67 ft. above its base, is known as the queen's chamber (f). This measures 17 ft. by 18 ft. 9 in., and 20 ft. 3 in. high, and has a groined roof. It appears to have been intended for a sarcophagus; but the only one found was in what is called the grand or king's chamber (h). This is an apartment lined with red granite highly polished, single stones reaching from the floor to the ceiling, and the ceiling is formed of nine large slabs of polished granite, extending from wall to wall. It is 34 ft. 3 in. long, 17 ft. 1 in. wide, and 19 ft. 1 in. high.
Over it are five small chambers (l), apparently built to shelter the larger room beneath from the weight of the masonry. The room is perfectly plain, and contains only a sarcophagus of red granite, 7 1/2 ft. long, 3 ft. 3 in. wide, and 3 ft. 5 in. high, which is too large to have been introduced through the entrance passage, and must therefore have been placed in the room when this was built. It contained a wooden coffin with the mummy of the king, which disappeared when the pyramids were first opened and plundered. In the construction of the pyramids arrangements were made for blocking up the important passages with huge masses of granite, and the obstacles thus interposed have greatly impeded their exploration, and sometimes rendered it necessary to open new passages past the obstructions. It is probable that on account of these extraordinary precautions there are yet undiscovered apartments in the immense body of these structures. Niebuhr (1761), Davison (1763), the French expedition (1798), Hamilton (1801), Caviglias (1817), Belzoni (1818), and Col. Howard Vyse (1837) penetrated into the interior; but a forcible passage had been effected into the pyramid long before any of these visits.
It is not improbable that the Egyptians themselves violated the tomb of Cheops, or that Cambyses entered it; but Arab historians record that the caliph Mamoun, in the beginning of the 9th century, forced his way into the pyramid in order to rob it of its supposed treasures. Unable to discover the hidden entrance, he caused a passageway to be broken through the masonry on the north side (k), and thus reached the passage coming from above. He found nothing but empty chambers, and a stone sarcophagus, containing another of wood, which held a richly decorated mummy. - The second pyramid, King Shafra's, stands on a base 33 ft. above that of the great pyramid, and in an excavation made for it in the rock. It measured originally 707 ft. 9 in. on the sides, and was 454 ft. 3 in. high; but these dimensions are now reduced respectively to 690 ft. 9 in. and 447 1/2 ft. The angle of its slope is 52° 20'. The upper portion of its casing is still preserved, and persons can ascend this, though not without danger, especially if liable to become dizzy by losing sight of the lower portion of the structure.
This pyramid has two entrances, one 37 ft. 8 in. above the base, and the other built out in front of the base, each leading by an inclined passage about 100 ft. in length to the same sepulchral chamber. This has a roof of the shape of the pyramid itself, and measures 46 ft. 2 in. by 16 ft. 2 in., and is 19 ft. 3 in. high. It contains a granite sarcophagus 8 ft. 7 in. long, 3 1/2 ft. wide, and 3 ft. high. It was reached with great difficulty by Belzoni in 1818, who found a Cufic inscription recording the visit of a caliph and the opening by him of the pyramid, A. D. 1196-'7. The only remains met with were those of a bull. The third pyramid is only 354 1/2 ft. square and 203 ft. high, but was originally 219 ft. high. It was explored in 1837 by Col. Vyse, who discovered several apartments, in one of which were a highly finished sarcophagus, a mummy case bearing the name of King Menkara, and the body of a workman. The last two are now in the British museum, but the sarcophagus was lost on the passage.
This pyramid, though the smallest, is the best constructed of the three, and indeed the style of the work is more costly than that of any of the other pyramids of Egypt. In the same vicinity are six smaller pyramids, supposed to have been the tombs of some of the relatives of the kings who constructed the larger ones, and an immense number of tombs, some built up above the surface, some excavated in the rock, and some subterranean channels. Near the great pyramids is also the famous sphinx. - Of the other pyramids further S., the largest are of the Da-shoor group, of which there are five, two of stone and three of rough brick. One of the former is now reduced from 719 1/2 to 700 ft. square, and from 342 1/2 to 326 1/2 ft. high, and the other is 616 1/2 ft. square and 319 1/2 ft. high. Abu-sir has a group of 14 pyramids, but many of them are small and mere heaps of rubbish, and only two are more than 100 ft. high. The Sakkara field of pyramids is adjacent to that of Abusir, and contains 17 pyramids more or less preserved. The most remarkable and largest in this group is the pyramid in steps, which possibly may once have been as smooth as the other pyramids, but none of the stones which formerly filled the gaps are to be seen.
Its situation in the immediate vicinity of the oldest portion of the city, its rude construction, and its oblong rectangular form, originally measuring 351 ft. from N. to S. and 393 ft. from E. to W., indicate a very high antiquity. Its nucleus is still standing, and rises 190 ft. above the level of the desert, in five distinct portions. Instead of facing the cardinal points, it is turned 4° 35' to the east, which seems to show that its erection dates from a time when the rules for the exact astronomical construction had not been discovered. Egyptologists adduce many reasons for considering this pyramid either the tomb of Uenephes or the oldest burial place of Apis. As both Apis bones and the remains of royal mummies have been found in it, the pyramid may have served first as the tomb of kings, and been afterward appropriated for the service of Apis. The other pyramids of Sakkara are almost entirely de stroyed. One of them, an enormous mastaba, the Mastaba el-Faraoon, has recently been entered by Mariette Bey, who discovered an inscription dedicating the tomb to King Unas, of the fifth dynasty. Among the minor fields of pyramids is that of Abu Roash, a village two hours from Gizeh, where there are three which evidently date from the earliest dynasties.
But generally speaking there is little of interest in the pyramids outside of Gizeh, Abusir, Sak-kara, and Dashoor. - Pyramids are frequently met with in the upper part of the valley of the Nile. There are many in Nubia about lat. 17° and 18° N., the sepulchres of the monarchs of Meroë and of Ethiopia; a single group N. of Jebel Barkal comprises 120. Others are met with in other ancient countries of the East. At Birs Nimrud is the step-shaped pyramid built by Nebuchadnezzar of bricks of different colors, known as the temple of seven spheres. This was 235 ft. high with a perimeter of 2,286 ft. The same monarch built the pyramidal brick structure of Mujellibe at Babylon, the ruins of which still remain. At Benares in India are also the ruins of pyramids; and others were built in ancient times at Peking, and again at Suka in Java. At Rome one was constructed 20 or 30 years B. C, in honor of C. Cestius, in imitation of the Egyptian monuments, and furnished with a sepulchral chamber; it is 120 ft. high on a base of 95 ft. diameter, built of hewn stone and marble-faced. - In Mexico are similar structures far exceeding in the area they cover the dimensions even of the great pyramid of Egypt. These monuments, called teocallis, literally "houses of God," are pyramids in terraces with flat tops, and surmounted by a chamber or cell, which is the temple itself.
They seem to be of all ages; that of Cholula is, according to tradition, as early as the Toltecs, while the great teocalli of the city of Mexico was finished only five or six years before the discovery of America by Columbus. (See Cholula, and Mexico, vol. xi., p. 483.) There are two pyramids at Teoti-huacan, the largest of which is apparently a square of 645 ft. with a height of 171 ft., and there are others at Tezcuco of about the same dimensions, and like them divided into five or seven stories; but the most interesting of those yet brought to light is that of Xochicalco, on account of its sculptures and architectural ornaments. There are in Mexico also numerous pyramids of one story, but, like that of Oajaca, they are only devices to raise a temple to such a height as would enable the people to witness the ceremonies performed around it. While Egyptian pyramids are always tombs, and terminate in a point, without steps leading to the apex, the Mexican are always temples, and in terraces, with the upper platform crowned by a chamber or cell. Similar to the latter were the Assyrian pyramids, and the object of their construction was the same. In fact this form of temple has been found from Mesopotamia to the Pacific ocean.
The resemblance has given rise to many theories on the racial connection of the builders, and Fergusson says: "If we still hesitate to pronounce that there was any connection between the builders of the pyramids of Suku and Oajaca, or the temples of Xochicalco and Boro Buddor, we must at least allow that the likeness is startling and difficult to account for on the theory of mere accidental coincidence." - See Vyse's "Operations carried on at Ghizeh in 1837" (3 vols., London, 1840-'42), and Piazzi Smyth's "Life and Work at the Great Pyramid" (3 vols., Edinburgh, 1867). Excellent accounts of the Egyptian pyramids will be found also in Pro-kesch-Osten's Nilfahrt (Leipsic, 1874), and in the new edition of Brugsch Bey's Histoire d'Égypte (Leipsic, vol. i., 1875).
Mastaba of Meydoum.
Section of the Great Pyramid.