Egyptian pyramids evolved. They did not just pop out of the ground at Giza. A series of mistakes litter the desert. In a short space of miles you can see those mistakes and follow that evolution.
Saqqara has a stepped pyramid (and rubble of a step pyramid that didn’t hold up so well.) It was an early incarnation of Pharaonic funeral monuments. Then the builders decided to shift to smooth sided pyramids. The Collapsed Pyramid at Meidum was their first big mistake. The builders made the angle too steep. Instead of the pressure of the weight at the top of the pyramid pushing “in” holding the pyramid together it pushed “out.” When builders topped off the pyramid with the capstone the pyramid blew up, or more precisely blew out. What remains is a core, looking like a huge castle keep with debris broadcast around it. (At least that’s one theory. Another is that the stone underneath the smooth casing was too soft and crumbled under the weight of the casing causing it to slide off, a less dramatic theory.)
School kids on a field trip climbed over and into the collapsed pyramid giving the site an innocent, “safe enough,” feel. But we were Americans who needed protection so were assigned a “tour guide.” The guide wore a plastic tour guide badge. But he also had an automatic weapon slung over his shoulder, partly concealed by his blue sports coat. He had two banana clips fastened together with black electrical tape giving him a lot of firepower. He fingered the weapon while pointing out the carvings on a sarcophagus. When we finished he asked if we had any questions. “What are you packing?” He didn’t understand. “Is your weapon an FAL?”
“No, is a Heckler.”
The Dahshur pyramid field shows more intermediate steps in pyramid evolution. It is several miles beyond the great pyramids in Giza and a couple of kilometers beyond the first step pyramid at Saqqara, between Saqqara and the collapsed pyramid. Dahshur has several pyramids including another early attempt at a smooth sided pyramid, the “bent” pyramid. It started at a steep angle, 54 degrees, but three quarters of the way up the angle changes to a more gentle slope. Some architectural historians surmise that when the collapsed pyramid – collapsed — the builders modified the bent pyramid mid construction. The thing looks a little like a barn roof.
Standing at the bent pyramid I could see the step pyramid as Saqqara, the Red pyramid, the Black pyramid and the tops of the “great” pyramids. The Black pyramid (allegedly built to entomb Joseph’s pharaoh from the Old Testament) is another failure if you take the long view. It is mostly rubble, possibly because of bad building materials. The Red pyramid, the second largest in Egypt, was more of a success. It is bigger than two of the three “Great Pyramids” at Giza but has an angle less acute than that of the more famous pyramids.
Some tour guides prefer Dahshur to the Giza because it’s un-crowded, not near a Hard Rock Cafe, and the sand blows right up to the base of the monuments giving it a more “original” feel. The Bent pyramid still has much of its white limestone cap because the angle makes it harder to remove than the white limestone on the great pyramids. Looking at it you can get some idea of what the original pyramids might have looked like.
I had a security escort of two white uniformed tourist police for my walk around the bent pyramid. One had an AK 47 the other rode a camel. The camel made the most alarming belching and gurgling sounds behind me. I walked quickly to keep well ahead of the beast, wondering about a camel’s vomit range. One of my guards must have been recently promoted because his sergeant’s chevrons were tacked onto his sleeve with a safety pin. I was the ONLY tourist at the bent pyramid.
This post is an amalgamation of two letters from 2007.