The Different Types Of Egyptian Pyramids

“Opened are the double doors of the horizon; unlocked are its bolts.” —Inscription on the Pyramid of Unas

In A Nutshell

There are few monuments more iconic than the Giza pyramids. Egyptian builders didn’t get the formula right on the first try, though, and there are a handful of other types of pyramids that came before. Some, like the mastaba, were used as early tombs. Others, like the Bent Pyramid, were corrections made to a work in progress.

The Whole Bushel

If you picture the pyramids of Egypt, you’re probably thinking of the pyramids at Giza. Standing 146 meters (481 ft) tall and with sides that slope at a surprisingly regular angle (about 51°) with virtually no variance, the Great Pyramid dominates the Giza plateau (pictured above). It’s the most popular of the Egyptian pyramids, but it’s definitely not the only type.

The pyramids are known as the resting places of kings. The earliest of these grave sites weren’t pyramids or monuments at all, and bodies were buried in oval pit graves. Over the years, the higher-ranking among the dead were buried in protective clay or wooden coffins, early sarcophagi. This was about the same time that they began lining the pit graves with bricks, forming the basis of the much later, much more impressive pyramids.

The middle step between the pit graves and the pyramids that are more familiar is the mastaba. Mastabas were low, flat-roofed tombs with sloped sides that were often built into the bedrock and made of mud bricks and stone. For the first time, bodies were protected from the hot, dry air of the desert, preventing the natural process of mummification from happening. This led to the development of the artificial process of mummification that bodies in this ancient period onward underwent.

Gradually, the mastaba was widened to form the bottom layer of the step pyramid. These pyramids were formed using a square mastaba as the base, with smaller and smaller layers built on top of it. The result is the basic shape of the pyramid, but with as many as seven different layers and a distinct stair pattern around all the edges. These pyramids were generally interpreted as being a literal stairway to heaven.

The Meidum Pyramid was constructed around 2613 B.C. and was the stepping stone between the step pyramid and its more familiar successors. This pyramid started out as a step pyramid, constructed in the same way. Near the end of construction, the steps were filled in to create even sides, and then the structure was finished in limestone. This pyramid had partially collapsed by 1550 B.C.

The Bent Pyramid is a distinct structure that was created because of a miscalculation. It was the first attempt at what we now think of as the classic Egyptian pyramid, but the angle was wrong. Construction was originally started with a side angle of 54 degrees, but it proved too steep to be stable. Problems apparently became clear halfway through construction, as the angle was reduced to 43° halfway up the structure, giving it the distinctive look and its modern name.

Closely following the Bent Pyramid was the construction of another pyramid at Dahshur, called the Red Pyramid. This is the first “true” pyramid, and similar to the ones we envision today.

Pyramids were originally designed to give Egypt’s rulers a burial place that suited their stature in life. But, like all great things, the idea of using pyramids to commemorate a burial place was eventually ripped off by the masses. Pyramids became a common thing to build over tombs, and by the time the final resting places of Egypt’s rulers was moved to the Valley of the Kings, others were using small pyramids to mark grave sites. Because they were on a much smaller scale than the monuments at Giza, these markers could have much steeper sides. They also usually contained niches and alcoves, along with statues and other commemorative markers.

Show Me The Proof

Parameters of the Mastaba Pyramid
BBC History: Development of Pyramids Gallery