Ancient Egyptian History: Mastabas, the Original Pyramids

The Original Egyptian Pyramid

A mastaba in Giza, Egypt.
A mastaba in Giza, Egypt. Richard Maschmeyer / robertharding/Getty Images

A mastaba is a large rectangular structure that was used as a type of tomb, often for royalty, in Ancient Egypt.

Mastabas were relatively low (especially when compared to pyramids), rectangular, flat-roofed, roughly bench shaped burial structures that were created and utilized for the pre-Dynastic pharaohs or nobility of Ancient Egypt. They had distinct sloping sides, and were typically made of mud bricks, or stones.

The mastabas themselves served as visible monuments for the prominent Egyptian nobility that they housed, although the actual burial chambers for the mummified corpses were underground and were not visible to the public from the outside of the structure.

Step Pyramid

Technically, mastabas preceded the original pyramid. In fact, pyramids developed directly from mastabas, as the first pyramid was actually a type of step pyramid, which was constructed by stacking one mastaba directly on top of a slightly larger one. This process was repeated several times in order to create the initial pyramid.

The original step pyramid was designed by Imhotepin the third millennium BC. The sloping sides of traditional pyramids were adopted directly from mastabas, although the flat roof typical of mastabas was replaced by a pointed roof in pyramids.

The common flat-sided, pointed pyramid also developed directly from the mastabas.

Such pyramids were created by modifying the step pyramid by filling in the uneven sides of the pyramids with stones and lime in order to create the flat, even outward appearance. This eliminated the stair-like appearance of step pyramids. Thus, the progression of pyramids went from the mastabas to the step pyramids to the bent pyramids (which was an in-between form of the step pyramid and the triangular shaped pyramids), and then finally the triangle shaped pyramids, like those seen at Giza.

Usage

Eventually, during the Old Kingdom in Egypt, Egyptian royalty such as kings stopped being buried in mastabas, and began being buried in more modern, and more aesthetically pleasing, pyramids. Egyptians of non-royal background continued to be buried in mastabas. From the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Old Kingdom mastabas were used chiefly for nonroyal burials. In nonroyal tombs a chapel was provided that included a formal tablet or stela on which the deceased was shown seated at a table of offerings. The earliest examples are simple and architecturally undemanding; later a suitable room, the tomb-chapel, was provided for the stela (now incorporated in a false door) in the tomb superstructure.

Storage chambers were stocked with food and equipment, and walls were often decorated with scenes showing the deceased’s expected daily activities. What had earlier been a niche on the side grew into a chapel with an offering table and a false door through which the spirit of the deceased could leave and enter the burial chamber.”