Pyramids: Enormous Ancient Symbols of Power

The Pyramids at Giza, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cairo, Egypt, North Africa, Africa
The Pyramids at Giza, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cairo, Egypt, North Africa, Africa. Gavin Hellier / Getty Images

A pyramid is a type of huge ancient building that is a member of the class of structures known as public or monumental architecture. The archetypal pyramid like those at Giza in Egypt is a mass of stone or earth with a rectangular base and four steeply sloping sides that meet in a point at the top. But pyramids come in many different forms—some are round or oval or rectangular at the base, and they can be smooth-sided, or stepped, or truncated with a flat platform topped by a temple. Pyramids, more or less, are not buildings that people walk into, but rather huge monolithic structures meant to make people awestruck.

Did You Know?

  • The oldest pyramid is Djoser's Step Pyramid in Egypt, built about 2600 BCE
  • The largest pyramid is Cholula in Puebla, Mexico, covering an area about four times as large as the Giza pyramids in Egypt

Who Built the Pyramids?

Pyramids are found in several cultures around the world. The most famous are those in Egypt, where the tradition of the construction of masonry pyramids as tombs began in the Old Kingdom (2686–2160 BCE). In the Americas, monumental earthen structures called pyramids by archaeologists were constructed as early as the Caral-Supe society (2600–2000 BCE) in Peru, similar in age to those of the ancient Egyptian, but, of course, totally separate cultural innovations.

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site preserves the burial mounds of an Indian civilization which inhabited the area from 900 to 1500 AD. | Location: Collinsville, Illinois, USA. Michael S. Lewis / Getty Images

Later American societies who built pointy- or platform-topped, slope-sided stone or earthen pyramids include the Olmec, Moche, and Maya; there's also an argument to be made that the earthen Mississippian mounds such as Cahokia of southeastern North America should be classed as pyramids.

Etymology

While scholars are not in total agreement, the word "pyramid" is apparently from the Latin "pyramis," a word which refers specifically to the Egyptian pyramids. Pyramis (which is apparently unrelated to the old Mesopotamian tragic myth of Pyramus and Thisbe) in turn is derived from the original Greek word "puramid." Interestingly, puramid means "cake made out of roasted wheat."

One theory for why the Greeks used the word "puramid" to refer to the Egyptian pyramids is that they were making a joke, that the cake had a pyramid shape and calling the Egyptian structures "pyramids" was slighting the Egyptian technological capabilities. Another possibility is that the shape of the cakes was (more or less) a marketing device, the cakes made to look like the pyramids.

Another possibility is that pyramid is an alteration of the original Egyptian hieroglyph for pyramid—MR, sometimes written as mer, mir, or pimar. See the discussions in Swartzman, Romer, and Harper, among lots of others.

In any case, the word pyramid was at some point also assigned to the pyramid geometric shape (or possibly vice versa), which is basically a polyhedron made up of connected polygons, such that the sloping sides of a pyramid are triangles.

Why Build a Pyramid?

Close Up View of Casing Stones of the Bent Pyramid
Close Up View of Casing Stones of the Bent Pyramid. MedioImages / Photodisc / Getty Images

While we don't have any way of knowing for sure why the pyramids were built, we have lots of educated guesses. The most basic is as a form of propaganda. Pyramids can be seen as a visual expression of the political power of a ruler, one who at a minimum had the ability to arrange to have an extremely skilled architect plan such a massive monument and to have laborers mine the stone and construct it to specifications.

Pyramids are often explicit references to mountains, the elite person reconstructing and reconfiguring the natural landscape in a way that no other monumental architecture really can. Pyramids may have been built to impress the citizenry or the political enemies inside or outside the society. They may even have fulfilled a role empowering non-elites, who may have seen the structures as proof that their leaders were able to protect them.

Pyramids as burial places—not all pyramids had burials—may also have been commemorative constructions that brought continuity to a society in the form of ancestor worship: the king is always with us. Pyramids may also have been the stage on which social drama could occur. As the visual focus of large numbers of people, pyramids may have been designed to define, separate, include, or exclude segments of the society.

What are Pyramids?

Like other forms of monumental architecture, pyramid construction holds clues to what the purpose might be. Pyramids are of a size and quality of construction that greatly exceeds what is required by practical needs--after all, who needs a pyramid?

Societies which build pyramids invariably are those based on ranked classes, orders or estates; the pyramids are often not built just on a lavish scale, they are carefully planned to suit a particular astronomical orientation and geometrical perfection. They are symbols of permanence in a world where lives are short; they are a visual symbol of power in a world where power is transitory.

Egyptian Pyramids

Step Pyramid of Djoser
Step Pyramid of Djoser and Associated Shrines. Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The best-known pyramids in the world are those of the Old Kingdom in Egypt. The precursors of the pyramids were called mastaba, rectangular mudbrick burial structures built as tombs for the rulers of the predynastic period. Eventually, those rulers wanted larger and larger burial facilities, and the oldest pyramid in Egypt was the Step Pyramid of Djoser, built about 2700 BCE. Most of the Giza pyramids are pyramid-shaped, four flat smooth sides rising to a point. 

The largest of the pyramids is the Great Pyramid of Giza, built for the 4th dynasty Old Kingdom Pharaoh Khufu (Greek Cheops), in the 26th century BCE. It is massive, covers an area of 13 acres, made from 2,300,000 limestone blocks each weighing an average of 2.5 tons, and rising to a height of 481 feet. 

Mesopotamia

Chogha Zanbil Ziggurat
Elamite complex in the Khuzestan province of Iran, it is one of the few existing ziggurats outside Mesopotamia. Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images

The ancient Mesopotamians also built pyramids, known as ziggurats, stepped and built of sun-dried brick at its core, then veneered with a protective layer of fire-baked brick. Some of the brick was glazed in colors. The earliest known is located at Tepe Sialk in Iran, constructed in the early 3rd millennium BCE; not much is left but part of the foundations; precursor mastaba-like structures date to the Ubaid period.

Each of the Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Elamite cities in Mesopotamia had a ziggurat, and each ziggurat had a flat top where the temple or "house" of the city's deity. The one in Babylon likely inspired the "Tower of Babylon" verses in the bible. The best preserved of the 20 or so known ziggurats is that at Chogha Zanbil in Khuzestan, Iran, built about 1250 BCE for the Elamite king Untash-Huban. Several levels are missing today, but it once stood about 175 feet tall, with a square base measuring about 346 feet on a side. 

Central America

Lava Field at Cuicuilco (Mexico).
Lava Field at Cuicuilco (Mexico). Flowers bloom on the 50 BC eruption at Cuicuilco, they pyramid in the background. vladimix

Pyramids in Central America were made by several different cultural groups, the Olmec, Maya, Aztec, Toltec, and Zapotec societies. Almost all of the Central American pyramids have square or rectangular bases, stepped sides, and flat tops. They are made of stone or earth or a mixture of both. 

The oldest pyramid in central America was built during the early 4th century BCE, the Great Pyramid of Complex C at the Olmec site of La Venta. It is massive, 110 feet high and was a rectangular pyramid with stepped sides, made from adobe brick. It has been severely eroded into its current conical shape. 

The largest pyramid in Central America is at the Teotihuacano site of Cholula., known as the Great Pyramid, La Gran Pirámide, or Tlachihualtepetl. Construction began in the 3rd century BCE, and it eventually grew to have a square base of 1,500 x 1,500 feet, or about four times that of the Giza pyramid, rising to a height of 217 feet. It is the largest pyramid on earth (just not the tallest). It features a core of adobe brick covered over by a veneer of mortared stone which in turn was covered by a plaster surface. 

The pyramid at the site of Cuicuilco near Mexico City is in the form of a truncated cone. Pyramid A at the site of Cuicuilco was built about 150–50 BCE, but buried by the eruption of Xitli volcano in 450 CE. 

South America

North America

Sources