Ancient Egyptian Pyramids and Tombs

When you come on holiday to Egypt and see the sites at Luxor and Cairo, tombs, temples like the Giza pyramids. It almost seems that from the dawn of Egyptian civilisation until the end the Ancient Egyptians were obsessed with death and burial. This is not actually the truth, when you look at scenes of daily life they are a very happy LIFE obsessed culture.

The tombs of the nobles at Sakkara show lively and fun loving scenes. However the effort and time put into burial are considerable. Many factors seem to have driven the development of the funeral architecture but it is hard to identify these at times because the Ancient Egyptian did not tell us, so we have to deduce the reasons from the evidence left to us.

Trace the evolution of funerary architecture from the predynastic pit grave through the development of the mastaba tomb, to the pyramid complexes of the 4th Dynasty.

There appear to be three influences driving funerary architecture

  • Religious belief 
  • Power, wealth and status 
  • Tomb robbery

These influences can be in conflict and a compromise has to be made. There are also many regional differences.

The various types of burial are as follows:-

Pit Graves

The Upper Egyptian initially buried everyone in shallow pit graves, either round or oval. These were situated in the desert away from the cultivation. The body was contracted in a foetal position and provided with grave goods. Some of the artifacts buried represent high art of its time and considerable sacrifice of resources. There does not seem to be any difference in the pit between rich and poor burials only in the contents of the burial. All were buried in pits which probably had some kind of cairn built over them perhaps reminiscent of the primordial mound.

With the development of power and wealth and changing religious views, the elite did not want to be buried in this way anymore, they looked for something different. So while the very poor continue to be buried in pits we now see a different style for the rich. They seem to want to have the same burials as the royal rulers

Also the graves of Upper and Lower Egypt are different. We do not have very much evidence about Lower Egyptian graves but those we do have show burial within the community and fewer grave goods. This might indicate a more family oriented and less status driven society.

It is difficult to judge whether tomb architecture drove the development of mummification or that mummification was developed before the end of the pit burial. Early attempts at mummification have been recently discovered in burials of the Nagada II culture. So we can architectural development, separate from any influence the development of mummification has on it.

It would seem that wealthy and power was the prime motivation driving tomb development. Your tomb had to be seen, to dominate the landscape. However there was a religious stimulus driving the design with the development of offering niches and rooms to contain for the afterlife. Djoser’s step pyramid might have developed out of a need to for the burial mastaba to be seen once the enclosure wall was built.

The simple pit tomb continued to serve the poorer classes throughout Egyptian history. However the wealthier, elite people now developed this structure. The pit tomb would now have a wooden roof creating a small underground chamber. The roof would be made of beams of wood consolidated with mud and smaller branches. Roofs of traditional Egyptian houses still use this. The beams often made of palm trees. The shape of the pit now changes from round to rectangle. The pit can be lined with mud brick, wood or other organic substances.

Elaborate child burials indicate that position in society was inherited and these can be seen in the Nagada cemetery. The elite also had their own area for burials although it is not exclusive.

The next development around the time of Unification was the creation of several rooms in the mastaba, which would have held more grave goods. This also meant richer plunder for tomb robbers, so another development at this time was security systems. Initially these took the form of digging deeper and putting a mound on top. The superstructure is largely unknown having disappeared long ago but probably had its origins in the primordial mound. This concept came about from the inundation of the Nile. As the flood waters disappeared little islands would appear. The Egyptians believed this represented the beginning of time when there was a watery chaos and the first life appeared on the first mound.

In Lower Egypt the cemeteries move outside the community and there are displays of wealth and power in the burial perhaps indicating that the Upper Egyptian style of society with elites had replaced the egalitarian Lower Egyptian society.


In shape looking like the mud brick bench outside traditional Egyptian homes, these tombs were given the Arabic name mastaba. The superstructure became more complex. Starting with a solid mound, it developed into a labyrinth of rooms and passage, with sizes up to 5 meters and large numbers of rooms. The outside was a niched wall of mud brick, the so called palace facade, which was in plan a series of in and out rectangles or niches. This distinctive style can be seen at the same period in the serak. The elite tomb has now become the house for eternity and probably closely resembles an ordinary house and in the king’s case, his palace with a large enclosure wall.

During the Early Dynastic period subsidiary burials also occurred and it would seem from evidence of contiguous ceilings at Abydos, indicating burial at the same time, that the deaths also occurred at the same time, which possibly indicates evidence of either human sacrifice or suicide. One burial had 10 donkey burials which in those days must have been high status as it was the only method of transportation.

When looking at the early dynastic burials we can see various kings experimenting with different ideas.

  • Aha goes for a larger scale
  • Djer has recesses 
  • Djet has valuable goods with increased signs of protection 
  •  Meritneith is very regular and precise
  • Den is costly and sumptuous with a paved chamber, stairway and protective portcullises and a possible precursor to the serdab.
  • Anedjib is an emergency burial
  • Semerkhet has subsidiary burials adjoining the main structure and is a single unified structure
  • Qaa’s entrance doorway is aligned north

According to Dr Mathew Adams, at a lecture giving in Luxor in 2006, he believed that as one king died his predecessor’s monuments were torn down and destroyed. They seem to have been prepared for demolition, ritually cleansed, the floors were covered with pure sand and gravel and then the walls were brought down. You should never see more than one royal monument, the living king. There had to be a ritualistic burial of the enclosures themselves. That is why we only have Khasekhemwy’s left at Abydos. Djoser was his successor and he had his complex down at Sakkara there was no conflict between the living king and his predecessor. Each king had a burial and a funerary enclosure.

Some of these early complexes are huge with evidence of offering rooms, benches with bulls head, palace facades, painted rooms and the use of the palace faade on interior rooms. When you see the remaining substructures you realise the monumental size of these tombs. They are truly enormous and the superstructure that went with them must have likewise been massive. The superstructure appears to have connections with primordial mound. These easily developed into the next royal tomb, the pyramid complex.

Khasekekhemy was a prolific builder and responsible for structures at Abydos and Hierakonpolis. He is also possibly responsible for the complex at Gisa el Mudir. The royal enclosure at Hierakonpolis is extremely large, with a complex layout and decoration. These buildings, pre dating the step pyramid, have stone structures and are the oldest examples of the use of stone. He also had between twelve and fourteen boat burials. It would seem the step pyramid is a culmination of the royal funeral design as king after king was trying to outdo his predecessor in glorifying the Gods.

Pyramid Complexes

Many of the previous monuments have stone elements but Djoser was the first person to use it so extensively. His complex at Sakkara shows widespread use of stone but the styles and designs are all copying organic structures into stone. There was not the confidence to come up with new ideas in the new material. You can see doors half open, ribbons, reeds, etc all faithfully reproduced in stone. Even the pillars are attached. But his compound is a more complex development from preceding pharaohs.

We now seem to have a variety of burials 

  • The majority of the population in pit tombs
  • Elite in mastabas or subsidiary graves around the king
  • Pharaoh in a pyramid complex
  • Royal offerings niches now became complex temples but the burials themselves became simpler with fewer chambers.

Djoser or his architect Imhotep started the royal tomb as a mastaba but at some point they decided to change the design until it became a step pyramid. First it was a substructure with a mound it then grew like topsy upwards and outwards going through several evolutions both in height and dimensions before becoming a six level step pyramid in the middle of a large complex.

The motivation is not obvious, the sun was an important religious object and it may be the idea was to reach to the sun or sky. Imhotep is supposed to be the architect but when you look at his titles he is a lot of things but architect is not mentioned. In fact in later times he was revered as a God but not a builder. However that tradition is so well established there is no real reason to dispute it.

Further step pyramid complexes were built by other pharaohs of the 3rd Dynasty Sekhemhet’s Buried Pyramid and the Layer Pyramid of Zawiyet el Aryan. These are harder to analysis as they are not finished but they do show further development of the complex with a possibility of increased number of steps. The next pharaoh Huni also built a step pyramid but his was a step pyramid from the beginning. Egyptologists (Wilkinson v Lehner amongst others) disagree whether about the original builder some saying Huni and some Sneferu. Huni also built eight small step pyramids along the Nile as well as a granite step pyramid at Elephantine. Not all these structures can have been intended to be tombs, but there does not seem to be a method of deciding which tombs are cenotaphs and which are buildings for ritual worship and which are the actual tomb. It indicates that the prime motivation for building was a demonstration of the power of pharaoh.

The Medium pyramid was probably started by Huni and completed by Sneferu. That pyramid was a true one, the evolutionary link between step and true. Sneferu took the original design and faced the steps creating the first true pyramid. But he did not stop there and he experimented with different angles before he was satisfied The Bent pyramid starts at 54 degrees before changing to 43 degrees when this angle was impossible to proceed with due to strain of the structure. Sneferu settled on 43 degrees as the perfect slope with the Red Pyramid which resolved the structural problems the builders had with the steeper angle.

Lastly we come to the 4th dynasty pyramids which are the greatest pyramids with complexes of valley and mortuary temples, causeways and subsidiary pyramids. The confidence in building in stone is dramatically different from Djoser’s timid work. Huge blocks are used and the craft work of the stones in these temples is amazing with irregular block fitting together so perfectly you can hardly get a cigarette paper between the blocks.

The Giza pyramids have a common design. On the banks of the Nile there would be a valley temple; this would connect with a causeway to the mortuary temple at the edge of the pyramid. Around the pyramid there would be boat burials, subsidiary pyramids of queens, mastabas of the elite of increasing complexity with serdab containing a statue of the deceased. All the elements of the pyramid complex can be traced back. Boat pits were at Abydos surrounding the archaic period burials, the mortuary temple developed from the niche on the wall of the mastaba, and the pyramid was the primordial mound on top of the pit burial or the superstructure of the mastaba. There are subsidiary burials but these are not new as they were also at Abydos. Only the valley temple appears new part of the pyramid complex. Orientation of these pyramids is now solar rather than stellar with the entrance moving from the North stellar to the East solar. Ikram, S. (2002 pg153

Internally the engineering was stunning, the technology used to cope with the stresses of the structure show enormous architectural developments.

Glorification of god (and king) is a key to the development of the tomb; the king appears to want to out achieve his predecessor. Probably each was trying to build the greatest tomb ever. To fully use the resources he had, poring wealthy into the tomb with great workmanship and materials. Changes in religion meant changes in orientation and design. The elite and rulers were able to divert considerable resources into their burials. As time went by and their control of society grew they were able to use this to build bigger and better tombs. Other factors came in, tomb robbery forced security developments. Portcullis blockings, changes in orientation of the entrance, huge mounds. The workman themselves become increasingly skilled meaning more ambitious projects can be undertaken. The nobles wanted to copy and be close to the ruler, their afterlife shows their service tithe king and their burials reflect this, often subsidiary, initially forced.

Their tombs became their eternal houses, with many chambers like their homes. The poor are always with us and buried with the best their family could give them.