Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Pyramids

The Mystery, Culture, and Science of Egypt's Great Monuments

by Miroslav Verner Translated from German by Steven Rendall

“This comprehensive volume details everything you ever wanted to know about pyramids–and the cultural and technological world from which they arose.” –Boston Herald

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 512
  • Publication Date November 22, 2002
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3935-1
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $17.50

About The Book

The Pyramids is the most up-to-date, comprehensive record of Egypt’s ancient monuments to become available in the last six decades. Distinguished Egyptologist Miroslav Verner draws from the research of the earliest Egyptologists as well as the startling discoveries arising from the technological advances of the 1980s and 1990s. The Pyramids offers a clear, authoritative guide to the ancient culture that created the monuments five thousand years ago without iron or bronze, and with only the most elementary systems of calculation. As he explains the magnitude of this accomplishment, he also traces the stories and ideas of the intrepid scientists who have uncovered them.


“This comprehensive volume details everything you ever wanted to know about pyramids–and the cultural and technological world from which they arose.” –Boston Herald

“Engaging, lucid . . . Richly illustrated, Verner’s volume displays both a deep respect for the research of Egyptologists and a comprehensive knowledge of it. . . . An important, comprehensive resource for the study of those most mysteriously, enduringly impressive structures.” –Kirkus Reviews

“The first comprehensive study of Egypt’s pyramids since the revised edition of the late I.E.S. Edwards’s classic The Pyramids of Egypt and Ahmed Fakhry’s The Pyramids (both out of print).” –Library Journal

“The author’s stated goal was to make discussions and research surrounding these gigantic ancient monuments accessible to the general public, and he has certainly succeeded.” –Booklist

“[Miroslav Verner] molds all the known science and history . . . into a fascinating and accessible introduction–essential reading for anyone Cairo-bound

.” –The Sunday Times (UK)

“[The Pyramids] not only holds its own amidst respectable and excellent competition, it claims a privileged place among them.” –Heinrich Pleticha, Sueddeutsche Zeitung

“[With] this superbly illustrated book, the renowned Egyptologist and archaeologist Miroslav Verner . . . does not merely relate the adventure-filled, up-to-the-minute history of pyramid research, he provides an accessible introduction to the culture of the ancient Egyptians.” –Von Adelbert Reif, Die Welt


The Early Dynastic Period (From the Zero Dynasty to the Second Dynasty)

Among the oldest and most important extant Egyptian historical documents ranks a palette commemorating King Narmer’s victory over a rebellious principality in the Nile Delta (c.3000 B.C.E.). Until recently, most Egyptologists saw this palette as providing evidence that by finally subjugating the last independent princes in the delta, Narmer created the first united Egyptian kingdom that included both Upper and Lower Egypt.
Recent archaeological research suggests, however, that Narmer was not the first king to unify Upper and Lower Egypt. In particular, the German excavations in the cemetery at Umm el-Qaab, near Abydos, have shown that the fourteen predecessors of Narmer buried there, who constituted the so-called Zero Dynasty, must have reigned over all Egypt at least part of the time, so that the true era of unification had already begun some two centuries earlier.

The arrangement of the tombs at Umm el-Qaab allows us to discern a clear continuity with the subsequent First Dynasty, and this tends to confirm the assumption that the first king of this dynasty, King Aha (fl. c.2925 B.C.E.?), was one of Narmer’s sons.* Construction of the White Walls, the fortified residence of the Egyptian kings, began in the age of unification, and was located on the boundary between the Nile Valley and the delta. The city that gradually grew up around the fortification was later known as Mennefer (Greek Memphis) and ultimately extended over several square miles. Archaeologists have still not succeeded in determining the site of the fortress, the oldest part of the city.

Narmer’s palette, made of dark gray slate, was found by British archaeologists at the beginning of the twentieth century, near Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt. It is an important document for understanding the origins of Egyptian writing. Originally, palettes were rectangular or oval stone slabs on which pigments were rubbed, but the Narmer palette is already a work of art both memorial and celebratory in character. It is thought to symbolize the ruler’s success in putting down a rebellion in the delta.
On the front side of the stela is a delicate bas-relief divided into three registers. In the center of the upper register, between two cow’s heads usually interpreted as “Hathor-heads,” is a stylized image of the palace facade, with the Horus name of the last ruler of the Zero Dynasty, Narmer. This name should probably be translated as “Pungent catfish.” The middle register is dominated by the figure of Narmer, wearing the crown of Upper Egypt, about to strike with a stone club an enemy who has fallen to his knees and may be a chieftain from the east delta. The servant standing behind Narmer is carrying the pharaoh’s sandals. In front of the king the Horus-falcon holds an enemy’s head on a rope. The latter is connected with a flat oval representing a piece of land on which a papyrus plant with six blooms is growing. The papyrus symbolized Lower Egypt and also transcribes the numeral one thousand. The whole scene can thus be interpreted as follows: “The pharaoh overcame six thousand enemies from Lower Egypt and took them prisoner.” The scene is rounded out with the image of the triumphant Narmer and, according to the British Egyptologist Alan Gardiner, the author of the celebrated Egyptian Grammar, is a classical example of ancient Egyptian thinking in the earliest times. In the lower register two other vanquished enemies are represented.

On the reverse of the stela the decoration is divided into four registers. The first from the top is identical with the corresponding one on the front side. The second shows Narmer, this time with the crown of Lower Egypt on his head and in a cortege of men bearing standards with the symbols of the provinces of the victorious Upper Egyptian coalition, viewing executed enemies. The third pictorial field takes up a decorative motif that may be of Elamite origin: two fabulous creatures with intertwined necks. It is considered evidence of Near Eastern cultural influence in the Nile Valley at the beginning of the Early Dynastic Period. In the lowest register field, a bull, which like the falcon is a symbol of the ruler, smashes a fortified city and tramples down the enemies living in it.
Until well into the First Dynasty Egyptian rulers had no permanent residence. In the biennial “Horus-procession” they crossed the whole country with their retinue, in order to collect taxes, administer justice, and show themselves to the people.* The north-south dualism, which subsided only gradually, was still clearly reflected in the peculiar names of the first governmental institutions in the era of unification. Thus, e.g. the “White House,” the royal treasury, became the ‘red House” after being moved to the Memphis area; the change in its name is related to the fact that the ‘red crown” was the symbol of Lower Egypt and the “white crown” the symbol of Upper Egypt.
As a result of increasing centralization, the administrative apparatus grew significantly larger during the First Dynasty. Members of the royal family still stood at the apex of its hierarchy. Officials were chiefly responsible for regional administration, the registration of inhabitants, controlling floods on the Nile, the construction of irrigation canals, the cultivation of fields and gardens, workshop production, and the tax system.

The consolidation of governmental administration went hand in hand with the development of writing, which ancient Egyptians considered to be divine in origin. The oldest literary traditions commemorate episodes in the battle to unify the kingdom, rites connected with the introduction of agricultural labor, and religious festivals. In addition, more practical contents are found in inscriptions on vessels, funerary stelae, annals tablets, and sealings. The oldest papyrus scroll currently known, though it bears no writing, was found in Saqqara, in the tomb of the official Hemaka. It shows that under the fifth king of the First Dynasty, Den (fl. 2850 B.C.E.), Egyptians already knew how to produce the writing materials that later became so widespread.
The ruler was at the center of the Egyptian world. He was seen as the connecting link between human beings and the gods. It was around him that the administrative apparatus of the newly developed state began to form. Royal estates were established, and undeveloped regions, particularly in the south and in the marshes of the Nile Delta, were settled and made productive by means of “internal colonization.” Despite the organization of Egypt into provinces (Greek nomoi)–ultimately twenty-two in Upper Egypt and twenty in Lower Egypt–the political unity and stability of the country remained fragile. At the end of the First Dynasty the latent oppositions between north and south resurfaced.
The first ruler of the Second Dynasty, Hetepsekhemwy (twenty-eighth century B.C.E.), whose name means “the two powers [Upper and Lower Egypt] are reconciled,” succeeded in reestablishing Egyptian unity, but not for long. Two generations later the two parts of the country were being ruled separately again. Upper Egypt was ruled from Thinis, the old center of power and administration close to Abydos, while the rest of the country was ruled from the White Walls. This internal political instability was reflected in royal titles: unlike his predecessors, the ruler Peribsen was not identified in any way with the god Horus, but rather was identified with the latter’s ideal opponent Seth, the god of evil and war. The unsettled conditions under the Second Dynasty are also manifested in the deliberate destruction of the preceding dynasty’s royal monuments in Abydos, Naqada, and Saqqara, which was motivated by the desire to obliterate not only the tombs and worship of the dead, but also and especially all memory of the dynastic opponent. The last ruler of this dynasty finally succeeded in subjugating Lower Egypt. He was originally named Khasekhem, “power shines’ (or “appears in brilliance”), but changed his name to Khasekhemwy, “the two powers shine,” in order to express the unity of the gods Horus and Seth, the latter representing not only the opposing principles of good and evil, but also the formerly opposed parts of Egypt, the north and the south.

The upper border of the palace facade with Khasekhemwy’s name is unusual in depicting together the two enemy divinities Horus and Seth.
In ancient Egypt’s relationships with the ancient world surrounding it, we can already discern a few principles that were to characterize the country’s whole history. The ancient Egyptians’ religion led them to see their neighbors as enemies. Egyptians waged many wars of conquest against their neighbors, whether they lived in the east, west, or south. The most common target was Nubia, perhaps because it was more easily accessible through the corridor of the Nile Valley. In the reign of Djer, the third king of the First Dynasty, the Egyptians were already seeking to extend their influence as far as the border of present-day Sudan (see illustration p. 20).
Yet Egypt’s relationships with neighboring countries were not exclusively hostile. The people of the Nile Valley also traded with their African and Near Eastern neighbors. For instance, they exported agricultural products to Palestine, evidenced by Egyptian pottery from Rafah and Arad, as well as by imprints of Egyptian seals from Tell Erama near Jerusalem. In return, they imported primarily metal products, even after the copper mines in the Sinai came under Egyptian control in the course of the First Dynasty. By way of Palestine, the ancient Egyptians also had long-standing contacts with more remote regions, as is shown by some Sumerian or Elamite motifs–a winged griffin, interlaced serpents, a man tying up animals, and zoomorphic urns and ships with towering sterns–that appeared in the Nile Valley during the First Dynasty. Some researchers found these foreign elements so striking and surprising that they arrived at the view–today outdated–that people belonging to a so-called dynastic race from Mesopotamia had ruled and “civilized” Egypt toward the end of the prehistoric era. Scholars found themselves unable to explain in any other way the rapid rise of Egypt at the beginning of the historical period. Only after new discoveries were made and evaluated did they realize that the notion of a “civilizing phase” had been based not on a sudden developmental rupture but on gaps in their own knowledge.

The stone relief from Gebel Sheikh Suleiman is considered by many Egyptologists to reflect the pharaoh Djer’s policy of conquering the region lying to the south of Egypt.
During the early or Thinite period (as the reign of the first two dynasties is also known), the prolonged, complicated, and often conflictual process of shaping the ancient Egyptian state that had begun toward the end of the prehistoric era, around the middle of the fourth millennium B.C.E., was finally brought to a conclusion. The fusion of the fundamentally different cultural groups of the delta and the Nile Valley played a major role in this process.

The figures incised on the ebony handle of a knife from Gebel el-Arak (Louvre E. 11517) used to be considered evidence of Near Eastern influence in Egypt at the end of the prehistoric era. On one side are hunting scenes representing a hero between two lions facing each other. The other side is decorated with scenes of battle on land and on water.
In the southern part of the country, which was inhabited primarily by nomadic shepherds, economically prosperous centers began to emerge and gain political power; among these were Hierakonpolis, Naqada, and Abydos. The rise of these new centers was aided by nearby sources of raw materials in the eastern desert and the development of foreign trade in gold and other materials.
Before the age of unification, northern Egypt, where a rather sedentary population lived and practiced agriculture, developed differently from southern Egypt. Major economic centers may have emerged there even earlier than they did in southern Egypt, especially along the banks of the navigable branches of the Nile. Closer contacts were probably established with Near Eastern urban cultures, both by land and by sea. Buto and Sais became important cities. However, archaeological sources in this part of the country remain inadequate because the complicated environmental situation makes excavation very difficult.
In contrast to the predynastic monarchs from Hierakonpolis, the princes of the great cities in the delta were probably not able to extend their rule beyond the local level. Consequently, they could not avoid military subjection to the king. Initially, the violently created bond between Upper and Lower Egypt was not very stable, being threatened by various political, economic, and religious interests.
As a result, during the Early Period the inhabitants of Lower Egypt made great efforts to win independence that culminated in the rebellions that finally led King Khasekhem to take energetic punitive action against them. This time, it seems he was successful. The subsequent long period of internal stability and relative shelter from outside influences was the crucial precondition that allowed the Old Kingdom (from the Third Dynasty to the Sixth Dynasty) to flourish.
In addition, the ideology of the ancient Egyptian state developed through the process of culturally assimilating Lower Egypt. According to the Egyptian worldview, a divine principle called maat was the foundation of everyday life. At its center stood law and order, and it was typically represented in the figure of the goddess of justice. Only if an individual obeyed the rules of maat could he achieve happiness and fulfillment, and only then could his life have any meaning in the framework of creation. This world order had to be constantly defended against the hostile powers of chaos. The ancient Egyptians believed that was why the gods set up the monarchy, which had to be supported and honored. Only the ruler, as the sole divinity living among men, could guarantee the survival of the divinely established order. In the context of the eternal myth, during his reign the ruler was obligated to overcome evil, either actually or symbolically, and evil was embodied in enemy countries and peoples. For this reason the ruler was usually represented as triumphing over Nubians, Libyans, and Asians, even when no historical facts justified such a representation.
The whole system of the ancient Egyptian state was based on these ideas, which have often been described, not very precisely, as theocratic. During the Early Dynastic Period in particular, the state and the monarchy were virtually identical. The increasing importance of the state is shown by additions to the royal nomenclature. At first, the latter consisted simply of the name Horus, written in a rectangle called a serekh that was a stylized representation of the royal palace’s facade. Above this rectangle was the symbol of the falcon god Horus, the ruler over heaven and earth, embodied on earth by the ancient Egyptian kings. During the reign of King Den, the king’s titulary was extended to include the so-called throne name “King of Upper and Lower Egypt.” Up to the Fourth Dynasty, further names were added. The name “the two ladies’ connected him with the vulture goddess Nekhbet and the cobra goddess Wadjet, the tutelary divinities of Upper and Lower Egypt respectively. “Golden Horus’ and ‘son of Re” completed the list of five royal names.
The word pharaoh itself is of Egyptian origin and is derived from per aa, “Great House,” the name of the royal residence. Starting in the New Kingdom, the rulers themselves were designated metonymically by this term. Finally, from the Twenty-Second Dynasty onward, this word became an essential component of the royal nomenclature and was written in front of the cartouche with the king’s name.
The conception of the king’s role in the historical and state-building myth expanded with the country’s boundaries. In theory, Egypt included every place where Egyptians and their gods existed, where the pharaoh exercised power, and where there was thus divine order. In practice, however, Egyptians identified themselves and their country only with the area of the Nile Valley, from the delta to the first cataract, and later on, as far as Nubia.
State dogma emphasized not only the ruler’s military role, but also his creative role. The mythical conception of the king required him to “extend the borders,” both by defeating Egypt’s enemies on the battlefield and by erecting new edifices whose size and importance were expected to surpass those built by his predecessors. In accord with this conception, the construction of the ancient Egyptian temple, in contrast to the Greek temple, was never completed; it was always possible to add new rooms, gateways, courtyards, chapels, and obelisks, or at least statues or stelae. In the “Instruction for Merikare,” a famous literary work from the First Intermediate Period, the ruler Khety called on his successors to “enlarge what he made.” Both myth and history urged every pharaoh to “go beyond everything that was accomplished in the time of his predecessors.”
In the Early Dynastic Period tombs in Abydos and North Saqqara, the most important elements of later pyramid construction appeared in simple form. However, the oldest royal tombs in Abydos differ from the later ones in North Saqqara in both their underlying religious conception and their ideal significance. It is clear that the tombs in Abydos and Saqqara represent different traditions and ideas about life after death, and reflect two different cultural milieus. The tombs in Saqqara are based on a conception of the deceased as living on after death in a building resembling an earthly dwelling, which is embodied in a stylized form by the so-called mastaba. In Abydos, the primary conception is that of a funeral mound symbolizing the primeval mound of sand, the site of the creation and the resurrection.
From predynastic times onward, the royal tombs in Abydos were linked to the religious traditions of Upper Egypt. These tombs already consisted of entire complexes of rooms and were located in the desert. In the late Zero Dynasty, a tomb’s underground portion consisted of a burial chamber and one or more storerooms for accessories to be used by the dead pharaoh in the beyond. The aboveground portion consisted of a low mound of sand about 2.5 meters high and surrounded by a stone wall. Two stone stelae stood in front of the facade of the tomb. From the time of King Aha onward, the royal tombs were surrounded by so-called secondary tombs, the number of which came to 338 under King Djer. The royal cemetery in Abydos was later plundered and burned, and its original form is now virtually impossible to reconstruct. However, the rulers’ servants and wives seem to have been buried in the secondary tombs. We do not yet know whether they were killed during the burial ceremony and immediately interred with the ruler.
The tomb area at Abydos is known as Umm el-Qaab, ‘mother of Potsherds,” because of the great number of remnants of sacrificial vessels found there. The valley where the Early Period tomb complexes are located lies on the edge of the Nile Valley, some two kilometers to the northeast. Nearby, in modern-day Kom es-Sultan, Khontamenti, and later Osiris, was worshiped at a religious center for the local god of the dead. The edifices there date from the time of King Djer and are surrounded by huge brick walls (archaeologists call these structures “great enclosures’ or “fortresses’). These walls were whitewashed and decorated with niches. For a long time, researchers thought that almost nothing was inside these structures. However, a meticulous investigation of Khasekhemwy’s enclosure carried out by a team of American Egyptologists has recently made highly interesting discoveries. In a courtyard within the structure, a low mound of sand covered with mudbricks was discovered. It is a stylized primeval mound, the symbolic site of the creation of the world and of the resurrection. In addition, a dozen thirty-meter-long boat-pits were discovered in front of the east wall; hence, the great enclosures should probably be seen as centers for the worship of the dead kings.

Reconstruction of the tomb of Queen Meretneith, the mother of King Den, in Abydos (after Lauer and Ricke).

At the same time they were constructing a new capital, known as “the White Walls,” Egyptian rulers also built a new tomb site, which is known today as the Early Dynastic Period necropolis in North Saqqara. At first, probably only members of the royal family and the highest state officials who lived in the royal residence were interred there. The rulers of the First Dynasty continued to have themselves entombed in the traditional royal cemetery in Abydos in Upper Egypt. Thus neither the real nor the symbolic tombs of the early rulers of the united Egypt were in Saqqara.
The tombs in North Saqqara had a rectangular ground plan and were built of mudbricks; their facades, which were sometimes several meters high, were originally rendered in white plaster and decorated with colorful mat-like patterns, as well as with numerous niches. In the underground portion they consisted of a burial chamber and storerooms for burial equipment. A large boat was often included in the tomb; it was supposed to allow the spirit of the deceased to travel into the beyond in order to join the sun god Re’s entourage. In form, the tombs in Saqqara resembled the low clay benches found in front of country houses in modern Egypt, and which are called mastaba in Arabic. Therefore, workers employed in the first archaeological excavations in the middle of the nineteenth century used this word to designate these tombs.
With a few exceptions, most of the royal tombs of the Second Dynasty have not yet been precisely located. In contrast to the First Dynasty, only a few kings of the Second Dynasty–for example, Peribsen and Khasekhemwy–were buried in Abydos. The tombs of a few other kings appear to have been located not in the northern but rather in the middle part of the Saqqara cemetery, near Djoser’s later ‘step Pyramid.” Their substructures probably consisted of large, interconnected underground catacombs. East of the pyramid of the last ruler of the Fifth Dynasty, Unas, archaeologists have discovered two tombs attributed to King Raneb and King Ninetjer. The superstructure (the aboveground portion) of these tombs was completely destroyed during the construction of Unas’s pyramid. This fact, along with the lack of dates for the other royal tombs of the Second Dynasty, makes it difficult to provide a precise explanation for the transition to building pyramids.

Reconstruction of the “royal tomb” no. 3038, probably from the time of Adjib, a First Dynasty king, in Saqqara (ground plan and north-south vertical section, after Emery). All four tomb facades are decorated with a system of niches, so-called recesses. Most of the inner area is filled with storage rooms. The vertical section (below) shows the stepped superstructure.
We have already described the ancient Egyptian conception of the state as an expression of the divine will and the center of the harmonious and ordered world created by the gods. Even after his death, the ruler had to fight for the welfare of his country in the eternal battle against chaos. Because of the ruler’s extraordinary role as both a god among men and the mediator between humans and the world of the gods, it was necessary to preserve his presence in the world of the living. This was the goal of mummifying the ruler’s body and worshiping him after his death. Only in this way could the dead pharaoh remain forever among his people to ensure their happiness. Hence the mummified body of the pharaoh had to be protected from various external dangers, and it was necessary to erect for him an indestructible tomb-residence, a structure that could be damaged neither by the ravages of time nor by human hands in times of unrest.
Religiously, the pharaoh’s last resting place was a representation of the primeval mound that emerged from the waters at the creation of the world, and on which life first appeared. That is, it was a symbol of resurrection and eternal life. The external appearance of the royal tomb, inspired by the idea of the primeval mound, went through a complicated development at the beginning of Egyptian history, finally culminating, during the Third Dynasty, in the pyramids.
The pyramid was supposed to be the death residence of the pharaoh–unshakable, indestructible, eternal. Other temple buildings nearby were dedicated to the worship of the deceased, which was also supposed to go on forever, for it was in the highest interest of the ancient Egyptian state and of every inhabitant of the lands along the Nile that the good god should remain forever in his country and among his people. The building of the pyramids and the enduring worship of the dead pharaoh thus became the top priority of the ancient Egyptian state.*
It is precisely from this point of view, and in their historical context, that the gigantic structures known as the Egyptian pyramids must be considered. The architectural and religious development that ultimately led to the royal tomb in the form of a pyramid was an inseparable part of the process of shaping and strengthening the oldest strongly centralized Egyptian state. In this context the pyramid becomes more than just a royal tomb; it becomes a symbol of the ruler’s historical and state-building role, the symbol of the state and of the order the Egyptian gods established when they created the world.

Abydos, Umm el-Qaab. Cemetery B (below) and U (after Dreyer).