Visitors to Egypt have always flocked to the pyramids of Giza and Saqqara. Many people don’t realize, however, that these are only the most famous of more than a hundred pyramids in the country. In fact, there’s a whole “pyramid field” to the west of Cairo that includes Giza, Saqqara, and numerous other groupings across a long swath of desert. Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities is now opening some of them to visitors for the first time.
At Dahshur, more than a dozen pyramids give an interesting lesson in pyramid construction. The largest of these were built in the Fourth Dynasty (c. 2613 to 2494 BC) just prior to those at Giza. The founder of this dynasty, the Pharaoh Sneferu, was quite the pyramid builder. His first attempt was at Meidum, 100 km (62 miles) south of Cairo. It collapsed, and he moved his workmen to Dahshur for his next try.
This was the famous Bent Pyramid, pictured above in a photo from Jon Bodsworth’s excellent collection at the Egypt Archive. Check out the gallery below for more of his work. The architects started building the pyramid at a 55 degree angle, but when the structure showed signs of weakness they chickened out and built the rest at a more stable angle of 43 degrees. This gives the pyramid unique appearance. The pyramid’s two interior passages will open for the first time to visitors in December. A third passage leads 25 meters (82 ft) to a nearby smaller pyramid of Sneferu’s queen so the two could have conjugal visits in the afterlife. His third try was the Red Pyramid, built at the safer 43 degree angle. It held up nicely and is the third largest pyramid in Egypt at 104 meters (345 ft) tall.
Other pyramids at Dahshur include smaller examples from later dynasties. They aren’t nearly as grandiose as the earlier ones, perhaps because later rulers couldn’t command as much authority or they simply had other things they needed to spend their money on. The Black Pyramid of Amenemhat III (c. 1860-1814 BC) makes for an odd photo. To save money, the architects only used stone on the outside, and when later generations stole it for other building projects, the mud brick interior was revealed. This has been weathering away for the last four thousand years and now looks a bit deflated, although it’s still impressive.
%Gallery-97617%Between Giza and Saqqara lies the royal necropolis of Abusir, home to 14 pyramids that will open to the public this month. The necropolis on the outskirts of modern-day Cairo was started in the fifth dynasty (c. 2494 to 2345 BC) after the previous dynasty had filled up Giza with pyramids and temples. Abusir’s pyramids are smaller than those at Giza, and some have all but disappeared after millennia of weathering, but the site is still worth visiting. Most are step pyramids like the famous one at Saqqara, not flat-sided “true” pyramids like those at Giza. Some have smaller pyramids next to them to house the pharaoh’s queens.
One pyramid, that of the pharaoh Neferefre, was never finished, and has given archaeologists a glimpse at the construction techniques that went into building these behemoths. Some people like to think the pyramids were built by aliens or people from Atlantis, but archaeological evidence and the Egyptians’ own written records prove they built the pyramids themselves.
These “new” pyramids are just a few of the large number of Egyptian attractions opening in the next three years. Several museums are under construction, and the area around the Pyramids of Giza has been cleaned up. This month the famous Avenue of Sphinxes between the temples of Luxor and Karnak is opening, with about 900 statues and a recently excavated Roman-era village nearby.
Note to budding Egyptologists: this article is way too short to cover all the various theories and discoveries at Abusir and Dahshur. You need a few books to cover all of them! A good start are the works of Miroslav Verner, including The Pyramids: The Mystery, Culture, and Science of Egypt´s Great Monuments and Abusir: The Realm of Osiris.