What are the different types of pyramid?

“Pyramid” ~ a monumental stone structure with a square or triangular base and sloping sides that meet in a point at the top, especially one built as a royal tomb in ancient Egypt ~ Concise Oxford Dictionary

There are several different types of pyramid that were built in ancient Egypt and I will discuss three of the most significant ones in detail here, these being the Step Pyramid, the Bent Pyramid and the True Pyramid.

Step Pyramid
Chronologically the first ‘pyramid’ was built at Saqqara in the 1st Dynasty (2920-2770) and was a stepped mastaba?. This, along with the mortury temple of the 2nd Dynasty (2770-2649) ruler Khasekhemwy, looks nothing like what we would associate with a pyramid but does have resounding similarities to the features of Djoser’s step pyramid (discussed below) which makes us believe that they could be fore-runners to the first pyramid structure that was built. These features include the use of compacted mud brick layers that were placed in the same layout as those in the step pyramids of later dynasties. Therefore, the building of the stepped mastaba, and of Khasekhemwy’s mortury temple, can be seen as important evolutionary steps in the building of the pyramids.

It wasn’t until the 3rd Dynasty (2649-2575) that the first stone pyramid was built at Saqqara by the son of Khasekhemwy, Netjerykhet, also known as Djoser (Zoser). Unlike previous mastabas, Djoser used a square foundation instead of a rectangular one and he built over this with stone. Repeating this process he used smaller layers of stone on top of each other until he had a pyramid of six steps that towered some 60 meters high. When this was completed and covered in limestone it would have reflected the rays of the sun and be seen for miles around.

Step Pyramid
The step pyramid would originally have been covered in limestone that would reflect rays of sun on the land

The step pyramid style continued to dominate the 3rd Dynasty with Sekhemkhet, named Djoser-Ti due to the fact he was the successor of Djoser, starting work on a seven step pyramid, also at Saqqara that was to stand 70 meters tall and would, therefore, outshine that of his predecessor. However, Sekhemkhets reign only lasted for six years and his pyramid was left unfinished.

There is also a layer pyramid at Zawiyet el-aryan, about four miles to the north of Saqqara. This was built by Khaba and like that of Sekhemkhet, also remained unfinished.

Bent Pyramid

With the 4th Dynasty (2575-2465) came the new stage in pyramid construction when Sneferu built several pyramids evolving from the step. His first attempt was built at Meidum and looked a little toweresque as it basically consisted of a step pyramid that had the first few tiers filled in so that the walls were smooth and geometric like those of a true pyramid. This was the first step pyramid successfully built since that of Djoser, however, this pyramid was flawed and partially collapsed.
Sneferu then built a second pyramid which was again based around the step, but all of the outside was covered with smooth rock so each side consisted of two angular walls, the lowest at 54 degrees, the second a lesser angle of 43 degrees. The angle was changed during the construction so that it was able to sustain the weight on the top of the pyramid without it collapsing in on itself, yet the stone still started cracking and so Sneferu gave up on this design and travelled further north to attempt a third pyramid.

True Pyramid

The third pyramid built by Sneferu, known as the ‘Red Pyramid’, was located at Dahshur and this is the first true pyramid. Learning from his previous attempts Sneferu was able to build the structure so that its walls were raised at a consistent angle from the base to the apex at the same time as managing to support the weight that was bearing down upon it.

It was Khufu (Greek: Cheops), son of Sneferu, who built the Great Pyramid on the Giza plateau which is the largest pyramid constructed and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The other two noticable true pyramids on the Giza Plateau were built by the son of Khufu, Khafre, and Khafre’s son Menkaure. Khafra built his pyramid on higher ground than his father so, although it is actually smaller in size, it looks as if it the larger of the two.

The Giza Pyramids
The pyramid of Khafre (center) looks deceptively larger than that of khufus’ Great Pyramid (right)