Why were the pyramids built?

Why were the pyramids built?

Khufu’s pyramid is the largest pyramid in Egypt, originally standing at a height of 146.5 metres is now considerably less at 138.8 metres.
Vincent Brown – The Great Pyramid CC BY 2.0

Pyramid, as one of the most representative and enduring man-made constructions in the history of ancient Egypt, occupies a prominent and magnificent position in the whole world. Originally, the purpose of the pyramid was to provide a tomb for the king of ancient Egypt, the pharaohs. It 

also acts as a funerary monument to manifest the power of the emperor and the unity of the country. Additionally, the pyramid is the place where the pharaohs complete the metamorphosis after death, entering the afterlife. In the long history of Egypt, pyramids actually experienced several important developments and advancement.

Moreover, the early tomb during the Early Dynastic Period for the king is mastaba, which is just a rectangular structure.

Then during the Old Kingdom, kings and the royal family started to be buried in pyramids.
Grand Gallery (with modern walkway up the middle)

Which is a larger and more complicated structure than the early mastaba, after the construction of Djoser’s Step Pyramid. Gradually, the shape of pyramids began to change from rectangular to triangular structure with four planes revealed. The most representative construction of this type of pyramid is the Great Pyramid of Khufu, which glows in the midst of many pyramids. The appearance and structure of the pyramids have evolved and developed step by step and finally form the iconic buildings that we see today. 

Although the ancient pyramid developed over a long time and had a profound impact on Egyptian culture, religion, politics, economics and the whole society, it is never an easy project to be completed even under today’s technology and society.


It’s well known that a well-developed transportation system can’t be separated from a favorable geographical location, especially for a dynasty that was built in the desert thousands of years ago. At that time, overland transportation was a waste of manpower, materials and time due to unsophisticated transportation and the complexity of the desert terrain. In comparison, the great river Nile, as the dominant landscape in Egypt, crosses the entire scale of the country. Throughout history, the Nile River has defined the shape and content of Egyptian culture by providing ample water for agriculture, fertile soil, and a connection to each other and the outside world.(Abubakr, 1995)

In that case, the Nile became the main transportation route for the ancient navigators and they chose boats as their common means of transportation to sail to different places over the south and north of the country.

Boats, at this time, became the most significant and efficient means of transportation sailing on this water highway.

Moreover, bringing enormous building materials, food supply and offering back to the pyramid. As a result, almost all of the pyramids built in Lower Egypt, on the west bank of the Nile River and near the city Memphis.

Based on the Egyptian religion, they believe that the west, where the sun sets, is the city of the dead, and the pyramids, as the tombs of the pharaohs, are just the place to put the spirits of the dead in order to orient the dead to enter the afterlife. Another common characteristic of the location of those pyramids is that they were built near the capital of the Old Kingdom of Egypt—-Memphis. Which is a city serving as an important political and religious centre in Ancient Egypt.

Moreover, after the site selection, a mature transportation system becomes extremely significant.

As a result the pyramid’s substantial raw material needs. Really an enormous amount of building materials, including giant limestone, sandstone, mudbrick and so on.

According to the article(Edwards, 2003), estimates believe the pyramid required 2,300,000 separate blocks of building materials. With almost each of them weighing 2 to 3 tones, were used in the construction of a single pyramid.

And large numbers of human resources and timely supply are also the requirements of the large-scale engineering projects. In that case, clearly defined transport steps and close cooperation between each department become the most crucial problem to consider. In fact, back in 2011, a significant harbor complex from the Old Kingdom at Wadi al-Jarf became discovered by a team from the University of Paris-Sorbonne and the IFAO(Tallet & Marouard, 2014).

Wadi al-Jarf, the earliest harbor ever discovered, provides king Khufu the starting point to exploration.
The jetty of King Cheops' harbor, peeping above water at low tide.
The jetty of King Cheops’ harbor, peeping above water at low tide. Credit: Pierre Tallet : Why were the pyramids built?
Wadi el Jarf
Wadi el JarfCredit: Google Maps, elaborated by Haaretz : Why were the pyramids built?

Evidence found that one excavation area a mile from the harbor shows the remains of boats used by exploration, which are placed in chambers when not in use.(Zorich, 2015) The harbor is able to serve as a safe anchorage for unloading and conveying cargo, such as building materials, workers and food supply, as well as navigation to other areas of the country.

A sorting center or storehouse placed inside the pyramid complex. Contributes to sorting of various incoming shipments. After building two transportation-friendly landmarks. There must be a passage to connect them in order to ensure the safety and convenience of goods transportation and arrival.

Likely a channel from the Nile River allowed boats the ability to directly sail to the work area.

Religious components 

Resurrection from the dead was a lifelong belief of the ancient Egyptians. Their attitude toward death becomes influenced by their belief of immortality in the world. Ancient Egyptians regard death as a life interruption instead of the ending of a story. In order to achieve immortality, the respect to gods is of vital importance in people’s belief. Both during the time of life and afterlife. Furthermore, in return, the gods provide the dead men an opportunity for entering the afterlife. In addition, protection on the way to resurrection.

To prepare for the accomplishment of eternity, ancient Egyptians use mummification to protect the dead body in order to preserve the body that the king is able to use in the afterlife. And offerings, such as household equipment, food and drink, are placed in the offering tables outside the burial chamber. So as to provide the person’s need and food in the afterlife.

Sarcophagus in the King’s Chamber

People need to protect the kingship, king’s body and king’s memorial, which is the pyramid.

Diagram of the Antechamber

Only by completing the meaning of these two words, including the preservation of the body and the protection provided by gods, the person can enter the afterlife to truly reach the pinnacle of religious faith. 

In fact, Horus was often regarded as the ancient Egyptians’ national tutelary deity, which represents the kingship and is used to protect and guard the pyramid.

Another god named Anubis, represented by a jackal or the figure of a man with the head of a jackal, is the god of embalming and one of the principle tutelary deities who watched over the dead king and his tomb, and accompanied the dead king to the afterlife. In the figure, Anubis stands upon a rectangular base which seems like the tomb and raises his hands in a gesture symbolizing protection.(Hayes, 1938)

Moreover, the enclosure wall acts as the protectiveness of the whole pyramid complex from the outright attack, either during times of civil strife or foreign invasion. More deeply, the enclosure wall acts as a boundary to separate the whole pyramid complex from the villages around it, representing a dividing line that separates the outside chaotic and disorderly world. In that case, the atmosphere in the complex becomes more sacred by incorporating the enclosure wall.

The reason why mummification is so essential is that in order to enter the afterlife after death. In addition, the body must be preserved with objectives of ensuring the durability and imperishability to enable the king to use his undamaged physical body after resurrection.
Mummification boils down to Egyptians using a special process to remove all moisture from the physical body, leaving only a dried form that will not easily decay.

Moreover, coffins ensure the continued existence of the body. Based on the article(Siffert, 2018), at that time of the Old Kingdom, coffins for non-royalty were usually box-shaped containing mummies inside with common characteristics—-wedjat eyes. Which play a role in helping the dead see directly into the outside world in the afterlife. As a result of including the mummified dead body inside the coffins, the dead king can receive the offerings that he is able to use in the afterlife.

Subterranean Chamber (looking south) with Pit Shaft in the floor and blind corridor entrance.

The temple in the pyramid is the place where after the king’s death, the ceremony about commemoration to the king and prayer for the King’s entry into the afterlife becomes performed. In Ancient Egypt, ‘ka’ means one person’s double or soul, which will not dissipate even if the person is dead. Ancient Egypt believed that ka lives inside every people’s body, when the physical body deceased, ka will enjoy the eternal afterlife. In ancient Egypt, the temples, as the house of the gods, had many roles including both the religious belief and the aesthetics of religion.

At that time, temples were generally designed to be very opulent.

With ceilings embellished with stars representing heaven, colossal and monumental columns and decorated entrances. In addition, temples serve as a holy site that represents the divinity of the king and his eternality. The temple is the place where the king’s ka separates from his physical body and will eventually return to this temple after the king’s rebirth. Also, the temple should be provided with offering tables, which people can bear offerings to tribute to the king. 


The upper two granite plugs in the Ascending Passage, seen from the end of the Robbers’ Tunnel.

Evidence from the tombs indicates that a workforce of 10,000 laborers working in three-month shifts took around 30 years to build a pyramid.(Verner, Miroslav,2001)

In addition, estimates by archaeologists believe the base of the Great Pyramid requires at least 26,000 workers to set blocks on the structure.(Zorich, 2015) 

Apparently, this huge engineering project will require thousands of laborers putting effort on it, so instead of recruiting labor force from all over the country, it is more convenient and considerate to enable the workers to settle their household next to their construction area so that they will be more willing to devote themselves in the building tasks. In fact, back to the period of the construction of the Pyramids of Khufu, the archaeologists found that at that time there was a well-planned city with lodging, bakeries, breweries, grain silos, and corrals for livestock located at the Heit el-Ghurab, next to the Giza Pyramid. Recovered artifacts from the site indicate that it played a key role in providing all the goods needed to build the pyramids as part of Egypt’s extensive trade network.(Zorich, 2015)

According to Lehner’s excavation record(Lehner, 1992), He and his team found the bakery rooms in the excavation area with broken pots used to make bread and black ash under a layer of mud brick. In some areas, under the bakery dump, there are enormous quantities of ash and bread mold sherds found here. This evidence proves that the food production departments did exist in the worker’s city, such as the bakery room and brewery.

In addition, the development of infrastructure is also an important factor in the rise of neighborhood networks. The work’s village should include medical systems, regulatory center, educational departments, trading market and most importantly, the workers’ accommodation. For example, Gallery Complex in the Heit site, considered as a “public institutional character” in the line of hospitals, schools, prisons, and barrack.(Lehner, 2019)


In conclusion, as more and more archaeologists commit to the study of the pyramids, the mystery of the ancient Egyptian pyramids will one day be completely unveiled. Lastly, the pyramids represent the social, cultural and religious life of ancient Egypt, which can help us clarify our understanding of Egyptian history.

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Why were the pyramids built?

Written by Kaixin Cheng


1. Abubakr, A. M. (1955). DIVINE BOATS OF ANCIENT EGYPT. Archaeology, 8(2), 96–101. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41663287 

2. Edwards, J. F. (2003). Building the Great Pyramid: Probable Construction Methods Employed at Giza. Technology and Culture, 44(2), 340–354. 


3. Hayes, W. C. (1938). Two Egyptian Statuettes. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 33(4), 107–108. https://doi.org/10.2307/3256320 

4. Zorich, Z. (2015). The Pyramid E<em>ff</em>ect. Scientific American, 313(5), 32–39. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26046458 

5. Tallet, P., & Marouard, G. (2014). The harbor of Khufu on the Red Sea coast at Wadi al-Jarf, Egypt. Near Eastern Archaeology, 77(1), 4–14. 

Why were the pyramids built?


6. Lehner, Mark. 1992. “Giza.” In The Oriental Institute 1991– 1992 Annual Report, edited by William Sumner, 56–67. Chicago: Oriental Institute. 

7. Siffert, U. (2018). Middle Kingdom mummy-shaped coffins. Ancient Egyptian Coffins, 22–29. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvh9w0cw.7 

8. Verner, Miroslav. The Pyramids: The Mystery, Culture, and Science of Egypt’s Great Monuments. Grove Press. 2001 (1997). ISBN 0-8021-3935-3 

9. Lehner, M. (2019). 2 neighborhood to National Network: Pyramid settlements of Giza. Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, 30(1), 20–38. https://doi.org/10.1111/apaa.12111

Why were the pyramids built?

Written by Kaixin Cheng