Egypt vs Mexico: Pyramids and Ziggurats

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It is customary to establish comparisons between the pyramids erected by the pharaohs of ancient Egypt and the pre-Colombian pyramids built in Mexico and other regions of Central America. There are even those who, albeit without any plausible historical basis, claim that those two distant regions shared cultural and ideological relationships which would be the justification for an apparent and misleading similarity in shape.

The Egyptian pyramids are funerary monuments of the kings of ancient Egypt, especially those of the Old Kingdom. Sometimes funerary monuments of this kind were also built for queens, although smaller in size. Pyramidal construction is as old as Egyptian history itself, going back to the beginning of the 3rd millennium B. C., when the first monarchs were buried in large brick tombs called mastabas. These can be seen as evoking the primeval hill related to the conceptions of the very beginnings of life. In the 3rd dynasty (c. 2660-2600 B.C.) king Netjerirkhet Djoser introduced the pyramidal shape with a great monument fashioned as a Step Pyramid, built with stone by his genius architect Imhotep within a vast funerary complex in the Sakkara area, close to Memphis, the capital. The innovation was not only its shape – six overlaying mastabas – but also it made ample use of stone and was placed at the centre of an enormous walled complex. This complex also contained a cenotaph or subsidiary tomb on the south side, evoking the holy city of Abydos especially noted for the cult of Osiris, god of Eternity. This concept of a subsidiary tomb would later evolve into the small satellite pyramids built next to the Royal Tombs, to the south.

The 4th dynasty (c. 2600-2500 B.C.) registers remarkable advances, not only in terms of architectural splendour but also as far as technical innovation is concerned, most evident in the internal layout of the Royal Tombs and in the surrounding complexes. The transition between the Step Pyramid and the Pure Pyramid which will become the standard can be seen in the unfinished and much damaged Meidum pyramid which was probably commissioned by the pharaoh Huni, last monarch of the 3rd dynasty, and to Sneferu, founder of the 4th . Sneferu ordered the construction of the two pyramids at Dashoor, which show a marked architectural evolution of the royal tomb: one is of the rhomboid type and the other, known as the “Red Pyramid”, is the first Pure Pyramid. Later on, on the Giza Plateau the three most famous pyramids in Egypt (and in the whole world) were erected for kings Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure (also known by their Greek names Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus, although these onomastic forms are losing ground). The Khufu pyramid, known as the Great Pyramid, is remarkable not only on account of its size (it originally stood 147 metres high) and of the “astronomic” precision of its implantation (the four sides face the four cardinal directions with almost perfect precision) but also for the originality of its internal structure and layout. Contrary to previous usage, the Royal Chamber was moved towards the interior, after a first attempt, left unfinished, of placing it underground and slightly off-centre. The central position would be occupied at a later stage by the “Queen’s Chamber”, but this option too would be abandoned. Finally, the most spectacular of pyramidal architectural solutions would be devised: a great ascending gallery leading to the Royal Chamber, the construction of which bespeaks of high technical skills in adjusting the huge stones and of a perfect mastery in finishing them. The Khafre pyramid originally stood 143 metres high, and the Menkaure pyramid, the smallest one at Giza, stood at 65 metres. The relative simplicity of the interiors of the pyramids built for Khafre and Menkaure both antedates and announces the organisation typical of the 5th and 6th dynasties’ pyramids while maintaining the funerary complex’s typical layout. The number of the small surrounding...
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