THE FIRST HOUSES BUILT FOR ETERNITY
The giant pyramids of Egypt were not tombs in the strict sense of the word. Rather, their builders saw them more as houses for living in after death. Over eighty of these eternal stone houses still exist in the flat landscape of the Nile valley, and they continue to fascinate us. For many years now they have also been assured a place in the vocabulary of architectural forms.
The first pyramids, huge limestone-clad buildings along the banks of the Nile, appeared in the third century B.C. The tradition of pyramid building began under the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom. The monumental stone structures, which can be seen for miles across the flat landscape, were by no means alone: they were part of extensive burial grounds, which were constructed for life after death.
In the third millenium B.C. an entire city of the dead grew up in Giza on the west bank of the Nile not far from Cairo. Several pyramids of differing heights and hundreds of tombs of high officials spread out across an area of more than one square kilometer. King Cheops created his cemetery on a rocky plateau: at 146 meters his pyramid was the highest ever built and also the largest built structure in the ancient world. In twenty years, from 2554 to 2531 B.C., thousands of workers piled up around 2.5 million blocks of stone to form 210 layers of stone. If we include bearers and slaves, around twenty to twenty-five thousand people were involved in the building of the Pyramid of Cheops, one percent of the entire population of Egypt at that time.
Approximately five thousand stonemasons brought the necessary blocks of rock and limestone from the quarries. The mountains of material, not to mention the large numbers of workers involved, provide impressive information on how the pyramids were built. Behind this, and no less impressive, was a highly developed architectural technology and excellent mathematical knowledge: the start of pyramid building was accompanied by a massive step forward in building technology. While earlier tombs in Egypt had been constructed out of clay bricks, with the pyramids stone was used as a basic building material for the first time. The transport of the huge stone blocks was in itself a major achievement, while the construction of the pyramids was only made possible at all through the development of metal tools. Last but not least, Egyptian architects were also in a position to calculate spatial volumes and right angles or other similar problems accurately. The smooth surfaces of the sides of the pyramid emerge from the square base as triangles, which meet at the top: despite the impressive length of the edges (in the Pyramid of Cheops they measure 230 meters) the sides differ by just a few centimeters.
Cheops' tomb, the largest of the Egyptian pyramids, displays the classic elements of pyramid construction: an east-facing valley temple, which was connected to the mortuary temple at the foot of the pyramid by an ascending passage. A lower passage led from the north entrance diagonally into the heart of the building, culminating in a great hall. So-called "portcullis slabs", suspended on ropes, protected the burial chamber beyond housing the stone sarcophagus in which the embalmed body of the deceased lay. Massive stone blocks were transported deep into the pyramid's burial chamber. According to Egyptian beliefs, this chamber was to be the deceased person's home for all eternity, and so he was to be provided for accordingly. Shafts were created to allow the circulation of fresh air; burial gifts were to equip him for his long existence in the afterlife; and fresh food was left for him in the mortuary temple at the foot of the pyramid. In some pyramid constructions there was even a stone sphinx standing guard over the valley temple.
Even when the era of Egyptian pyramid building was long past, this building type persisted, and pyramids have featured in the history of Western architecture ever since. The reference to Egypt was of course more obvious in the case of obelisks: these stone pillars were being brought back and erected in Rome even in Antiquity. But already the Ancients were also examining the pyramid as a building type. Cheops' creation was known to the Romans when Egypt was incorporated into the empire in 30 B.C. at the latest. The Romans used the pyramid form for many of their funerary monuments. One of them, the Pyramid of Cestius in Rome is still standing today.
The Pyramid of Cestius only reached a quarter of the height of the first Egyptian pyramid, the Pyramid of Cheops. Since then there have been few epochs that boasted no pyramids at all: although knowledge of Egyptian culture was generally lost during the Middle Ages in Europe, it was rediscovered alongside many other cultures during the Renaissance. The Renaissance popes built Egyptian obelisks in Rome, a clear indication of the growing interest in Egypt. During the Baroque period elements from Egyptian architecture influenced European garden design: pyramids and obelisks appeared in aristocratic gardens and later emerged in English landscape gardens. Scientific interest in Egypt grew during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as hieroglyphics were deciphered and expeditions set off for the land of the Nile. And in the twentieth century, too, the pyramid form found its advocates: the Chinese-born American architect Ieoh Ming Pei (1917-), who was commissioned to extend the exhibition spaces of the Louvre, created its new entrance in the form of a glass pyramid. Pei too modelled his creation on the proportions of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
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