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 Paraments of Egypt
Built during a time when Egypt was one of the richest and most powerful civilizations in the world, the pyramids—especially the Great Pyramids of Giza—are some of the most magnificent man-made structures in history. Their massive scale reflects the unique role that the pharaoh, or king, played in ancient Egyptian society. Though pyramids were built from the beginning of the Old Kingdom to the close of the Ptolemaic period in the fourth century A.D., the peak of pyramid building began with the late third dynasty and continued until roughly the sixth (c. 2325 B.C.). More than 4,000 years later, the Egyptian pyramids still retain much of their majesty, providing a glimpse into the country’s rich and glorious past.

During the third and fourth dynasties of the Old Kingdom, Egypt enjoyed tremendous economic prosperity and stability. Kings held a unique position in Egyptian society. Somewhere in between human and divine, they were believed to have been chosen by the gods to serve as mediators between them and the people on earth. Because of this, it was in everyone’s interest to keep the king’s majesty intact even after his death, when he was believed to become Osiris, god of the dead. The new Pharaoh, in turn, became Horus, the falcon-god who served as protector of the sun-god, Ra.

From the beginning of the Dynastic Era (2950 B.C.), royal tombs were carved into the rock and covered with flat-roofed rectangular structures known as “mastabas,” which were precursors to the pyramids. The oldest known pyramid in Egypt was built around 2630 B.C. at Saqqara, for the third dynasty’s King Djoser. Known as the Step Pyramid, it began as a traditional mastaba but grew into something much more ambitious. As the story goes, the pyramid’s architect was Imhotep, a priest, and healer who some 1,400 years later would be deified as the patron saint of scribes and physicians. Over the course of Djoser’s nearly 20-year reign, pyramid builders assembled six stepped layers of stone (as opposed to mud-brick, like most earlier tombs) that eventually reached a height of 204 feet (62 meters); it was the tallest building of its time. The Step Pyramid was surrounded by a complex of courtyards, temples and shrines, where Djoser would enjoy his afterlife.

Pyramids continued to be built throughout the fifth and sixth dynasties, but the general quality and scale of their construction declined over this period, along with the power and wealth of the kings themselves. In the later Old Kingdom pyramids, beginning with that of King Unas (2375-2345 B.C), pyramid builders began to inscribe written accounts of events in the king’s reign on the walls of the burial chamber and the rest of the pyramid’s interior. Known as pyramid texts, these are the earliest significant religious compositions known from ancient Egypt.

The last of the great pyramid builders was Pepy II (2278-2184 B.C.), the second king of the sixth dynasty, who came to power as a young boy and ruled for 94 years. By the time of his rule, Old Kingdom prosperity was dwindling, and the pharaoh had lost some of his quasi-divine status as the power of non-royal administrative officials grew. Pepy II’s pyramid, built at Saqqara and completed some 30 years into his reign, was much shorter (172 feet) than others of the Old Kingdom. With Pepy’s death, the kingdom and strong central government virtually collapsed, and Egypt entered a turbulent phase known as the First Intermediate Period. Later kings, of the 12th dynasty, would return to pyramid building during the so-called Middle Kingdom phase, but it was never on the same scale as the Great Pyramids.