Why the pyramids died


Archaeology Worldwide considers the burning question (which beats thinking about Omicron viruses, in our books): why did ancient Egyptian pyramid building cease?


Pyramids are, in a sense, the trademarks of Ancient Egypt. Old Kingdom pharaohs erected them promiscuously between the reign of Djoser (2611 BC) to Ahmose I (2325 BC). These stupendous funerary monuments were conspicuous symbols of political power, wealth, and compelling religious beliefs. They were staircases to the realm of the Sun God Amun, where deceased rulers joined the immortal journeys of the sun across the heavens. But, with the death of Ahmose I, pyramids abruptly vanished. Why?


One reason may have been security, for all the royal pyramids were violated in short order. The first line of defence was to site the burial chamber away from the pyramid, as happened with Ahmose I – whose burial chamber at Abydos was 0.5km away in the desert. A next logical step was underground burial in the Valley of the Kings, on the Nile’s West Bank. Not only did necropolis guards abound there, but the burial process would potentially attract less attention. A document written by Ineni, who apparently supervised the construction of Thutmose I’s Valley of the Kings tomb, in 1493 BC, claims that he supervised the excavation alone, ‘no one seeing, no one hearing’ – a reminder of the secrecy that now surrounded royal burials.


Quite which pharaoh was the first to be buried in the Valley of the Kings is unknown, but it may have been Amenhotep I, who died in 1504 BC. Interestingly, a conspicuous peak, now called el-Qurn, looms over the Valley and may have served as a symbolic pyramid. Religious considerations may have also played a role in the changeover. New Kingdom kings journeyed symbolically at night through the Underworld, and their Valley tombs were able to replicate the sacred journey.


Not that pyramid building entirely ceased. Wealthy private individuals occasionally built private pyramids, while such monuments became commonplace in Nubia until about 1700 years ago.




Image: The pyramids at Giza, as taken from the plateau to the south of the complex.