I have been dragging my feet on this post because the pyramids are a heck of a lot to tackle but I will make my attempt! **Note: there is A LOT of scholarship on the pyramids and I am not going to do in-depth about every iota; I am focusing on what I specifically teach in my AP class.***
Art Historical Background
In class, I do not focus much on the construction of the pyramids, although that is quiet fascinating, because I do not feel it is pertinent to their AP Exam in May and it takes wayyyy too long to cover. I most focus on historical/religious context and function. In short, these are tombs. Specifically tombs of the pharaohs (or kings) of Ancient Egypt from the Old Kingdom. Once you know that each one was for one individual body, you can see how extravagant these were. These were made for three specific kings in fact: Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure (grandfather, father, and son). Hey, it’s good to be the king!
*Note: Menkaure also comes up in another image of the 250: #18. King Menkaura and queen. Old Kingdom, Fourth Dynasty. c. 2490–2472 BCE. Greywacke..
Around the three famous pyramids are numerous other structures; these were cemeteries for workers, pyramids for the queens, buried ceremonial boats, funerary temples, and most famously the Great Sphinx. Hence why this site is called a necropolis (“city of the dead” in Greek). All of these structures are vital to the funerary cult of the pharaoh. Each pyramid has a funerary temple next to it so that the priests could perform rituals for the deceased and each temple is connected via a causeway to the banks of the Nile. The pharaoh’s body was ferried from the “land of the living” to the “land of the dead.” The Sphinx is simply a guardian of Khafre’s pyramid, I am honestly not sure how it because such a “mysterious” thing anyways. My students are also disappointed when I debunk that one.
Inside, there isn’t much to the structures. It’s mostly solid stone except for chambers for the body and funerary goods along with shafts to these rooms. Unfortunately, the pyramids were looted wayyy before archaeologists got there to study them. These pyramids also would have looked very different in antiquity: they were originally faced with white limestone and capped with gold. Imagine how magnificent that would have looked gleaming in the desert sun!
Read more: Lesson Plan: Ziggurats vs. Pyramids
There are many aspects of the burial of the pharaohs in pyramids that are connected to religious beliefs (as many funerary rituals are). One, the shape of the pyramids served to help the pharaoh’s ba, kind of the equivalent of a soul, to help transport him properly to the afterlife. Secondly, the pharaoh was not just the head of state, he was imperative for keeping the balance of maat, the right order of society. The king himself was not technically divine, but the power of kingship was. The pharaohs were associated with the Egyptian god Horus, who also happened to be the son of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife. Thirdly, the pyramidal shape has references to the sun’s rays emphasizing the belief that deceased pharaohs climbed up the rays up to join the sun-god Ra.
For a longtime, scholarship assumed that the workers of the pyramids were slaves or forced labor during times when there was little farming work to be done, but we have found documentation of salaries, family housing, and the best one, a worker’s sick leave because he was hung over (#12). Either way, the fact that all of these people were employed to build a GIANT tomb for ONE person is incredibly impressive and speaks to the social, political, and religious importance of the pharaoh.
FUN FACT: These are the LAST standing of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.”
- Khan Academy: Old Kingdom: The Great Pyramids of Giza
- Khan Academy: Old Kingdom: Pyramid of Khufu
- Khan Academy: Old Kingdom: Pyramid of Khafre and the Great Sphinx
- Khan Academy: Old Kingdom: Pyramid of Menkaure
- Art History Teaching Resources: Art of Ancient Egypt
- PBS, NOVA: Explore Ancient Egypt
- Out Of Egypt: “Disposal Of The Dead” documentary
- Out of Egypt: “The Shape of the Gods” documentary
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Egypt in the Old Kingdom (ca. 2649–2150 B.C.)
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Egyptian Tombs: Life Along the Nile
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History:Kings and Queens of Egypt
- BBC, History: The Private Lives of the Pyramid-builders
- Metropolitan Museum of Art: Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids
- Metropolitan Museum of Art: Ancient Egypt Resource for Educators
- A World Traveler: Art History At A Glance: Ziggurats versus Pyramids: The differences and similarities
- Art History 235: Ziggurats and Pyramids
- The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt: pgs.32-33, 248-259
- Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Global View,15th edition, pgs. 61-63
- The Annotated Mona Lisa, 2nd edition, by Strickland, pg. 8-11
- Ancient Egypt: Kingdom of the Pharaohs by R. Hamilton, pg. 25-59
- Gateways to Art: Understanding the Visual Arts, pgs. 301