The Dashour site, although being open to public and easily reachable, some 40 kilometers south of Cairo, is usually not on the route of most guided tours, so one can even have the chance of visiting two of the most important monuments in human history in the dreamy peace of the desert and, believe me, it is an unforgettable experience. These two monuments are the great stone pyramids named the Bent Pyramid (south Dashour) and the Red Pyramid (north Dashour) (Plates 27, 28).
Figure 16.6: Plan, N-S and E-W sections of the Bent Pyramid.
The Bent Pyramid owes its name to a sudden softening of its inclination, which was effected when the construction had reached 49 meters (the initialinclination of 54°3' drops to 43°21, thus forming an angle in the pyramid's profile). It is rarely shown in documentaries on the pyramids, and when it is shown, it is presented as an example of an imperfect pyramid, as if it were a botched job or a stage of evolution toward the perfection of the Giza pyramids. Some Egyptologists have even dubbed it the "failed pyramid'' (Romer 2007). Of course, I do not agree.
The Bent Pyramid is one of the ten largest and heaviest objects ever created by mankind throughout history. It has a 189-meter-wide base and is
105 meters tall, similar to a modern skyscraper of over 30 stories, and I consider it to be an object of quite unique beauty and charm. Among other things, the slim limestone casing blocks were skillfully arranged to jut out— the only instance of this in Egypt (only the Greek pyramid of Helleniko, in the Peloponnese, is remotely comparable (Liritzis et al 1997, Liritzis 1998)). The result was that the casing was so solid that medieval quarrymen abandoned attempts to remove it, so the Bent Pyramid is the only pyramid that can be seen today as all must have looked at the time of their construction—smooth.
The north pyramid of Dashour, or Red Pyramid, owes its name to the reddish hue of the limestone used to build it. It, too, is rarely seen in documentaries on pyramids, and if it is, it is usually shown in long shot without any frame of reference, so it is impossible to grasp how enormous it is. It measures 218.5 by 221.5 meters (the base), is 104.4 meters tall, with a gradient of 43°36', virtually identical to that of the upper section of the south pyramid.
The two Dashour pyramids are relatively far apart (about 1850 meters) and are not on the same meridian (the distance between the meridians passing through the tips of the pyramids is about 300 meters). The Red Pyramid is also so far from the Nile flood plain that a 2-kilometer-long causeway would have been needed (it was never completed). These facts
Figure 16.7: Section and plan of the Red Pyramid would appear to warrant an explanation. The distance between the two complexes (as well as from the river) entailed long and laborious modification of the roads along which materials were transported, and the provision of new workers' quarters, a series of logistical difficulties that might have been easily solved by the simple expedient of building the two pyramids nearby and on the same meridian, a possibility that would not have been hindered by any particular geo-morphological factors. The situation becomes even more incomprehensible if we consider that the two complexes seem to have been built by the same pharaoh, Sneferu (predecessor and father of Khufu). This attribution is based on the discovery of quarry marks, that is, indications in hieroglyphics painted on some of the blocks of the Red Pyramid specifying quarry teams (and hence the provenance of the blocks) and assisting in their positioning. These marks bear Sneferu's name and year of rule (to be precise, the "year of the ox count,'' which took place every two solar years); Sneferu's name is also alleged to appear on an inscription in the Bent Pyramid.
The pyramids of Dashour, like all the others (with the exception of the Great Pyramid of Khufu; see below) have no internal spaces above ground level, apart from the descending passage with access at a certain height on the north side. The passage proceeds until it meets the bedrock and is joined, below the pyramid, by a passage of the same dimensions that gives access to the subterranean chambers (or rather semi-subterranean, in that the ceiling of the chamber is typically at ground level), which most probably contained the pharaoh's sarcophagus and funerary accessories (which were never found). The Bent Pyramid (a one-off project) contains another copy of these funerary apartments (as well as, possibly, yet undiscovered conduits, since various accounts indicate the presence of an airflow of unknown origin inside the pyramid). One of the two apartments is accessed, as in all other pyramids, from the north side, while the other is accessed from the west side (the two chamber systems are linked only by a narrow tunnel); corresponding to the base center, a "chimney" of unknown function can be accessed from the northern set of chambers.
Thus we have three tombs—one in the Red Pyramid and two in the Bent Pyramid—available for Sneferu at Dashour. It is unclear why Sneferu was so obsessed with the afterlife. Generally, it is believed that the Red Pyramid was the real tomb and was erected because the Bent Pyramid became structurally unstable during its construction, the chief reason for it being branded as "failed." The generally accepted chronology is as follows:
1. The Meidum pyramid collapsed (or rather, "eroded," since the core structure remained intact, as did the inner chambers) and was abandoned.
2. Sneferu moved the building site to Dashour and began the construction of the Bent Pyramid.
3. The Bent Pyramid was in danger of collapsing, so the gradient was softened.
4. It was decided to build a new pyramid anyway, the Red Pyramid, with the same gradient as the toned-down section of the Bent Pyramid.
However, there is no convincing proof that the gradient of the south pyramid was modified because it was thought to be in danger of subsiding. This is the situation today: the casing has a number of cracks, many of which were patched up in ancient times; some foundation stones are also badly cracked. Nevertheless, the structure is completely stable, which means that the cracks must have appeared during a sudden and rapid self-rearrangement; all the inner rooms remained standing and they are perfectly sound and accessible 4500 years after being built. There are no significant signs of subsidence, although in some rooms we can see cracks that were enameled over in ancient times (in others cedar beams are visible, which have sometimes been incorrectly interpreted as wedges put in place by the builders to prevent collapse). The only clear sign of any serious structural problem can be seen in the downward corridor, about 10 meters from the entrance, where there is a quite striking rift, which indicates that a slip of a whole external "mantel'' of blocks must have occurred there.
All in all, I agree with the Italian scholars Vito Maragioglio and Celeste Rinaldi (1966) that what really transpired in the pyramid was a displacement of the entire upper casing of blocks within the overall structure (many thousands of tons shifting and sliding altogether). The blocks, however, rearranged themselves immediately into a new position of equilibrium, and this movement produced the great fissure mentioned above. The corridor had been built so ably that it stood up to the displacement, and the inner apartments today are still quite sound. We do not know when this movement occurred, and I would not even be too sure that it happened before the builders decided to alter the slope, and that therefore the movement itself was the cause of its modification. Indeed, it is illogical to think of stopping a collapse by reducing the weight that still has to be added. Clearly, the builders knew how to calculate the volume of what they were building. Thus, they knew that the ratio between the volumes of two pyramids with the same base side is equal to the ratio between the tangents of their respective angles of inclination. Applying the formula with the two angles of inclination of the Bent Pyramid, we find that this ratio is 2/3, which means that the reduction in the weight that was added compared to that anticipated—assuming for argument's sake that the original design did not already envisage the change in the gradient—was only a third (the volume of the pyramid is about 1427
million cubic meters, whereas the volume it would have had if it had been completed with the original inclination would have been about 1556 million cubic meters). It is therefore extremely doubtful whether there is a relation of cause and effect between the problems of static that the pyramid effectively faced and the change of slope.
Besides, this theory does not answer the following questions:
1. Why did the Bent Pyramid have two funerary apartments?
2. Why was it decided to abandon the Bent Pyramid, even though its stability (exactly as it is today) must have been quite obvious once the building had been finished?
3. Why was the Red Pyramid built so far from the Bent Pyramid? And why was it not built on the same meridian?
Curiously, the problems raised by the pyramids of Dashour are so complicated that we might be tempted to be satisfied with the few things which look sure, though they are not actual fact. Indeed, even the relative chronology of the two pyramids is far from certain; in other words, we cannot even say for sure whether the Bent pyramid was constructed before the Red or not. According to the literature, dated quarry marks are found only on the Red Pyramid, while the Bent Pyramid has been attributed to Sneferu on the basis of an undated royal cartouche. It might be thought, then, that the Red Pyramid was built first and that, afterward, the desire to try out a steeper inclination led to the Bent Pyramid. In the light of the famous structural problems, the architect at this point would have gone back to his original tried-and-tested slope for the completion of the monument.
This is an alternative, technical explanation for the double gradient. I have cited it to demonstrate how difficult are the problems in studying such magnificent monuments. I think it more likely that the real explanation for the riddles of the Dashour complex are to be sought at a more symbolic level however. I believe that the sacred landscape of Dashour was devised and executed according to a design that, far from being the incoherent patchwork job cobbled together by vague, illogical architects that some Egyptologists would have us believe, was planned in a uniform fashion. What particularly arouses suspicion is the duality apparent in the site—two enormous pyramids, two slopes, two funerary apartments in the south pyramid— prompting some scholars in the past to suggest that the pairing represents, yet again (as in the case of the "double tomb'' of previous dynasties), a tribute to the tradition of the Pharaoh as the ruler of unified Upper and Lower Egypt.
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