In the period at the end of the 27th century BC, encompassing the reign of the last pharaoh of the third dynasty, Huni, and that of his successor, the first pharaoh of the fourth dynasty, Sneferu, we may place the construction of a building that has always been seen as marking the transition from the step pyramid to the geometric pyramid, that is, the one with smooth sides.
This structure, the Pyramid of Meidum, is located about 100 kilometers south of Cairo. Today it looks like an enormous three-story tower, almost 65 meters tall and 144 meters wide at its base. However, what we have here was originally a step pyramid, built—at least according to probes carried out— with concentric layers, one leaning on top of another. It was subsequently transformed into what is believed to be the first geometric pyramid, with a gradient of 52 degrees. As is clear from the present condition of the monument, surrounded by a mountain of debris, the last tier collapsed, or was eroded, revealing the innermost parts. Nobody has so far been able to determine if the collapse occurred at the time of construction, perhaps due to the changes in the project, or at a later date as a result of the building being utilized as a quarry with handy ready-for-use stone blocks. In any case, I am somewhat skeptical about the idea that the design was based on accretion layers and that it was altered during the construction, and I think that a new analysis of the monument would be worthwhile.
In fact, the inner structure of the Pyramid of Meidum was unquestionably planned right from the start to be able to support the huge weight of the monument above. This was, indeed, the first time that a pyramid was built on the basis of "above ground-underground'' connecting structures, that is, structural elements aimed at connecting the underground rooms with the pyramid mass above. Before Meidum, the underground chambers were excavated completely in the rock, as well as their entrance passages and pits. In Meidum instead only the "box'' of the funerary chamber was excavated at ground level, while the ceiling was constructed above ground. The chamber is accessed via a passage (called descending passage, from the point of view
Figure 16.3: Section and plan of Meidum pyramid according to Burkhart of someone entering), which goes down starting from the north face at a height of about 15 meters, thus crossing part of the building diagonally. Therefore, both the ceiling of the chamber and the descending passage are elements that, from an architectonic point of view, act as connections between the internal arrangement and the mass of the pyramid that stands on them.
These two elements were to become a popular feature in all pyramids of the fourth dynasty, only to disappear again under later dynasties. Their appearance usually passes nearly unnoticed, but they are a far from negligible component. One has to remember that it is much simpler creating "filled-in" pyramids, making descending passageways and rooms only in the substructure, by digging into the rock below the building, than building inside rooms (with the risk of collapsing ceilings) and, even worse, sloping corridors. To make a passage that crosses the pyramid diagonally, one has to prevent not only the roof of the passage from caving in, but also the sloping walls from sliding down.
The ancient Egyptians solved the problem of "relieving" the massive weight from the ceiling by means of inverted V-shaped vaults or using corbeled vaults, and both these two solutions appear in Meidum. To have a clearer picture of how they work, let's imagine the ceiling of a room like the shelf of a bookcase. If we overload it with books, it warps and risks breaking in two, toppling all the books onto the shelf below. To avoid this, we must "transfer" the vertical weight of the books to the sides of the bookcase. There are two ways to do this. The first is to arrange two identical wooden axes, forming an angle (an upside down V) in the center of the shelf and then cover it with books. The second is to arrange short wooden axes in succession, each projecting over the other, so that the upper one sticks out a bit in relation to the lower one (this is the technique known as corbeling). For unclear reasons, in some cases the vaults were executed directly in the main rooms while in others the Egyptians built service chambers above the ceilings to house these structures, which were sealed when complete. Today these spaces are usually called, questionably as we shall see in more detail later, relieving chambers. Famous examples of this kind of structure are in the Khufu pyramid, but recently relieving chambers have been discovered at Meidum too (Dormion and Verlhurst 2000). This is a system of rooms running along above the horizontal length of the inside passage up to the point of contact with the funerary chamber. The rooms were not entered physically by the discoverers, but accessed by means of little holes into which a fiberoptic video camera was inserted. Unfortunately, few details of this research have been reported. In any case, the finds in the Pyramid of Meidum have shown for the first time incontrovertibly—whether the uncovered rooms are really relieving chambers or have a more complicated significance—that the odds of finding undiscovered rooms in the pyramids, though difficult to credit, nevertheless exist.
The Pyramid of Meidum is ultimately a complex, sophisticated engineering work. Its internal structure shows no signs of sagging or of any experimenting or afterthought on the part of the builders, and stands nearly intact, 4700 years after construction. Furthermore, we do know that a relevant part of it has never been accessed since then. The afterthoughts about its construction, if indeed there were any, only related to the size and the external shape.
Who commissioned the construction of this pyramid? Its construction must have taken place during the reigns of Huni and Sneferu. But the names of Huni or Sneferu (or anyone else) do not appear anywhere on the building, or if they did, they have been scrubbed off. So it is a monument without a owner; attribution to Huni, the last pharaoh of the third dynasty is purely hypothetical, while the attribution to Sneferu is based on Middle Kingdom inscriptions (hence many centuries after Sneferu), found in a small building on the east side of the complex, which is most likely the first example of a mortuary temple associated with a pyramid. It has a somewhat strange plan, consisting of a S-shaped corridor, which leads to a courtyard containing two monolithic stelae.
In the 1970s, a theory regarding the Meidum pyramid was proposed by the physicist Kurt Mendelssohn (1974), which generated considerable debate. He claimed that the construction of a pyramid should not be associated with any single pharaoh. He argued that, on the contrary, pyramid building was a continuous process. Each time a pyramid neared completion, another pyramid was begun, thus keeping the mass of farmer/ laborers busy during periods of inactivity when the Nile had flooded. The pyramids were thus, according to Mendelssohn, a sort of mandatory public service that acted as social "stabilizer." Mendelssohn conjectured that the outer part of the Meidum pyramid had collapsed suddenly while its conversion to smooth-faced geometric pyramid (with the incorporation and covering of the steps) was reaching completion. The builders, Mendelssohn alleged, who were already at work on the their next project, the Bent Pyramid at Dashour (see next paragraph), blamed the collapse at Meidum on the excessive inclination, and therefore resolved to "soften" the slope of the other pyramid under construction, thus creating its bend.
I do not endorse Mendelssohn's theory. Today indeed we are quite certain, thanks to important excavations in the workers' quarters, carried out by Mark Lehner (1999) and Zahi Hawass (2006) at Giza, that the pyramids were not constructed by massive hordes of slaves or peasants, but rather by a reasonable amount (say 10,000) of well-nourished, well-cared-for, skilled workers, which refutes the social stabilizer theory. Mendelssohn's approach is interesting, nonetheless, since it shows that our knowledge is often so fragmentary and uncertain that it does no harm to put forward reasonable new hypotheses regarding Old Kingdom pyramids—hypotheses, of course, that must be tested in the light of known facts.
I shall propose one to you at the very end of the book.
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