There are about 110 pyramids currently known in Egypt, many in a state of great disrepair and almost unrecognisable. Some were built as burial places for kings and others for queens. A pyramid also may have represented a stairway for the king to ascend to the heavens. Another possibility is that it was symbolic of the primeval mound on which the sun god/creator was born.
How the Egyptians managed the complex organisation of labour and the physical movement of large stone blocks is still a matter for debate. Pyramid construction may have involved ramps being erected around the pyramid. Blocks of stone would have been pulled up on sledges and the ramps dismantled later. It is believed that most of the labour for the construction of the pyramids would have come from farmers who were available during the inundation season when the Nile River flooded and farmland was underwater. It would also have been an ideal time for the transportation by boat of large stone blocks from their quarries to the pyramid sites.
The earliest pyramid was the Step Pyramid of king Djoser of the Old Kingdom's 3rd Dynasty over 4,600 years ago. The pyramid (at right) was the largest structure ever erected at Saqqara, the necropolis that overlooked the ancient capital of Memphis. Its construction was initially in the form of a low mastaba tomb upon which extra levels were gradually added to give it a step-like appearance.
Underneath Djoser's pyramid was a complex system of corridors with a burial chamber lined with Aswan pink granite about 28 metres underground. The entrance was sealed with a three-tonne granite plug. The pyramid's outside would have been cased with fine limestone, but this was removed long ago. Nearby were the Mortuary Temple, a Great Court and various other structures.
The first true pyramid (at right) was developed for King Sneferu during the 4th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. It is referred to as the Red Pyramid, because of its colour, or the North Pyramid because of its position at Dashur south of Cairo. It was about 105 metres high with its sides measuring 220 metres.
The largest pyramid ever built was the Great Pyramid at Giza southwest of modern Cairo (see Giza and the Pyramids). Built for king Khufu, this pyramid was completed around 2550 BC.
It is estimated that the pyramid contains approximately 2,300,000 blocks of stone with an average weight of 2.5 tonnes each and some up to 15 tonnes. Its sides measure 230 metres in length. The structure would have towered about 146.6 metres high, but it is now a little shorter owing to the outer casing having been removed to build many of Cairo's buildings during the Middle Ages. The interior design was changed during the pyramid's construction and the burial chamber was relocated.