July 3, 2012

Ancient Egyptian Pyramids Part 7 | Problems and Solution

At the end of the Third Dynasty a profound change in the position of the pharaoh seems to have taken place. Again, the evidence for this is entirely technological. The next pyramid, that at Meidum, departed, as we have already seen, in several ways drastically from the Third Dynasty pattern. Even before it was to be transformed from a step structure into a true pyramid, a number of significant alterations had been made in the basic layout of the monument as a whole. The large enclosure was omitted, as were the extensive replicas of the king’s palace and of his ceremonial heh-sed court. The southern tomb which exists in both Zoser’s and Sekhemket’s monument is missing and instead there appeared a small subsidiary pyramid south of the main structure. Together with the change into a true pyramid, the pyramid complex with mortuary and valley buildings and with a causeway to the Nile was instituted, which became the standard pattern for the rest of the Old Kingdom.

Ancient Egyptian Pyramids
Thers is no doubt that this revolutionary change had religious significance but the implied re-orientation in the people’s basic beliefs has perhaps been over-estimated. They went on erecting pyramids as they had been doing since the days of Imhotep. The possible ascendancy of the priests of Re has been mentioned but perhaps this was a power struggle within the top rank of the administration rather than a popular movement. Conceivably there was an attempt in the palace to stop pyramid building since it tended to transfer initiative from the divine king to the heads of administration. Whatever happened there is no record of serious troubles at the end of the Third Dynasty, and the first pharaoh of the Fourth, Snofru, became the greatest pyramid-builder of all. By omitting the archaic trappings of the ritual rejuvenation court from his pyramid complex, he was the first pharaoh to step into a new era of kingship. Under the influence of the Heliopolitan priesthood, Snofru changed from a supernatural being endowed with magical power into a head of state.

Snofru’s escalation of the pyramid project far outshines Imhotep’s example. We have more than once referred to his two, or even three, pyramids which surpassed Imhotep’s effort at Saq- qara. We have also dealt with the misfortune that befell Snofru’s attempt to build a tall true pyramid. The magnificence of this huge and shining emblem of the sun god has obscured another aspect of this architectural change which may have an important technological significance. The new type of pyramid complex differed from that of Zoser and Sekhemket, not only in the shape of the monument itself. The Third Dynasty complexes contained, besides the central pyramid, a great number of dummy buildings and a very extensive temenos wall with recessed panelling. All these stuctures required a large number of skilled masons. At the Fourth Dynasty pyramids, these subsidiary buildings were reduced to a minimum while at the same time the bulk of the monuments increased more and more.

This signifies a steady increase in the force of unskilled seasonal workers in comparison with the permanently employed craftsmen whose number, if anything, may have diminished. It all points to a conscious encouragement of the employment of agricultural villagers without at the same time augmenting the permanently occupied people. In other words, the central administration constantly increased their hold over the population as a whole without training correspondingly more specialists. It thus appears that their motives were purely political by creating a progressively growing economic dependence of the common people on what was now becoming the state.

It would be quite wrong to assume that this increasing power of the civil service and the steadily rising involvement of the villagers in the pyramid project impoverished the country. Such evidence of the period of Snofru’s rule as has come down to us indicates an age of expansion and rapidly increasing prosperity. The fragments of the Palermo Stone list temples and palaces that were built in Snofru’s reign, and in his thirteenth year he organised an expedition into the Sudan which brought home 7,000 men and women as captives and 200,000 oxen and sheep. He also secured the southern frontier with a number of fortified garrisons. In the following year he sent another expedition, this time a fleet of forty seagoing ships, to Lebanon to procure cedar wood. It set the pattern for an important trade, since Egypt has hardly any timber, and it is likely that the cedarwood beams inside the Bent Pyramid were part of this consignment. Military campaigns were mounted against the neighbouring tribes in the western and eastern deserts. Snofru also secured the caravan route into Sinai and his exploits were commemorated by inscriptions at Wadi Maghara, where turquoise and copper were mined to be sent across the desert to Egypt.

Throughout Egypt’s long history Snofru was remembered as a benevolent king and for the first time there is a record of the pharaoh as a human being instead of an almost abstract god. The Westcar papyrus mentions that the king addressed his courtiers as ‘comrades’ and from another source we learn that he called the old vizier of his father ‘my friend’. While the person of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt remained forever beyond the reach of ordinary mortals, Snofru appears here as not a god but a man among other men. The priests of Heliopolis had newly decreed that the pharaoh would become divine only after his death. In his lifetime he was the supreme head of a new form of society, which we call the state.

The pyramid project was creating a type of community which had never existed before. Tribal villagers were welded by common work into people with the consciousness of nationhood. It was probably for the first time that they thought of themselves first and foremost as Egyptians. Working together, under one administration, their differences and mutual suspicions were bound to lessen. With this unifying labour on three large pyramids in the reign of Snofru it may have become of secondary importance in which of them he was eventually buried. In fact, it was not even important whether his body was buried in any of his three pyramids. Those puzzles which beset Egyptologists for a long time : in which pyramid the pharaoh was buried, and whether any pyramid ever contained a body, are not solved by our considerations but they have lost much of their former significance. Once it is realised that the main object of pyramid construction was a work programme leading to a new social order, the religious meaning and ritual importance of the pyramid recede into the background. If anything, these man-made mountains are a monument to the progress of man into a new pattern of life, the national state, which was to become his social home for the next 5,000 years.

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