Humans have always had a preoccupation with building the tallest buildings. Look at cities today; it seems like every decade a new skyscraper knocks the former record holder from its perch.
Ever since the thirteenth century when people built ever higher cathredrals, until the Eiffel Tower came along in 1889 to take the title, to the birth of the skyscraper in Chicago when the title really began to change hands, humanity’s goal seems to be to build as high as gravity will allow. Even in Bible stories, humans built the Tower of Babel so high they threatened God.
Ancient history shows similar examples. The Ancient Egyptian pyramids are a testament to humanity’s want of showcasing their importance and grandeur through impressive structures. Apparently, to the pharaohs, size did matter.
But, Egypt is by far not the only culture to build pyramids. Though the most iconic, Egypt’s pyramids are only a drop in the ocean of pyramids built by ancient civilizations. Mesoamerican cultures like the Incan, Mayan, Aztec, Xelhua, Toltec, Velacruz, and Teotihuacan cultures all built pyramids. In Mesopotamia, China, India, Indonesia, Cambodia, Spain, Italy, Nigeria, and Sudan, ancient ruins of pyramids have all shown that there was certainly no Egyptian monopoly on pyramid-building.
But, compared to today when people can get news of the newest tallest building and set about on plans to build higher right away, ancient civilizations probably didn’t know what the other was building. So why did so many cultures build pyramids, then?
There are countless theories out there, from extraterrestrial help to supernatural power networks connecting civilizations, and much more. But, today, we are going to take a look at some more common explanations for the prevalence of pyramids.
The structure of the pyramid itself is a relatively simple one. For practical purposes, it withstands much of nature’s punishment with surprisingly minimal damage. Take the Pyramids of Ghiza for example: built thousands of years ago and still standing. There are countless other examples around the world of ancient pyramids still intact and structurally sound.
The sturdy base and sloping sides give these structures impressive weather-resistance. Let’s compare them to skyscrapers today. Many towers built in modern cities have straight, vertical sides with a flat top. Pyramids, however, have sloping sides that eventually meet at the top in a point.
Wind and sandstorms hit the sloping sides of pyramids with less force than they do the vertical sides of towers, causing less erosion. During rain, the water just flows down the sides instead of pooling on top, having minimal effect and requiring no special irrigation system to drain.
One of the most annoying forces to deal with when building grand structures is gravity. With pyramids, the upper layers have a wide base to use for support. The downward force of gravity is easily distributed across the sturdy foundation, allowing pyramids to stand tall and impressive for millennia.
If you still have any doubt, take a look at the current tallest building in the world: the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The structure of this tower is reminiscent of pyramids, wider at the bottom and building up to a narrower point on the top. There is something to be said for the soundness of the pyramid’s design.
This design is widely credited to Imhotep, the chancellor to the Pharoah Djoser and attributed architect of Djoser’s step pyramid. Imhotep is actually one of history’s first recorded geniuses. He filled the roles of engineer, physician, politician, and priest. He was a high priest for the Egyptian god of craftsmen and architects and was even worshipped by the Greeks in association with the Asclepius, the god of medicine.
Before pyramids, pharaohs were buried in mastabas, simple rectangular or square structures with flat tops made out of stone or mud brick. When Imhotep was tasked with the project of building the Pharoah Djoser’s royal tomb, he decided to put a twist on this traditional structure.
On top of the mastaba’s flat roof, he decided to place another smaller mastaba, then a smaller one on top of that until the mastabas tapered to a point at the top. Thus, the first stepped pyramid was born. This launched Imhotep to Egyptian stardom and ensured his place in history.
Another reason given for the widespread use of pyramids is plain old copying. Not copying other cultures, though, but copying the world around them. Some historians argue that pyramids were ancient civilizations’ way of emulating the mountains and sand dunes that surrounded them.
As I mentioned before, humans seem to have an innate want to build the grandest, tallest structures, no matter the time period. And what grander structure to imitate than the towering mountains that housed elements, minerals, plants, animals, and other treasures humans have lived off of.
Pyramids were used by ancient civilizations to show the grandeur and power of their kingdoms, to house revered leaders and important figures, and to hold religious ceremonies and sacrifices. Cultures that placed that much significance on a structure would, of course, want to incorporate the breath-taking majesty of mountains.
Pyramids are a shape common in nature, from mountains to volcanoes to sand dunes to hills, and even rocks jutting up from the ground. It’s no wonder ancient civilizations chose to imitate this shape when building impressive structures. It’s easy to take this for granted when looking at buildings today.
Modern technology allows contemporary architects and engineers to build straight-sided buildings jutting thousands of feet into the air. Ancient civilizations didn’t have the structural systems, metal alloys, and technology to offset nature’s forces that our towering skyscrapers use.
Humans have always been spiritual creatures. Tales of the gods and mythologies that trickle down to us from ancient times titillate audiences still today. The deities, ceremonies, and practices of ancient civilizations were such a grand part of their culture and daily life that structures like pyramids were built.
The grandeur of the mountain-like pyramids struck the awe of the gods into the common people of the day. Onlookers would see tons of stone stacked up hundreds of feet into the sky, reaching up towards the heavens. Priests and leaders would hold sacred religious ceremonies in and on these pyramids, bringing them closer to the gods they worshipped.
Cultures like the Ancient Egyptians used pyramids to house and preserve the remains of their leaders. These grand mausoleums honored the imposing memory and reputation of the pharaoh while preserving their bodies from the decaying forces of nature at the same time (shielding from sunlight, rain, and sand).
The pyramidal shape itself holds philosophical significance, as well. The wide base tapering up to a small point resembles the myriad ways of life, thought, and cultre that existed in the world which led to one point at the top which resembled the ultimate goal of life: to merge with the afterlife, achieve nirvana, or engage with that certain culture’s beliefs on death.
The inverse of the pyramid shape also represents the dispersion of knowledge. A single gifted, blessed, or wise individual – be it the pharaoh, priest, shaman, or any other revered person in that culture – gaining the knowledge given to them by the heavens and sharing it down to the rest of the people.
Religion and the crossing over to the afterlife are both examples of human endeavors to get closer to God or gods. Pyramids are a visual representation of wanting to get higher up to the heavens, even closer to a culture’s deities.
Ancient pyramids are a breathtaking site to see. Trying to fathom the time, planning, and manpower it took to build these massive structures during ancient times boggles the mind. The huge effort of this task is often seen as one of the reasons why the pyramid shape was used. It’s commonplace role in nature and relative ease of building and staying structurally sound would make such difficult construction projects more feasible and worthwhile for ancient civilizations.
Humanity’s knack for the spiritual and symbolic also makes the pyramid a natural choice. All things leading to one and one dispersing to all is a beautiful notion to consider alongside the grandeur of these structures. Getting close to the divine has always fascinated humankind ever since the Tower of Babel.
To top it all off, some historians theorize that the mythical Tower of Babel was actually based on an ancient Babylonian structure called a ziggurat. A ziggurat was, as you probably guessed, a pyramid-shaped structure.