Unquestionably the most iconic symbol of Egypt throughout history is the pyramid. The masonry structures with a pyramid design are symbolic and significant in Egyptian culture, and today they are among the top attractions in the entire country. Currently, historians have identified over 100 pyramids throughout Egypt, most of which date to the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom periods of Egyptian history.
The largest and best known of the Egyptian pyramids are found in Giza, which is located just outside of Egypt’s capital city, Cairo. However, the Giza Plateau isn’t the only place where you can spot historic pyramids. These ancient structures can be found across Egypt, and many visitors aim to see as many of them as possible during their stay.
Along with the widely known Great Sphinx and the Pyramid of Khufu, which most tourists will photograph during their visit to Egypt, take a closer look at some of the lesser known, but no less incredible, pyramids in the country.
The Pyramid of Lahun, also known as el-Lahun, was constructed under the rule of Senusret II of the 12th Dynasty around 1180 BC. El-Lahun means Mouth of the Canal, and it was indeed situated next to the water. This pyramid is now in ruin, and the causeways and passages within are largely destroyed and inaccessible. Even in the 1840s, when explorers were eager to discover and document as many Egyptian pyramids as possible, the British archeologist Sir Flinders Petrie took months to simply find the entrance to the pyramid itself.
The entrance to the Pyramid of Lahun was hidden in the courtyard on the south side of the structure, despite the north side being the typical entrance for religious reasons. The Pyramid of Lahun is one of the first pyramids in Egypt where protecting the contents, and providing security to the tomb, was regarded as even more important than following historic protocol.
Although there are no remnants, the exterior of the Pyramid of Lahun is believed to have been covered in decorated granite. Natural limestone already in place was used as an efficient base for the pyramid, making construction easier than normal. A smaller black granite pyramid was likely placed at the top of the structure to form its apex.
One of the pyramids found in Saqqara is the Pyramid of Userkaf, built between 2494–2487 BC under the rule of Userkaf, a pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty. Far from poetic, the local name of the pyramid, El-Haram el-Maharbish, translates directly as Heap of Stone. Userkaf does actually have a core of rubble, and the remaining materials were dressed stone. Today, the Pyramid of Userkaf is in ruin, and it looks more like a conical hill made of sand than a true pyramid.
The Pyramid of Userkaf was a structure that differed from the Fourth Dynasty pyramids, and in many ways it inspired the later Fifth Dynasty pyramids. Userkaf did retain the traditional high wall around the complex and the causeway linking one tomb to the main pyramid. However, it also introduced new ideas like a north-south axis orientation and the inclusion of a small chapel outside, rather than inside, the pyramid.
More than 1,5000 years after construction, the Pyramid of Userkaf was restored and used by Rameses II as a cemetery. In more modern history, the entrance to the pyramid was discovered in 1831, but no one actually entered the pyramid until 1839, when a tunnel was discovered that was likely dug by tomb robbers and afforded easy access to the interior.
A three-hour drive south of Cairo is the Pyramid of Hawara, which was constructed by the sixth Pharaoh of the 12th Dynasty, Amenmehat III. Historians put the construction of the Pyramid of Hawara around 1850 BC, making it approximately 3,865 years old today. The Pyramid of Hawara is often called the Black Pyramid because it looks much darker than other Egyptian pyramids from the same time period. The pyramid was built from brick stones and then covered in limestone, giving it a dark appearance.
When first built, the Pyramid of Hawara was nearly 60 meters (200 feet) tall, although erosion and desert sands have slightly reduced the height over time. Hawara was not the first pyramid commissioned by Pharaoh Amenmehat III. His first, called Dashur, was not successful and collapsed shortly after construction. As a result, the Pyramid of Hawara is built with a lower angle to prevent a collapse. But today even this second pyramid is little more than an eroded, vaguely pyramidal mountain of mud brick.
An interesting note to make about the Pyramid of Hawara, which still stands but doesn’t have a sharp apex anymore, is how it began to acknowledge and try to deceive tomb thieves. The Pyramid of Hawara featured passageways in a labyrinth pattern to try to confuse and frustrate potential robbers in ancient Egypt.
The Pyramid of Teti is another of the important structures located in the pyramid fields of Saqqara. Built between 2345 and 2333 BC in the Sixth Dynasty, Teti was just the second of the Egyptian pyramids to contain Pyramid Texts, or magic spells written or carved into the walls of the tombs. Upon excavation and exploration in the late 19th century, it was revealed that the Pyramid of Teti is made up of one main pyramid for the burial of the king, a funerary temple and two smaller pyramids likely intended for the queens of the Pharaoh Teti.
From above ground, the Pyramid of Teti looks like it is completely ruined, and it could even be mistaken for a small hill rather than a pyramid structure. Thankfully, the corridors and chambers located underground are in much better condition and have been amazingly preserved over time. Although the valley temple is lost, you can still see the Teti’s Room of the Greats, the interior chapel containing five different statues of the Pharaoh Teti, the long descending hallway that leads to the burial chamber, the funerary apartments for the pharaoh and the Pyramid Texts inscribed on the walls.
Found in the region of Saqqara is the Pyramid of Unas. Erected in the 24th century BC, the Pyramid of Unas was built for the Pharaoh Unas, who served as the final ruler in the Fifth Dynasty. Although the Pyramid of Unas was originally 43 meters (141 feet) tall, the pyramid is largely ruined today.
The Pyramid of Unas is significant in large part because it was the first of its kind to include what is now known as Pyramid Texts. The pharaoh had magical texts carved right into the walls that were designed to protect him in the afterlife. Several pharaohs after Unas did the same thing, starting a common trend among Egyptian kings. In fact, it is believed that the Pyramid Texts were the inspiration for the later Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead.
Made of limestone, the Pyramid of Unas was rediscovered by Western explorers in the 19th century, and a mummy was found in the tomb at that time. However, historians can’t be sure that the remains were in fact Unas, as they could have been from a later noble.
Approximately 100 km (60 miles) south of Cairo is Meidum, a pyramid that stands almost as high as the Pyramid of Menkaurein in Giza. Meidum was constructed during Egypt’s Third Dynasty, which means that it is older than the Pyramids of Giza. Meidum was designed for Huni, the very last of the Third Dynasty pharaohs. You can clearly see that at this stage, construction of pyramids was not yet a science. Instead of smooth sides, Meidum was originally built as a step pyramid, where there were terraces to make construction easier for each level. The outer layer also used sand, rather than stone, which may have led to the pyramid’s collapse over time.
Today, Meidum has three steps, or levels, that are clearly visible. It does not have a steep apex at the top, which is why many Egyptians call it a el-heram el-kaddaab, or pseudo pyramid. However, the Pyramid of Meidum is still absolutely worth a visit. As you enter, you’ll walk down a passageway which has been structurally supported by wooden beams, and you can enter the unfinished burial chamber. Surrounding the pyramid itself is a collection of mastabas, or tombs, that are made from mud bricks. These smaller tombs resemble the very base of a pyramid, and many of them have tunnels that robbers in centuries past used to steal from the tombs.
When people speak of the Pyramids of Giza, they are referring primarily to three distinct structures: the Pyramid of Khufu, the Pyramid of Khafre and the Pyramid of Menkaure. Of the three, the Pyramid of Menkaure is by far the smallest. However, it has a definite place in the layout of Giza, and it is absolutely worth a visit when you’re in the area.
Built in 2510 BC for the Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh Menkaure, this pyramid stands at a total height of 65 meters (213 feet). This puts the Pyramid of Menkaure at roughly half the height of its neighboring pyramids. The materials used in the construction of the Pyramid of Menkaure were red granite, used in the bottom portion of the pyramid, and limestone, used toward the top. Parts of the granite in the pyramid were left rough, which leads archeologists and historians to believe that the pyramid was unfinished.
If you look at the Pyramid of Menkaure today, you might notice a vertical strip of stones is missing from one side of the structure. Shockingly, that’s a result of serious efforts to tear down the pyramid in the 12th century by Saladin’s son. Thankfully, the process was time consuming and expensive, and eventually the process was abandoned. The missing stones are a reminder of both the durability of the pyramids and how important it is to preserve these kinds of landmarks.
As you enter the Pyramid of Menkaure, you’ll descend stairs to enter a passageway. Then comes the first antechamber, followed by carved reliefs in the walls and an opening into another chamber. As you enter the main series of chambers, you’ll get a unique view of the vaulted apex of the pyramid itself, a stunning sight that you’ll need to see to believe.
Just 25 km (15 miles) south of Cairo is an area called Saqqara, which contains a pyramid field packed with some of the earliest pyramids in Egyptian history. One of the most significant is the Step Pyramid of Djoser, which is widely believed to be the oldest cut-stone structure in the world, making it an important landmark for Egyptologists, archeologists, and architects alike. The Step Pyramid of Djoser was constructed in the Third Dynasty by Imhotep, the vizier of Pharaoh Djoser, and it was completed in approximately the 27th century BC.
The Pyramid of Djoser definitely looks different when compared to the typical image of an Egyptian pyramid. That’s because instead of smooth sides, Djoser is a step pyramid. Each level, or terrace, was built on top of the next. Technically, the design is one of six mastabas stacked on top of each other, each mastaba smaller than the last.
The entire Djoser complex was surrounded by a limestone wall, and there were 14 doors built into the walls. However, there was just one entrance, and the remaining doors may have been aesthetic or just a trick to passersby to prevent unwanted entry. Other important features of Djoser include a great trench surrounding the complex and the ornate stone pillars in the roofed colonnade corridor, which were carved to resemble bundles of reeds.
The South Court of the Djoser complex is a large area that was designed to separate the pyramid itself from the South Tomb. To this day, the South Court features curved stones associated with the Heb-sed festival, and they were placed there to help the pharaoh continue his reign over Egypt even after death. Although there are many theories about what would have been stored in the South Tomb, there is no confirmation about what was placed in its three chambers, which are skillfully decorated and arguably the most beautiful part of the entire complex.
After Giza and Saqqara, the most historically significant pyramid field in all of Egypt is Dahshur. In the heart of Dahshur is the Bent Pyramid, built in approximately 2600 BC under the reign of Pharaoh Sneferu of the Old Kingdom. The Bent Pyramid is given its name thanks to its construction. The base of the structure rises up from the desert floor at a 54-degree angle, but the angle of the top section is closer to 43 degrees. As a result, the pyramid looks almost bent, or titled over to one side. The formal name of the pyramid is the Pyramid of Sneferu, or the Southern Shining Pyramid.
There are several theories in play regarding the bent nature of the pyramid, but few historians believe that it was actually a mistake. Instead, the change in angle may be attributed to the pharaoh’s failing health, which necessitated completion of the pyramid in less time, or it might be a preventive measure to stop an imminent collapse brought about by the steep angle of the original construction. It may have also been a result of the collapse of the nearby Meidum Pyramid, which fell in large part because of its unprecedented steep angle.
The Bent Pyramid is regarded as the first real smooth-sided pyramid in Egypt. Although the Meidum Pyramid was built earlier and had smooth sides, it was constructed first as a step pyramid and then the smooth sides were added on after the initial building phase. The Bent Pyramid is also unique because its exterior has been preserved so well. The exterior of polished limestone is largely intact, a rarity when considering the age of the structure. If you opt to visit the Bent Pyramid, you’ll be pleased to discover few crowds, but you will need to schedule a visit in advance in order to glimpse into the interior of the pyramid itself.
The Red Pyramid, also known as the North Pyramid, is found in Dahshur. Its name comes from the red limestone used for its construction. After the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza, the Red Pyramid has the largest base of any pyramid in Egypt. However, with its sides sloping at 43 degrees it is significantly shorter at 104 meters (341 feet).Today it is the third largest and the fourth highest pyramid in Egypt. Although no longer the largest, it was the first successful true, smooth-sided pyramid built in Egypt and it initiated the Giza style pyramids with which many are familiar.
The Red Pyramid was the second (or possible third) pyramid built by Pharaoh Snefru (2575-2551 B.C.) and most likely was begun between the twenty-second and the twenty-ninth year of his reign. According to various inscriptions found on some of the blocks of stone, it took about 17 years to build. It is 105 meters (345 feet) high and contains three chambers.
Like most of the Egyptian pyramids, the entrance is on the north-facing side. This gives access to a 60 meter (200-foot) passageway. At the bottom of this passage lies a short corridor that leads to the first chamber. This chamber is about 12 meters (40 feet) high.
At the southern end of the first chamber is another short corridor leading to a second chamber, which is approximately the same size as the first. Unlike most chambers in pyramids, this compartment lies directly under the apex of the Red pyramid. These first two chambers lie at ground level.
At the southern end of this second chamber an opening is cut into the wall. A wooden staircase, a modern construction, leads to the final chamber. This chamber is higher than the first two and is built into the masonry itself. It is about 15 meters (50 feet) high and is believed to be the burial chamber. It is thought that the son of Pharaoh Snefru, Pharaoh Khufu, buried his father here. However, no remains have been found.
A rare pyramidion or capstone, for the pyramid has been uncovered and reconstructed, and is now on display. However, whether it was actually ever used is unclear, as its angle of inclination differs from that of the Red pyramid. In addition, the remains of a mortuary temple also lie east of the pyramid. This is significant because Snefru was the first to use the east-west alignment of the Egyptian temples to match the path of the sun.
Until recently, it was not possible to travel safely to the Dashur area of Egypt. Because of this, the Red Pyramid lacks the crowds that visit the pyramids at the Giza Plateau. This makes a visit here much more enjoyable. In addition, this pyramid can be entered without limitation, unlike most other sites. Therefore, without the crowds and with the open access, a visit to The Red Pyramid is a unique chance to get an up-close look at one of the famous pyramids of Egypt.
Adjacent to the Pyramid of Khafu is the Pyramid of Khafre. Although the Pyramid of Khafre is somewhat smaller, it is often considered to be the sister structure of Khafu. Constructed in 2570 BC, just a decade after Khafu, the Pyramid of Khafre also belongs to the Fourth Egyptian Dynasty. The Pyramid of Khafre, however, was designed as the final resting place of the Pharaoh Khafre, who is also referred to in history books as Chefren.
Although the Pyramid of Khafre is technically smaller than Khafu, it looks bigger at first glance. That’s because Khafre is situated on a bedrock, giving it a major height advantage, and because it boasts steeper sides, giving it more of a pointed top. Construction of the Pyramid of Khafre demonstrates the incredible engineering and design capabilities of the ancient Egyptians, particularly when it comes to choosing blocks of limestone that guarantee structural integrity. At the base of the Pyramid of Khafre, the stones are larger, but they decrease in size as the pyramid reaches its point. However, one noticeable problem with the construction of Khafre ‘ pyramid is that the four corners aren’t positioned perfectly, meaning that the apex has a slight twist rather than pointing up straight to the sky.
Unlike in most pyramids, the Pyramid of Khafre has two separate entrances. Inside the pyramid, there are multiple chambers that are open to the public for you to explore. You’ll want to check out the burial chamber, which boasts large limestone beams across the ceiling. There are also sunken portions in the floor of some chambers, which is where a sarcophagus would likely have been placed.
Some of the best known structures in all of Giza are actually part of the Pyramid of Khafre’s greater complex. Just some of the additional monuments to admire in the area include the Great Sphinx, the Mortuary Temple, the ruins of a satellite pyramid and the Valley Temple.
Of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, the Pyramid of Khufu is the only one that remains. The Pyramid of Khufu also happens to be the largest pyramid in Egypt, and it is centrally located in Giza. The structure goes by many names, including the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Pyramid of Cheops. Historians believe that the Pyramid of Khufu was built in 2560 BC, and that construction took anywhere from 10 to 20 years.
The pyramid is named as it is because it is believed to be the tomb for Khufu, the Egyptian Pharaoh from the Fourth Dynasty. It was Khufu’s vizier Hemiunu who is said to be the architect of the incredible pyramid structure. Construction involved more than two million blocks which had to be transported from local quarries, and the primary materials used included limestone, granite and mortar. Today, the Pyramid of Khufu stands at 139 meters (455 feet) tall, but erosion means that it may be shorter today than it was at the time of construction.
If you visit the Pyramid of Khufu, you can enter the structure, although there are only 300 tickets sold each day to visitors. If you’re lucky enough to snag a ticket, you’ll enter about 15 meters (50 feet) above ground, via the north face. A tunnel heading upward will lead you through some of the interior chambers that make up the pyramid. You won’t want to miss the chance to tour the Queen’s Chamber, the King’s Chamber and the Grand Gallery. There are also five Relieving Chambers, which were never intended to be visible and only exist to protect the King’s Chamber from collapse or shifting over time. As you tour the Pyramid of Khufu, keep in mind that most of the historic artifacts that were placed within the structure at the time of Khufu’s death were stolen centuries ago, and what remained in recent history has been transported to museums around the world.