Pyramid of Meidum

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Just across from the Fayoum in the Nile Valley, south of Cairo, situated alone on the edge of the Western Desert above the lush green fields at Meidum is a tower shaped structure some sixty-five meters high that was once a pyramid that we believe was built by the 4th Dynasty King, Snefru (Sneferu, Snofru). However, there is no sure agreement on this among Egyptologists. Some believe that the early phases of construction were done by Huni, his predecessor, and that Snefru was only responsible for the completion of the Pyramid. However, Huni's name was not found at the pyramid, and various written documents suggest that it and the nearby residential city belonged to the reign of Snefru. Also, many of the nearby tombs also belong to the family of Snefru.

Meidum pyramid map cemetery

A map of the cemetery of Meidum, showing the location of the mastabas related to the pyramid.
Source : Lehner, Complete Pyramids, p. 99.
meidum pyramid 1

In may ways, Meidum is the most mysterious of all the great Pyramids. When Snefru came to the throne around 2575 BC, Djoser's complexat Saqqara was the only large royal pyramid that stood complete. But Snefru would become the greatest pyramid builder in Egyptian history by completing not one but three of them.

The early locals of this century called the Meidum Pyramid el-haram el-kaddab, meaning "false pyramid" and because of its form, it attracted attention as early as the Middle Ages from travelers. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the famed Arab historian Taqi ad-Din al-Maqrizi thought it looked like a huge, five stepped mountain. However, it eroded so badly that when Frederik Ludwig Norden visited it in the eighteenth century, the pyramid seemed to have only three levels. But it was not weather that eroded it so, but human beings.

Meidum geese

Three of the six 'Geese of Meidum'.

When Napoleon's expedition passed by Meidum in 1799, his well known draftsman, Denon, had only enough time to make a few sketches and prepare a short description of the pyramid. Later, Perring made a much better investigation of it, including making measurements in 1837. Afterwards, the Lepsius expedition of 1843 studied it in some detail. Nevertheless, its internal structure remained a mystery.

Then, in an extensive effort to discover and document the pyramid texts, Maspero was finally able to open it, along with some mastabas in the area, but archaeological investigation would not start for another ten years. It was Petrie, the founder of modern Egyptology, in collaboration with Egyptologist Percy Newberry and the architect, George Fraser, who led this excavation. They were responsible for not only fully investigating the inside of the pyramid, but also unearthing the pyramid temple, an approach causeway and a series of private tombs in the area around the pyramid. However, this would not be the last that the pyramid would see of Petrie.

After a long interruption, Petrie returned to Meidum with the Egyptologists, Ernest MacKay and Gerald Wainwright. This time they conducted excavations at the northeast corner of the pyramid, in the so-called South Pyramid, and in other places. They tunneled into the pyramid, showing that its core consisted of five accretion layers with an outer surface built of carefully dressed limestone blocks. However, as thorough as Petrie's work always was, his research into this pyramid seems to have raised more questions than it answered.

In the mid-1920s, Borchardt made his way to Meidum and after mere days in the field, accumulated so much information on the pyramid that it filled an entire book which is still highly regarded today (Die Entstehung der Pyramide an der Baugeschichte der Pyramide bei Mejdum nachgewiesen). He spent considerable time reconstructing, on the basis of the ruins, a corridor leading toward the pyramid from the southeast, which Petrie had earlier discovered in 1910. In Borchardt's opinion, it was used to transport construction material to the pyramid. There was a ramp that had a gradient of ten degrees which made it possible to construct the lower half of the pyramid, consisting of about 88.5 percent of the total volume of masonry. The ancient builders increased the gradient of the upper half of the ramp, and on these assumptions, everything about the construction strategy seemed to be explained.

Only a few years later, still in the 1920s, an American expedition visited the ruins under the leadership of the British archaeologist, Alan Rowe, but then there was a long period during which the pyramid received little attention. When, a half century later, another expedition visited the pyramid, this time it was an Egyptian effort led by Ali el-Kholi. They concentrated on the huge gravel mound at the foot of the pyramid.

Because of the marshy terrain and the high water level, the valley temple belonging to this pyramid has not yet been found. Snefru's residential city of Djedsnefru (which means "Snefru endures") was probably located east of it.

There was an unroofed causeway that stretched more than two hundred meters and which almost certainly linked the pyramid's enclosure wall with a valley temple on the edge of the valley. There was actually another "approach" that Petrie excavated, that may have been originally intended as for use as a causeway.

The pyramid was surrounded by a single, high perimeter wall made of limestone blocks. To the east, another huge mastaba lay adjacent to the enclosure wall, which may have been built for the crown prince, though no owner has been identified. It is therefore known only as Mastaba No. 17 on maps of the necropolis. However, it is remarkable that stone rubble from the pyramid was used to construct it, and that its mudbrick mantle was originally plastered and whitewashed.

Within the enclosure wall, the large, open courtyard that it enclosed had a floor made of dried clay. Within this courtyard, near the southwest corner of the main pyramid, was a second, though much smaller pyramid, probably originally built as a step pyramid. This is almost certainly the oldest known example of a cult pyramid. It has a substructure that was accessible from the north through a descending corridor. Within its ruins was unearthed a fragment of a limestone stela bearing a depiction of the falcon god Horus. On the opposite side of the courtyard are the remains of a mastaba that was probably intended for a royal consort.

At the center of the east side of the pyramid, Petrie discovered a mortuary temple built of limestone blocks, also within the enclosure wall. It is so small that it might have been a commemorative chapel to the king rather than a true mortuary temple. It is unique in many ways, above all because it was the first one to be built on the east rather than the north side of the pyramid. It is also the most intact and well preserved temple from the Old Kingdom. Even the limestone ceiling slabs remain in place. It is also very simple, and almost certainly connected with the whole conceptual transformation of this pyramid complex during the E3 stage of construction.

The floor plan of this temple is almost square. It consists of three sections that include an entry corridor with a double bend in the southeast corner, an open courtyard and a room with two stelae. The Stelae, which stand close to the foot of the pyramid, consists of pieces of smooth-sided limestone that are rounded at the top, but they bear neither inscriptions nor images. Between them stands an offering table. The lack of decorations would seem to indicate that the temple was never really used for any cult activity.

Meidum map pyramid

3-d reconstruction of the pyramid.
Source: Lehner, Complete Pyramids, pp. 98.

Nevertheless, the temple appears to have had a profound effect on later visitors, as various graffiti show. Dating mainly from the 18th Dynasty, some of the writers praise the temple. Ankhkheperreseneb, who visited it in the 41st year of Tuthmosis III's reign, says that he came "to see the marvelous temple of Horus Snefru. He saw it, as if heaven were in it and in it the sun rose." He further exclaims that, "May cool myrrh rain down from the heavens and fragrant incense drip onto the temple roof of Horus Sneferu!" Yet, by the time of his visit it was already in poor condition, for sometime during the First and Second Intermediate Periods herdsmen actually lived there.

As for the Pyramid itself, the explanation of the strange form that it takes today and the many riddles that surround it lies in the complicated transition from the 3rd Dynasty step Pyramids into the true, smooth sided pyramids of the 4th Dynasty. When Wainwright dug into the inside of the pyramid, he showed that the core of the pyramid was constructed of accretion layers of limestone blocks inclined at an angle of about seventy-five degrees. They stood on a square base measuring thirty-eight meters per side.

That the ancient Egyptians used the accretion method to build the pyramid came as no surprise to Egyptologists even in Petrie's time, because that was a fairly widespread construction method. What did surprise them was the smooth outside surface of each level, which seemed illogical and must have considerably decreased the cohesion of the layers and that of the structure as a whole. The answer to this particular riddle came later from Borchardt, who demonstrated that the Medium Pyramid was built in three stages, during which its outward appearance changed significantly.

The pyramid was originally a seven step structure built on a rock foundation, but perhaps even before it was finished, an eighth step was added. Each of these first two stages, designated E1 and E2, was intended to be the final structure. Yet, the pyramid was eventually rebuilt in order to transform it into a true, smooth sided pyramid. However, in contrast to E1 and E2, the extension designated E3 did not rest on a solid bedrock foundation, but on three layers of limestone blocks laid on sand.

Even more strangely, while the E1 and E2 stage blocks were angled toward the middle of the pyramid, as in the case of Djoser's Step Pyramid complexat Saqqara, thus significantly increasing the structure's strength, the E3 blocks were laid horizontally. This fact had been noticed by Borchardt, but Kurt Mendelssohn, who visited Meidum as a tourist, published a best selling book in 1986 on his theory that the method used to build the E3 stage resulted in a catastrophic slippage that buried the workers who built the pyramid under the rubble that now surrounds the structure.

However, Mendelssohn's theory has not at all been excepted by Egyptologists, because it contradicts the archaeological discoveries that Petrie had already described and that remain obvious today. The stratification of the massive gravel mounds on all four sides of the pyramid shows that the erosion of the structure took place gradually over a long period of time. However, the change in construction methods did make it much easier for the work of stone thieves. Borchardt pointed this out, and explained that the rings of rough masonry bound the individual layers of the core more strongly and were simply laid bare when those layers were destroyed.

Moreover, archaeological investigations have also shown that the pyramid was probably destroyed at the end of the New Kingdom, since in the piles of rubble at its foot secondary graves from the 22nd Dynasty were found at a height of between seven and ten meters above the temple floor. It is assumed that the removal of the casing blocks had already begun during the reign of Ramesses II.

More recently, the American, George Johnson, offered his opinion on the large gravel mound around the pyramid. In his opinion, the wall concealed the remains of a construction ramp that ran around the pyramid and was built in connection with the transformation from the second (E2) to the third (E3) stage. He points to the unused limestone blocks that had not been part of the masonry that el-Kholi found during his investigation of the mound on the northwest corner of the pyramid.

meidum plan

Another view of Snefru's Pyramid at Meidum in Egypt

The builder's marks on some of the blocks from which the pyramid was built are interesting. Among them are stylized images of two, three and four step Pyramids that led some scholars to assume that they show the original, gradually altered form of the pyramid. However, we know know that the images determined the placement of the blocks on the corresponding levels. No less interesting are the inscriptions that include dates and designations of the work groups. They come from the seventh through the eighteenth cattle counts of an unnamed ruler, though it was probably Snefru. Similar mason's inscriptions can be found on the pyramid of Snefru at Dahshur.

In addition, the actual significance of the alteration of the structure during stage E3 has not yet been fully explained. The monument's step-shaped form was abandoned in favor of a true pyramid form, and the north-south orientation in favor of an east-west orientation. This seems to reflect an important shift in religious ideas that occurred during the transition from the 3rd to the 4th Dynasty. Ricke believed this to be the time that the Osiris myth was incorporated into the worship of the dead king. The king became identified with Osiris, the ruler of the netherworld, and his death became a mythical event. However, according to another interpretation, the change in the tomb's form and orientation was connected with the decline of the astral religion and the rise of the solar religion. Similarly, the German Egyptologist Dietrich Wildung argued that the pyramid complex in Meidum was a predecessor of the later sun temples of the 5th Dynasty.

We might also add that some scholars believe that the last stage of the construction may have occurred many years after the completion of the first two stages, after Snefru had already moved to Dahshur. These scholars seem to believe that he may have finished the pyramid as a cenotaph rather than a true tomb.

The entrance to the pyramid is on the north-south axis, in the north wall, about fifteen meters above ground level. This is a unique placement of an entrance to a step pyramid, so high above ground level. From here, a corridor runs down until it reaches a few meters below the base of the pyramid, where it turns into a horizontal passage that leads to the burial chamber. There are niches on the east and west sides of the horizontal section of the corridor, though their purpose is not certain. They may have been used to make it easier to move the blocks used to seal the corridor after the burial.

The burial chamber itself, which was never finished was entered through a vertical shaft that led upward from the south end of the corridor and came out in the northeast corner of the burial chamber floor. When Maspero entered the pyramid for the first time, he discovered ropes and beams there, which made him think that the shaft was what remained of a tunnel built by grave robbers to facilitate their work. He dated the this structure to the period when the burial chamber was plundered. However, some Egyptologists believe it was part of the original structure, used in raising the king's sarcophagus into the burial chamber, though there was apparently never a sarcophagus in the burial chamber and no one seems to have been interred there. Also, why would workers have made it so complicated when the sarcophagus could have been placed in the burial chamber during construction?

In the tradition of the step Pyramids of the 3rd Dynasty, the burial chamber is aligned with the pyramid's north-south axis. The so-called false vault constructed of large limestone blocks is worth noting. The idea behind it is very ancient and draws on the brick architecture of the Early Dynastic Period. Its purpose was to prevent the enormous weight of the pyramid from shattering the ceiling of the burial chamber. Apparently the builders chose this method over the granite ceiling slabs that they were also familiar with.

There are also rooms to the north of the burial chamber and above the horizontal section of the corridor that were probably the result of alterations in the pyramid's construction plan.

Apparently, Snefru abandoned this pyramid complex, though why he did so continues to be unresolved. Afterwards, he founded a new residence and a new pyramid necropolis near Dahshur. Perhaps he wanted to be closer to the fortress of the White Walls (Memphis), or maybe he wanted to found a new, more strategically located residential city. Stadelmann, who believes that the pyramid in Meidum was built for Snefru from the outset, thinks that the complex and surrounding tombs belonged to the queen mother and the princes of a so-called first generation. According to him, only a later generation of Snefru's family was buried in Dahshur.






Reference Number

Chronicle of the Pharaohs (The Reign-By-Reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt)

Clayton, Peter A.


Thames and Hudson Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05074-0

Complete Pyramids, The (Solving the Ancient Mysteries)

Lehner, Mark


Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05084-8

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul


Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

History of Ancient Egypt, A

Grimal, Nicolas



None Stated

Monarchs of the Nile

Dodson, Aidan


Rubicon Press

ISBN 0-948695-20-x

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2



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