Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Day 5: The Shit Pyramids of Pharaoh Sneferu

If Ancient Egypt is famous for one thing, it's its Pyramids. There are around 40 pyramids in Egypt, all in various states of completion. Most famous of these have to be the Legendary Pyramids of the Giza Pyramid Complex: the three Pyramids of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure that tower over Cairo, the only of the "7 Wonders of the Ancient World" that still stand. However, before these 3 towering colossi were built, several other Pharaohs had attempted to build their own Pyramids. Most of these were failures: either they collapsed, or the Pharaoh's died before their Pyramids could be completed. Most famous of these failed attempts are those of the Pharaoh Sneferu, the founder of the 4th dynasty of the Old Kingdom, who reigned from around 2613 B.C. to around 2589 B.C. Today, on Swords and Socialism, we will be discussing Sneferu's not one, not two, but three attempts to build a pyramid to stand the test of time.

Part 1: Background 

Pre-Dynastic Period Mastaba, often used before the advent of the Pyramids 
Before we discuss Sneferu's several failed Pyramid attempts, we should briefly cover the history of the Burial practices of Ancient Egypt. Before the the construction of the Pyramids, Pharaohs, as well as other members of the Egyptian Elite (Court Advisors, Generals. Bureaucrats, etc.) were buried in rectangular above-ground tombs  known as Mastabas. Mastabas were flat-roofed and rectangular with outward sloping sides, constructed out of either mud-bricks from the Nile River or, for more wealthy subjects, stone. Mastabas were usually built with a north-south orientation, as the Ancient Egyptians believed this orientation was essential for access to the afterlife. Mastabas were seperated into above-ground and underground sections. The above-ground structure had space for a small offering chapel equipped with a false door for priests and family members to bring food and other offerings for the soul, or ba, of the deceased. This was because Egyptians believed that the soul had to be maintained in order to continue to exist in the afterlife. For the underground sections, a burial chamber was dug into the ground and lined with stone or mud bricks. These burial chambers were cut deep, until they passed the bedrock, and were lined with wood. A second hidden chamber, called a "serdab," was used to store things that were considered essential for the comfort of the deceased in the afterlife, such as beer, cereal, grain, clothes, and precious items. The Mastaba housed a statue of the deceased that was hidden within the masonry for its protection. High up the walls of the serdab were small openings that would allow the ba to leave and return to the body (represented by the statue).

The Step Pyramid at Saqqara, built by the famous Architect Imhotep for the Pharaoh Djoser during the 27th Century B.C.  
Mastabas continued to be used as the preferred burial housing for Pharaohs up until the ascension of Djoser, Pharaoh of the 3rd dynasty of the Old Kingdom, who reigned for about 28 years starting at about 2670 B.C. Djoser was a powerful and glory-hungry ruler who wished to cement his reign in the eyes of future generations. Besides building several large monuments and structures to himself in major Egyptian cities such as Heliopolis and Gebelein (this is assumed, as they do not stand today, and much of the information about Djoser's reign has been lost to time), he also planned to build himself a tomb that would tower over the tombs of both his previous Pharaohs and Successors alike. So, with the help of his Court Vizier and Architect Imhotep, Djoser had Constructed the Famous Step Pyramid at Saqqara. This was the First Pyramid ever, and, more importantly, one of the first structures ever built completely built out of cut stone. It was constructed out of 6 Mastabas, gradually decreasing in size, being stacked on top of each other. When it was completed, the Pyramid was cased in polished white limestone, and stood 62 metres (203 ft) tall, with a base of 109 m × 125 m (358 ft × 410 ft). The Burial section of the Pyramid was constructed much the same as the Mastabas that preceded it, with Burial Chambers and passages dug into the ground below the Pyramid. This structure, whilst modest by the standards of even a few hundred years later, was revolutionary in its design, and it set the precedent for Egyptian funerary construction for centuries to come. Djoser's successors tried to emulate him and build their own step pyramids, but none were successful: Sekhemkhet's and Khaba's Pyramids were never finished, Sanakht either never existed or, if he did, he did not reign long enough to even begin construction of one, and Huni's attempt will be covered shortly. 
The Ruins of the Step Pyramid of Khaba
So, for about a hundred years, the Pharaohs of the Old Kingdom failed to top Djoser's mighty construction. That is until the Pharaoh Sneferu took the throne around 2613 B.C. Dogged and determined not to fail where his predecessors had, Sneferu immediately set to work on the construction of a Pyramid that would outshine Djoser's. And that's where the trouble began.

Part 2: Sneferu's Pyramids.

Diagram of what the Pyramid at Medium should have looked like.
The first of Sneferu's attempt to build a Pyramid doesn't even start with him, but with his father, Huni. Huni's Pyramid was being constructed as a typical step Pyramid at Medium, about 100km (62 Miles) south of Cairo, with the base size of 147 square meters and a height of 94 square meters (This is the pyramid you see at the top of this post). However, Huni died before this Pyramid could be completed, and the job of finishing it was passed on to Sneferu. Sneferu went on to make several changes to the structure: He enlarged the Pyramid from 7 steps to 8, and later, attempted to encase the whole pyramid in limestone to create smooth, sloping sides, creating what was probably the first "stereotypical" Egyptian Pyramid. Unfortunately, this failed catastrophically. If you look at the photo here, you can see the three remaining steps of the pyramid sitting on top of what looks like an earthen hill. In reality, that "hill" isn't actually a hill: it's a pile of Limestone and sandstone rubble. Why? Well, the Medium pyramid had two major structural flaws. Firstly, instead of being built on solid bedrock, the Pyramid was built on sand, which was not able to bear the vast weight of the Stone colossus. Secondly, the Pyramid itself was never designed to be cased with limestone in that sloping fashion. These fatal errors resulted in  the outer limestone casing of the pyramid literally sliding off of the core step pyramid sometime either during or right after its construction. The ruins were abandoned shortly after, which is why there is no temple or funerary complex at the site. Because of this, combined with its weird shape and appearance, it is known in modern Egyptian Arabic as "el-heram el-kaddaab" - Literally "The Sort-of Pyramid."

The Bent Pyramid - Sneferu's 2nd attempt.
Undaunted by this failure, Sneferu soldiered on, moving the site some 60km (37 miles) north to Dahshur, on the West Bank of the Nile. Sneferu was even more determined this time outlining plans for an even bigger and even steeper Pyramid. Unfortunately, he let hubris get the better of him, and once again his grandiose plans led him to disaster. Although this time the builders had wisely chosen to begin construction on bedrock, said bedrock proved to be too weak and unstable to hold up a structure of that size. The result of this was that, before the Pyramid was over halfway finished, large amounts of shifting and cracking were already occurring withing the structure. Attempts to prop up and reinforce the structure with "temporary" wooden beams (Many of which are still there to this day) slowed the process down, but failed to stop it. Desperate and scared of a repeat of what happened at Medium, the builders decided to decrease the angle of ascent from 54 to 43 degrees midway through construction. This sudden decrease in angle is what gives this pyramid its "hunched" appearance.

On an unrelated, but still interesting, note, this pyramid is unique not only for it's odd appearance, but also because (comparatively) much of its original Limestone casing remains intact. Almost all of the Pyramids had most of their limestone stripped during the middle ages (much of medieval Cairo is constructed out of Limestone taken directly from the Great Pyramids at Giza), but, for some reason, this one remained relatively untouched. Personally, i'd assume that local scavengers believed that stripping the limestone would cause the whole sodding structure to collapse on top of them.
The Red Pyramid - Sneferu's 3rd (and Final) attempt.
By this time, Sneferu was getting angry and desperate. Sneferu was getting on in years, his numerous projects were bleeding his treasury dry, and, most importantly, reliable supplies of sandstone and limestone were beginning to run dry. Desperate for one final success, Sneferu through all his efforts into one final attempt to construct a pyramid that would outshine his predecessors. And you know what? It worked.

Sort of.

This third and final Pyramid is what's known as either The "Red" Pyramid or the "Bat" pyramid. Built only about 1km north of the Bent Pyramid (probably to constantly remind the builders of their previous failures), the Red Pyramid is actually quite safe and conservative, as far as pyramids go. Rising to 105m (344ft), it is built at the same shallow 43 degree angle as the upper section of the previous Bent Pyramid, which gives it a noticeably squat appearance compared to other Egyptian pyramids of comparable scale (the Great Pyramid at Giza, in comparison, stands at 51 degrees). Linked to this, the Red Pyramid has a far wider base, proportionally, compared to other Pyramids (the base of the red pyramid is only 10 meters, or 30 feet, less wide than the Giza Pyramid). Construction is believed to have begun during the thirtieth year of Sneferu's reign, but  Egyptologists disagree on the length of time it took to construct. Based on quarry marks found at various phases of construction, it is assumed that construction took between 10 and 17 years.

At this point. Sneferu must have been satisfied with this Pyramid, because he was buried in it after his death. Either that, or he just died before he could start his 4th attempt and they buried him in that one because it was the nicest of the three.

Nevertheless, these three failed attempts serve as a massively important part in the history of Pyramid construction. When Sneferu's son Khufu ascended the throne, he too wanted to construct his own Pyramid, grander than anything his father had built. Because of the constant failures and fuck-ups made in the past 3 attempts, the Court Builders had honed themselves into a mean, lean, efficient machine, able to avoid mistakes of the past and, by the end of Khufu's reign, build a Pyramid so sound and so technically advanced that we think Aliens fucking built it. That, my good readers, is the definition of the oft-quoted saying "Practice makes Perfect."


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