Archaeological discoveries

Ancient Egypt:in the Old Kingdom, the golden age of the pyramids

Last updated:2022-07-25

To ensure the eternity of Pharaoh, whose death jeopardizes the balance of the world, the Egyptians invented gigantic staircases intended to lead him to the gods. But if the pyramids, five millennia later, still testify to the power of Egypt, their construction remains a mystery.

Necropolis of Giza:pyramids of Cheops, Chephren and Mykerinos.

This article is from the Special Issue of Sciences et Avenir n°197 dated April-May 2019.

"The Egyptians left us no information about how the pyramids were built , smiles Audran Labrousse, honorary research director at the CNRS and member of the Franco-Swiss Archaeological Mission of Saqqara, 35 kilometers south-west of Cairo. A very problematic situation, which explains in particular why the latter arouse so many curiosities and fantasies."

Very popular today, the image of thousands of slaves bowing their backs under the whips and the weight of the blocks of stone they move is thus devoid of all veracity. Slavery did not exist in ancient Egypt:the entire population was subject to corvée, a system that imposed working days for the benefit of the state. The builders of the pyramids were thus housed with their families and fed near the construction site, in a village built especially for them." Organized and rational, the construction site of the Great Pyramid has about 5,000 or 6,000 workers in the quarries, a few thousand others for the transfer of the blocks and as many for their installation. That is 15,000 to 20,000 people in total, working simultaneously. The discovery, between 2013 and 2017, of the Papyri of the Red Sea - nearly 300 4,600-year-old fragments found on the site of Ouadi el-Jarf - by Pierre Tallet, professor at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, made it possible to reinforce this theory.

Monumental tombs, the pyramids, intended for the pharaohs, appeared during the Old Kingdom (c. 2700 - 2200). They are the culmination of a long funerary tradition whose momentum began in the 4th millennium BC, when royalty and immortality were invented:"If it marks an extraordinary evolution of monumental architecture, the birth of the pyramids is not, in reality, the result of chance , explains the archaeologist. We thus found in Abydos a sequence of royal tombs of the 2nd dynasty (c. 2900-2700) whose vaults were surmounted by a mound of sand, even a layer of raw brick." An artificial tumulus which symbolizes, according to Egyptian mythology, the primordial hill, source of life, emerging from the waves.

Over time, these infrastructures are transformed until they become sorts of rectangular constructions in raw brick or stone:the mastabas, "benches" in Arabic. "The genius of the architect Imhotep, who built the tomb of Pharaoh Djoser (v. 2680-2650) in the necropolis of Saqqara, will be precisely to give the illusion of a superposition, over nearly 60 meters , six stone mastabas with different bases , continues Audran Labrousse. Only an illusion, because it is actually vertical slices that buttress each other... This new gigantism will henceforth distinguish the tomb of Pharaoh from the surrounding private tombs." The pyramid of Imhotep, called step pyramid, has the shape of a grandiose staircase:a real invitation to rise towards the sky, it symbolizes the strengthening of the power of the pharaohs, now masters of the Haute-et-de-la -Lower Egypt.

"The pyramids are, for the Egyptians, the reflection of the world, says the archaeologist. They are oriented along two orthogonal axes:the first, east-west, represents the course of the sun, in other words the passage from the world of the living to that of the dead; the second, north-south, represents the course of the Nile from its origin to its outlet in the Mediterranean, and recalls the high Egyptian origins of Pharaoh. According to some researchers, the presence of a small satellite pyramid to the south of that which accommodates the body of the deceased supports this hypothesis. In addition, a vertical also connects, at the intersection of these two axes, the terrestrial world and the celestial world."

Exaggerate the location of Pharaoh's tomb

Royal monuments par excellence, the pyramids are doomed to eternity. The systematic use of cut stone, but also their gigantism, do not say anything else:"In ancient Egypt, death is a scandal , continues the researcher. And Pharaoh must rise again, because his death threatens the balance of the world. Mummified and brought back to life, the deceased sovereign is called to join the gods. By finding Ra, his father, in the celestial empires, he becomes a god in his own right and attains immortality; and by transforming itself, among other things, into a circumpolar star, it affirms its 'imperishable' dimension, a qualifier designating the stars closest to the pole." Artificial mountains, the pyramids are a strong signal intended to preserve in the collective memory the memory of the reign of Pharaoh, by amplifying to excess the location of his tomb.

This symbolism is in particular a function of a relationship to time that is far removed from our contemporary considerations. Because if the Egyptians had, of course, the notion of the passing of days, the idea of ​​a continuous history was on the other hand foreign to them:"The advent of Pharaoh corresponds to the year I, which reproduces year I of the world", continues Audran Labrousse. Eternity is therefore not acquired... "A place of memory, the sovereign's tomb is the sacred space where it is hoped that eternity will continue, the present renewing itself every day, and forever, by ritual." Hence the need for the worship of the king and the gods, but also of the pyramids, identified with the body of the deceased sovereign. "Daily, priests walked around them in the direction of the course of the sun, sprinkling them with purified water." The evolution over the centuries of the use of the Pyramid Texts part of this desire for eternity:first preserved on papyrus and read at the time of the royal funeral, this set of practical advice intended to facilitate the passage of Pharaoh in the afterlife goes gradually, from Ounas (2350 BC), last ruler of the 5th dynasty, be engraved on the walls of the pyramids so that his action is effective perpetually.

"In ancient Egypt, death is a scandal"

Inspired by Djoser, Huni, the last king of the 3rd dynasty (c. 2700-2620), had a stepped pyramid built in Meidum, the ruins of which today look like a square tower. It will be transformed into a smooth monument by his successor Snefru (c. 2620-2590), who will also build two other smooth-faced pyramids at Dahshur, 40 kilometers south of Cairo:the "rhomboidal pyramid" and the "red pyramid". The first owes its silhouette to a structural problem:cracks that appeared during its construction forced the architects to reduce the slope of its faces; the second is with continuous smooth faces. An architectural and aesthetic advance that was magnified in Giza by the son of Snefru, Cheops (v. 2590-2565), whose great pyramid, 146.59 meters high, would become one of the seven wonders of the world, then its grandson, Chephren (v. 2558-2533), whose burial reaches a slightly lower height, 143.50 meters.

The first queen in the afterlife! In 2000, some 1,200 fragments of the Pyramid Texts were unearthed by the Franco-Swiss Archaeological Mission of Saqqara. First interpreted as a simple prayer for the immortality of the pharaohs, the whole soon reveals its inestimable value. A treasure ! Because the prayer is not composed for a man, but for a woman, a queen, Ankhesenpepi II. Around 2300 BC. J.-C., this one, wife of the pharaoh Pépi Ier then of his successor Merenrê Ier, loses her second husband. However, his son Pepi II, now pharaoh, was only six years old. Exploiting her position as regent, she succeeded in imposing that at her death, the Texts of the pyramids adorn the walls of his vault. A first in the history of Egypt! Indeed, this inscription is synonymous with accession to immortality, a privilege previously reserved exclusively for the pharaoh:"Before Ankhesenpepi II, no queen had ever been resurrected, explains Audran Labrousse, who discovered the hieroglyphics engraved on his vault. Only Pharaoh, whose death endangered the balance of the world, benefited from mummification and sacred texts, thus becoming immortal." Did the reign of Ankhesenpepi II upset the social and religious order, thus contributing largely to the troubles that precipitated the end of the Old Kingdom? The hypothesis remains debated. The legitimacy and authority of the pharaohs, which they derived from the unique link they maintained with the gods, paid the price.

Never again will the tombs of the pharaohs, the embodiment of the power of Egyptian royalty, reach such gigantism:from the end of the Old Kingdom and the weakening of royal power, the pyramids become more modest. In the Middle Kingdom (c. 2033-1710), however, that of Amenemhat III (c. 1843-1798), in Dahshur, reached 75 meters:a last burst of brilliance, before their disappearance in the 17th century and the dislocation , once again, Egyptian royalty. In the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1069), the pharaohs, from Thutmose I (c. 1504-1492), chose burials in the hypogeum, dug into the rock in the necropolis of the Valley of the Kings, at the west of Thebes, their new capital. A discreet solution, cleaner to avoid looting. Finally, a final resurgence will take place in Sudan, first in the 7th century BC (25th dynasty), then in the 4th century BC (civilization of Meroe). Rivals of the pharaohs, the Nubian kings also wanted to build pyramids:smaller than their Egyptian cousins, the latter nevertheless have a singular shape because of their greater verticality (their slope is 70%).

Crossroads between the world of the living and the world of the dead, the Egyptian pyramids are placed at the heart of vast funerary complexes made up of an enclosing wall and satellite buildings:a low temple, located in the center of a port, accessible from the Nile by a set of canals and which welcomes the pharaoh's mummy before it reaches his tomb, is thus connected by a paved way to a high temple, attached to the pyramid and used for the accomplishment of daily worship. In addition, from Cheops, the queens are also entitled, little by little, to their own burial, opened on the pyramid of the king-husband and built on the same model. Moreover, each pyramid has its own specific character:that of Djoser thus has only one funerary chamber, underground, while that of Cheops has three, staged and located in the very massif of the monument. Its organization is, from bottom to top, the following:an abandoned underground chamber; a so-called Queen's bedroom which has never housed the slightest burial of a royal wife; a so-called King's room, where there is an empty sarcophagus. Difficult, under these conditions, to establish a coherent model of interpretation.

63-ton granite slabs above the King's Chamber

This misunderstanding is all the more rooted in that the little information we have about the construction of the pyramids prevents us from considering their internal structure as a whole. How to explain, for example, the presence of 63-ton granite slabs above the King's chamber of the Cheops pyramid? Or at a height of almost 60 meters! "Again , insists Audran Labrousse, the lack of textual sources penalizes us greatly. Of course, the Egyptian pyramids are the magnificent testimony of an accomplished civilization with which we have established, since the 19th century, a fruitful dialogue. But only texts - this is what history is all about - could reduce our age-old ignorance and allow us to build real bridges between our two 'worlds'." These shortcomings should not leave the door open to lucubration:faced with doubt, history cannot claim truth, but plausibility.

"No major structure of the pyramid of Cheops had been revealed since the Caliph Al-Mamoun, in the 9th century!"

Since October 2015, the ScanPyramids mission works to dissipate some of the mystery that surrounds the construction of these monuments, by looking at them with fresh eyes. Designed and coordinated by the faculty of engineers of Cairo University and the HIP Institute (Heritage, Innovation, Preservation - France), its objective is to "scan" the pyramids of the Old Kingdom using techniques non-destructive and non-invasive. "In 2017, the team announced the presence of a gigantic void, previously unknown , testifies Guillemette Andreu-Lanoë, General Curator of Heritage and Honorary Director of the Department of Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre Museum . Called ScanPyramids BigVoid (SP-BV), this void directly above the great gallery of Cheops is located at a height of between 60 and 70 meters above the ground."

Atlantis and flying saucers. "Like everyone else, I thought everything had been said about the Great Pyramid of Giza. Until the day I discovered that unexplained facts remained unknown to Egyptology..." Released in 2010, the documentary-fiction The Revelation of the Pyramids , by Jacques Grimault (screenwriter) and Patrice Pooyard (director), seeks to unravel the enigma of the construction of the Cheops pyramid. Very quickly, the film slips:at the heart of an astronomical clock of which the Sphinx would be the needle, the pyramids of Gizeh would have been built by an advanced civilization, prior to Egypt… and, of course, mysterious. What purpose ? Resist the cataclysms which, every 26,000 years, would destroy all traces of life on Earth! Stone bible, beacon marking a landing strip for spaceships… Hypotheses concerning the occult or extraterrestrial nature of the pyramids are numerous. Presented by their followers as the necessary recourse to the procrastination of a science incapable of grasping the mode of construction, they are appreciated by a large uninitiated public eager for "revelations". One of the most tenacious, the idea of ​​the construction of the Great Pyramid by the inhabitants of the mysterious Atlantis, has been tirelessly denounced by Egyptologists since the 1970s. This mystifying vision and disengaged from any idea of ​​science carries today a name:pyramidology. Coined by the historian and specialist in ancient Egypt Pascal Vernus, from the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes, this neologism designates a "heterogeneous set […] of at least reckless ramblings, when they are not purely and simply insane…" *

This discovery, made possible thanks to muography, is a fundamental advance in the field of Egyptology. "Let's realize , enthuses the historian, no major structure of the pyramid of Cheops had been revealed since the Caliph Al-Mamoun, in the 9th century!" Following the announcement of the existence of SP-BV, international cooperation was launched between the University of Cairo, the HIP Institute, the Dassault Systèmes Foundation, the CNRS and Inria to imagine means of exploration minimally invasive. Among them, a new kind of robot, currently being designed.

A CEA team, a ScanPyramids partner, is setting up two muon study telescopes in front of the Great Pyramid. These cosmic particles pass through all terrestrial bodies. Ultra-sensitive detectors, judiciously placed, discern the vacuum zones and the denser regions, where certain dss particles are absorbed or deflected, making it possible to detect invisible structures. Credits:Philippe Bourseiller/ScanPyramids/HIP Institute

Equipped with artificial intelligence, it will be able to enter a cavity and deploy there from a hole 3.5 centimeters in diameter. "This device could allow the exploration of the pyramid while preserving its strictest integrity, continues Guillemette Andreu-Lanoë. From this investigation, Egyptology can expect a lot; no one - at this time - being able to imagine what it will reveal." A hope, like a new birth. So the Egyptians were right:death is not an end.

By Jerome Pace


Pascal Vernus, Pharaonic Egypt Love Dictionary , Plon, 2009.
Pierre Tallet, The Red Sea Papyri 1, IFAO, 2017.
Jean-Pierre Adam, Christiane Ziegler, The Pyramids of Egypt , Hatchet, 1999.
Mark Lehner, Zahi Hawass, Giza and The Pyramids, Thames and Hudson, 2017.
The ScanPyramids mission:www.