Pyramids have been constructed on virtually every continent, and the reason is simple: It’s the tallest form of earth, brick, or stone structure that the God of Gravity will let you build, anywhere, anytime. That’s the rules! This god’s laws, while not secret, transcended the understanding of most philosophical systems until 1687, when Isaac Newton wrote them down. Sadly, in an age of enlightenment, Gravity had missed its chance to be deified.
Gravity was an unknown god; unlike the sun, the moon, the wind, or fire, it is unchanging, and so omnipresent that no one noticed it was there. This god has no prophets, books, scrolls, or tablets. Nevertheless, it is dogmatic to a fault, shows no mercy, and does not respond to prayers or sacrifices. The God of Gravity has always destroyed the works of those who transgress its laws, and ultimately, it will crush all creation -- but that’s another story.
This makes Gravity a difficult deity to treat with, and a good deal of circumspection is required. For architects and builders, the God of Gravity has but one simple rule -- ‘What goes up must come down’ -- and all those wishing to avert the inevitable collapse of their work for a decent period of time are obliged to make a pact with this deity. The pact builders make is a simple one passed from generation to generation: Do not transgress the limits you have learnt, because if you stay within the limitations, all should be well; but if you go beyond them -- ‘on your own head be it’.
You can build a structure as long as you like, and, to a lesser extent, as wide as you want, but making it tall is really tricky. Nevertheless, height is impressive; it carries innate authority, and for anybody wishing to express some form of power through architecture, height is important, not least because it defies the God of Gravity.
We are accustomed to thinking about tall structures in terms of towers, but the taller a tower gets, the more it weighs. This increasing weight has to be spread over an ever-widening foundation. Thus, to avoid the lowest layers' being crushed by the material above, the structure has to widen towards the base, spreading the load. Hence you end up with some form of pyramid shape.
The earliest surviving pyramid is the ‘Step Pyramid’, built about 2611BC, at Saqqara by Pharaoh Djoser. For generations the elite of Egypt had been buried in underground chambers, hidden beneath solid rectangular platforms of mud brick or stone called mastaba. We can think of the Step Pyramid as comprising six progressively smaller, square mastaba set on top of each other.
Imhotep (left), the architect credited with this first pyramid, was revered by subsequent generations for his wisdom and knowledge. However, when you consider his titles, “Chancellor of the King of Lower Egypt, Doctor, First after the King of Upper Egypt, Administrator of the Great Palace, Hereditary Nobleman, High Priest of Heliopolis, Builder, Chief Carpenter, Chief Sculptor and Maker of Vases in Chief”, describing Imhotep as an architect is a bit of an understatement!
The step pyramid was a very successful structure that pleased the God of Gravity and, being made of stone, it survives largely intact. It is an impressive 62m tall, 2m taller than the 17-storey Monadnock Building in Chicago, Illinois, finished in 1893, which is the tallest building ever built using masonry walls.
It was the City Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which, at 167 m, eventually took away the prize for the tallest masonry building. Later, in the early 1900s, after 100 years of development with structural steel, the skyscraper was born, and ironically, now it is only buildings taller than the Great Pyramid that are regarded as skyscrapers.
The uninterrupted regularity of the vertical lines of the modern skyscraper may be seen as symbolising the masculine world of corporate capitalism, in the same way that the pyramid seems symbolic of a society with the Pharaoh at the top of a pyramid of humanity rising towards the gods in heaven.
However, when interpreting pyramids, it important to understand that the Egyptian architects had not set out to create pyramids as we now conceive them: The form was discovered as a consequence of the quest for height. The deepest level of symbolism and meaning in most structures concerns their relations with the God of Gravity; the rest is largely artifice.
Structural archaeology is about looking at structures on this basic engineering level, and understanding what deal was done with the God of Gravity. In terms of ancient timber frame buildings, it was a struggle with the God of Gravity over issues to do with ‘width’, rather than height, that concerned the architects and builders in prehistoric Southern England.
Things to follow up:
Pyramids [Accessed 11 October 2009]: http://www.pyramidofman.com/blog/
Pyramids at Dahshur [Accessed 11 October 2009]: http://guardians.net/egypt/cyberjourney/dahshur/dashur1.htm
How pyramids were built - interesting theory [Accessed 11 October 2009]: http://egyptology.blogspot.com/2008/11/more-evidence-of-secret-passages-in.html
How a Pyramid was lost and found:
[Accessed 11 October 2009] http://egyptology.blogspot.com/2008/09/rising-from-ruins.html
[Accessed 11 October 2009] http://guardians.net/hawass/Press%20Releases/new_discoveries_at_saqqara_06-08.htm
The cartoonist B. Kliban:
[Accessed 11 October 2009] http://www.pbase.com/csw62/kliban
[Accessed 11 October 2009] http://lambiek.net/artists/k/kliban.htm
Cartoon above by B. Kliban, from: The Biggest Tongue in Tunisia and other drawings. Penguin, 1986, ISBN0140072209
City Hall, Philadelphia: [Accessed 11 October 2009] http://www.aviewoncities.com/buildings/philadelphia/philadelphiacityhall.htm