05 November, 2008

10. Pyramids: Monuments to an unknown god

All pyramids are monuments to an unknown god, and in this respect they are all connected. The god in question is now called Gravity, and this makes pyramids, as a phenomenon, simple to understand.

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 pyramid complex at Giza
So if you really want height, you have to build a pyramid, and in the 3rd Millennium BC, the Pharaohs of Egypt’s Old Kingdom started to build a series of tall structures. The pyramids at Giza immediately spring to mind, but Egypt has over 100 pyramids, most ruined by gravity or quarried away by later generations. One was so ruined that it has recently been ‘rediscovered’, having been lost for millenia.

Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara

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.

The partially collapsed pyramid at Meidum
However, as might be expected, 60m was never going to be enough, and 30 years after Djoser, Pharaoh Sneferu was much more ambitious. Initially, he tried to enlarge his predecessor’s pyramid at Meidum, altering it from a step pyramid to a true smooth-sided pyramid. He achieved an estimated height of 93.5m, but at 53 degrees the sides were too steep and the structure was not stable. It has been collapsing ever since, and is now about the same size of Djoser’s Step Pyramid.
Sneferu's Bent Pyramid at Dahshur
The failure to cut a deal with the God of Gravity at Meidum may have lead Sneferu to radically alter his next pyramid, at Dahshur. The sides of the pyramid start at about 53 degrees, but were altered to a more modest 43 degrees, which is why it is called the 'Bent Pyramid'. One reason for this may be the problem of stability: At 53 degrees, the pyramid would be too tall and heavy for its base, and the underlying ground may have become unstable. Yet another problem probably arose: The burial chamber is low down in the structure, and its corbelled roof may not have been able to cope with the weight of masonry above it. However, the structure still achieved a height of 101m, and its outer casing of white limestone has survived better than any other pyramid.
Sneferu's Red Pyramid at Dahshur
Whatever the truth about the bent pyramid, Sneferu’s third, the ‘Red Pyramid’, successfully achieved a height of 104m with an angle 43 degrees. It was the lessons learnt from the thwarting of Sneferu’s ambition by the God of Gravity that allowed his son Khufu (Cheops in Greek), to construct the Great Pyramid at Giza in 2560BC. With the building of this pyramid, stone structures had gone from 64m to an awesome 146.6m tall in less than a century.

The world tallest structures in 1884
Probably to the relief of the Egyptian architects, no subsequent pharaoh wanted to pick this particular fight with the God of Gravity again, and Khufu’s Great Pyramid remained the tallest structure on earth for more than three millennia. In the European Middle Ages, some cathedrals had spires that approached, or even surpassed, the height of Great Pyramid, but the combined forces of the Storm God and the God of Gravity brought most of them down. Like pyramids, only those cathedrals that obeyed the laws of the God of Gravity survived to bear witness to the glory of the Christian God.

City Hall, Philadelphia, c.1899

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