Comparing Egyptian with Pre-Columbian American Pyramids

The pyramids of Egypt and of pre-Columbian Central America are not so much subjects for comparison as they are for contrast. While they have a superficial resemblance in that they have a four-sided base and four triangular faces, they developed in a very different manner and serve different purposes.

The most fundamental difference lies in the fact that the Egyptian pyramid is a tomb, while the Central American pyramid is a temple. Neither theme is completely alien to either pyramid; Egyptian pyramids typically had a temple complex built upon the same site, while Central American pyramids occasionally contained burials (the tomb of Lord Pacal of Palenque and the remains of human sacrifices found at Teotihuacan serve as ready examples). On the other hand, these “crossover” functions are decidedly secondary. Burials in Central American pyramids remain exceptional, as far as we currently know, while the temple component of the Egyptian pyramid was physically separated from the pyramid itself.

The construction of the first Egyptian pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Sakkara, seems superficially to be an astounding break with tradition. Certainly, its visual effect contrasts strongly with that of the tombs that preceded it. In Egypt, however, nothing was really a decisive break with the past, and this is especially true of the Step Pyramid. For that reason, one must first look at the traditions of Egyptian burial before the appearance of pyramids.

Simple pits dug into the sand are the earliest known graves in the Nile valley. The corpse was placed inside an ovoid hole in the fetal position. While one can never be entirely certain about the intentions of a preliterate society, it certainly seems that the grave served as a second womb, pointing to the prospect of rebirth in the next life. As the Pre-dynastic period developed, social stratification increased, and the wealth and influence of the grave’s tenant was marked by the greater size of the pit, the presence of more and finer grave goods, and eventually by the appearance of secondary burials, which may represent a relatively brief period of human sacrifice in ancient Egypt.

By the end of the Pre-dynastic period, however, powerful kings had established themselves in the Nile valley, and they demonstrated their power by turning their graves into a second palace, complete with the niched facade that appears to have characterized the early palaces of the living. The concept of tomb as secondary womb remains in the form of the burial shaft, in which a perpendicular shaft is built into the earth, culminating in a larger burial chamber. Here is an important concept: the tomb consists of two very distinct elements, a womb-like burial chamber dug into the earth, and a man-made superstructure based on the palace as a model. It is not insignificant that later Egyptians would refer to the tomb as the Mansion of Millions of Years.

Initially, such palatial tombs were intended for the king himself, but it was not long before simplified versions were made available to important family members. The extensive palace complex was consolidated into a single boxlike building, known today as mastabas. Mastabas took the bifurcation of grave and palace to the next level, in that they created a zone for the living and a zone for the dead, through which the dead could pass at will, but the living could not. The zone of the dead remained a vertical shaft leading to a burial chamber, roughly at the center of the mastaba structure; the zone of the living was the tomb chapel, a place where the relatives of the deceased could gather to leave offerings for the soul’s sustenance and generally to feel closer to their loved one. Solid walls separated the two zones, but the spirit of the deceased could pass through the wall through the existence of false doors, which magically served the purpose of real doors.

Kings contented themselves with mastabas until the reign of Djoser. His vizier and architect, Imhotep, proposed a grandiose tomb that reflected the two zones of the tomb in multiple buildings, rather than in a single one. The burial complex of Djoser was a return to the notion of a large palace of the dead, in which the zone of the living comprised a temple complex for the service of the king’s divine soul, and the zone of the dead was a mastaba of grand proportions. Djoser’s tomb retained the original idea of burial inside a shaft leading into the earth, but now the superstructure was to be not one, nor two, but three mastabas, built one atop the other. Eventually, the three mastabas were extended so that a fourth could be built atop it. The Step Pyramid had been created, the first of its kind.

Subsequent kings tried to emulate Djoser’s monument, with varying success, but the true pyramid does not appear until the reign of Sneferu in the fourth dynasty. Sneferu actually made no fewer than three attempts at the creation of a lasting monument, beginning with the Step Pyramid as a model and quickly modifying it to the profile made familiar by the pyramids of Giza. The notion of burial in the earth itself was soon dropped, replaced by a diagonal shaft built into the heart of the pyramid, leading to a series of burial chambers, but other key concepts remained. The first is that the pyramid proper is the zone of the dead, and sealed off from the outside world, but the pyramid complex also embraces the zone of the living in the form of the Mortuary Temple and its support buildings. The living served the dead king in this temple and, in fact, a team of priests and a host of craftsmen and other support staff (including farmers) lived on the site; it became a city in miniature. The second is the fact that these zones are permeable by the dead, but not by the living. The spirit of the king could leave his tomb and receive offerings in the Mortuary Temple, but no one was to enter the pyramid itself. The third consistent concept is that the burial complex as a whole is constructed like the dead man’s palace.

In contrast, Central American pyramids are true temples; or rather, the pyramid is a platform upon which a temple is placed. In this, the pyramid more closely resembles the ziggurats of Mesopotamia than the pyramids of Egypt. The process by which pyramids were developed is much less clearly understood than it is in Egypt, but pyramids dating back as far as 2000 BC have been discovered at Dzibilchaltun, and it is likely that earthen mounds supported temples before stone structures were created. This practice would repeat itself in places where stone construction is not practicable; compare Mayan pyramids with the mounds of Cahokia in southern Illinois, especially Monk’s Mound.

Again, our knowledge of this process is much less thorough than it is with Egypt. We have been able to read Egyptian hieroglyphs for nearly 200 years; Mayan hieroglyphs for only a few decades. Moreover, our existing sources are mainly for the Classic and Post-classic periods, with little before 500 AD surviving. There does, however, appear to be some connection between the construction of pyramids among the lowland Maya and a sense that caves were sacred places to the highland Maya. It would be premature to do more than suggest such a concept, but perhaps the Maya pyramids are to be understood as artificial mountains supporting artificial caves for those who went down to live in the jungles of the Yucatan, and who no longer had access to the natural caves of the Guatemalan highlands.

Having said all of this, both sets of pyramids remain an example of sacred space. Central American pyramids are clearly a place where the realm of the gods can connect with the realm of men; Egyptian pyramids are a point of interface between the realms of the dead and of the living, just as they are the place where the earth and the heavens meet.


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