Sunday, September 11, 2011

King Snefru: The Pyramid Builder

The greatest builder of the Pyramid Age was King Snefru, the first king of the Fourth Dynasty, during whose reign the biennial tax levy may have become a more frequent event. As a result, it is difficult to assess the true intensity of Snefru's creative power. He is accorded a reign of 24 or 29 years in the ancient king-lists, yet the recent discovery of an inscription mentioning the twenty-fourth occasion of the census suggests he may have reigned as long as 48 years, if the taxes were still collected every other year. But regardless of his total years, his reign is distinguished by the number and sheer magnitude of the works he carried out. The owner of three full-sized pyramids and probably two smaller ones, he shifted one-third more stone--some 3,600,000 cubic metres (4,708,800 cubic yards) of it than his son and successor Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid.

Rahotep and Nofret

Snefru's reign represents an important period in Egyptian history, a period of transition in art and architecture. It was a time when developments in the rendering of the human form and major advances in the working of stone were crystallized and perfected. To him belongs the credit for the first geometrically true pyramids ever attempted in Egypt, as well as major and long-lasting changes in how the resurrection machine functioned. It was his experiments with its conception and form that set the stage for the remarkable achievements at Giza.

The famous pyramid of  Meidum

Previously believed to belong to Huni, simply because no one could conceive of one king building so much, the pyramid at Meidum is now recognized as the first of Snefru's projects. Its bizarre shape, the result of later stone robbing, has earned it the Arabic name 'Haram el Kaddab' or 'The False Pyramid'. It was, however, built--again after several changes of plan--as a step pyramid, the only full-sized one after Djoser's to have been completed. Snefru then decided to try his hand at something completely different.

This pyramid has earned it the Arabic name 'Haram el Kaddab' or 'The False Pyramid'

For his second great project, Snefru chose the previously unused plateau at Dahshur further to the north. He selected the site for his pyramid, now known as the 'Bent Pyramid', for obvious reasons. Here was a large flat area with good-quality stone near by and a gorge that could serve as a natural transport ramp from the Nile. It appeared to be very suitable place to build a new eternal abode of a great ruler. This turned out, however, to be a crucial mistake.

The Pyramid of Dashur

The underlying sands and shales eventually proved unable to support the weight of the pyramid, the first to be designed as a true geometric pyramid and one that would have surpassed the height of the Great Pyramid had it been completed as planned. Although various theories have been proposed to explain the curious change in angle which gives the Bent Pyramid its name, the most convincing reason for its shape was the necessity to remedy the cracks and fissures caused by subsidence which began to appear even while this pyramid was being built.
Dr Rainer Stadelmann, Director of the German Archaeological Institute, has been studying the pyramid for many years to determine exactly what went wrong. As the Bent Pyramid retains more of its original smoothed outer casing blocks than any other pyramid, it is not easy to discern the ancient problems and the methods used to solve them. The best evidence is actually found on the inside of the pyramid within its internal passages and chambers. By studying the cracks and repairs in these areas, Stadelmann has been able to recreate the unfortunate chain of events.

This pyramid is known as the Bent Pyramid

The original plan was to build a true pyramid with a rather steep slope of about 60 degrees, but about half way through construction the outer casing began to crack. To prevent further subsidence, additional masonry was added to all four sides, reducing the angle of inclination to 54 degrees. Yet it was too late. Fissures in the blocks of the completed internal chambers appeared. They tried everything: plaster patches, a new lining of masonry, and even imported cedar logs to shore up the walls.
It was clear that drastic measures were necessary to save the pyramid, the largest monumental building attempted since the beginning of the Egyptian state, but what more could they do? Ultimately, the architects decided that a radical reduction of the angle and a change in the method of laying the masonry were required. The upper half of the pyramid was completed at an angle of 43 degrees to a height of 105 m (344 ft) with smaller stones laid in horizontal rather than inwardly sloping courses to diminish the weight of the mass. Then Snefru started again.

Two and a half miles (4 km) to the north lies Snefru's third pyramid. Called the 'Red Pyramid' after the rusty tinge of the local limestone of its core, it would become Snefru's final resting-place. Quick to learn from their mistakes, this time the king's architects laid a foundation platform of several courses of fine white limestone to prevent the problem of subsidence from recurring. The lesson of the Bent Pyramid also encouraged them to construct the pyramid with stones laid in level, rather than inclined, courses at the similarly modest angle of 43 degrees to a not insubstantial height of 104 m (341 ft), making it the fourth highest pyramid ever built. With its construction, pyramids left the arena of experimentation and finally achieved the distinctive and proper geometric form they would retain until their building ceased.

The beautiful Red Pyramid

The perfection achieved on the exterior of the Red Pyramid is matched by the elegance of its internal chambers. A long descending corridor entered from the north side of the pyramid led to three rooms, over 12 m (40 ft) high and built of enormous limestone blocks. Two connecting chambers were at ground level within the base of the pyramid, but the third was shaped within the masonry of the pyramid itself. It could only be entered via a carefully concealed passage in the wall of the second chamber, some 7.6 m (25 ft) above its floor. According to Rainer Stadelmann, 'With this marvellous sequence of large and high rooms, King Snefru finally had achieved a burial place he could be happy and content with. It was his eternal residence, built with absolute perfection.' The most stunning aspect of these rooms is the corbelled ceilings, the blocks of which were placed in eleven to fourteen layers, each one protruding out over the room about 15 cm (6 in) on all four sides until a pyramid-shaped roof was obtained. In this ingenious way, the weight of the pyramid could be supported. More than two million tonnes of stone rested on these ceilings, yet there are no cracks, no subsidence. Not only had the architects tackled the vexing problems of construction, but by creating a pyramid within a pyramid, they reinforced the king's chances of resurrection.

To celebrate its completion, the proud builders added a solid limestone pyramid-shaped capstone, called today a 'pyramidion'. To the Egyptians, it was the benbenet, the very tip of that mound of creation where the creator god stood when he created the world. Placed on top of these soaring mounds of masonry, it joined the earth with the sky. Few pyramidions from the Pyramid Age survive, possibly because many were gilded with precious metals. The earliest one now known was discovered in fragments around the base of the Red Pyramid. After painstaking restoration, Stadelmann found that each side had a slightly different angle; even with all of their experience in construction, the Egyptians had trouble reaching the top without some readjustments. Such mistakes remind us of the human elements in these austere piles; nevertheless, the error is extraordinarily small--only 2 degrees over 102 m (335 ft), almost 160 courses of stone! Such a minimal readjustment is, in fact, a true testimony to the abilities of Snefru's architects.

To complete such a pyramid in 17 years is an even more impressive feat when one considers that at the same time Snefru was hedging his bets by filling in the steps of the pyramid at Meidum, transforming it too into a geometric pyramid, a shape for which he and his architects deserve full credit. But with this change in shape also came a transformation of the concept of the afterlife and a modification of the complex necessary to ensure it.
The shape and orientation of the pyramid complexes of Snefru's ancestors suggest they looked to the stars, linking their journey to the afterlife with the never-setting circumpolar stars, 'the imperishable ones', as they called them. But while they ascended their staircase to the stellar sphere, Snefru trod a ramp of gleaming white limestone like the sun's rays to heaven. To reinforce this connection Snefru laid out his temples along a new east-west alignment in accordance with the course of the sun. This new emphasis on the sun led to the adoption of an entirely new name, a new manifestation, of the king on his ascension to the throne as the 'Son of Ra', the son of the sun god, a father he would join in the afterlife. Snefru pioneered his new axial design for his resurrection machine at all three of his pyramids, but his son and successors at Giza perfected it.

Perfection in the pyramid building was achieved with the Pyramids of Giza

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