From time immemorial mankind has been obsessed with building huge structures for various reasons, especially religious ones, and also to show how clever they were and how advanced was the technology of their culture. Today, history repeats itself as modern sky scraper towers compete in height that dwarf the ancient stone pyramids of Egypt and Mesoamerica.
The Egyptians began it all some 4650 years ago, with the beginning of the Pyramid Age, lasting some 800 years, covering 2650 BC to 1850 BC of Egyptian history. This was a time of strong Pharaoh controlled central government of a combined Lower (deltaic) and Upper Nile region (south to first cataract), a distance of about 500 miles. The Pharaohs and citizens believed in life after death. It was important that each King was buried in a tomb enclosed within an impressive pyramid monument, with all the trappings needed for his soul to journey comfortably into the next world.
Today about 138 Egyptian pyramids are known with some being merely heaps of rubble and remnants of past glory. They are all found on the Western side of the narrow fertile valley of the Nile, and situated isolated on the adjacent hot arid desert plateau. Most famous and visited by tourists is the cluster of well preserved three large pyramids and three smaller stepped ones, as well as the Sphinx, at Giza, close to Cairo, the capital of Egypt.
The Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) is the largest, measuring originally 146 metres high and 230 metres across the square base. Adjacent, is the pyramid of Khafre, noticeably showing an apex remnant facing of polished reflective white limestone. The third large pyramid in this cluster is that of Menkaure, half as tall. This site is considered to be a “Necropolis” with the pyramids being burial monuments, or being designed as a sort of “resurrection machine” for the Pharaohs to meet up with the Gods of the Heavens.
How do these wonderful Egyptian pyramids compare with those found in Mesoamerica and what are their differences?
Equally famous tourist wise are the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon located in the ancient Aztec city of Teotihuacan on the outskirts of Mexico City. The Pyramid of the Sun measures 222 meters across the square base and now is 71 meters tall, being built about 100 AD. Originally this stepped pyramid was painted a bright red on a lime plaster giving it a spectacular appearance. An imposing staircase of 248 steps allows tourists access to the summit platform where once existed a temple or alter, used by high priests to perform human sacrifices and other religious ceremonies.
The Pyramid of the Moon is a tad smaller but of similar height, being linked to the Pyramid of the Sun by the Calzada de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead) some 650 meters away. The pyramids, plazas, temples and palaces make up the central feature of the ancient city of Teotihuacan, lying at an elevation of 2300 meters in Central Valley of Mexico. The Pyramid of the Moon was completed about AD 300. The ancient city of Teotihuacan spread over 20 sq km with a population estimated at 100,000 at its prime (ca 500 AD) making it then the largest city in the Americas. The city encountered economic and social problems leading to its decline and eventual collapse in the 7th century AD.
Given this synopsis of the Egyptian and Mesoamerican pyramids it is possible to point out their differences.
Importantly, they were built for different purposes, are of different design and are located in sites different with regard to the local populace.
The Egyptian pyramids were monuments containing the tombs of Pharaohs, or Kings and Queens with the idea of assisting their souls in moving on to an after life. The pyramids were often built as clusters (a Necropolis) quite away from civilization out on the desert plateau.
The Aztec and Mayan pyramids are different in the sense they were built as central features of a town or city, like later Europeans built cathedrals. Usually the large pyramids did not contain tombs of Kings, exceptions being the temple pyramid at Palenque in Chiapas State, and at Tikal, Guatemala.
There is a continuous architectural design of Mayan temples from flat sprawling one or two floor ones to those having a stepped pyramid shape to larger pyramids having stepped faces but always with the top truncated allowing space for a little temple or alter. Access to the top was by means of an imposing stairway on one or more sides of the pyramid. The purpose of this design was a religious one but different from the Egyptians. Religious ceremonies often involving human sacrifices were performed on top to appease their Gods, particularly the Sun God and the Rain God, to break a drought or ensue a forth coming plentiful harvest. Secondly, massive human sacrifices were sometimes performed on captured enemies. In a sense the large Aztec pyramids were a “fear machine” used for keeping the populace under control by the rulers.
The Great Egyptian pyramid was built by the stacking of limestone blocks averaging 2.5 tons in weight. This allowed for easy construction of internal passages and burial chambers which were lined with granite and basalt blocks. The Aztec and Mayan pyramids, or temple pyramids, were built from piles of rubble with an outer layer of limestone blocks or volcanic rock, hence they are mostly solid rock with few internal features.
The Pyramid of the Sun contains 3 million tons of rock material and was built without the aid of metal tools, pack animals or the wheel! Excavation of some temple pyramids has revealed a multistage construction whereby the steps of the original pyramid have been filled with rubble to expand its size and height, often done three or four times. The angle of slope is 32 degrees to the horizon compared to 52 degrees for the pointy Egyptian Great pyramid, which means that the Pyramid of the Sun is only half as high, but has the same base area. This is a necessary result of the different structural design.
Mayan and Toltec temple pyramids abound in the waterless limestone lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula, where at Chichén Itzá is the wonderful example of “El Castillo” pyramid of multiple construction and 25 meters tall, built about 800 AD. It represents the Mayan calendar in stone. Further south in the tropical forests of Guatemala is the ancient city of Tikal having four temple pyramids of very steep design that poke up above the jungle canopy, the highest being Templo IV at 64 meters. Finally is the famous Mayan site at Copán Ruinas in Honduras where the temple pyramids and stairways are adorned with carvings and hieroglyphics recording the history of the region during the Classic Period (AD 250 to 900).
In summary, Egyptian pyramids are the steep pointy ones built as monuments to hold the tombs of Kings and Queens. The Mesoamerican pyramids were multipurpose, stepped temple-pyramids, usually more gently sloped and having an outer stairway to the top.