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The pyramids – burial grounds, historic monuments, a geometrical shape, the most mysterious and famous structures on the planet and probably a cake joke.
These fascinating structures have been created by several different cultures around the globe – the ancient Egyptians, the Babylonians in Mesopotamia, and the native tribes in Central America. Other peoples and religions have also had the practice of erecting burial mounds for their deceased but none as enormous or as beautiful as the pyramids of these three cultures.
The Egyptian pyramids are arguably the most famous of the three and they are also credited with the word pyramid. The large pyramid of Giza, for example, was not only one of the original 7 Wonders of the Ancient World but it’s the only one left standing. Let’s take a closer look at these amazing monuments and what they symbolize.
How Did the Word Pyramid Originate?
Just as the construction of the pyramids is somewhat shrouded in mystery, so are the origins of the word itself. There are a couple of leading theories about the origins of the word pyramid.
One is that it comes from the Egyptian hieroglyph for pyramid – MR as it was often written as mer, mir, or pimar.
Most scholars, however, agree that the word pyramid likely comes from the Roman word “pyramid” which itself came from the Greek word “puramid” which meant “a cake made out of roasted wheat”. It’s believed that the Greeks may have mocked the Egyptians’ burial monuments as the pyramids, especially stepped versions, do resemble stony cakes, bizarrely erected in the middle of the desert.
What Are the Egyptian Pyramids?
There are over one hundred Egyptian pyramids discovered to this day, most from different historical periods and of different sizes. Built during the Old and Middle Egyptian Kingdom periods, the pyramids were created as tombs for their pharaohs and queens.
They often had near-perfect geometrical construction and seemed to follow the stars in the night sky. That’s likely because the ancient Egyptians viewed the stars as gateways to the netherworld and so the pyramid shape was intended to help the souls of the deceased find their way to the afterlife more easily.
True architectural marvels for their time, it’s likely the Egyptian pyramids were built with slave labor but also with impressive astronomical, architectural, and geometrical expertise. Most pyramids were covered with shining white and bright coatings at the time to help them shine brighter under the sun. Ultimately, the Egyptian pyramids weren’t just burial grounds, they were monuments built to glorify the Egyptian pharaohs.
Today, modern-day Egyptians are very proud of the pyramids built by their predecessors and they value them as national treasures. Even beyond Egypt’s borders, the pyramids are known and admired by people across the world. They’re quite possibly the most recognizable symbols of Egypt.
Probably the least known or admired of the pyramids, the pyramids of Mesopotamia were traditionally called ziggurats. They were erected in several cities – by the Babylonians, Sumerians, the Elamites, and the Assyrians.
Ziggurats were stepped and built with sun-dried bricks. They weren’t as tall as the Egyptian pyramids and, sadly, haven’t been as well preserved but appear to have been highly impressive. They were erected around the same time as the Egyptian pyramids, around 3,000 BCE. Ziggurats were built as temples of the Mesopotamian gods which is why they had flat tops – to house the temple of the particular god the ziggurat was built for. The Babylonian ziggurat is believed to have inspired the “Tower of Babel” myth in the Bible.
Central American Pyramids
The pyramids in Central America were also built by several different cultures – the Maya, Aztec, Olmec, Zapotec, and Toltec. Almost all of them had stepped sides, rectangular bases, and flat tops. They too weren’t as pointed as the Egyptian pyramids, but they often had truly enormous square footage. The largest pyramid ever discovered in the world wasn’t actually the Great Pyramid of Giza but the Teotihuacano pyramid in Cholula, Mexico – it was 4 times bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Unfortunately, a lot of the Central American pyramids have eroded over the centuries, likely because of the harsher tropical conditions of the region.
Pyramid Symbolism – What Did They Represent?
Each pyramids of each culture had their own meaning and symbolism, but all were built to glorify their gods and divine rulers whether as temples or as burial monuments.
In Egypt, the pyramids were built on the west bank of the Nile, which was associated with death and the setting sun. As such, the pyramids signify the importance of life after death was to the ancient Egyptians. Pyramids may have been viewed as a way to send the soul of the dead pharaoh directly to the home of the gods.
These structures were also a symbol of the pharaoh’s power and authority, meant to inspire awe and reverence. Even today, seeing these magnificent structures standing out in the desert, inspires wonder and piques our interest in the ancient civilization and their rulers.
Some believe that the pyramids represent the primordial mound mentioned in the ancient Egyptian religious beliefs. Accordingly, the deity of creation (Atum) settled on the mound (called Benben) which had risen up out of the primordial waters (called Nu). As such, the pyramid would represent creation and everything in it.
Pyramids and Modern Interpretations
Modern Glass Pyramid at the Louvre
We would be remiss not to mention all the contemporary meanings and interpretations ascribed to the pyramids. The pyramids have become so famous and mystical that there are entire film and TV fiction series dedicated to them.
Because the pyramids are so impressive and magnificent in their construction, some believe that the Egyptians had help from other worlds just to construct them.
One belief is that they were built by aliens as landing pads for their spaceships, while another view is that the ancient Egyptians themselves were aliens! Those with more spiritual and mystical inclinations often believe that the pyramid shape was specifically designed to help funnel the universe’s energy into the pyramid and give the pharaohs everlasting life that way.
The more conspiracy-minded of us even link the pyramids’ impressive construction with the existence of a superior society that’s still among us, guiding the progress (or regress) of our species as they please.
Love or hate all these interpretations and symbolism, it’s undeniable that they’ve helped keep the Egyptian pyramids deeply connected to our pop-culture. With countless movies, books, paintings, and songs written about them, with people all across the globe wearing pyramid pendants, earrings, and other jewelry, the Egyptian pyramids will likely live on in our collective culture for as long as we do as a species.
The pyramids are among the most recognizable symbols of ancient Egypt, representing their beliefs, capabilities and the power of the pharaohs. We know little about the actual purpose of pyramids and the circumstances surrounding their construction, but this only adds to the allure of these mysterious monuments that have stood the test of time.