Pyramids and solar religion


[MUSIC PLAYING] INES TORRES: Pyramids are one of the most common of all human architectural forms, and one of the most stable. But the reason for building a pyramid is also related to a set of religious and funerary beliefs that the Egyptian espoused. Some of these beliefs are intimately connected to the Egyptians’ own landscape. Until very recently, the Nile waters would annually flood and recede, leaving behind deposits of fertile silt, creating a visual effect that associated floods and mounds of earth to the regeneration and conception of life. The pyramidal form represents quite well the visual idea of the primeval mound of creation emerging from the fertile floods. In fact, some early Egyptian temples kept a miniature primeval mound, which could take the form of a pyramid carved from a block of stone called Benben. This was a representation of the first mound of land, which appeared after the waters of creation receded. From this primeval mound, and according to the Egyptian view, the sun rose for the first time, giving life and warmth to the newly created Earth. Representations of the Benben incorporated the very power of life itself. As such, monuments had not only aesthetic value, but were also imbued with powerful religious symbolism. The primeval mound, or Benben, was sometimes included within the tomb’s structure. And in this context, they were believed to provide the power necessary for the spiritual rebirth of the tomb owner. The rectangular mud brick structure, known as mastaba, seems to have been connected to the representation of the primeval mound. Pyramids are, therefore, representations of the Benben mound, but on a monumental scale. Benben was also the name given to the pyramidion, or the tip of a pyramid or obelisk. Both the Benben and the pyramids symbolized the rays of the sun. According to the Pyramid Texts, which were, nevertheless, found engraved in later pyramids, the king would mount up to the sky by using the sun rays as a ramp. Thus, the pyramid was also a place of physical and spiritual transformation, which allowed the king to ascend to heaven and join the solar god during his daily rebirth. It is worth noting that the original appearance of the Pyramids of Giza was very different from today, since at least the Pyramids of Khufu and Khafre would have been encased in shining white limestone, which would have reflected the sun’s rays, and created a splendid visual effect. In addition, the pyramid complex also served as a model of the hierarchical structure of the Egyptian culture, with the king’s pyramid towering over all other structures, and surrounded most closely by his most important officials. This means that the significance of such cemeteries is not only religious or funerary, but it also reflects the practices of an entire society.




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  1. Learn more in our online course, "Pyramids of Giza: Ancient Egyptian Art and Archaeology": https://harvardx.link/w8p56

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