Being a Cheap Bastard in Ancient Egypt

Egyptian history is divided into three main periods, the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms. Everyone knows about the Old Kingdom. That’s the time of the Great Sphinx and the pyramids, with the most known pyramids being some of the earliest. If you’ve heard of specific pharaohs (famous for something other than pyramid building), they are probably from the New Kingdom: Tutankamun (Tut), Ramesses, Akenaten, Hepshepsut.

The Middle Kingdom gets comparatively little attention. Even the textbook I teach from gives only passing mention to it. This is, at least in part, because they are cheap bastards.

From Great Pyramid to Black Pyramid

The Great Pyramid, from early in the Old Kingdom, remained the tallest man-made object for 4000 years, and it, like several other Old Kingdom pyramids, is still stable enough to let hundreds of tourists walk through it.

The Black Pyramid, on the other hand, dating from the Middle Kingdom, didn’t even stay stable enough for the pharaoh to be buried in it. Now, certainly there were Old Kingdom pyramids that met similar fates, most notably the Bent Pyramid, which is exactly what the name implies. The Bent Pyramid was probably too ambitious a project for its time. The Black Pyramid suffers from being built out of mud.

What could possibly co wrong?

Black Pyramid of Amenemhat III

Black Pyramid of Amenemhat III. Source: Wikipedia


Old Kingdom pyramids are solid stone. Some are millions of stones, each weighing several tons.

But, of course, you only see the outside of the pyramid, and stone is expensive. So the Middle Kingdom pharaohs got the great idea of building a pyramid on the cheap and then putting an outer casing of limestone on the outside, because who’s going to notice?

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The problem is the cheap material was mudbrick, which is exactly what it sounds like. We do have examples of this stuff sticking around for hundreds or even thousands of years, but they have to be really protected and/or maintained.

Well, you can’t maintain the inside of a pyramid. And the moment the limestone starts giving way the mudbrick is exposed. And you know one way of disturbing the outer casing? Cause the mudbrick to start collapsing from the inside because you built your pyramid too damn close to the water table. In a desert. Congratulations.

Pyramid, Part 2

So the pharaoh, Amenemhat III, had to build another pyramid. Now, if I was a pharaoh in this position, I would seriously consider new building materials. But Amenemhat built another mudbrick pyramid, and it at least lasted long enough for him to buried in it, although it’s a sad sight today (although partly because of looters who took the stone for later building projects).

Pyramid of Amenemhet at Hawarra01

Totally a Suitable (Second) Home for Eternity.
Pyramid of Amenemhet at Hawarra. Source: Wikipedia

Aside: I am so used to writing about religions that every time I write “Old” I want to finish it with “Testament” instead of “Kingdom.”

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