Pyramids, Pyramids and more Pyramids

The pyramids at Giza may be the world’s best known pyramids; however they aren’t the only ones.  Pyramids of various forms and sizes can be found all around the world.  From the lush plains of the Fertile Crescent to the sweltering jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula, pyramidal structures rise high above the surrounding landscape.

The three pyramids on the Giza Plateau are the most iconic pyramids of them all, and are possibly the most iconic ancient structures in the world.  There are very few ancient structures (Stonehenge and Chitzen Itza for example) that can compete with the fame and wonder that surround the pyramids of Giza.  When Alexander the Great led his army through Egypt to solidify his conquest in 332 BCE the pyramids of Giza were already 2,000 years old.  Today, much of their fame comes from the fascination with ancient Egypt sparked by the expeditions of dozens of self-proclaimed “archaeologists” who looted Egypt of historic treasures through the 19th and early 20th centuries.  However, the three pyramids on the Giza Plateau only give examples of one specific type of pyramid.

In Central America there are many examples of step pyramids (pyramids that are built as several large rectangular bases stacked on top of one another). Many such examples come from the most powerful classical civilizations of Central America, the Aztecs and the Maya.  Both Aztec and Maya cultures had a vast and complex pantheon of gods.  It was in reverence to these gods that pyramids in Aztec and Maya cities were constructed.  This reason starkly contradicts the reasons that Egyptian pyramids were built.  Egyptian pyramids were constructed as burial markers for great and powerful (not to mention vastly egotistical) Pharaohs and were meant to represent the mound of earth from which the world was made in Egyptian creation mythology.  That Egyptians buried great kings under structures symbolizing the birth of the world parallels their views of death as the ferry to life in the underworld.  The reason that the Aztec and Maya constructed pyramids was quite different.  The Aztec and Maya constructed their pyramids as temples to specific gods.  One example is the Pyramid of the Sun in the ancient Aztec city of Teotihuacan which was built to worship the Aztec deity of the sun and even included an altar on the flat top of the pyramid.

In Mesopotamia, some of the oldest pyramidal structures were built.  The ancient ziggurats of the Mesopotamian Valley were built in the early 3rd millennium BCE for much of the same purpose that the Aztec and Maya pyramids were built.  However, ziggurats were not places of public worship or ceremonies like the Mayan and Aztec pyramids, but were the homes of the patron deities of the city.  One example is the Great Ziggurat of Ur near Nasiriyah, Iraq which was dedicated to the moon god Nanna which was the patron deity of Ur.

These are only a few example of the types of pyramids all over the world.  And while the reasons why pyramidal structures were built vary from civilization to civilization, their presence invariably points to cultures with highly developed religious beliefs as well as economic power and engineering ingenuity.