Religion played a very large part in ancient Egyptians’ lives, which is part of the reason why the pyramids were built on the Giza Plateau in the first place. The pharaohs of old were raised to deities themselves after they died, and were worshiped by those who came after them. Their bodies needed to be preserved for their soul’s survival, and it was during the Old Kingdom that pyramids became the way to bury and preserve bodies, replacing mastabas (a kind of tomb built out of mud bricks) for the pharaohs.
The pyramids themselves are works of mathematical art, which to me show a great amount of respect for the pharaohs they entomb. Khufu’s pyramid (which was the tallest man-made structure for almost four thousand years) had very little margin of error in its building. The sides of the base are aligned with the cardinal points based on true north to within four minutes of arc. Some of the stones in the King’s Chamber originated in quarries over 500 miles away. This incredible amount of detail and care put into its construction is indeed the type of perfection one would expect for the eternal resting place of a deity.
After the pyramids were built, the pharaohs were interred, and people could give offerings to their new god in funerary temples adjacent to the tomb.
It was confusing to me, then, to know that the tombs of bona fide deities had been robbed. If I were an ancient Egyptian, I would not want to rob the tomb of my gods for fear of bringing their wrath down upon me. So how was it, I wondered, that people became brave enough to loot so many pyramids and tombs that we have discovered very few intact?
The answer came to me in the form of the changing of the religion itself. Early on in the Old Kingdom, people worshiped the god Ra as the most powerful and influential god. He is probably the god that most people today associate with ancient Egypt and pharaohs, along with Osiris, god of the afterlife. The two gods gained popularity around the same time–which is coincidentally also the time that the pyramids were being built. (This is the time frame that we know Khufu, Khafre, and (we’re assuming) Menkaure were built.) The pharaohs of the time associated themselves with these gods, and were easily accepted by their people as god-like during life, and canonized after death.
At the end of the Old Kingdom in the 22nd century BCE, the First Intermediary Period began. During this time, as the kingdom collapsed, some of the officials started using the “royal” funerary rites on the common people, which started to transform the view of rulers and their god-like status in the afterlife.
Then comes the Middle Kingdom (circa 2055-1650 BCE). It’s during the Middle Kingdom that the true upheaval of religion I’d been searching for began. Rulers from Thebes (a part of Greece) began rebuilding Egypt, where their own god, Monthu, and the god Amun began rising in the esteem of the people.
It’s during this transition that I believe most Egyptians decided the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom no longer retained god-like status, and it wasn’t long after that the looting began. It is known, in fact, that Khufu’s pyramid was looted in the Middle Kingdom, and it is assumed that a vast majority of the looting had been done by the time the New Kingdom began.
So we transition from worshiping outside the tombs of past pharaohs to robbing their place of burial and desecrating their tombs. The evolution of these events are simply fascinating to me, and I wonder when it was that the first person decided it was okay to rob the dead.
One thought on “The Looting of the Pyramids”
Your blog intrigued me because I never asked the question, why did the ultra-religious Egyptians rob the tombs of the pharaohs they worshiped? I previously assumed that the Egyptians that built the pyramids turned around and robbed them purely because they knew how much gold and valuable items were contained there as well as a knowledge of where the tunnels were. The diagrams of the tunnels into the pyramids shown in class fascinated me because it appears that whoever the looters were, they sure had a good idea of where those tunnels were. Perhaps some of them had some information as to the map of the tunnels.
Another thing that interests me is that the builders of the pyramids back-filled the tunnels upon completion so that people couldn’t find the tombs. This could mean they predicted looters would try to find the tombs. On the other hand, it’s crazy how they managed to build an engineering feat of a structure but failed to secure the tombs from looters. So it’s unclear if they expected people to respect the tombs religiously or not.
Your answer to the question about why they robbed the tombs seems very plausible. It reminds me of the catholic religion in Europe when Guttenberg first printed the Bible. Before Guttenberg’s printing press, without having read the bible, the followers listened to everything their religious leaders told them to do believing they were following the Bible. But then, when they were able to read the book themselves, they learned how some practices were not only not present but completely contradictory. As their religion changed, they lost respect for some of these leaders.
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