The Pyramids Plateau in Giza might be many times more famous, more visited and more read about than Dahshur, the royal necropolis 40km south of Cairo, but the Giza pyramids were constructed using lessons from the necropolis.
“A reading of the history of the pyramids of the necropolis shows this to be totally true,” said Adel Okasha, an official of the Ministry of Antiquities. “The Dahshur pyramids set the standards of pyramid building in Egypt for many years after their construction.”
Located in the desert on the west bank of the Nile, Dahshur boasts a number of pyramids, the most important of which is the Bent Pyramid. The pyramid provided a good learning experience for pyramid builders in Egypt, one that shaped the ancient Egyptians’ knowledge about construction of the gigantic structures.
Sneferu, the founding monarch of the Fourth Dynasty who ordered the building of what became the Bent Pyramid, envisioned a smooth-sided structure but the result was a pyramid bending towards its centre because of a mistake in the base design.
“Nevertheless, the mistake would prove to be very useful later when Sneferu ordered the construction of another pyramid, one that sought to avoid the mistakes of the turned-bent one,” Okasha said.
Thus, the Red Pyramid, the largest of the pyramids in Dahshur and Egypt’s first smooth-sided one came into existence. The pyramid, which derives its name from the colour of its limestone, is the third largest in Egypt, after Cheops and Chephren in Giza.
The experience the pharaohs acquired in Dahshur formed construction knowledge that helped them master their work for many years to come. It caused a change in the pyramid construction techniques, opening the door for the existence of smooth-sided pyramids long after steep-sided pyramids were the only structures possible.
Sneferu’s son, Cheops, outdid his father in pyramid construction by building his own on the Giza Plateau. The Cheops Pyramid in Giza is by far Egypt’s largest and most famous. It is 146 metres tall. His father’s Red Pyramid is 105 metres tall.
“Despite this, the pyramids in Dahshur are a study in architecture,” said Abdel Monem Madbouli, a tour guide. “This is why they are popular among those who want to get information about the evolution of ancient Egyptian architecture.”
Cheops could never have built his pyramid the way he did without lessons learned from his father’s mistake.
The Black Pyramid is the third biggest pyramid in Dahshur. It dates to the rule of Amenemhat III, a pharaoh of the 12th Dynasty who ruled from 1860-1814BC. Though it is not in a very good shape, the Black Pyramid continues to attract visitors to the necropolis.
It lies close to the tomb of King Hor of the 13th Dynasty and the burial site of his daughter Nubhetepti-khered.
Around the Dahshur pyramids, there are the cemeteries of the officials of the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom.
What makes Dahshur a site worthy of visiting, Madbouli said, is that it can be part of a package tour including the Pyramids Plateau in Giza and Saqqara, another wonderful necropolis, 15km south of Dahshur.
Meanwhile, the first phase of the New Egyptian Museum, only metres from the Pyramids Plateau, is expected to be inaugurated in early 2018. The museum, which has been under construction for more than a decade, will replace the museum in downtown Cairo.
“When opened, the New Museum will be a strong source of attraction to the area,” Madbouli said. “This will give the chance to a large number of people visiting the Pyramids Plateau to visit wonderful sites like Dahshur as well.”
It takes visitors almost half an hour from the Pyramids Plateau to arrive in Dahshur.
Transportation of all types is available and the ride is not expensive. It cost history student Khalid Mahmoud and a group of friends $44 to travel from southern Cairo to Dahshur and $5 each for entry fee.
“The whole journey cost us this amount of money, which is negligible compared to the value of the place,” Mahmoud said. “We made a tour of the pyramids as well as the burial sites but the impression we got was that the pharaohs were so perseverant that they could not rest before they mastered pyramid building as an art of which they became the world’s masters.”
Ibrahim Ouf is an Egyptian journalist based in Cairo.
This article was first published in The Arab Weekly.