Egyptian Pyramid History: From the First Pyramid to the Last

By Edward | Updated Nov. 11, 2022

As far as is known so far, the first pyramid in Egypt was a stepped pyramid built by Djoser about the year 2630 BC. After that, building pyramids became a common way to bury pharaohs and rulers in Egypt. New pyramids are being discovered from time to time. By recent count, about 130 or 140 pyramids have been found in various states of preservation so far, but new discoveries may help us better understand their history.

It is amazing that the biggest, best-built, most-intricate, and best-preserved pyramids are also the oldest. The pyramids of Giza are among these most ancient pyramids that were built between the years 2,630 and 2,400 BC.

However, there are lots of mysteries concerning the most ancient pyramids, and it is not clear whether some of them may have been built on even-more-ancient underground structures.

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Timeline of Pyramid History

Great Pyramid of Giza, EgyptGreat Pyramid of Giza, Egypt

2630 BC: Construction of the first pyramid, the Step Pyramid was completed.

2600 BC: Construction of the first true pyramid in Egypt was begun.

2589 BC: Construction of the pyramids of Giza was begun.

2360 BC: Construction of the Pyramid of Unas. On its walls were written the oldest known religious texts in the world.

1500 BC: Amhose I built the last known Egyptian pyramid.

Late 1700s: Perhaps for the first time since antiquity, someone noticed that the Great Pyramid at Giza actually has 8 sides. Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie wrote about this fact. Each side of the pyramid actually is composed of two planes that meet in the middle of each side. This may be the only pyramid constructed in this way.

1899: An archaeological mission discovered Ahmose's pyramid in ruins in Abydos. So this pushed the date of construction of the most recent pyramid of Egypt to 1500BC.

2950 BC: Mausoleums and Mastabas Were Built in the Beginning of the Dynastic Era

The 5th Dynasty Pyramid of Unas, located in the Saqqara, EgyptThe 5th Dynasty Pyramid of Unas, located in the Saqqara, Egypt

When the dynastic era began in Egypt, dated about 3000 BC, the first dynastic rulers carved rock tombs and covered their tombs with flat-roofed rectangular structures with sloped sides known as mastabas. These were built with mud brick and stone.

Suggested reading: How to Plan Your First Trip to Egypt — 7 Easy Steps

2640 BC: Construction of the First Pyramid Was Begun

The pyramids of SaqqaraThe pyramids of Saqqara

Then, the oldest-known pyramid in Egypt was built around 2630 BC at Saqqara which is about 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of Cairo. Many historians think that it may have originally been designed to be a huge mastaba, but then the builders decided to add 5 other mastabas on top of the base to make a huge structure with six layers or steps. The pyramid was built for the Third Dynasty's King Djoser, who ruled from 2640 BC to 2611 BC. It is known as the Step Pyramid of Djoser.

It was a huge structure, and it remains the oldest-known complete stone pyramid in Egypt. It is 58 meters tall, and its base is 123 meters by 107 meters (190 feet tall on a base of 406 by 351 feet). Because it is broken down and crumbled, it is difficult to determine its present volume since it no longer has a regular shape. However, originally it was about 62.5 meters (205 feet) tall built in six layers. The pyramid was constructed using 330,400 cubic meters (11.6 million cubic feet) of stone and clay. Though it is crumbling, tourists can go inside.

Under the pyramid, the builders made a horizontal corridor that leads to a deep pit and huge cavernous room. The total depth of the pit is perhaps 10 stories, and tunnels branch out. The tunnels beneath the pyramid form a labyrinth at least 5.5 kilometers (3.5 miles) long, but perhaps there are more tunnels as yet undiscovered. People speculate that the tunnel system under the surface in Saqqara may predate the pyramid itself and that the pyramid was constructed on top of the underground structure. The builders placed a massive granite sarcophagus inside.

For more information, read: What's Inside the Egyptian Pyramids?

  • Top sights: The Saqqara pyramid.
  • Recommended visiting duration: half a day
  • Tour recommendation: Contact us to include Saqqara in your own private tour.

2600 BC: Construction of the First True Pyramids Was Begun

Pyramid of Menkaure, Cairo, EgyptPyramid of Menkaure, Cairo, Egypt

About the year 2613, Sneferu founded the 4th Dynasty. During his reign from 2613–2589 BC, he is known to have built three large pyramids. The first was built at Meidum that is about 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of Cairo. Historians are not sure whether he built it himself or finished building an uncompleted pyramid. It is a stepped pyramid that is almost as tall as the Pyramid of Menkaure in Giza.

Then in Dahshur, about 40 kilometers southwest of Cairo, Sneferu built two large pyramids that are so well-built that they are still largely intact and people can enter them. The Red Pyramid is the third tallest and largest Egyptian pyramid, and its neighbor, the Bent Pyramid, is almost exactly the same height and is the fourth tallest and largest pyramid in Egypt. It is amazing that the oldest pyramids that are about 4,600 years old were also among the best-built ones in Egypt.

Historians generally think that they built the Bent Pyramid first. Its size must have astounded the people. It is 189 meters (620 feet) square at its base and 104.71 m (344 feet) tall with a total volume of 1,237,040 cubic meters (43,685,655 cu feet). It is not a true pyramid because it is "bent" inwards at a lower angle near the top. It is about six inches shorter than the Red Pyramid. Inside, they built several large chambers and low winding passageways

The Red Pyramid was the first true pyramid built. They built it at a lower angle then the Great Pyramid of Giza, so it is very massive. It is the third tallest and the third largest pyramid of Egypt with a total height of 105 meters. It has a total volume of 1,694,000 cubic meters (59,823,045 cu ft). Its contents are similar to the pyramids in Giza—just a few passageways and chambers. There are no inscriptions and nothing much in terms of artifacts to see. But the amazing preservation and engineering as well as the acoustics are the highlights.

For more information about the Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid, read: What's Inside the Egyptian Pyramids?

For more information about the location of Dahshur and how to go there from Cairo, see: Where Are the Egyptian Pyramids?

  • Top sights: The Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid
  • Recommended visiting duration: 1 day
  • Tour recommendation: Contact us to include Dahshur in your own private tour

2589 BC: Construction of the Pyramids of Giza Was Begun

the major pyramids of Giza, EgyptThe Major Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

The Great Pyramid was built on the west bank of the Nile during the years between 2589 BC and 2504 BC during the reign of Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops, in Greek) who reigned 2589–2566 BC. It is 40 floors tall. It is amazing engineering, considering that it is more than 2,500 years old. Researchers are still making new discoveries such as a recently discovered huge void 30 meters (100 feet) long and 3 meters (10 feet) high near the middle of the pyramid.

People are still making discoveries about its construction, and they are speculating about the purpose of it all. So far, six rooms have been found in the Great Pyramid:

  • The Big Void – This is a large potato-shaped tank-like room or set of rooms with a roof a little higher than the King's Chamber and a floor a little lower than the floor of the chamber that was discovered in 2017. It is by far the biggest space that has been discovered inside, and a shaft leads from the outside and through it. Its purpose is still unknown.
  • King's Chamber – This is thought to be the room containing the pharaoh's sarcophagus.
  • Israel (14 days and only to Sinai Resorts)
  • The Grand Gallery – a passageway leading to the King's Chamber
  • Queen's Chamber – Perhaps it was a storage room.
  • Small Void – This is a small room similar to the Big Void close to one side of the pyramid that is at the same height as that of the Queen's Chamber.
  • Lower Chamber – a subterranean chamber

It is thought that the son of Khufu named Khafre (reigned 2558–2532 BC) built the second pyramid at Giza during his reign. His wives are thought to be buried in three small pyramids that they built next to the pyramid.

Then Khafre's son Menkaure(reigned 2532–2503 BC) built the smallest of the three pyramids of Giza as well as three other very small pyramids near his pyramid. At the entrance to his pyramid, there is an inscription that states the month and day that the king died. Inside, they made a chamber that is decorated with beautifully crafted stone panels.

In total, they built three large pyramids and 11 small pyramids on the Giza plateau.

For more about the Giza pyramids, read:

2465 BC to 2150 BC: Construction of the Pyramids of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties

The Great Sphinx and Khufu pyramid of Giza, EgyptThe Great Sphinx and Khufu pyramid of Giza, Egypt

After the fourth dynasty that included Sneferu and Khufu, two successor dynasties built pyramids in Egypt too. Pyramids continued to be built throughout the fifth and sixth dynasties, but the size and quality of construction declined over this period.

One notable change of pyramid construction happened during the fifth dynasty during the reign of King Unas (2375–2345 BC). He was the last pharaoh of the fifth dynasty. It is thought that the fourth dynasty builders did not include written texts inside because the pyramids were built to be sealed and never entered by anyone. But during the reign of King Unas, pyramid builders inscribed written accounts of events of the king's reign inside the interiors of the pyramid. This became the standard practice. Historians say these pyramid texts are the earliest significant religious writings known from ancient Egypt, and are the oldest religious texts in the world. The historical texts allow us to better understand the history of that era.

The Pyramid of Unas was constructed about the year 2360 BC. It was originally 43 meters (141 feet) high with a white limestone outer layer. They built three rooms inside and inserted a basalt sarcophagus. It was not built well like the earlier huge stone pyramids of the Fourth Dynasty. It was in ruins even by the time of Ramses II in the year 2000 BC, and Ramses II ordered that it be restored.

Pepy II (2278–2184 BC) built the last large pyramid in Egypt. He was the second king of the sixth dynasty. He built his pyramid at Saqqara, and he completed it some 30 years into his reign. It was much shorter at 52.5 meters (172 feet) than others of the Old Kingdom. Pyramids never again reached the same size as the Great Pyramids of Giza.

1500 BC: The Last Egyptian Pyramid Was Built

The Great Pryamids and Nile river, EgyptThe Great Pryamids and Nile river, Egypt

As far as it is known, the 18th Dynasty of Egypt was the last dynasty to build pyramids. It is believed that Ahmose I built the last pyramid at Abydos. Ahmose I is said to have been the longest reigning ruler of Egypt. An ancient account suggests he lived to be 100 years old. He is known for beginning the New Kingdom of Egypt. During the New Kingdom, Egypt rose to prominence once again.

After Ahmose's I, rulers favored being buried in shaft tunnel tombs that were cut into the rock in the Valley of the Kings.

An archaeological team discovered the ruins of Ahmose's pyramid in Abydos in 1899. The pyramid is ruined and collapsed. No inner room has been found. This might be because one was never built inside it or because the room or rooms have collapsed. The mummy of Ahmose I was discovered in 1881 in Deir el-Bahri in a complex of mortuary temples and tombs located on the west bank of the Nile. Perhaps the pyramid was never meant to be a burying place, or perhaps his mummy was moved there. It is just one of the hundreds of mysteries about ancient Egypt and its architecture.

  • Top sight: Nile cruise tours stop at The Valley of the Kings
  • Recommended visiting duration: 1–2 days

Tour recommendations:

After 1900: Modern Discoveries

Pyramid of Giza, EgyptStairway of the Tomb in the Center of a Pyramid at Giza, Egypt

There have been a number of big discoveries about the pyramids of Egypt. They are too many to detail, but the discoveries show that there is much more to learn.

One example is that the Great Pyramid was photographed from a British airplane in 1940 during WWII. From above, people could clearly see that the Great Pyramid is actually 8 sided. Two planes on each side of the pyramid meet in the middle of each side.

2013: A researcher named Tallet discovered papyrus portions that describe some about the building of the Great Pyramid and other details about mining and the people involved. They are known as the oldest papyrus portions ever found. The papyrus portions were written by a man who helped to build the pyramid. It was discovered at Wadi El-Jarf. The writings say that the limestone blocks used in covering the Pyramid of Khufu were mined in Tura and transported by ships to the pyramid via a set of canals. They say that the details of the construction of the Great Pyramid was overseen by the an official named Ankhaf. He was the half-brother of Khufu.

1954: An archaeologist found 1,224 pieces of a large well-preserved ship next to the Pyramid of Khufu in Giza. It astounded the archaeologists because it is the one of the best-preserved and largest ships ever discovered from that era. It is called the Khufu Ship, and is now assembled and open for tourists to see next to the Pyramid of Khufu.

2017: In what may turn out to be the biggest discovery in modern times, researchers found a large room or set of rooms called the Big Void near the middle of the Great Pyramid in 2017. It is by far the biggest room that has been found in the pyramid, but no one knows what is in it since it has not been entered. This was the first room discovered inside since the 1800s.

In modern times, the urban area of the city of Cairo has extended right up to the east side of the Great Pyramids of Giza. Many visitors are surprised to find that the pyramids are right at the edge of the city because in pictures, the pyramids are viewed with the western desert as a backdrop. Millions of people have been visiting the pyramids annually. They are drawn by their fame, antiquity, and size.

Touring Egypt with Global Highlights

For anyone who is willing to explore more of the Egyptian pyramids, going inside the Great Pyramid of Giza is no doubt an essential experience. With a tailor-made trip, you can enjoy the journey at your own pace as everything is well taken care of.

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