Bent Pyramid — “Southern Shining Pyramid”


approaching the bent pyramid
approaching the bent pyramid

The second of Sneferu’s pyramids in Dashur, the Bent Pyramid is a very obvious example of the trial-and-error that accompanied pyramid building in the Old Kingdom.

Unlike any other pyramid in Egypt, this one has an abrupt change in angle about 3/4 of the way up. The lower part is very steeply sloped (52 º) while the top part has a shallower slope. Despite the many theories (it started to collapse, it was too hard to build, the architect lost his nerve), there is no real consensus as to why the pyramid is built the way that it it.

Sneferu's bent pyramid
on the road to sneferu’s bent pyramid, from saqqara

In fact there is very little known about why Sneferu built two pyramids in Dashur, less than a kilometer apart — and an additional pyramid at Maidum — all completed in his lifetime. He is surely unique in having enough time in his life to built three pyramids. His son, Cheops (Khufu), managed only the single one at Giza, grand though it is.

It is possible that the sudden collapse of Sneferu’s first pyramid, at Maidum (also at 52 º), prompted the abrupt change in the Bent Pyramid. Then, the imperfection of the Bent Pyramid prompted the building of the perfect, if shallow, Red Pyramid.

One final theory — the oddest of the bunch, I think — states that the pyramid was built with two angles deliberately, to explicitly promote a sense of duality in the pyramid. In an attempt to fulfill the “principles of mathematical harmony and sacred geometry” (West). I classify this in the same arena as people who claim pyramids are mystical foci for mental powers, or built by aliens.

the casing stones remain intact
the pyramid looks almost plastered, but its the limestone casing stones

It’s also possible that he was simply running a pyramid assembly line (according to a note in Rough Guide) so that he would leave behind a series of partially- or fully-finished pyramids that could be used by subsequent kings without the requisite ten or thirty years on the throne to build their own.

We weren’t able to go in the pyramid (although, frankly, if you’ve been in one pyramid, they really aren’t that different inside most of the time). Usually they aren’t really decorated much; a long, angled tunnel down into the middle of the pyramid, a tall, narrow corbelled room, and then a burial pit or chamber.

smooth casing stones of tura limestone
the smooth jigsaw puzzle of limestone casing stones

Not only is the pyramid notable because of the strange angles, but also because a large portion of the original limestone casing is still intact.. Most of the casing on the top is gone, but the steep sides are mostly covered in smooth, pale blocks of Tura limestone. It is assumed that the steeper angle of the pyramid made it harder to strip the limestone from the sides. They are also angled slightly inward, which makes them harder to remove. For me, this doesn’t explain why the top is pretty much cleared of stone, unless the pyramid was perhaps buried in sand?

The change in angle appears fairly subtle, but the remaining pieces of the casing stone show a sharp angle change up close.

Nearly all pyramids would have had this limestone cladding, but in the five thousand years since, most of the stone has been removed. It was not necessarily used for building (the odd shapes and angles made it less easy to reuse the stones) but was burnt for lime. I can only imagine what the pyramids looked like clad in polished, smooth stone — or, as one of our guides suggested, painted bright white and decorated with many-colored pictures.

plundered casing stones on the top section
the facing stones on the top portion have been plundered

The casing stones are missing on the corners, so it’s possible to see the way they were fitted onto the roughly stacked blocks of the core. In addition, the lower courses of stone are gone, revealing grooves in the bedrock that were probably cut into the ground before the pyramid was built. These marks lead many Egyptologists to conclude that the building of pyramids started with the marking out of the bedrock for the placement of the stones.

One final weirdness of the pyramid is that is has two entrances — one on the west and another on the north. Most pyramids have only one entrance. The “standard” entrance on the north is about 12 m above the ground and leads down to the upper chamber inside. The opening on the west leads to the lower chamber. At some point, a corridor was cut between them.

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