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Archaeologist sheds light on pyramid origin


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CAIRO, Egypt (Reuters) -- Egypt's ancient pyramids are probably a byproduct of a decision to build walls around the tombs of kings, a leading expert on early Egyptian royal burials said on Wednesday.

Guenter Dreyer, director of the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo, said he based his theory on similarities between Egypt's first pyramid, built at Saqqara south of Cairo for the Pharaoh Zozer in about 2650 BC, and the structure of the tomb of one of his immediate predecessors.

The Saqqara pyramid, known as the Step Pyramid because of its unique shape, began as a flat mound about 25 feet high built over the burial chamber of the pharaoh.

At the slightly earlier tomb of the Pharaoh Khasekhemwy, at the old royal cemetery at Abydos in southern Egypt, German excavators found evidence of a similar flat mound covering the central part of the underground burial complex.

The walls in the central part of the tomb were compacted to about twice the thickness and half the height of the walls to the sides, suggesting a heavy weight had once stood on top, Dreyer told Reuters in an interview.

Khasekhemwy's complex also had one of the niched enclosure walls which later became a distinctive feature of the dozens of pyramids built along the western edge of the Nile Valley for hundreds of years to come, he said.

Mound of creation

But in the Abydos example, the enclosure wall was much further from the tomb than in the case of Saqqara.

"My theory is that...these two elements [the mound and the wall] were united at Saqqara by his successor Zozer and then something happened. The mound on top of the tomb was hidden by the large surrounding wall -- it was not visible.

"This was a problem, because this mound I think represented the primeval mound of creation and guaranteed the resurrection of the king," said Dreyer.

The architects of the Saqqara complex solved the problem by building another smaller flat mound on top of the first and then decided to extend it upwards by adding more mounds.

The Sakkara pyramid is an intermediate stage between the flat mounds, known as mastabas, of the earlier period and the smooth-sided classical pyramids of the type found at Giza, just outside the modern city of Cairo.

Archaeologists have long speculated that the pyramids are an extension of the mastaba concept but Dreyer's theory adds the enclosure wall as an explanation for the transition.

Dreyer, who has spent the last decade studying the kings who ruled in southern Egypt in what was called the pre-dynastic period, before about 3100 BC, said he now believed he had identified another king from the period, known by the name of Horus or Hor, the same as that as the falcon god.

He is basing his theory on a close analysis of two ancient palettes, flat ceremonial stone plates on which early Egyptians appear to have recorded historical and mythological events.

Two palettes show a Horus falcon in a context which Dreyer interprets as the place where the name of a king should appear.

Several palettes have been interpreted as commemorating the conquest of Nile Delta towns by the kings from the south, a process which later led to the political unification of Egypt.

The conquest has traditionally been attributed to either King Narmer or King Aha, who lived about 200 years later.

"He [King Horus] started the whole thing, conquering the Delta, several generations before Narmer. Why? He wanted to safeguard trade routes to Palestine which ran along the Delta, where the Egyptians brought all the wine in," Dreyer said.



Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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