We think of the pyramids of Egypt as marvels of ancient engineering, admiring their gigantic size, straight sides, and precise alignments. They’re over 4,000 years old, but built to last.
The thought of pyramids as an exercise in trial-and-error is disconcerting. So when we see the Bent Pyramid, which really is bent, erected around 2,600 B.C., we’ve got to wonder what happened.
Two theories: One, Pharaoh Snefru, for whom the pyramid was being built, was well on his way to dying, so the builders took a short-cut. Two, more than halfway into the project, somebody on the engineering staff said “Uh-oh, we’ve got problems!”
The bottom part of the pyramid rises at an angle of 54 degrees; the top part, at only 43 degrees. Why the difference?
Because they feared that if they kept building at that original steep angle, the whole shebang would collapse on their heads!
Which actually happened, not far away, at the Meidum Pyramid, which collapsed while it was being built.
We don’t know exactly what it cost to build a pyramid, but it must’ve been a pretty hefty chunk of the government’s budget.
The mishap of the Meidum Pyramid and the awkward course correction at the Bent Pyramid suggest that the Egyptians, rather than being instructed by high-tech Space Brothers, learnt the art of pyramid construction as they went along, with costly errors along the way.
The much later pyramids of Nubia (now Sudan) were smaller and noticeably steeper than the classical Egyptian pyramids of the Old Kingdom. We don’t know how closely the Nubians might have studied their predecessors, but their pyramids would surely have impressed the builders of the Bent Pyramid.
I can’t imagine the Great Pyramid of Khufu built at this steep angle and not falling down.
Neither could the Egyptians.