Stairways To Heaven
For 5,000 years builders have lifted their sights toward the gods. In Egypt, the priest Imhotep started it all when he built the first pyramid
But the most magnificent innovation was the pyramid structure itself. Although it represented the beginning of a new architectural form, its creation harks back to the traditional royal tomb style, known as the mastaba, the modern Arabic word for "bench." These horizontal rectangular graves consisted of mud brick walls supporting a low, flat roof. Archaeologists believe Imhotep began the Zoser tomb with the intention of building a mastaba structure. But throughout the construction he revised and expanded the project at least four times, until it culminated in the 200-foot-high, six-stepped pyramid. "He built six mastaba superstructures on top of one another, each smaller than the one below," writes Zahi Hawass, director of the Giza pyramids excavation, in his book, The Pyramids of Ancient Egypt.
Beneath the pyramid lay a vast underground complex: over 3 miles of tunnels, chambers, galleries for royal objects, and storerooms holding thousands of vessels containing food for the king in the afterlife. The burial chamber was made of granite blocks with a cylindrical opening at the top. Once the king was laid to rest, the top was sealed with a 3.5-ton granite plug set into place with ropes. It was far more than a resting place, says Mark Lehner, an archaeologist with the Harvard Semitic Museum and the University of Chicago. He likens the pyramid to a "cosmic engine" that helped transform the king from a human being into a god. "The pyramid was the instrument that enabled this alchemy to take place," he says.
By creating the pyramid, says Bryan of Johns Hopkins, Imhotep helped give concrete expression to the religious notion that after death the king traveled from the human world to the heavens to reside with the gods. "The word for `pyramid' in Ancient Egyptian is a type of noun that is formed out of a verb, and it means `to go up,' " she says. "So a pyramid quite literally is that which one ascends." The pyramid became a center of worship for the elite class, who believed the newly deified ruler could help guarantee continued prosperity for the kingdom.
That symbolic power, as much as the physical structure, was Imhotep's great invention, says David O'Connor, a professor of ancient Egyptian art and archaeology at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University. "What is striking in the early dynastic [royal tomb] monuments is the strong emphasis on burial and the king going to the netherworld rather than ascending to the celestial realm," he says. "Once you get to the Step Pyramid, this idea of ascent may be becoming more prominent." Imhotep's training as a high priest of the sun god may have led him to emphasize an afterlife in the sky rather than the netherworld, Bryan says.
The idea caught on. For more than 2,000 years, the Egyptians built royal pyramid tombs, including the great pyramids with their flat sides and pointed tops. It is not known where Imhotep himself was buried. To this day, archaeologists continue to search for his tomb. But even if it is discovered, the pyramids will always be his greatest monuments.
The dictator's "Palace of Soviets" would have been 26 feet higher than the Empire State Building, crowned with a statue of Lenin three times as tall as the Statue of Liberty. The frame had barely begun to rise when World War II broke out. Later the project was scrapped and the site became a public pool. It now hosts a replica of the church Stalin originally tore down for his megamonument. -David Grimm