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In architecture, the term pyramid denotes a monument that resembles the geometrical figure of the same name. It is almost exclusively applied to the stone structures of ancient Egypt and of pre-Columbian Central America and Mexico.
The Egyptian pyramids were funerary monuments built for the pharaohs and their closest relatives. Most date from the Old Kingdom (c.2686–2181 B.C.) and are found on the west bank of the Nile, in a region approximately 100 km (60 mi) long and situated south of the delta, between Hawara and Abu Ruwaysh. Pyramids developed from the mastaba, a low, rectangular stone structure erected over a tomb. The oldest pyramid known, the Step Pyramid of King Zoser at Saqqara (c.2650 B.C.), has a large mastaba as its nucleus and consists of six terraces of diminishing sizes, one built upon the other. It was surrounded by an elaborate complex of buildings, now partially restored, whose function related to the cult of the dead.
The next phase of development is represented by the 93–m-high (305–ft) pyramid at Maydum, built at the order of Snefru, founder of the 4th dynasty (c.2613–c.2498 B.C.). This structure was designed as a step pyramid; later the steps were covered with a smooth stone facing to produce sloping sides. The pyramid at Dahshur was also built by Snefru. Halfway between its base and apex its inclination was changed, so that it is bent in appearance. A characteristic feature of all classical Egyptian pyramids, including those of Snefru, is a temple complex, comprising a lower or valley temple at a short distance from the pyramid and connected by a causeway with a mortuary temple, situated adjacent to the pyramid. The most elaborate example of the temple complex is found at Giza, near modern Cairo, where the 4th-dynasty pyramids of Kings Khufu (Cheops), Khafre (Chephren), and Menkaure (Mycerinus) lie in close proximity to each other. The pyramid of Khufu, erected c.2500 B.C., is the largest in the world, measuring 230 m (756 ft) on each side of its base and originally measuring 147 m (482 ft) high. Beginning in the 10th century A.D. the entire Giza complex served as a source of building materials for the construction of Cairo, and, as a result, all three pyramids were stripped of their original smooth outer facing of limestone. The temples have disappeared, with the exception of the extremely well preserved granite valley temple of Khafre.
The last great pyramid of the Old Kingdom is that of Pepi II of the 6th dynasty (c.2345–2181 B.C.). In the following turbulent era (the First Intermediate Period (c.2181–2040 B.C.), almost no pyramids were built. When King Mentuhotep II of the 11th dynasty attained power (c.2060 B.C.), pyramid contruction resumed. During the 11th and 12th dynasties until 1786 B.C., pyramids continued to be built (at Dahshur and al-Faiyum), but later, rock-cut tombs were preferred.
The first structures built in imitation of the pyramids of ancient Egypt were those built by Nubian and Meroitic kings from c.700 B.C. to A.D. 350. Near the cities of Meroë and Napata (in modern Sudan) are rows of royal graves that consist of small, steeply sloped pyramids. Of special interest is the Cestius pyramid (12 B.C.) in Rome, the funerary monument of the tribune Gaius Cestius, which for many centuries was the only European example of an Egyptian-style pyramid. During the neoclassical period in the art of the 18th century the French architect Étienne Louis Boullée and the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova designed a number of pyramidal-shaped funerary monuments.
All pre-Columbian pyramids are truncated, stepped pyramids and served as the foundations for temples. The largest ones usually slope less steeply than the Egyptian pyramids, but the smaller ones often have an even steeper incline. Stairways carved into one or more sides of the pyramid lead to the temple.
Pyramids were erected by the ancient Mesoamerican cultures of the Maya, Toltecs, and Aztecs, and they are found in many areas of Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Most were built during the classic period (A.D.300–900) and in the following postclassic period (900–1542). The pyramid of El Tajín, which was built between the 4th and 9th centuries in northern Veracruz, Mexico, is unique. On each of its terraces is a series of recessed niches in which sacrificial offerings were probably placed. In the pyramid of the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque, Mexico, which also dates from the classic period, a passage discovered beneath the floor of the temple leads to a richly furnished burial crypt deep within the pyramid. One of the largest pyramids in Central America is the 66–m-high (216–ft) Pyramid of the Sun (2d century A.D.) at Teotihuacán, Mexico. Temple-pyramid complexes at late civic-ceremonial centers such as Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, dating from the postclassic Maya-Toltec period, are generally lower in height, topped with a larger, flat platform; they therefore are generally not considered true pyramids.