At the Giza Plateau on the outskirts of Cairo stands the pyramid of Menkaure, the 4th Dynasty Pharaoh Menkaure, son and heir of Khafre, and the grandson of Khufu.

The smallest of the three great pyramids of Giza, it once contained the tomb of the Pharaoh, and the adjoining pyramid complex housed his mortuary temple where the late ruler was worshipped for centuries after his death.

Rising to a height of mere 213 feet – less than half of the size of the pyramid of Khufu – the pyramid of Menkaure preserved valuable sculptures depicting the King and his royal wives. Join us on a journey to uncover the secrets of the smallest of the three great pyramids of Giza.

The Pyramid of Djoser Marks the Beginning of the Age of Pyramids

The Old Kingdom of Egypt (c. 2600 – 2200 BCE), sometimes referred to as the ‘Age of pyramids,’ as the pinnacle of the pyramid building era, which had begun during the reign of the 3rd Dynasty continued under the 4th Dynasty kings.

Egyptologists today consider the pyramid of Djoser to be the first true pyramid constructed by the Ancient Egyptians. Pharaohs of the Early dynastic Period (c. 3100 – 2700 BCE) were buried in flat-roofed, rectangular structures built of mud bricks called the mastabas.

The construction of Djoser’s pyramid marks a significant shift in construction, as the Egyptians successfully transformed a mastaba into a square-base, six-stepped structure. Unlike mastabas, which were constructed from mudbrick, the Egyptians used limestone to build Djoser’s pyramid.

The Pharaoh’s Chancellor Imhotep is believed to be the probable architect of the Step pyramid, whose ingenuity enabled the Egyptians to construct smooth-sided pyramids.

Pharaoh Sneferu Builds the First Smooth-Sided Pyramid

The relatively short-lived 3rd Dynasty came to an end in the late 27th century BCE when Sneferu succeeded Huni and founded the 4th Dynasty. During Sneferu’s reign, the Egyptians introduced significant innovations in the design of pyramids. The Pharaoh built no less than three pyramids which have survived to this day.

The first of these was the Meidum pyramid, which largely resembles Djoser’s Step pyramid but became Egypt’s first straight-sided pyramid. At Dahshur, Sneferu built the Bent pyramid, now believed to represent a transitional form between step-sided and smooth-sided pyramids.

Only about half a mile to the north, the Pharaoh built his third and greatest pyramid, now known as the Red Pyramid, the first smooth-sided pyramid ever built. The 345-foot high pyramid represents the triumph of Ancient Egyptian engineering.

Khufu and Khafre: The Pinnacle of Pyramid Building

By the time Sneferu’s son Khufu succeeded his father on the throne, the Egyptians had perfected pyramid construction techniques to the point that it became possible to build monuments on a scale never seen before. Khufu had chosen the Giza Plateau as the site for his pyramid.

This decision is due to its proximity to the royal capital at Memphis and the Nile. The river was used to transport heavy stone blocks quarried at Tura, about 9 miles south of Giza. Khufu was succeeded by his two sons, Djedefre and Khafre, who built their own pyramids. Djedefre’s pyramid at Abu Rawash is now ruined, whereas Khafre’s pyramid at Giza is the second-largest Egyptian pyramid.

The Tomb of Menkaure and the Construction of the Pharaoh’s Pyramid

Large-scale construction projects initiated by Snefery, Khufu, and Khafre must have exhausted Egypt’s treasury and depleted its resources. Some Egyptologists have attributed the significant reduction of the size of Menkaure’s pyramid to the limited amount of space left on the Giza Plateau.

Almost nothing is known of Menkaure’s reign and political activity. The length of his reign remains uncertain as well, with the ancient historian Manetho attributing the King with the reign of 63 years and modern historians dismissing it as an exaggeration.

– Menkaure’s Funerary Complex

Menkaure’s funerary complex and pyramid stand at the Giza Necropolis, to the southeast of the pyramid of his father, Khafre, who likewise built his pyramid to the southeast of the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Menkaure’s pyramid is a relatively small pyramid rising to a height of about 213 feet. Menkaure had opted to build his tomb next to the pyramids of his father and grandfather.

Although we do not know what his motives had been, one of the possible reasons why the Pharaoh built his pyramid at Giza and not a different location was his wish to maintain dynastic continuity and honor his immediate predecessors.

The Pharaoh’s funerary complex does not significantly differ from those of Khufu and Khafre. As was the case with the Great Pyramid and Pyramid of Khafre, Menkaure’s pyramid was surrounded by a wall. The King’s mortuary temple was located within the complex, as were the ancillary pyramids where his royal wives were buried.

– The Construction of the Pyramid and the King’s Death

According to Egyptologists, Menkaure might have ruled for about 22 years. While we don’t know how long it took the Egyptians to construct his pyramid, the King had certainly died before his tomb was completed. In one crucial aspect, Menkaure broke with the tradition of his predecessors, who used limestone for the outer casing of their pyramids.

Menkaure employed granite for this purpose, a material much harder than limestone, which was quarried in distant Aswan and transported more than about 500 miles north to Giza.

The difficulty in transporting massive granite blocks had probably forced the Egyptians to switch to limestone; only the bottom quarter of casing stones are made of red granite. The casing was evident and left unfinished due to the Pharaoh’s death while construction was still ongoing.

– Mortuary and Valley Temples of Menkaure

The Temple of Menkaure was unfinished at the time of his death. His mortuary and valley temple had been initially designed to consist of massive limestone blocks encased in granite. Still, only the foundations and the inner core were made of these materials but were completed with whitewashed mud bricks.

Some of the heaviest stone blocks imported from Aswan weighed more than 30 tons. Menkaure’s heir Shepseskaf is thought to have completed his predecessor’s mortuary temple. Menkaure’s mortuary cult continued to be practiced for the next three centuries.

Inside the Pyramid of Menkaure: Discoveries That Stunned the World

Menkaure’s pyramid had remained a mystery for centuries, and the entrance could not be located, despite several attempts by explorers and Arab rulers of Egypt in the Middle Ages. Al-Aziz Uthman, the Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt, ordered the pyramids to be destroyed and sent workers to remove stone blocks.

The task proved to be nigh impossible, but the pyramid of Menkaure was damaged in the process, evident in the enormous vertical gash the sultan’s workmen left in the northern face of the structure.

The entrance to the pyramid was only finally discovered in 1837 by British Egyptologist Howard Vyse, who entered the upper antechamber and found a coffin with Menkaure’s name. The casket was likely a substitute made during the Late Period (c. 664 – 332 BCE). Vyse discovered another sarcophagus deeper inside the pyramid, made of basalt, which is now lost after it sank with the British ship that was transporting it to England.

The Discovery of Valley Temple Uncovered Long Lost Treasure

The Menkaure Valley Temple, or the Low Temple, was excavated in the early 20th century by the American archeologist George A. Reisner, who found many priceless statues in the rear rooms of the temple. The famous statues, commonly known as the Nome triads, depict Menkaure flanked by two deities.

In addition, a greywacke statue of Menkaure shows him in the company of one of his queens. On two of the life-sized alabaster statues discovered at his mortuary temple, the King is seated. Menkaure’s statue that has attracted the most interest is now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and stands as one of the finest examples of Egyptian sculpture.

Conclusion

Egypt’s Old Kingdom era had been the golden age of pyramid building. Starting from the 3rd Dynasty Pharaoh Djoser, Ancient Egyptian rulers commissioned large-scale tombs that evolved from humble mastabas to monumental pyramids in less than a century. We have been able to get into the tomb of Menkaure and discover its well-guarded secrets.

  • Menkaure’s pyramid is the smallest of the three pyramids of Giza.
  • The Pharaoh built his tomb in the shadow of the much larger pyramids of his father and grandfather.
  • At the time of Menkaure’s death, his pyramid complex was far from complete.
  • Menkaure was the last Pharaoh to build his pyramid at Giza.
  • In the remains of his mortuary temple, archeologists had discovered almost perfectly preserved statues of the Pharaoh and his queens.

The three great pyramids of Giza continue to spark the curiosity of scholars, artists, and scientists worldwide, as one of the most iconic monuments ever built by human hands.

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