Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Pyramids of Dashur 3: The Black Pyramid

The pyramid of Amenemhat III at Dashur is known as the Black Pyramid because of its dark colour. The Black Pyramid is not as well known as the Bent or Red Pyramids at Dashur, as it has been closed to tourists due to its collapsed condition.

Amenemhat III was the 6th king of Dynasty 12, the son of Senusret III. He reigned for 46 years (1859 – 1813 BC), and his reign was known as a very peaceful and prosperous time in Egypt. Amenemhat III built two pyramids during his long reign. He began construction on his first pyramid at Dashur early in his reign. He wanted to be close to the monuments of his forefathers, so he built his pyramid at the south of Dashur, near to the Bent Pyramid of Sneferu.

An aerial view of the Black Pyramid of Amenemhat III at Dashur. Due to structural faults and the removal of the outer limestone casing, the pyramid has fallen into ruin. (photo: SCA)

The Black Pyramid belongs to a different era of pyramid building than Sneferu’s monuments at Dashur, which were built 800 years before. In the Middle Kingdom, there was a resurgence of pyramid building. Middle Kingdom pyramids were much more complex in design than their Old Kingdom counterparts; they incorporated numerous corridors, staircases and chambers in order to deter thieves. Architects at this time also began to construct the pyramid out of mudbrick and then case the outside with white limestone. The Black Pyramid was also built in this way, but the limestone was taken from the site in the Middle Ages. Without the hard outer casing of limestone, the pyramid began to crumble, and today it appears without its original glory.

The design of the Black Pyramid was very ambitious, with several passageways and chambers for two queens in addition to the king. The pyramid has two entrances on the south end of the east and west sides, with staircases leading into the interior. The eastern stairway leads to the king’s burial chamber through a series of corridors, small chambers and anterooms that spread out underneath the entire southeast section. The western stairway divides into two sets of passages and chambers under the southwest section, one set for each queen.

When construction of the pyramid was nearly complete, the architects of Amenemhat III became aware of structural problems. The pyramid was being crushed under its own weight– walls and ceilings were being pushed down and doorframes began to buckle, so the workers quickly reinforced it with mudbrick and cedar beams. While their quick thinking saved the pyramid from immediate collapse, it had to be abandoned as the burial place of the king. Amenemhat III chose the site of Hawara, south of Cairo in the Fayum region, as the location of his new pyramid.

The pyramidion of the Black Pyramid of Amenemhat III, now on display at the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. Originally intended to sit on top of the pyramid, it fell to the ground in antiquity, and during the Amarna Period, the name of Amun was chiselled out. (photo: SCA)
The site of Dashur gained much attention from Egyptologists during the 19th century. In 1837, John Shae Perring surveyed both of Sneferu’s pyramids. In 1894 – 1895, Jacques de Morgan explored the Middle Kingdom pyramids, and discovered a cache of beautiful jewellery overlooked by ancient thieves. Modern scientific excavation began in 1951 when Ahmed Fakry investigated the Bent Pyramid. Work at the site continued through the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The interior of the pyramid is complex, and it is very easy to lose your way in the many passages and corridors.  These Middle Kingdom pyramids were so complex in design not only to deter thieves, but perhaps as a reflection of the belief that Osiris resided in the burial chamber. The many chambers and corridors could symbolize an entrance to the other world.

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