Snefru (flourished 26th century BCE), the inaugural king of the 4th Dynasty in Egypt, was not the first Egyptian ruler to build a pyramid (that honor went to Djoser), nor was he the king to build the largest pyramid (that record was claimed by his son, Khufu). Yet, Snefru surpassed his predecessors and successors in another aspect of pyramid building—quantity. He is credited with constructing three large pyramids and possibly several of the so-called Seven Small Pyramids.
Although Snefru did not create the first pyramid in Egypt, he revolutionized the design of the structures by building the first “true” pyramid. It may have been that very ambition to build a perfect smooth-sided pyramid shape (as opposed to the step-pyramids of his predecessors) that drove the king to produce so many monumental works. Snefru’s pyramids are fascinating, as they show the trial and error that his engineers faced until they finally nailed down a formula for a true pyramid.
The pyramid at Meidum was the first iteration of Snefru’s new vision. It was actually a hybrid of the old way of pyramid building and the revolutionary design that the king wanted to implement. It started out as a seven-step pyramid, but Snefru filled in the steps, encasing the original structure under a smooth-sloped façade. Yet, the hybrid approach turned out to be a disaster. In the end, the outer covering crumbled, revealing the original shape underneath. Even as a step pyramid, the Meidum project did not hold up well against time—only three of the seven original steps remain intact. Many believe that the outer façade of the Meidum pyramid collapsed during Snefru’s lifetime, prompting him to abandon the site and start anew in another location.
(Photograph of the Meidum pyramid in Egypt, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Snefru’s next two large pyramids were built in the region of Dashür. There, he ignored any further hybrid designs and instead committed to a true pyramid shape from day one of construction. Snefru’s first pyramid in Dashür began with sides that sloped at approximately a 55-degree angle. Yet, to the king’s dismay, something went wrong—according to some theories, engineers discovered that the pyramid was leaning, while another version suggests the that the angle of the pyramid threatened to collapse the structure. Whatever the case, engineers were forced to change the angle of the slopes to 43-degrees in the middle of construction. The pyramid was completed, but the result of the two different degrees created an odd shape. It came to be known as the Bent or Blunt Pyramid, which obviously would not please a perfectionist king.
(Bent Pyramid of Snefru, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and public-domain-image.com)
Not a man to give up, Snefru began work on a third large pyramid. It was planned to have the same 43-degree slope that his engineers had used to finish the previous project. Yet, this one, if all went well, would hopefully remain uniform and consistent from base to capstone. To Snefru’s great relief, his second pyramid in Dashür, known as the Red Pyramid, was completed without any changes or readjustment, creating the first true pyramid in Egypt.
(Red Pyramid of Snefru, photographed by Daniel Csörföly, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
In addition to the three large pyramids that were constructed by Snefru, he is thought to have also built one or more of the so-called Seven Small Pyramids along the Nile. Among the seven, the Seila Pyramid has several references to Snefru, making him the likely patron of the project. It is also probable that Snefru had a hand in the Edfu Pyramid. The financiers of the final five small pyramids are still under debate, but Snefru’s name often comes up in the conversation. Regardless, Snefru is believed to have been the most prolific pyramid builder of Egypt.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Detail of King Snefru from his funerary temple of Dahshur now on the main facade of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, photographed by Juan Lazaro, licensed 2.0 Creative Commons (CC 2.0)).