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The riddle of Snofru’s pyramids

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Snofru, the founder of the IV Dynasty, is associated with three different pyramids: the Red and Bent Pyramids at Dahshur and the Collapsed Pyramid at Meidum. Given that a pyramid was the pharaoh’s tomb, the question arises, why would Snofru want three of them? And why is the Bent Pyramid such a funny shape, changing its angle halfway up?

Some scholars reasoned that the Bent Pyramid’s strange form resulted from a change of plan prompted by fears for its stability, and when these persisted, a second, safer pyramid was built to guarantee Snofru’s afterlife. But for this theory to hold, it’s necessary to dismiss Snofru’s claim to have commissioned the pyramid at Maidum as a mere usurpation of an earlier structure. Two pyramids can be explained, three cannot.

Then, in 1977, Oxford professor Kurt Mendelssohn came up with a better answer. He suggested there was something like a pyramid production line. As one pyramid neared completion, surplus resources were deployed to start another. The reason for this was that building a single pyramid required gigantic efforts over ten to thirty years; inevitably, some pharaohs lacked the time and resources. A stockpile of half-constructed, perhaps even finished, pyramids was thus an insurance policy on the afterlife.

According to Mendelssohn, Snofru did indeed start off by commissioning the pyramid at Maidum. Unfortunately, this was built at too steep an angle and its outer layer collapsed. When this happened, the Bent Pyramid was already under construction, so its angle was hastily altered to make it more stable. The Red Pyramid, which followed, was then built at this new, shallower angle.

Not everyone agrees with Mendelssohn: other scholars argue that the Bent Pyramid’s shape had nothing to do with the Collapsed Pyramid, but expressed a deliberate symbolic duality, echoed in its two burial chambers and the two entrance shafts at right angles to each other. At any rate, Snofru decided against using either Maidum or the Bent Pyramid, and was finally interred in the Red Pyramid.

Even if one discounts the attribution of the Collapsed Pyramid of Maidum to Snofru, it is a staggering fact that, during his twenty-five-year reign, the construction of the Bent and Red pyramids involved the quarrying, transport and shaping of some nine million tons of stone – more than three times the quantity of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Yet Herodotus wrote that Snofru was remembered by the Egyptians as benign, and his successor Cheops as a tyrant.

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