While everyone knows of Egypt's great pyramids, many less significant examples dot the Egyptian landscape. Scattered along the Nile from Seila, which is on the edge of the Fayoum Oasis, down south to Elephantine Island at Aswan are seven of Egypt's smallest step pyramids. They date from the second half of the 3rd Dynasty to as late as the early 4th Dynasty. There are likely others that remain undiscovered, or now completely ruined. Though today largely discounted, some researchers have even attributed all of these small pyramids to a single ruler, Huni, the last ruler of the 3rd Dynasty, who probably at least built the one located on Elephantine Island.
They are very different then the later, larger pyramids, having no internal chambers, nor any underground structures. Among them, only the pyramid in Zawiyet el-Meiyitin was not built on the west bank of the Nile. The purpose of these pyramids is a matter of dispute among Egyptologists, though without any chambers within or below, they could probably not have been true tombs. Nor has any evidence of a funerary cult been found near these pyramids, though some believe they might have been centotaphs (fake tombs) of queens. Others believe they might have been shrines connected with the myth of Horus and Seth, or perhaps predecessors of the later sun temples, while still others believe they represented the primeval mound on which life was created. In fact, we may never completely understand their purpose, unless other evidence is uncovered.
The northern most of these small, step pyramids is located at Seila, and has long been known to Egyptologists. The pyramid was first investigated by Borchardt in the early 1900s, but at that time, its builder remained a mystery. Brigham Young University, working with an Egyptian archaeologist named Swelim, excavated here during the 1980s, discovering a limestone stela and an offering table, that point to this pyramid being built under the reign of Snefru.
Unfortunately, the remains of this pyramid, only seven meters high, can barely be seen today. It was aligned on a north-south axis angled twelve degrees west. They pyramid had a four stepped core built of small blocks of local limestone. The blocks are bound with mortar made of clay and sand.
Zawiyet el-Meiyitin is about seven kilometers south of the city of central Egyptian city of Minya. This pyramid was investigated by the French Egyptologist Raymond Weill in 1911, and later by Lauer. Weill described the inner layers of the walls as having a slight incline towards the center with a progressively decreasing height. Originally it had three steps, and was probably about seventeen meters high with a base length of 22.5 meters. Its remains are only five meters high, and was built with small limestone blocks bound by mortar made of mud, sand and lime. It is the only one of these small pyramids located on the east bank of the Nile, and seems to have been more aligned on the river then a specific compass heading. Though its purpose is unknown, it may have had some association with the ancient city of Hebenu.
This pyramid is located near the village of Naga el-Khalifa, about five miles south of Abydos. It should be noted that occasionally, all of these small pyramids are referred to as "Sinki Pyramids". This pyramid was first discovered by Charles Wilbour and Gaston Maspero, and a century later investigated by Swelim and Gunther Dreyer. Like the Zawiyet el-Meiyitin pyramid, its four meter high remains are aligned with the Nile river. Likewise, it is made of rough limestone bound by a mortar of clay and sand. However, we here find the remains of ramps built of mudbrick with a filler of mud, rubble and sand. These ramps originally led to the second step of the pyramid. We also find fourteen graves from the Old and New Kingdoms nearby.
The pyramid at Naqada, investigated by Petrie and Quibell in 1895, is unique in that its southwest corner lies over a pit, though the pit appears to have no connection to the pyramid. We have no evidence to suggest why it was built over the pit, or even if the pit preceded the building of the pyramid. It may have been dug by robbers attempting entry into the pyramid. Otherwise, this pyramid is almost identical to the one at Kula. Like the other small pyramids, the structure is simple, made of rough limestone bound by a mortar of clay and sand, and its east side is aligned with the Nile river. It originally had three steps and a base of 22 meters.
In 1837, Perring and Vyse first investigated the three step Kula Pyramid, which is located near the village of Naga el-Mamariya about six kilometers north of ancient Hierakonpolis. At that time, the ruins stood about twelve meters tall, but is now about ten meters tall and 294 meters square at the base. Perhaps because it is the best preserved of these small pyramids, it was again investigated by Henri Edouard Naville, who made a sounding on its northwest corner, at the end of the the nineteenth century, and again investigated by a Belgian team led by Jean Capart in 1929. Similar to the other small step pyramids, it is built of rough pieces of limestone bound by clay, mud, sand and small chunks of limestone. Its corners are oriented to the four cardinal directions, with its west side paralleling the Nile.
Though this pyramid's west side also runs parallel to the Nile River, it differs somewhat from the other small pyramids in being built from rough reddish sandstone. It is located near the village of Naga el-Goneima on the west bank of the Nile about five kilometers north of Edfu.
This structure, located on the famous island of Elephantine at Aswan and southernmost of these small step pyramids, was first discovered by by a French expedition in 1909. They were actually looking for the ruins of a Jewish settlement from the 5th century, and at first mistook these ruins for a Jewish temple. Perhaps a conical object made of granite with an inscription of Huni, the last ruler of the 3rd Dynasty, suggests the foundation of a fortress or palace that might have had some association with the pyramid.
Like most the other small pyramids, it seems to be aligned with the Nile river, and was built on a rock plateau that had been worked specifically as a foundation. It is built of rough granite bound with a clay mortar.
It should also be noted that one additional small step pyramid, though no longer visible, was also documented in the nineteenth century at Benha (ancient Athribis) in the central delta.
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