The Pyramid of Snefru at Meidum
The Meidum pyramid lies close to the entrance to el-Faiyum, about 50km south of Dashur on the western edge of the cultivated area where it becomes desert. The monument was originally ascribed to the king Huni, who ruled for around fourteen years at the end of Dynasty III – primarily because he had no other pyramid in his name. The current archaeological thought is that it was probably built by Snefru, Huni’s son and successor and the first king of Dynasty IV, although Huni may have laid the foundations. There is no record of Huni at all in the structure but Petrie found several blocks with grafitti giving the date of Snefru’s 17th year of reign. There is also a Dynasty XVIII grafitti naming Snefru in a passage and chamber of the mortuary temple.
The pyramid at Meidum was constructed in steps in the manner of the old style step pyramids, first with seven steps which was amended to eight and then filled in with packing and regular courses of better quality stone to create a smooth surface. Many Egyptologists call the Meidum structure the first ‘true’ pyramid and it certainly appears to be the transition point between the early step pyramids and the great monuments such as those we see at Giza. It would appear that the Meidum pyramid was built in three phases of construction. Phase I consisted of the building of a seven stepped structure, which was then enlarged and covered in phase II and filled in with its final casing in stage III, probably during the later years of Snefru’s reign.
Today only three steps are visible, towering out of its mound of rubble in a huge bizarre tower. There are many theories as to how it lost its casing – an early collapse during construction, an earthquake in antiquity – but the most likely explanation is that the casing blocks were easy to quarry away and Petrie recorded that the stone was still being quarried at the time he investigated it in the late 19th century. Some limestone casing blocks still are visible on the westernside of the pyramid. We may never know the answer to the questions of how the casing was lost.
The pyramid is entered from the north face, 18.5m above the ground, an innovation which future pyramid-builders would adopt as standard. Today a staircase leads up the mound of debris, and a low passage slopes from the entrance down to the bedrock beneath the base of the structure. Then a short horizontal passage with a small antechamber and a niche on the right-hand side, leads to a vertical shaft and the burial chamber at the original ground level. The corbelled roof of the burial chamber projects above the bedrock in the masonry of the pyramid and looking up you can see the high corbelled walls, where there are still traces of an ancient wooden beam, perhaps intended to be used to facilitate lifting the sarcophagus. No trace of a sarcophagus or a king’s remains were found in the burial chamber, suggesting that there was never a burial, but Petrie reported finding remains of a plain wooden coffin in the entry corridor which he considered to possibly date do the Old Kingdom (now in the Petrie Museum, London).
Another innovation at Meidum is the advent of the satellite pyramid, the destroyed remains were found on the southern side of the structure. On the eastern side is a small limestone offerings chapel, discovered by Petrie in 1891, the first to be built on the eastern side of the terrace and probably a fore-runner to later larger mortuary temples. The chapel consisted of a vestibule and a courtyard with a central altar and two tall stelae, which are still in situ. If they had been inscribed the stalae would have given the name of the pyramid’s owner. The pyramid and temple were contained within an enclosure of high limestone walls. The Meidum pyramid also had the new feature of a causeway – almost 200m long, which probably ended in a valley temple which so far has not been discovered.
It is well known that Snefru went on to practice his pyramid building at Dashur – the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid were both built by this king. There is also a tiny step pyramid at Seila, which has recently been attributed to Snefru during excavations in the late 1980s. It is still unknown why Snefru abandoned the Meidum pyramid and his residential city of Djedsnefru with its necropolis to move to Dashur, as it seems likely that the Meidum structure did not collapse until at least the New Kingdom.
How to get there
Coming from the north, the Cairo-Asyut desert highway will take you to Meidum Pyramid. From the south, it can be reached from the Beni Suef to Faiyum road. The pyramid of Snefru is currently open and tickets cost EGP 35.