Ancient civilizations loved building pyramids. There are dozens of them across the world, and many are still in amazing condition despite being centuries old.
Each civilization that built them had its take on the structure. While there are some similarities you can draw from one type to another, generally speaking, the pyramid variations are visually distinct from one another. After all, many of these groups had absolutely no contact with anyone outside their immediate neighbours when most of them were constructing these buildings.
From Egypt to Mexico to Indonesia, one can find these ancient architectural feats. Even in a few places the average person wouldn’t expect! This article compiles a few of the oldest, largest, or simply most fascinating pyramids from around the globe.
Pyramids of Giza – Egypt
When the average person thinks of the word pyramid, the mental image they probably see is the Pyramids of Giza. Located on the west bank of the Nile near Cairo, these are some of the world’s largest and most iconic pyramids.
The tallest of the three – the Pyramid of Khufu – held the record for the largest man-made structure on earth for thousands of years. It took over two million stone blocks to create the pyramid. The project finished during the 26th century after approximately 27 years of work. The Pyramid of Khufu is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and is the only one still standing.
The Egyptians built the other two pyramids later. The middle pyramid, the Pyramid of Khafre, is the second-largest pyramid in Egypt. Finally, the Pyramid of Menkaure is the last and the smallest of the three.
The pyramids serve as the tomb for three different pharaohs of Egypt’s fourth dynasty: Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, respectively. Death and the afterlife are an essential part of Egyptian Mythology, so each pyramid had many chambers filled with everything a pharaoh may need. In addition, immediate family members of the individual pharaohs also have burial chambers inside the pyramids.
Many of the pharaohs’ valuables, however, are long gone. Thieves found the massive pyramids’ easy pickings and stole anything potentially of worth.
Also gone is the original pale limestone casing of the pyramids. The stone seen now was the inner layer of the walls. There is still some trace of the original covering on the pyramids, but not much.
The Pyramids of Giza deserve their fame and notoriety. These ancient marvels will continue to wow and inspire onlookers for years to come.
Tikal – Guatemala
The ancient Mayan city of Tikal is absolutely bursting at the seams with temples. At its peak in the 1st century CE, Tikal housed a population of thousands and wielded tremendous influence in the region. The massive city of Teotihuacan would later conquer it, and the population of Tikal would decline to the point of abandonment.
But before Tikal’s decline, its people were busy at work building pyramids. The Mayans constructed their pyramids with nearby stone and made mortar from burning limestone. Unlike the primarily flat Egyptian pyramids, the Mayan ones are step pyramids, so they almost look like massive stairs. The peak of the pyramid is also flat so that they could place a temple on top.
A notable pyramid in Tikal is Tikal Temple 1. It sits in the heart of the city and is the burial place of one of Tikal’s leaders: Jasaw Chan K’awiil. Instead of a temple on top of this pyramid, the Mayans dedicated a shrine to the deceased king. A statue of Jasaw Chan K’awiil seated on a throne is its focal point.
One of the most significant structures in Tikal is Mundo Perdido, otherwise known in English as the Lost World Pyramid. The Mayans used it as a ceremony location, with the east side having a platform that covered a large pit for sacrifices.
On the western side of Tikal is Tikal Temple IV, one of the tallest buildings of the entire Mayan civilization. It commemorates the reign of one of Tikal’s kings, Yik’in Chan K’awaii. Historians believe that his tomb may be located somewhere beneath the temple.
Tikal is a site steeping with history, and it is a fantastic example of the Mayans’ impressive architectural skills.
Ziggurat of Ur – Iraq
At first glance, the Ziggurat of Ur may seem like an odd choice for an article about pyramids. However, researchers consider this ancient structure a step pyramid.
Various civilizations in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iran and Iraq) built ziggurats to serve as temples to their gods. Workers constructed ziggurats using small, sunbaked bricks. These temples typically have multiple stories and staircases that reach the top of the building. The base-level would have small chambers for priests, but most levels would be built solid. The most crucial area of the ziggurat was the topmost level, which was where the shrine would be located.
The Ziggurat of Ur is one of the best surviving examples of this type of architecture. It has been reconstructed twice, once in the 6th century BCE and again in the 1980s. The ancient Neo-Sumerian king Ur-Nammu had the ziggurat built in 2100 BCE to serve the moon goddess Nanna. However, the temple for Nanna at the top of the building did not survive the passage of time. Archaeologists have found a handful of blue glazed bricks that may have at one point been a part of the temple, but that is all that remains of the structure.
The Ziggurat of Ur is an incredible look into one of the world’s most ancient civilizations and a piece of world heritage that deserves a little more recognition.
Pyramid of Cestius – Italy
Yes, there is, in fact, an actual pyramid in Rome. The Pyramid of Cestius is the tomb of Gaius Cestius Epulo, a Roman praetor and tribune.
The pyramid dates back to approximately 18 – 12 BCE, and it stands about 30 metres wide and 37 metres tall. Inside there is only the burial room. Robbers had already stolen the valuable artifacts from inside the pyramid before the tomb was opened in the 17th century. Paintings had also covered the walls of the room, but time erased large portions of them.
The exterior of the building, however, has survived exceptionally well. This is because the Romans used the Pyramid of Cestius as part of the city’s walls. At the height of the empire, the capital city was ever-expanding. So when it came time to create new defences in that area, it made more sense to build around it rather than waste time and resources moving or destroying it. The pyramid saw frequent maintenance and upkeep because of this, keeping it in good condition.
Today, the Pyramid of Cestius sits at the corner of two roads in the city of Rome, surrounded by the amenities and luxuries of the modern-day – and a reminder of times long gone by.
Nubian Pyramids – Sudan
The Egyptians weren’t the only civilization to build pyramids in Africa. In fact, they directly inspired the Nubians, who took up the practice themselves to bury their society’s elite.
Although they both served as tombs for the rich and powerful, Nubian Pyramids differed in a few key ways. Their versions typically have sharper, narrower inclines than their Egyptian counterparts. They were also much, much smaller. However, the Nubians built more of them, and for longer. They built pyramids up until 200 CE, and current estimates put the number of pyramids in Sudan somewhere between 200 and 250.
The location with the highest pyramid count in Sudan is Meroë. At least 40 Nubian royalty have their tombs there. The area is also now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The kings and queens had their personal belongings and valuables placed inside their tombs with their bodies. But with the presence of treasure eventually came, of course, the treasure seekers. An Italian man by the name of Giuseppe Ferlini travelled to Sudan looking to strike it rich. He destroyed over 40 pyramids at Meroë in his search before he found jewelry in the tomb of Queen Amanishakheto. Ferlini made off with the items back to Europe and sold them to the highest bidder.
Although Ferlini destroyed many of the Nubian pyramids, many more still remain. They may not be the size of their Egyptian counterparts, but they are equally as aesthetically pleasing and interesting.
Pyramid of the Sun – Mexico
This massive building – the third largest pyramid in the world- is the heart of the ancient city of Teotihuacan. Historians know little about the pyramid or the city itself, despite many years of research and study. In fact, Teotihuacan is not the original name of the ancient metropolis. The Aztecs actually gave the site its modern name, and their empire existed hundreds of years after the abandonment of Teotihuacan.
The Aztecs visited the city often to leave offerings at the pyramid, incorporating it into their own spiritual beliefs. The building itself predates their empire by thousands of years as experts date the pyramid’s completion at around 100 CE.
The original purpose of the pyramid remains unclear. A common theory is that there was once a temple on top of the pyramid. The top is flat, much like the pyramids at Tikal, and there are stairs that climb to the top of the building.
Work has been ongoing to learn more about the Pyramid of the Sun. Archeologists discovered tunnels that connect it to other areas throughout the city in the 1970s. More recently, in 2011, workers discovered artifacts underneath the pyramid that dates back to before the city’s abandonment. They found things like pieces of clay pots and obsidian, bones, and a green ritual face mask.
Those discoveries mentioned above have helped pull back the shroud of mystery surrounding the Pyramid of the Sun. Perhaps in the not-so-distant future, historians will fully understand both the pyramid and the people who built it.
Borobudur Temple Compound – Indonesia
The Kedu valley holds the Borobudur Temple Compound, which includes three temples: Borbudur, Mendut and Pawon. Borobudur is the largest of the three and a hugely important Buddhist site.
Initially constructed in the 9th century, Borobudur is a nine-level step pyramid, with the levels divided into three tiers. Each of the temple’s tiers represents one of the spheres of the universe of the Buddhist belief. The base represents kamadhatu, the desire realm. The following five levels portray rupadhatu, the form realm. Finally, arupadhatu, the formless realm, is represented by the rest of the temple.
There is a theory that originally, the entire Kedu valley was a lake. Built on a hill, Borobudur would have looked like a lotus floating on the water – since the plant is an important image in Buddhism. Researchers have since disproven the theory, but the image of a majestic building like Borobudur surrounded by a serene lake is a nice one to think about.
The Borobudur Temple Compound was lost for hundreds of years – although it is unclear exactly when. Some scholars speculate usage declined as early as the 10th century after the population moved due to frequent volcano eruptions. Other academics suggest that the temple became abandoned in the 15th century when large swaths of the population had converted to Islam. Whatever the case, the temple lay forgotten until its rediscovery in the early 18th century by a Dutch engineer.
In the modern-day, Borobudur Temple Compound is one of the biggest tourist draws to Indonesia. In addition, it is an incredibly popular pilgrimage destination for Buddhists from around the world. Borobudur is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Borobudur is a fantastic example of when faith and architecture intertwine to create stunning and meaningful results.
But why build pyramids?
Unless humankind unlocks the secret of time travel in the upcoming decades, the reason why so many civilizations around the world chose to create pyramids will remain a mystery. For now, we can only speculate what connected death and spirituality to triangles to so many groups around the globe.
However, what matters more is not why ancient rulers and architects chose to build pyramids, but instead the fact that they are still here. The real value lies in that today, tens of centuries later, these buildings are still available for curious visitors to see, enjoy, and learn from.