When people think about where the pharaohs of Egypt were buried, the pyramids come instantly to mind. It is true that some rulers of ancient Egypt were buried in these large, elaborated tombs. But this didn’t start happening until around 2630 BCE. This is when building started on the Pyramid of Djoser. The thing is, there were quite a few pharaohs who lived, and died, before the idea of building pyramids was ever thought of. So where were the earlier pharaohs buried? And why was there a sudden switch to larger, more elaborate tombs?
If you were a ruler or a noble during the ancient period of Egyptian history, you were buried in something called a mastaba. This was a tomb that was shaped like a rectangle. It had sides that sloped outwards and was built from either stone or bricks that had been formed from mud. Because of the Egyptian’s belief in the afterlife, they needed a place where a person’s body could sit and not be disturbed. In Egyptian religion, you needed a body that had not rotted away or been disturbed by animals or other humans. If your body was destroyed, you were denied a place in the afterlife and eternal life was out of the question.
Although it looked like a fairly uncomplicated structure from the surface, a mastaba was actually fairly complex. The bench-like structure that emerged from the sand was not where the body was actually located. Instead, the bodies of the deceased were placed in a sealed chamber that was located deep below the surface of the sand. The structure above had places where offerings could be brought by family members could be placed. The body inside was mummified. This was necessary because the way that the body was sheltered meant that it could not dry out naturally, the way it would if it was placed in the dry air of the desert.
The problem was that these tombs were large, obvious, and known to be the resting place of wealthy Egyptians. So, what’s a poor person to do? In many cases, grave robbers broke into the mastabas and carried off most of the contents that had any value. They often went so far as to destroy the carefully wrapped and preserved bodies as well. Because a defiled body meant no entrance into the afterlife, this was something that frightened and upset ancient Egyptians. They wanted a way to make sure that their graves would remain untouched.
This was one reason why many ancient Egyptians chose to be buried in tombs cut in rock walls instead of mastabas. In fact, by 1550 BCE, the use of mastabas was quite rare. However, they were not totally overlooked. In fact, the earliest pyramid was actually constructed to look like a stack of mastabas that had been placed one on top of another. The Step Pyramid of Djoser was designed to look like mastabas that had been stacked to form steps. It was believed that the steps would allow the soul of the Pharaoh Djoser to climb into heaven.