The Dilemma: You’re a god-king and you’d like to get a little closer to your fellow deities. So should your 20,000 slaves build you a pyramid or a ziggurat?
People You Can Impress: archaeologists, Egyptologists, the gods
The Quick Trick: South America and Egypt built pyramids. Mesopotamia built ziggurats, which look like South American pyramids with ramps.
We’ll start with the most famous, the Egyptian pyramids. Today it’s generally believed these towering structures were tombs. What has been found inside, however, is precisely executed layouts. For example, inside each pyramid a narrow shaft extends from the innermost chamber to the outside, aligned exactly with the polestar. Thus archaeologists have argued that the pyramids were thought to be a vessel or machine to get the pharaohs to the heavens.
The pyramids are spooky for many reasons. The stones are laid so exactly that you can’t even fit a knife blade between them. They’re almost perfectly square, and aligned to the points of the compass with uncanny accuracy. And while there are pyramids at several spots in Egypt, the best known are at the Giza “Necropolis” (City of the Dead). Of course, the jewel of these structures is the Great Pyramid of Khufu, a pharaoh of the fourth dynasty who you may also know by his Greek name, Cheops. In fact, until the 14th century, the Great Pyramid was the world’s tallest building.
A debate has long raged about how the darn things got built. The current leading theory is that a ramp spiraled up from the quarry and around the rising structure. The ton-and-a-half stone blocks were moved on wooden sleds most likely lubricated by water or, as some have suggested, milk. As impressive as the pyramids are today, picture them in their original form, covered with gleaming white blocks of smoothed limestone.
The pyramids of South America, no less impressive, have a stair-stepped design that reflects their different purpose. These structures were temples to the gods, and each was fronted by a massive staircase and topped with a temple. In the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City), for example, there was a huge pyramid called Templo Mayor where at one ritual in 1487, 20,000 people were supposedly sacrificed.
Egypt and South America don’t have a monopoly on pyramids, however. There are 16 of them in Greece, some even older than those at Giza. China has ’em, too, as does Sudan.
Ziggurats are a lot like the South American pyramids, with their stair-stepped shape and temple tops. But ziggurats were not places of worship; to the Sumerians, Assyrians, and Babylonians that built them, they were the gods’ actual homes. In fact, only priests could enter. And while South American pyramids have long staircases, ziggurats have ramps and steps. Many ziggurats also had seven tiers, representing the seven known planets or the seven heavens. For the most part, the ziggurats that still exist can be found mainly in Iran and Iraq.
Article from Mental_Floss