The architectural marvels of the ancient world leave us wondering how they did it all without the modern tools and design features. We look at it and marvel all the while thinking to ourselves, “How did they get it right in one go?” We have become so used to only knowing about the successes of these architectural creations that we fail to see that the evolution of every design has seen failures, dead ends, and backtracking.
So was the case for the ancient pyramids of Egypt.
Whenever we think of these pyramids, the images of the Great Pyramid of Giza, that of Menkaure, and Khufu come into our mind. But what was the evolution story of these pyramids? Did they achieve success in one go? Were these made by superheroes or aliens instead of mere mortals? Let’s take a look.
The Mastaba structure
Before the pyramids were the kind of structures that we know of today, Mastaba, an ancient type of pharaonic tomb was created. They had a flat roof as opposed to a pointed one and it had a rectangular structure. As you would observe from the picture given below, this kind of structure wasn’t as impressive and interesting to look at. So, the pharaohs and architects of then were in the search of a grander and majestic design that would help them beat the designs of the past. And so came the Step Pyramid that still is considered an important monument of Egypt.
The Step Pyramid during the reign of Djoser
This pyramid was created during the reign of Djoser, ruler of the 3rd dynasty, in the 27th century BC. If you are guessing that you can see the Mastaba in this pyramid, you are right. The Step pyramid’s design was created by stacking several Mastaba-type structures on each other. Now, if an architect was to create the great pyramids of Egypt from this structure, all they would need to do is make this taller and polish up the sides. But was this evolution so easy? Did the next ruler and architects simply arrive at this design? Unfortunately, no.
Sneferu’s arrival and plans for the first pyramid with smooth sides
Sneferu, the founder of the 4th dynasty of Egypt, ruled the country for at least a quarter of a century. He was so ambitious that he decided to have a royal tomb that would be much grander than the one built for Djoser, his predecessor on the throne. Considering that no pyramids were made in the period between their two reigns, this was a huge ask for the designers and architects of then. Instead of a tried and tested design of Mastaba or even the step pyramid, his architects came up with a new idea, building something that the world has never seen – a pyramid with smooth sides.
As you would guess, the architects were ambitious and so they started building higher, making the slopes too steep and because of that too heavy to bear the structure’s weight. Add to this, the choosing a bad spot for this structure, foundations being laid partially on soft sandy soil and solid rock, and the result was a huge failure. The entire structure collapsed and the ruins can still be found in Egypt at Meidum.
Thankfully, this didn’t stop the architects from trying the second time around. 50 kms from the site of the colossal failure, they picked a better spot to lay the foundations. They still wanted to build a steep and high pyramid so they started building at a 54° angle. Guess what happened? The same as before. The pyramid started to crack under the weight of its own stones at halfway its height. The architects then decided to change the angle to 43° and the result was a pyramid that didn’t collapse. Valuable learnings were gained and this pyramid is still standing and is known as The Bent Pyramid.
The Red Pyramid with its imperfect perfections
Unsatisfied with the result, the team of architects gave the third attempt for Sneferu. Based on their earlier learning, they decided to play it safe and started building at an inclination angle of 43°. The result wasn’t perfect but it was the first-ever pyramid with smooth sides. It was named the Red Pyramid and can be found just a couple of kilometers from the Bent Pyramid.
What are the important product design lessons to learn from this? For starters, a design plan may not succeed on the first try itself. Even pharaohs gave their team three attempts before they called off the smooth-sided pyramid plan. But the key here was they incorporated learnings going ahead with each try. In the second try, they built the structure on a stronger foundation and the last attempt was made at a mostly accurate angle. And a brilliant feat was achieved!