Seven Small Pyramids

There are seven small pyramids (also known as “minor step pyramids”) scattered along the Nile from Seila near the Fayoum Oasis and the necropolis of Meidum and Elephantine island near Aswan. There is a reference to an eighth pyramid in the delta area near Benha (ancient Athribis) but this is no longer visible. These pyramids date to the third and fourth dynasty of the Old Kingdom. There has been much debate concerning the purpose of these pyramids and the identity of their builder.

Many of the pyramids have no internal structure and there is only evidence of a funerary cult for some of them. They may have been cenotaphs (dummy tombs) or shrines associated with any number of gods (with the forerunners being Horus and Set), or royal wives. Some experts consider them to have been boundary markers or markers to track the flooding of the Nile while others suggest that they served some ceremonial purpose.

These small pyramids have also been described as early sun temples and monuments to the benben – the primeval mound of creation.

Small step pyramid at Zaiyat el-Maiyitin (copyright Roland Unger)

It is notable that all were constructed close to important ancient capitals except for Seila (which was located close to the necropolis at Meidum). There also seem to be connections with important constellations (in particular Meskhetyu – the Big Adze) and special events in the Egyptian calendar; notably “Wepet Renpet” (the new year) and “Peret Sopdet” (the rising of Sirius before the inundation).

Huni is often credited as the builder of one or all of these pyramids. However, inscriptions in some of the pyramids suggest that it was his successor Sneferu who was responsible for the construction of the majority of them.

Seila Pyramid

The pyramid at Seila (Silah or Sila) is the northernmost pyramid of the group. It is sits to the south of Kom el-Hammam on the east of the Fayoum Oasis near to the necropolis of Meidum.

The pyramid was composed of four courses of limestone bound by clay and sand mortar. It is aligned on a north-south axis with an almost perfect cardinal orientation. No internal chambers have been found but the central core of the pyramid is damaged and it is suggested that this may be the work of tomb robbers so it is possible that there were internal chambers when it was intact. The remains of a brick and stone portico which held an offering altar and statue have been found at the site implying that there was an active cult here at some point.

Although the seven small pyramids are often referred to as minor step pyramids, there is evidence that this pyramid, at least, was a true pyramid. The Meidum Pyramid was built at a fifty-one degree angle and the Seila pyramid with a fifty-two degree slope. This contrasts with the forty-three degree angle employed in the Bent and Red Pyramids at Dashur. There is a causeway leading from the Seila Pyramid (but like that of the Meidum pyramid it leads nowhere) and there is no evidence of a valley or mortuary temple.

The remains of builder’s marks and inscriptions on a limestone stele and an offering table confirm that the pyramid was built by Sneferu. Sneferu’s name is inscribed within a cartouche whereas his name when recorded at the Bent Pyramid at Dashur is inside a serekh (palace facade). This has led to suggestions that the Bent Pyramid predates the Seila Pyramid.

Zawiyet el-Meiyitin Pyramid

The Zawiyet el-Meiyitin is the only one of the seven not to be constructed on the west bank of the Nile. It lies to the south of El Minya at the border of Upper and Lower Egypt and close to the ancient city of Hebenu.

The pyramid is composed of three or four steps built from small limestone blocks bound with mud, lime, and sand. It is aligned to the river Nile.

Sinki Pyramid

The Sinki pyramid is located close to the ancient city of Abydos, near to Naga el-Khalifa, and aligned with the river Nile. It is composed of limestone bound by clay and sand. The pyramid was abandoned at the second step with the mudbrick construction ramps still in place. There are Old and New Kingdom tombs in the vicinity.

Naqada Pyramid

The pyramid at Naqada (also known as the Step Pyramid of Ombos) is composed of three steps of limestone bound with clay and sand. It too is aligned with the river Nile.

There is a deep pit under its southwest corner but it is not clear whether the pyramid was built over the pit or the pit was dug by robbers trying to find the internal structure of the pyramid.

Kula Pyramid

The Kula Pyramid is situated near ancient Hierakonpolis close to Naga el-Mamariya. It is the best preserved of the seven small pyramids. It is composed of three steps of limestone bound with clay mud and sand and its west side is parallel with the river Nile.

Edfu Pyramid

The Edfu pyramid is located five kilometres south of Edfu near Naga el-Ghoneimeyais. It is composed of three steps of red and grey-blue sandstone quarried locally (rather than limestone). It is oriented slightly off true north, making it parallel to the river Nile. Gunter Dreyer and Werner Kaiser both credited Huni with its construction, but Andrzej Cwiek suggested that his son Sneferu was responsible for it.

Elephantine Pyramid

This pyramid is located on the island of Elephantine at Aswan on a rock plateau which was cut to form the base of the pyramid. It is composed of three granite steps clad in pink granite and bound with clay and is oriented to the west bank of the island.

An inscription naming Huni is taken by many as evidence that he constructed this pyramid. There may also have been a fortress or palace in the area with which the pyramid was associated but no sign of this remains. It was originally thought to be part of the city walls, a temple to Yahweh, or a royal palace, before being confirmed as a pyramid by Gunter Dreyer

  • Bard, Kathryn (2008) An introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt
  • Kemp, Barry J (1991) Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation
  • Lehner, Mark (1997) The Complete Pyramids
  • Malek, J (2000) “The Old Kingdom”, in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt Ed I. Shaw
  • Verner, Miroslav (1997)The Pyramids

Copyright J Hill 2016