Buried for centuries, the pyramids, including the famous sphinx, were largely hidden in the desert sand. The pyramids are a tribute to the kings, or Pharaohs, who commissioned them. Because the Egyptians put so much emphasis in the afterlife, the importance of burial ceremonies and the architecture of the tomb is extremely symbolic. A great deal of our understanding of the ancient civilization comes from the tombs themselves – it was through death that many egyptologists came to understand this fascinating and long-lasting civilization.
The pyramids were intended to protect the pharaoh’s body from the Nile, wild animals and robbers. The Egyptians believed themselves to be born with two selfs – the ba and the ka. They believed that when someone died, their soul, or ba would leave and travel to the afterlife. They also believed that the departure of the soul gave the ka (or divine essence) the energy to go in and out of the tomb at its will – but the ka would always have to return to its body. Hence the emphasis on preserving the bodies of the dead.
Egyptians feared that if a body was destroyed or extremely decayed, the ka would be destroyed too, which meant trouble. Hence their elaborate and scientific world of mummification. In some instances where they may fear the body would nonetheless decay, they would place a model of the body of the noble inside the tomb, just in case, as a replacement or replica for the real thing. This is how we have come to see many of the Pharaohs – like the famous King Tut – from their beautified and life-like versions.
Food was supposed to be ritually brought to the tombs for the ka, and the Egyptians took precautions in case the food source was ever depleted – details of food and drink were inscribed on tombstones and walls.
It was believed that the pharaohs would never have to work in the afterlife, but the servants weren’t so sure about what they may end up having to do. They hoped that by including figures of themselves, the servants relinquished themselves from an afterlife of servitude – these figures are known as shawabty or ushabty.
Despite the high level of security used in sealing themselves in their tombs after death – writing dire threats on their walls, sealing the tombs with tons of stone, and concealing their entrance ways – many treasures inside were pillaged, in some cases by the masons and artisans themselves. Many of the jewel and gold decorated bodies were taken out of all of the pyramids and most of the tombs, leaving little else but dust and stone behind.