The Mysteries of Meidum & Mastaba 17

Last Updated on: 20th December 2020, 08:43 am

The lost pyramid of Meidum is well off the beaten path for most tourists. And as it appears today, it hardly even resembles a pyramid at all. But this was possibly Egypt’s first-ever smooth-sided pyramid. Exactly how it collapsed and when remains an unsolved puzzle, however. Just next to it, meanwhile, is the even more enigmatic Mastaba 17. The stark contrast between the mastaba and its underground burial chamber is just one of Meidum’s many mysteries.

The Meidum Pyramid

Approaching the Meidum Pyramid today, visitors see what looks like a tower sticking out of a huge mound of rubble. What’s especially puzzling is that the ‘tower’ is finished with a smooth exterior. It’s far from obvious what this structure was originally supposed to look like.

Thanks to excavations and surveys by William Flinders Petrie, one of the original Egyptologists, in the early 20th century, we have a pretty good idea of Meidum’s original form. But the timeline, not to mention the reasons, for its various stages of construction, remain unknown.

Meidum Pyramid

The pyramid is generally attributed to Pharaoh Sneferu, the king behind the two pyramids at Dahshur and the father of Khufu. Most Egyptologists believe that Sneferu built a step pyramid at Meidum before going on to build the Bent and Red pyramids.

According to the Egyptologists like Mark Lehner, Sneferu returned to Meidum after having success with the Red Pyramid. Around fifteen years after the step pyramid’s completion, Sneferu decided to build a smooth-sided pyramid around it. Or so the theory goes.

While it’s clear that there were multiple phases of construction, there’s not a whole lot of direct evidence linking any of them with Sneferu. Some of Sneferu’s relatives were buried nearby, while some graffiti from the 19th Dynasty credited Sneferu with the pyramid. But that’s about all we have.

Meidum Pyramid
The large holes on north face were created by locals so that bats would take up residence there. Guano is commonly used as a fertilizer.
Meidum Pyramid

Another potential candidate is Huni, Sneferu’s direct predecessor and the last king of the 3rd Dynasty. Again, there’s little direct evidence for this, but the step pyramid’s construction style is indeed reminiscent of late 3rd Dynasty building techniques.

Rather than laying the masonry horizontally, the builders at Meidum first constructed a tall, steep core. They then added several narrow layers, or bands, of masonry around it, all of which leaned inward against the core. 

Each band was gradually built shorter than the last, resulting in a step pyramid. The step pyramid originally had seven steps, but it was enlarged to eight steps in a second phase of construction. This second phase likely happened shortly after the first, after which smooth casing was added to the exterior.

Meidum Pyramid
Meidum Pyramid

But at some point afterward, an additional building phase totally transformed the pyramid’s appearance. The steps were completely filled in and then dressed with casing stones. 

Fascinatingly, Petrie noted that the angle of the pyramid (51°52′) would’ve been the same as the Great Pyramid’s! Its overall size and height, though, would’ve been considerably smaller, and roughly similar to the Red Pyramid.

As is obvious today, the smooth-sided pyramid collapsed at some point. Not only did this ruin the third phase of construction, but parts of the original phases were destroyed as well. For example, the upper part of the sixth vertical band is now missing. That’s why the exposed core more closely resembles a tower than a step pyramid. 

Walking around the pyramid, you can still see some of the original casing stones near one of the corners, along with exposed brick. 

Though it wouldn’t stand the test of time, this third and final phase of construction was by no means shoddy work. On the contrary, experts have judged it to be of superior quality than the first two phases. But why did it fail? 

Meidum Pyramid
Meidum Pyramid

We’ll touch more on that topic further down below. But for now, let’s take a look inside.

Inside the Pyramid

My first impression of the entrance chamber was that it was left unfinished. Compared to the smooth entranceways of most other Egyptian pyramids, the rocks here are incredibly rough and uneven.

It turns out though, that the Meidum Pyramid’s interior would’ve been smooth upon completion. Over time, the accumulation of salt caused the stone to exfoliate and chip away. In fact, during Petrie’s visit, the tunnel was entirely full of exfoliated sheets which had fallen off the walls and ceiling.

Meidum Pyramid
Meidum Pyramid

Arriving in the first lower chamber, one would be forgiven for thinking it was carved out of the internal bedrock. But look closely and you can still see the outlines of the original masonry.

As is common at other 4th Dynasty pyramids, a narrow vertical shaft protects the main burial chamber. Here the shaft is 6.25 meters high. It’s much smaller than the ones in Dahshur, but it still would’ve deterred would-be robbers. But from robbing what? More on that topic later.

Meidum Pyramid

On the way up, you can spot a few beams of wood that have been left in place here for thousands of years.

Next, you’ll arrive in the main ‘burial chamber,’ which has the typical corbelled roof found at other 4th Dynasty structures. In fact, this is likely the very first example of corbelling in Egypt. 

But this room has also fallen victim to the same exfoliation process as other parts of the pyramid. Its roughness reminded me of the ceiling inside the Bent Pyramid.

Notably, the room is far smaller than other pyramidal chambers, raising the question of what its true purpose really was.

Meidum Pyramid
Meidum Pyramid
Meidum Pyramid

Independent researcher Keith Hamilton suggests that this chamber was once blocked off with a large portcullis block. If so, then the beams in the vertical shaft were probably placed there to prop it up. There also would’ve been a rope attached to another beam above the shaft to reduce some of the pressure.

But according to Mark Lehner, Sneferu was never buried here. In fact, no evidence of Sneferu’s burial has ever been found in any pyramid. Lehner, however, believes the legendary ruler would’ve seen the Red Pyramid as the most suitable tomb.

But if Sneferu wasn’t buried here, why was so much effort made to protect this chamber? Perhaps, as many alternative researchers suggest, the 4th Dynasty pyramids served other functions beside just being tombs. 

Exactly what other functions, though, remain a mystery. Lehner, meanwhile, believes that Meidum functioned not as a tomb but as a cenotaph.

The Temple

Over on the eastern face of the pyramid is a small temple. While rather inconspicuous, its existence raises a number of additional questions.

When Petrie arrived here in the early 20th century, the temple was completely buried under the rubble. Petrie and his team had to clear away the debris – an arduous and dangerous task. They encountered several avalanches which greatly set back their work.

Meidum Pyramid
Meidum Pyramid
Meidum Pyramid Temple

Eventually, they managed to clear away the rubble, only to find this completely undecorated temple. Interestingly, the chapel is quite similar in design to those in Djoser’s Step Pyramid complex.

Strangest of all is that even the stela in the small courtyard were left uninscribed. In his book The Complete Pyramids, Lehner writes that this is ‘inexplicable given our understanding of the Egyptian belief that, devoid of a name, a monument (like a person) would have no identity.’

Meidum Pyramid Temple
Meidum Pyramid Temple
The uninscribed stela

It seems as if the small chapel was built shortly after the third phase of the Meidum Pyramid’s construction. Yet, for whatever reason, it was left unfinished. 

Notably, Petrie found an 18th Dynasty burial inside. As the chapel was completely buried by the rubble in Petrie’s time, we can presume, then, that the pyramid’s collapse occurred sometime after the New Kingdom era. But how much later?

When Petrie left the site, he deliberately reburied the chapel. Why? He writes that ‘To have left it open would have been to ensure its destruction in six months. The pyramid of Meydum is the quarry of all the neighbourhood.’

Despite often being deemed a failure, what if Meidum stood tall in its smooth-sided form for thousands of years after its completion? While we have no written records or evidence one way or the other, could incessant quarrying by local villagers have been the true cause of its collapse?

Meidum Pyramid Causeway

Looking east, you can see the outlines of the original causeway. In contrast to most other pyramids, which had causeways leading directly to a valley temple, no such temple was found here. 

There was, however, a subsidiary pyramid built nearby. Nothing but a few stones remain today. And inside, only burials from the 22nd Dynasty were ever found.

Mastaba 17

Just northeast of the Meidum Pyramid lies Mastaba 17. As its name suggests, there are numerous other mastabas in the desert around Meidum, but this is the only one accessible to visitors.

‘Mastaba’ is an Arabic word for ‘stone bench.’ The structures were typically flat-roofed rectangles made of stone or mudbrick, under which burial chambers were dug for kings or nobles.

And given its close proximity to the pyramid, we can guess that Mastaba 17 was built for a very important person. Or perhaps the pyramid was built later in order to be close to Mastaba 17? This is something many people ask themselves after their trip inside.

Mastaba 17 Meidum
Mastaba 17 from afar

At around 100 x 50 meters, Mastaba 17 is massive. In fact, it’s one of the biggest mastabas in all of Egypt. It was built of mudbrick on top of which a huge pile of limestone chips was added – possibly debris from the pyramid construction. While hardly evident today, the chips were originally laid deliberately in even layers.

Petrie tried very hard to find the tomb entrance during his initial visit, but had no luck. He even dug 15 meters straight down into the middle of the mastaba, but still couldn’t find anything!

But in 1891, nineteen years later, he made another attempt. He dug even further, eventually encountering some huge megalithic stones. Petrie and his team then managed to find the tomb’s descending passageway, crawling over the plugging blocks to make it inside.

Mastaba 17 Meidum
Mastaba 17 Meidum

But Petrie wasn’t the first person to have been inside. The tomb, in fact, had been robbed in antiquity. And today visitors enter via the so-called ‘robber’s tunnel.’ This tunnel is something Petrie only discovered after making it into Mastaba 17 the hard way!

As is the case with the Meidum Pyramid, you will be accompanied by a local guard here, whether you ask for it or not. But as you’ll discover shortly, it’s for the best. Before stepping inside, be sure to leave any nonessential items in the car or bus.

Mastaba 17 Meidum

Upon entering, I encountered a rough tunnel that was created by someone hacking through the bedrock. Next, the guard and I made our way down a rickety ladder which took us deeper underground.

We then had to get down on all fours to squeeze through a tiny hole leading into the original chamber. This was the smallest hole I encountered anywhere in Egypt, and I was happy someone else was there to hold my camera for a moment.

This hole lead us directly into the original burial chamber. Clearly, the ‘robber’ knew exactly where to dig.

Mastaba 17 Meidum

Next, we found ourselves in a dark hallway with smooth masonry on either side of the walls. The large blocks aligned with each other perfectly, and without the use of mortar. The quality here easily rivals the chambers of Dahshur or Giza.

This hallway is about five meters in height, and we had to walk across megalithic blocks connected by a rickety wooden plank to get to the next section. The whole experience was like something out of a videogame.

Mastaba 17 Meidum
Mastaba 17 Meidum

Stepping down the blocks via a small ladder, we arrived in the main burial hall. Looking in front of me, I felt as if I’d just left the stone age and entered the future. A perfectly smooth, precision-cut box is not something one normally expects to find so deep inside a crude mudbrick structure!

Mastaba 17 Meidum

The sarcophagus was carved from a single piece of red granite which had to be shipped from Aswan. And it must’ve been placed inside before the chamber was finished, as it’s too big to be transported through the hallway.

As far as we know, this is the oldest granite sarcophagus in Egypt. It weighs 8.5 tons, while the lid alone weighs 3.5 tons. Interestingly, while its dimensions are similar to those of Khufu’s box inside the Great Pyramid, it’s around three times thicker. 

And unlike at Giza, a body WAS found inside!

Mastaba 17 Meidum

Bizarrely, this wasn’t a traditional mummy, but a collection of bones that were individually wrapped. They were then put back in place, and the whole thing was wrapped up again to make it appear as a normal mummy.

But whose body was it? A son of Sneferu? Or was the body placed here by a later dynasty? Petrie sent the bones back to London for DNA testing, but tragically, they were completely destroyed in a World War II bombing.

Mastaba 17 Meidum

Looking around the chamber, there wasn’t a single hieroglyph or inscription to be found. 

Why is it that the most advanced works of engineering in Egypt are those with no decoration of any kind? It’s such a stark contrast to traditional Egyptian tombs, which were nearly always covered in artwork and writing.

Strangely, in Egypt, it seems that the more advanced something appears, the more ancient it really is. It completely contradicts our modern notion of ‘progress.’

Mastaba 17 Meidum

Walking back out the robber’s tunnel, I took another walk around to examine the mudbrick mastaba. I felt as if I’d just traveled through time, but I wasn’t entirely sure of which direction.

More from Meidum

As mentioned, aside from Mastaba 17, there are plenty of other tombs around the Meidum area. While currently inaccessible to the public, you can have a look at some of the findings during your visit to the Cairo Museum.

Ironically, despite the pyramid and Mastaba 17 lacking any decoration or inscriptions, it’s at Meidum that some of the Old Kingdom’s most iconic artwork was discovered.

Not far from Mastaba 17 is Mastaba 16, of which we know a lot more about. The mastaba belonged to Nefermaat, the eldest son of Sneferu and half-brother of Khufu. And his tomb was elaborately decorated, as one would expect from a royal tomb in Egypt.

The scene known as the ‘Meidum Geese’ was found here, which is revered as one of the most charming pieces of Egyptian art. It features six geese in total, with two groups of three facing in opposite directions. Some of the geese are of different colors to break the monotony.

Today, this work is largely considered a masterpiece, though it’s actually just a small fragment of the overall scene. In the original, the ‘Meidum Geese’ are hanging out in the lower register of a traditional bird netting scene.

Meidum Geese
Meidum Geese

Another iconic piece found at Meidum is one of Egypt’s most remarkable examples of statuary. The double statue depicts a man named Rahotep and his wife Nofret. 

Rahotep was high priest at the Sun Temple of Heliopolis and he’s also believed to be one of Sneferu’s sons. Some, however, think he may have been Huni’s.

Meidum Rahotep Statue
Meidum Rahotep Statue

The statues were discovered in 1871 in their own mastaba. The colors remain vivid, and many visitors to the museum stand mesmerized in front of these statues, contemplating what the royal couple may have been thinking.

A big part of what makes the statues so striking is their use of inlaid eyes. The Egyptians used a complex process of combining up to four different crystals to make them. While inlaid eyes were utilized up until the New Kingdom, they were at their apex in the 4th Dynasty.

Additional Info

While not well-known to tourists, Meidum is open for visitors (unlike Abu Sir). Tickets for the site cost 60 EGP. The tricky part, however, is getting there.

Meidum is around 100 km south of central Cairo and no public transport goes there. You’ll either need to hire a private driver or take a private tour. (Frustratingly, there are almost no single-day group tours in Egypt at all, so you’ll always need to arrange transport on a private basis.)

Most people visit Meidum together with the Middle Kingdom pyramids of El Lahun and Hawara which are also in the general Fayoum Oasis area. This is what I did, and went on to visit those pyramids after seeing Meidum and Mastaba 17.

But something you need to keep in mind before traveling to the Fayoum area is that there is a very heavy military and police presence there. We had no problems getting to Meidum from Giza/Cairo, but once we were about to head onward, the officials at Meidum repeatedly quizzed my driver and me about where we were headed to next.

Getting back on the highway, we needed a police escort, with one car in front and another behind us! While this has long been a common situation for foreigners traveling to Abydos from Luxor, neither my driver or I was expecting this to happen in the Fayoum.

We didn’t have an escort the entire way, but we did have to stop through multiple checkpoints throughout the day. And they were calling my driver about every 15 minutes for an update on his location. (I’d later experience something similar at Abydos.)

As I don’t understand Arabic, what I didn’t realize until the very end is that various officers were repeatedly asking my driver for money. In total, it added up to around 200 EGP, which I ended up paying back to him.

While not an extreme amount, that’s an extra 200 EGP that I hadn’t expected to pay. So this is something to keep in mind if you want to hire a private driver around the Fayoum area.

Originally, I’d booked a tour I found on Viator. The original price was $75 USD, but it then became $95 by the time I got around to booking. But after finding a driver I liked and trusted, I asked if he’d take me to Meidum, El Lahun and Hawara for $75. After he accepted, I cancelled the tour.

I still don’t regret hiring a private driver for the day, as I personally prefer to explore by myself without tour guides. But I think it makes sense for most people to do this trip with an official tour company. They’d surely be aware of the security situation, and the baksheesh money for the officers would already be included in the price.

The Greater Cairo Area is home to many of Egypt’s, and the world’s, most impressive sites. The city of Cairo itself, on the other hand, is overwhelming in terms of both traffic and pollution, yet rather underwhelming in regards to tourist attractions. Therefore, I recommend that people stay in Giza and not in Cairo.

I find it puzzling that so many travelers decide to stay in central Cairo and then commute multiple times to reach Giza and Saqqara. For archaeology enthusiasts, it makes much more sense to stay in or near Giza and dedicate 3 or 4 full days to exploring the various pyramid sites. As Saqqara and Dahshur are both south of Giza, which itself is southwest of central Cairo, staying in Giza gives you a big head start for those excursions.

You will want to commute to central Cairo at least once, however, to visit the Egyptian Museum and maybe an additional day for Islamic Cairo.

Staying in Giza, right by the Giza Necropolis, allows you to get there right when the pyramids open at 8:00am. That means you’ll get at least 90 minutes or more with the entire complex all to yourself (as long as you don’t visit on a Friday or Saturday, that is).

While the modern suburb of Giza has a reputation for being dirty and rundown, it’s no worse than the average neighborhood of Cairo. And while there are lots of touts around, they’re not nearly as bad as the East Bank of Luxor.

I took things even further and also stayed for a few nights in the small village of Abu Sir, just north of Saqqara. I then switched to accommodation in Giza for a few nights so that I could visit the pyramids right when they opened.

Later, at the end of my trip, I based myself in downtown Cairo for better access to the historic sites in the city center, not to mention the airport.

In Abu Sir/Saqqara I stayed at the Sakkara Inn. Not only is the hotel situated in an authentic local village, but Mohamed the owner can set you up with reliable drivers for an affordable price. (I even continued to have him arrange drivers for me after checking out, as other places were quoting me much higher.)

In Giza I stayed at Abo Stait Pyramid View Homestay. It’s literally a one-minute walk from the Sphinx entrance of the Giza Necropolis. The family who runs it was very friendly and helpful. And while the bathroom is shared with a few other guests and family members, it wasn’t a big deal.

I’m a budget traveler, but those with more money to spend will find no shortage of accommodation options in the Giza area.

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