Pyramids are tombs. Large pyramids were used as royal tombs from about 2680 BC, when the first pyramid was built at Saqqara for King Djoser of the Third Dynasty. This was a pyramid in six steps, and stepped pyramids continued to be used until the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty in about 2600 BC.
At the site of Meidum, about 90 km south of modern Cairo, is a pyramid which was built (perhaps by Sneferu) as a stepped structure with six steps, later enlarged to eight, and finally converted into a true pyramid with straight sides. The first pyramid to be built from the outset in the true form is the northern or ‘red’ pyramid of King Sneferu at Dahshur.
The pyramid remained the standard form of royal tomb from its beginnings in 2680 BC to about 1550 BC, but the pyramids at the end of this long sequence were very much smaller than the earlier ones. From the reign of King Senwosret II of the Twelfth Dynasty (1880-1874 BC), pyramids were built of sun-dried mud bricks instead of stone, although the exterior was still covered by a limestone casing.
Remains of over a hundred royal pyramids have been found in Egypt, although the most famous examples are those at the site of Giza near modern Cairo, where the largest pyramid of all stands: that of King Khufu (about 2570 BC). This monument (The Great Pyramid), and the nearby pyramids of Kings Khafre and Menkaure, have attracted most attention owing to their large size, good state of preservation, and ease of access from Cairo.
The pyramid is a solar symbol, perhaps associated with the shape of the benben stone which was at the centre of the solar cult at Heliopolis. The main aspect of the afterlife of the king was that he passed into the realm of the sun-god, and the shape of the pyramid perhaps stressed this.
Pyramids are not confined to Egypt, as there are more than 200 of them in the Sudan, at the various burial sites of the Kushite and Meroitic rulers. These pyramids are smaller than most of their Egyptian counterparts, and have much steeper sides. They show how Egyptian traditions were perpetuated for more than 1000 years after the last royal pyramid was built in Egypt.