There are two regions of the world where several ancient pyramids are found. One is Egypt and the Nile Valley. The other is in Mesoamerica.
Although the Egyptian and Mesoamerican structure are both known as pyramids, they differed from each in appearance, function and antiquity.
Egyptian pyramids served as royal tombs while Mesoamerican pyramids were used as platforms for temples and palaces. Egyptian pyramids were burial places and monuments to the dead, whereas Mesoamerican pyramids were used by living people.
Mesoamerican pyramids were also different from most Egyptian pyramids in appearance. Most later Egyptian pyramids had a geometric pyramid shape. Mesoamerican pyramids, on the other hand, had polyhedron shapes. Mesoamerican pyramids looked like a series of steps placed on top of one another.
At the top of Egyptian pyramids there was a point. The tops of Mesoamerican pyramids, on the other hand, were flat platforms. Temples and palaces were built on top of these platforms. This was where religious ceremonies were performed.
Some of the oldest Egyptian pyramids, known as step pyramids, resembled their Mesoamerican counterparts in shape. Unlike Mesoamerican pyramids, however, Egyptian step pyramids were used as royal tombs rather than as temples or palaces.
Egyptian and Mesoamerican pyramids also differ in the dates when they were built. Egyptian pyramids are older than their Mesoamerican counterparts. Some of the oldest Egyptian pyramids were the step pyramids. The most well-known Egyptian step pyramid was built for the Old Kingdom Pharaoh Djoser (or Zoser). This pyramid is located at Saqqara, near Cairo. The largest Egyptian pyramid is the Great Pyramid at Giza, near Cairo. This pyramid was built for the Pharaoh Khufu. In subsequent centuries Egyptian pharoahs stopped building large pyramids. New Kingdom pharaohs were usually buried in more hidden locations, likely for security reasons. Due to ancient Egyptian religious beliefs, pharaohs were buried with their earthly wealth and possessions. Treasure-laden royal tombs, however, were attractive targets for grave robbers. Large pyramids were obvious targets for thieves.
After the New Kingdom, Egypt went into decline. The country was occupied by a series of foreign invaders. Ancient Egyptian religious beliefs and cultural practices disappeared over these centuries and pyramid building stopped altogether.
The last area where Egyptian-style pyramids were built was Nubia, just south of Ancient Egypt. Nubia that includes what are now southern Egypt and the northern Sudan. Historically this area had close ties to ancient Egypt. Nubian pyramid builders were influenced by their Egyptian counterparts. Like Egyptian pyramids, Nubian pyramids were used for royal burial. These pyramids were built by the royal dynasties of the nearby cities of Napata and Meroe. Pyramid building in Nubia continued long after Egyptian pyramid building had stopped. Nubian pyramids were built until around 300 AD, when the royal dynasty of Meroe disappeared. This brought an end to large-scale pyramid building in the Nile River Valley.*
Most of Mesoamerica’s pyramids are more recent than their Egyptian counterparts. The oldest Mesoamerican pyramids were built by the Olmec culture in southern Mexico around 1200 BC. In subsequent centuries pyramids were built across Mesoamerica. The Toltecs and Aztecs in central Mexico built pyramids. The remains of Toltec and Aztec pyramids can be found in and around Mexico City.
The most prolific pyramid builders in Mesoamerica, however, were probably the Mayas. Today the remains of Mayan pyramids are found from the Yucatan Peninsula in southern Mexico through to Belize, Guatemala and Honduras.
In Mesoamerica, pyramids were built and used right up until the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s. Some Mesoamerican pyramids may be as little as five hundred years old. Most ancient Egyptian pyramids, by contrast, are thousands of years old.
There are superficial similarities between ancient Egyptian and Mesoamerican pyramid structures. On closer inspection, however, there are many differences between pyramids in these two parts of the world.
Ancient Egyptian and Mesoamerican pyramids usually differed in appearance. Most ancient Egyptian pyramids were true pyramids in shape, whereas Mesoamerican pyramids were all step pyramids.
Ancient Egyptian and Mesoamerican pyramids differed in function. All Egyptian and Nubian pyramids were served as royal tombs or burial monuments. Mesoamerican pyramids, on the other hand, served as platforms for temples and palaces.
Finally, Egyptian and Mesoamerican pyramids were built at different dates. The major era of large-scale ancient Egyptian pyramid building was around 2500 BC and earlier. No more ancient Egyptian style pyramids were built after about 300 AD. In Mesoamerica, on the other hand, the oldest pyramids date from a few centuries before 1000 BC. Pyramid building in this region also continued to a much later date. The building and use of pyramids in Mesoamerica only stopped with Spanish conquest after 1500.
* Gates, Jr., p. 54-55.
“Pyramids”. Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, Inc., 1979., p. 18-19.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Wonders of the African World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999., p. 50, 54-55.