Saqqara, Egypt: Pyramid of Djoser
There are more than 100 pyramids in Egypt, but this was the first, built during the reign of Pharoah Djoser (2630 B.C. to 2611 B.C) as a grand mausoleum for himself. Previous pharaohs’ tombs were flat-topped mounds made mostly of mud, but Djoser’s chief architect, Imhotep, came up with a more durable and attractive idea: A “step pyramid” design, involving six successively smaller layers of carved limestone rising some 200 feet high. Imhotep, also a reputed healer, was later worshipped as a god of medicine in Greco-Roman culture.
Giza, Egypt: Great Pyramid of Khufu
Say "the pyramids," and most people picture this famous trio towering dramatically above the desert sand not far outside modern Cairo. The northernmost of the three, built circa 2551 B.C. for Pharoah Khufu, is known simply as the Great Pyramid---and with more than 2 million stone blocks forming a geometric pyramid 450 feet high (originally 481 feet), it certainly is. Although it is no longer the world's largest manmade structure, as it was for over three millennia, it is the largest of all the ancient pyramids. The ancient Greeks deemed it one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and it is the only one of those seven that has survived to the present day.
Giza, Egypt: Pyramid of Khafre
The middle pyramid of the famous Giza trio was built circa 2520 B.C. for Pharoah Khafre. At 471 feet, Khafre's tomb wasn't quite as tall as the Great Pyramid of his father, Pharoah Khufu---but he cleverly made it appear taller by choosing a nearby spot with higher elevation. The elaborate temple complex east of the pyramid includes a monolithic limestone statue with the body of a seated lion, the face of a human (although the nose has fallen off), and the headdress of a pharoah. This mysterious figure is known as The Sphinx.
Chavin de Huantar, Peru: Chavin Temple Complex
This massive complex was erected over the span of a few centuries by the pre-Columbian Chavin people, who dwelled in the highlands of what is now Peru from about 900 to 200 B.C. The monuments include both an “old temple” and “new temple,” made of rectangular stone blocks and shaped like flat-topped pyramids. It incorporates elaborate carvings, passageways and water channels that may have been used for religious rituals. Though now largely in ruins, the size of the complex impressed a 16th-century Spanish explorer so much that he believed it was built by a race of ancient giants.
Teotihuacan, Mexico: The Pyramid of the Sun
Not much is known about the people who inhabited the central Mexican city of Teotihuacan in the first few centuries A.D., but they clearly had architectural skills. Their well-planned city covered more than seven square miles and included several pyramids, the most impressive of which is the Pyramid of the Sun. The sides of its square base are about 730 feet wide, and its five stepped layers once rose to a height of over 200 feet. It is situated beside the city’s central road, the Avenue of the Dead, which runs south from the Pyramid of the Moon to a large temple complex.
Meroe, Sudan: The Nubian Pyramids
There are hundreds of pyramidal tombs in the region of central Sudan once known as Nubia, built mostly out of reddish sandstone. About 40 of them are located in Meroe, a major city in the Kushite kingdom from about 300 B.C. to 300 A.D. The Nubian pyramids are smaller than the Egyptian pyramids, and more narrowly shaped. Although they have suffered from plunder and decay over the years---an Italian explorer smashed the tops off many of them in the 19th century, apparently seeking treasure---they remain a remarkable sight.
Puebla, Mexico: Great Pyramid of Cholula
What looks like a grassy hill in the modern Mexican state of Puebla is actually one of the world’s largest ancient monuments, a pyramidal complex covering nearly 45 acres and rising 177 feet high. Its formal name is Tlachihualtepetl, but many people simply call it the Great Pyramid of Cholula. It was built in stages by pre-Columbian people and was once used by the Aztecs as a temple to their god Quetzalcoatl. After the city’s conquest by Spanish colonizers in the 16th century, a Catholic church was erected on the top of the grass-covered pyramid.
Ur, Iraq: Ziggurat of Ur
The word ziggurat (from a Babylonian word for “tall or lofty”) is used to describe tiered temples like this one in Mesopotamia, but the design of successively receding layers could also be called a step pyramid. This ziggurat, built for the Sumerian king Ur-Nammu in the mid-21st century B.C., once had three stories of terraced brick connected by staircases and topped with a shrine to a moon god. It eroded over time and was restored by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II in the 6th century B.C., then again by archaeologists in the 20th century. Tallil Airbase is now located nearby.
Peten, Guatemala: Mayan Pyramids of Tikal
Tikal was an important urban and ceremonial center for the Maya from about 300 to 900 A.D., and they built many monuments here, including five pyramidal temples. The tallest---Pyramid IV, topped by the Temple of the Two-Headed Serpent---is 213 feet high. After the Maya abandoned the site, these pyramids lay largely forgotten in the rainforest for nearly 800 years. European explorers re-discovered them with great excitement in the 1850s, leading to several major archaeological expeditions and digs. The area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Rome, Italy: Pyramid of Cestius
This steep, pointed pyramid was built circa 12 B.C. as a tomb for the Roman magistrate Gaius Cestius Epulo, as evidenced by an inscription carved into its sides. The inscription also identifies Cestius’ heirs, and states that the pyramid took 330 days to construct. It is made of concrete covered with white marble, with paintings on the interior walls. In 1887, the English poet Thomas Hardy penned these lines after seeing the pyramid, which he considered less important than the nearby graves of the poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley: “Who, then, was Cestius, and what is he to me?... I can recall no word, Of anything he did; For me he is a man who died and was interred, To Leave a pyramid.”