May. 6, 2022

Make Sure Your Cake Doesn't Have a Basement

When people think of ancient Egypt, most immediately get an image of the pyramids at Giza. Except for me. When I was a kid, I saw the 1932 film "The Mummy" on TV with Boris Karloff and it scared the hell out of me, so if someone says "Egypt" to me after dark, even today, I'm up all night, thinking of mummies and how I can board up all the windows on the house without lowering my property value.

But back to the pyramids. (Which may contain mummies!) An equally impressive structure can be found at Saqquara: the Pyramid of Djoser. It's considered a work of genius, the earliest cut-stone construction of its size. Its bricks are significantly smaller than those of the pyramids at Giza, and it has a basement.

You see, before ostentatious above-ground burial monuments became a thing, mastabas were all the rage (partly, no doubt, because they were easier to build). With a mastaba, you dug a big, retangular pit. Then you built walls, often out of mud bricks, but sometimes out of stone. Then you placed stone slabs on top and buried it in the sand.

Mastabas could have multiple rooms. Three or four wasn't uncommon, but some had over thirty. After all, in the afterlife, a fella needed space to move around. Djoser's tomb started out as a mastaba. Then they decided to give him a little more space for maybe his scrolls and coffee mugs and Egyptian gods action figures, and so they built another layer on top of the mastaba. Then another layer, slightly smaller, on top of that, and kept going, until they had a step pyramid more than half a football field high that, when covered with its original white limestone finish, must have looked sort of like a birthday cake.

As the millenia passed, however, a problem developed. All that weight on top of the original mastaba began to cause the foundation to buckle. Modern engineers to the rescue! They inflated giant balloons in the passages beneath the pyramid in order to make repairs and save the day.

Some believe that because of the pyramid's birthday cake appearance and the use of balloons to save it, this is why we, today, have adopted the tradition of having balloons at birthday parties.

Okay, maybe I'm the only one who believes that.

Definitely just me.

Now you'll have to excuse me. The sun's up and I need to get those boards off my windows.