This is the Great Pyramid of King Khufu.  Everybody knows the Great Pyramid of King Khufu, but you probably don’t know about the Shit Pyramids of his father, King Sneferu.  This is a shame, because they are amazing.

When King Sneferu came to the throne of Egypt, the cool thing that all the pharaohs had was a Step Pyramid, like the original one built by King Djoser and designed by Imhotep (not the mummy).  King Sneferu could easily have had one one because his predecessor King Huni had died before his could be finished. All Sneferu had to do was step in and put the last few blocks on.

But King Sneferu had a vision.  He didn’t want any old Step Pyramid.  He was going to build Egypt’s first smooth-sided pyramid, and make King Huni’s pyramid way taller in the bargain.  It didn’t work.  The core of Huni’s pyramid couldn’t handle the modifications and nowadays the Step Pyramid at Meidum looks like this:

It’s not on a hill - that’s the outer layers of the pyramid that have fallen down all around it.  The name of the structure in Arabic is Heram el-Kaddaab, which means something like The Sort-Of Pyramid.

Anyway, King Sneferu was understandably disappointed and made his pyramid-builders start over from scratch at a different site.  Apparently having learned nothing about the Big Fat Nowhere that hubristic pyramid ambition was going to get him, this pyramid was designed to be even taller and pointier than the last effort!  Too tall and pointy, in fact - the bedrock proved to be less stable than he might have hoped, and by the time the pyramid was half-finished stuff was already moving and cracking inside of it.  There are ceilings in this pyramid that are to this day partially held up by wooden beams.

The builders seem to have panicked and decided that the only way to finish the pyramid without another disaster was to make the top half lighter than the bottom half.  They did this by changing the angle of the slope, ending up with a pyramid that looks like this:

Egyptologists call this one the Bent Pyramid for fairly obvious reasons.  Uniquely among Egyptian Pyramids, it has most of its smooth outer blocks intact, rather than having them all stolen to build other stuff (most of medieval Cairo is built from the skin of the Giza pyramids).  I’m guessing this is because nobody dared touch the thing for fear the whole structure would come down like a giant limestone game of Jenga.

I’m sure the pyramid-builders were very proud of this solution.  Sneferu appears to have been less so.  He had them move over about half a mile and start over.  Again.  Why only half a mile when he had them move 34 miles between the Sort-of Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid is a mystery.  I think he wanted to keep them in sight of the Bent Pyramid so they could look at it and feel ashamed every once in a while.

And there they built Sneferu’s third pyramid, which is called the Red Pyramid.  As pyramids go, it’s a very cautious one - it’s got the shallowest slope rise of any Egyptian pyramid, and while it’s the same height as the Bent Pyramid it spreads its weight over a much greater base area, making it far more stable.  Sneferu seems to have been happy with this one, because he was buried in it.  Either that, or after a forty-eight-year reign he just finally died and that was the pyramid they used because it was the nicest of the three.

These three pyramids together actually contain substantially more stone than the Great Pyramid of Sneferu’s son Khufu.  By the time Sneferu died, his workforce had honed themselves into a lean, mean pyramid-building machine.  They had already made every possible pyramid mistake.  So when Khufu announced that he didn’t just want a great pyramid, but The Great Pyramid, these guys built him a pyramid so fucking great that we now think aliens must have done it.

It was as true in Ancient Egypt as it is now.