How many pyramids are there in Egypt? Most people only know the three at Giza, built by the pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. Some also recall the stepped pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara and, perhaps, Sneferu’s bent pyramid in Dashur. However, there are many more, ranging from the Red Pyramid, also in Dashur, to the collapsed Meidum Pyramid, and the Nubian pyramids of Meroe.

In addition to these, there are dozens more, some reasonably well-preserved, others little more than a pile of ruins. So, how many are there exactly? The so-called Lepsius List was the first attempt to count them in the mid-19th century.

The name of this inventory is attributed to its creator, Karl Richard Lepsius, a Prussian archaeologist born in 1810, considered the father of Egyptology as a scientific discipline. Although he had studied classical archaeology at various German universities (Leipzig, Göttingen, and Berlin), earning a doctorate in 1833 with his thesis De tabulis Eugubinis, Lepsius was an enthusiastic follower of Champollion’s studies on hieroglyphics. He even traveled to Paris to closely examine the Louvre’s Egyptian collections.

Portrait of Karl Richrad Lepsius in 1873
Portrait of Karl Richrad Lepsius in 1873/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In 1837, he published his own work on the subject, an expansion of Champollion’s work but differing on some points, such as the written representation of vowels. In 1842, he translated a set of funerary and magical texts from the Ptolemaic era, later published as Das Todtenbuch der Ägypter. This title has endured to this day, simplified as the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

This background opened doors for Lepsius to lead an expedition to Egypt and Nubia, sponsored by Frederick William IV at the urging of illustrious scholars like Alexander von Humboldt and Robert Wilhelm Bunsen, following the example of Champollion’s expedition.

The goal was to explore and document remnants of ancient Egyptian civilization, assembling a significant collection for the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, with Lepsius acquiring a large portion of the approximately fifteen thousand artifacts.

Frederick William IV of Prussia
Frederick William IV of Prussia/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The journey began in 1842, covering all the places with monumental heritage from the pharaohs: Giza, Abusir, Saqqara, Dashur, Luxor, Karnak, and even Nubia. For over three years, Lepsius took the opportunity to study local languages and excavate sites like Beni Hassan and Fayum. In Fayum, he uncovered the famous Labyrinth, a funerary complex mentioned by Greek and Roman authors like Manetho, Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, Pliny the Elder, and Pomponius Mela.

The Labyrinth comprised tunnels, chambers, chapels, and hidden crypts, surrounded by a perimeter wall measuring three hundred eighty-five meters by one hundred fifty-eight. At its northern end stood the pyramid of Amenemhat III, a pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom (specifically, the XII Dynasty); he was the son of Senusret III and provided Egypt with a period of economic prosperity. Perhaps, it was this partially collapsed pyramid that sparked Lepsius’s special interest in the subject. In any case, he continued excavating at more sites like Qurna, Sinai, and Tanis.

At that time, proper excavation techniques had not yet been developed; the Englishman William Matthew Flinders Petrie is considered the first to do so (who, by the way, later worked in the Labyrinth). Lepsius resorted to methods now considered unacceptable, such as using dynamite to dislodge heavy pieces. Nevertheless, he succeeded in amassing a substantial collection and returned to Europe in 1846, following an exotic route through Beirut, Damascus, Baalbek, and Istanbul.

One of the drawings of Denkmaeler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien
One of the drawings of Denkmaeler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

That year left him with a double and unforgettable memory. On the one hand, he married Elisabeth Klein, with whom he had six children, some of whom became distinguished professionals in their fields: Richard (geologist), Griesheim (chemist), Reinhold (artist), and Johannes (theologian, who followed in his father’s footsteps as an accomplished orientalist).

On the other hand, he was appointed a professor at the University of Berlin and began working on the corresponding book with the results of his expedition. He titled it Denkmäler aus Äegypten und Äethiopien (Monuments of Egypt and Ethiopia), published between 1849 and 1858 in a dozen volumes, including five of text and the rest of illustrations (drawings, maps, plans, hieroglyphic reproductions), many of which he created himself as he had also studied engraving and lithography.

In this work, he documented the discovery of sixty-seven pyramids and one hundred thirty tombs of other types, numbered in Roman characters in geographical order, from Lower Egypt to Upper Egypt.

The list began with Abu Roash (eight kilometers north of Giza); there, alongside two others, was the pyramid of Djedefre (son of Khufu), the northernmost and already in ruins since antiquity, likely due to the Romans using it as a quarry. The list ended in Hawara, in Fayum, where the aforementioned pyramid of Amenemhat III was located. Between these two locations were pyramids in Giza (not just the three great ones but also six subsidiary pyramids), Zawyet el-Aryan (two), Abu Gurab (one), Abusir (thirteen pyramids), Saqqara (in addition to the stepped pyramid, there were seventeen more), Dashur (thirteen), El Lisht (five), Meidum (one), and Lahun (one).

All of these pyramids belonged to the III (2686–2613 BC) to XIII dynasties (1800–1650 BC). However, the list is no longer valid today because Lepsius made some errors in identifying what were actually mastabas or other monumental structures as pyramid remains. Several inaccuracies mean that more than twenty of the total should not be included.

Nevertheless, we are talking about the challenging beginnings of a science, and the effort of this Prussian pioneer must be appreciated in that context. It was the first attempt at a systematic classification, and, in fact, his numbering system is still used for those he accurately cataloged. In 2008, the renowned Egyptian archaeologist and Minister of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, rediscovered the platform of one pyramid listed by Lepsius that had disappeared, covered by a dune.

His prestige also solidified when, in 1855, he was appointed co-director of the aforementioned Berlin museum. He added to this the presidency of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome and the directorship of the Royal Library of Berlin.

He also founded a specialized journal in Egyptology, Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde, which continues to be published to this day.

Lepsius passed away in 1884, but before that, he returned to Egypt twice. The first time, in 1866, focused on exploring the Nile Delta region, and while excavating in Tanis, he found the so-called Decree of Canopus, a stone stele from the time of Ptolemy III (dated to 237 BC) with calendar information written in Greek (uncial) and Egyptian (hieroglyphic and demotic). It has been considered a second Rosetta Stone. The second visit was three years later, on the occasion of the inauguration of the Suez Canal.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 28, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en La Lista Lepsius, el primer inventario de pirámides egipcias, realizado por un arqueólogo prusiano en 1846


Mark Lehner, The Complete Pyramids | Georg Ebers, Richard Lepsius. A biography | Dieter Arnold, Middle Kingdom Tomb Architecture at Lisht | Karl Richard Lepsius, Denkmäler aus Äegypten und Äethiopien | Wikipedia

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