Most people thinking of pyramids jump straight to ancient Egypt. While that’s not wrong, it’s not necessarily right either. In fact, there are ancient pyramids all around the world, from a number of different cultures and civilisations and representing many different architectural styles and approaches.
From the famous attractions of Egypt to Mesoamerican pyramids, Chinese tombs, South American adobe structures, Mesopotamian ziggurats, North American mounds and even Roman ceremonial follies, these colossal structures pop up across the globe right through the centuries in cultures who often have no connection to one-another.
There’s a host of fascinating Pyramids around the globe to visit and among the very best are Giza, Teotihuacan and Angkor Wat. Other popular sites tend to include Saqqara, Chichen Itza and the pretty bonkers Pyramid of Cestius.
We’ve put together an expert guide to the pyramids of the world, with our top ten places to visit as well as a full list which shouldn’t be ignored if you have the time.
How Many Pyramids are there in the World?
Probably the most famous pyramids in the world, Giza is home to Ancient Egypt’s Great Pyramid, the famous Sphinx and two other amazing pyramids. The largest pyramid in Giza, and in the world, belongs to the second king of the Fourth Dynasty, Khufu or “Cheop”. Khufu’s pyramid is Giza’s oldest and, at its great size of 145 metres, became known as “The Great Pyramid”. In fact, Khufu’s pyramid was once the tallest structure in the world as well as being one of the Seven Wonders of the World. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Giza is also where one finds the Great Sphinx. Estimated to date back to 2528–2520 BC, some Egyptologists believe that this majestic half man, half lion is modelled on Khafra.
The Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan measures 225m by 222m at its base and 75m high is one of the largest and most impressive pyramids on the planet. Teotihuacan was a holy Mesoamerican city built in around 400 BC in what is now Mexico and forms one of the country’s oldest archaeological sites. Characterised by looming stepped pyramids, one of the most impressive aspects of Teotihuacan is the sheer size of these monuments. Incredibly well-preserved, despite a fire which tore through Teotihuacan in the 7th century, Teotihuacan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visitors to Teotihuacan can maneouver their way through the city via its original streets, such as Avenue of the Dead, which divided the city into quarters, although take note that the site is absolutely enormous.
The ancient Khmer empire built some astounding structures and nestled among the wider Angkor site are a number of step pyramids – notably the late 9th / early 10th century Phnom Bakheng temple and the Baksei Chamkrong temple. Incredibly grand and ornately decorated, Angkor Wat’s sand-coloured buildings rise up to form five towers, representing the home of the Hindu deities. Friezes and sculptures are found throughout, depicting both day-to-day life from the time it was built and religious events. Whilst the complex in Angkor is believed to have been founded circa 980 AD by Yasovarman I, king of the Khmer Dynasty, Angkor Wat itself is thought to date back to the twelfth century. Today Angkor is one of Cambodia’s most popular tourist sites, there’s an incredible amount to see and it’s been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992.
Saqqara was the burial ground of the Egyptian city of Memphis and home to numerous pyramids and tombs. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Saqqara contains eleven major pyramids sprawled over six miles, including the first ever pyramid, known as the Step Pyramid and funerary complex of pharaoh Djoser. Saqqara is massive and, for those short on time the best places to see are in the north, including the Serapeum, Djoser’s funerary complex and, in between these two, the Mastaba of Akhti-Hotep and Ptah-Hotep, the son and grandson of official Ptah-Hotep.
Stunningly well-preserved and imposingly beautiful, Chichen Itza is one of Mexico’s most impressive historical sites and includes the world famous, looming Mesoamerican step-pyramid known as El Castillo. A UNESCO World Heritage site based in the forests of the Yucatan Peninsula, Chichen Itza is actually made up of two cities built by two peoples, the Mayas and the Toltecs. The site is made up of several surviving buildings including a circular observatory known as El Caracol, the Warriors’ Temple and El Castillo.
The Pyramid of Cestius is a truly unique Roman pyramid built as a tomb for the affluent magistrate Caius Cestius between 18 and 12 BC. Constructed of white marble and brick, this ostentatious 35-metre high tomb was likely built in this style due to the popularity of all things Egyptian which swept Rome after Egypt was incorporated into the Empire. Inside the tomb contained a number of frescoes depicting scenes from Roman mythology while an inscription still visible on the exterior gives details about its construction and dedication. This pyramid-tomb was later set into the Aurelian Walls, helping to ensure its preservation through the ages.
A remarkable UNESCO listed pre-Columbian site in Mexico, Monte Alban contains a number of large and impressive pyramids, probably built by the Zapotecs. Monte Alban was inhabited for approximately 1,500 years by a succession of civilisations, including the Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs and, at its peak, had a population of around 25,000 people. The site is characterised by over 2,200 terraces as well as numerous pyramid structures, large staircases, ornate palaces, elaborate tombs and even a ball court – the ball games played were as serious as it gets and often ended in the death of the losers. Today, Monte Alban is a popular tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has a small on-site museum showing some of the finds from the excavations.
One of a handful of surviving Mesopotamian ziggurats and a crucial entry on any list of pyramids of the world, Tchogha Zanbil forms part of the remains of the ancient city of Dur Untash, the holy capital of the Elamite Kingdom. The undeniable focal point of the ruins of Tchogha Zanbil is one of the greatest – if not in fact the greatest – ziggurats to have been built in Mesopotamia. Originally a temple dedicated to the deity Inshushinak, it developed to become the ornate pyramid-like structure – ziggurat – that stands today, although at 25 metres high it is now just a shadow of its former self having once risen to 60 metres.
One of several remarkable Hindu temples built by the leaders of the Chola Empire, the Brihadisvara temple has a quite spectacular central pyramid structure. Built from 1003 to 1010 during the reign of Rajaraja I, the temple was constructed in honour of the Hindu deity Shiva. It is an incredibly ornate and grand mostly granite structure, with seemingly endless sculptures and carvings chronicling this deity’s life as well as that of other holy figures.
Dahshur was once home to eleven Ancient Egyptian pyramids, of which few have survived. However, for those wishing to view the Egypt’s pyramids in peace and quiet, Dahshur is the place to go. Unlike the more popular Giza and Saqqara, Dahshur has not become a tourist hotspot, despite its ancient attractions, including the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid. Built by the pharaoh Sneferu, founder of the Fourth Dynasty and father of Khufu, the Red Pyramid is one of Dahshur’s most famous residents and the second oldest pyramid ever built. In fact, it is thought that this was where Sneferu himself was buried.