The World’s Lesser Known Pyramids

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We all know the Egyptian Pyramids; structures like the Great Pyramid of Giza cannot be missed. But the ancient world as well as more recent times spawned many strange pyramids, and we discover them here today. Our world tour spans strange pyramid adorned landscapes from Rome to Iran, and all the way to Mexico and Scotland.

10. Pyramid of Cestius

Rome might be famous for the Colosseum but the Italian capital is also home to a fabulous ancient pyramid dating back to the Roman Empire! Construction of an enormous pyramid that still appears at its full height on the Roman skyline is thought to have taken place between 18 and 12 BC.

The Pyramid of Cestius contains the tomb of Caius Cestius, a Roman Magistrate and stands out as a huge pyramid crafted from brick and cement, with a white marble covering. The markedly out of place landmark is just over 118 feet in height, forming a striking interruption in Rome’s cityscape. While a fascination with Egyptian architecture and culture gripped ancient Rome for a time, it is worth noting that the Pyramid of Cestius is more steeply angled than the Egyptian pyramids. The magistrate Cestius is now something of a mysterious person, a matter made so given that the tomb was heavily plundered despite the apparent protections afforded by the pyramid. The monumental structure in fact acted as more of a beacon for the curious. Legendary accounts identified the Pyramid of Cestius as the tomb of Remus, while a second pyramid constructed in Rome that was demolished was thought by many to be the tomb of Romulus.

9. Monte Alban

Mexico hosts some remarkable pyramids, Monte Alban being a must see for pyramid enthusiasts. This strikingly advanced ancient site has a combination of grassy green courtyards and incredible stepped pyramids meticulously constructed of stone, located on a high hill. The pyramids and plaza in which they stand are the work of the Zapotec culture, with construction dating back to the 8th Century BCE. With 1,500 years of human history onsite, it is inevitable that cultural shifts would see the usage of the structures reflect the spanning of multiple civilization eras. Following many centuries of Zapotec use, the Mixtec culture took over use prior to Spanish conquest in the 16th century.

The modern day location of the site falls within the Mexican province of Oaxaca, fairly close to the Guatamalan border. Ancient amenities constructed onsite range from high status dwellings to ball game courts and religious temples. Carvings in the stones around the site depict a variety of realities of ancient life, including some startling depictions of what are said to be human sacrifice. While popular with visitors, Monte Alban is undoubtedly carrying many secrets of ancient life and death in its 170 tombs. Archaeological investigation is made more complex by the fact that Mixtecs re-used tombs originally belonging to Zapotecs.

8. The Pyramid of Tchogha Zanbil

Ancient civilization in what is now Iran is filled with intrigue. That intrigue includes a gigantic pyramid, damaged but still present and identified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located in Khuzestan Province, Iran, the pyramidal structure is the main feature of a huge complex with a perimeter of just under 2.5 miles known as Tchogha Zanbil.  The enormous sacred city Tchogha Zanbil was constructed under the command of King Untash-Napirisha of the Elamites (1275-1240 BCE), in the historic Kingdom of Elam.

The pyramid in the center of Tchogha Zanbil is the largest and most monumental stepped pyramid not built in Mesopotamia. The ruins are a testament to a once grand structure that was approximately 345 feet in height but has fallen to a height of just 84.5 feet. The pyramid is of a type known as a ziggurat, which is a stepped pyramid-shaped structure that reaches enormous heights and holds great traditional significance to ancient societies.  The pyramid of Tchoga Zanbil is a religious monument, honoring the Elamite deities Inshushinak and Napirisha. Despite the damage, this site is the best example of a ziggurat in the world and offers a wealth of resources to ancient anthropologists studying the Elamite culture.

7. Cahokia, Illinois

Ancient pyramids in the United States? Absolutely. The Mississippian culture left behind a historic site defined by giant, earthen mounds resembling pyramids. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site preserves the ancient relics of the Mississippian culture, structures and associated landscapes with a variety of uses including burial of multitudes of bodies of those who died in human sacrifices.

Cahokia is the subject of conservation efforts including being designated as a state historic site by Illinois. To protect the ancient archaeological riches, 2,200 acres of land was purchased by Illinois and restoration efforts were undertaken, leading to the establishment of the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. UNESCO also identifies the Cahokia Mounds as a World Heritage Site.  In a six square mile area, 120 complex earthwork mounds were constructed that resembled pyramids in their form. Now, 80 remain. Cahokia began to gain settlers in 600 CE, with building of the pyramid like earth mounds starting in 900 CE. Once the greatest urban center north of the huge ancient cities of Mexico, Cahokia attracted indigenous peoples from all over North America. The site is named after the Cahokia people as they were the group remaining at the time of 17th century French contact.

6. Koh Ker Pyramid

Cambodian jungles conceal a grand pyramid, shrouded in mystery as much as it is covered in vines. A stark contrast to the popular association of desert landscapes with pyramids, Koh Ker is a terraced pyramid that maintains its structure via gravity, each self-weighted piece holding the building together. Thoroughly exploring the pyramid by going away from the basic existing access routes is problematic, given the presence of landmines in the area. This hazard stems from the Khmer Rouge associated conflicts that ravaged Cambodia in fairly recent historic times.

Furthermore, entrance to the structure remains a matter of speculation, though it is thought that a clandestine underground tunnel into the structure may exist. And who knows what would be found inside were such an attempt to investigate made by someone brave or foolish enough to venture forward in closer studies of the pyramid. The structure, made entirely of sandstone, has seven tiered levels, with a height of 131 feet.

5. The Pyramids of Sudan


Egypt is not, in fact, the record holder as the country in Africa that can boast the most pyramids. That honor actually goes to Sudan. The northern part of the country has a rich history defined by its ancient Kushite Kingdoms. Five archaeological sites in Sudan host an incredible 350 pyramids that were built over the course of several hundred years as tombs in which kings, queens and the privileged citizens in the Kushite Kingdom of Napata, with a history spanning 1000 BC to 300 BC, and the Kushite Kingdom established in Meroë, dating from 300 BC to 300 AD, were laid to rest.

The Sudanese pyramids measure between 20 feet and 98 feet tall and have foundations that are around one fifth of the typical Egyptian pyramid base area, making them seem more abrupt and pointy in appearance. Foundations tend to be 26 feet or less in width, with pyramid inclines measuring at 70 degrees compared to the gentler typical Egyptian pyramid incline of 40 to 50 degrees. While less well known than the Egyptian pyramids, the pyramids of Sudan are recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site and are becoming increasingly popular as tourist destinations. Historic exploration has led to significant damage inflicted by Giuseppe Ferlini, an explorer from Italy who wrecked 40 pyramids. In the early 1900s, George Reisner from Harvard started explorations, but flooding and collapse in burial chambers led to the deaths of some his workers. The rising water levels in these desert pyramids required modern expeditions between 2015 and 2019 to be completed with diving gear, funded by National Geographic.

4. Pyramid of the Moon

The Pyramid of the Moon is one scary pyramid, when its history is accurately recalled. Located in San Juan Teotihuacán, Mexico, this monster pyramid is the second largest pyramid in the city, in the western portion of the old city of Teotihuacán. The Pyramid of the Moon was built to resemble the mountain Cerro Gordo that stands close to the construction area. Dating from an ancient construction time frame from 100 and 450 AD, the pyramid is creepy for multiple reasons that should truly scare visitors. Firstly, the pyramid stands at the end of the Avenue of the Dead. Secondly, the staircase leading from the avenue was the place where animals and also human beings were sacrificed in bloody religious ceremonies.

Not only were victims led to their death and sacrificed at the pyramid, but the sacrifices were prerequisites for the ongoing construction of additions to the site. Every time another layer was to be built on the pyramid, the bodies of sacrificial victims were interred in the stone before the work was done, giving validity to the pyramid expansion. A long mysterious tunnel, 33 feet deep, was recently discovered at the Pyramid of the Moon.

3. Pyramid of the Niches

Ancient pyramids might seem like the epitome of solidness but a bizarre pyramid in Mexico flies in the face of pyramidal normality. The huge Pyramid of the Niches is located in the archaeological location El Tajin, in the modern Mexican state of Veracruz. The pyramid is the greatest structure onsite, boasting 365 recessed “niches” that make it look something like an ancient hotel or apartment building despite being kept aside as a place of spiritual sanctity. The fact that this pyramid was adorned with exactly 365 window-like niches provided archaeologists with clear evidence that the pyramid had been constructed with close attention to the calendar year.

The Pyramid of the Niches may look more fragile than the better known pyramids of Egypt, yet the nearly good condition in which the huge structure remains in modern times speaks to the durability of the construction and the high skill of the ancient workers. Built from sandstone quarried close to the construction site, the Pyramid of the Niches is six tiers in height, measuring a total of around 60 feet. Originally, a seventh tier crowned the structure but it was lost to history. The square base measures 118 feet on each side. A staircase goes to the top of the pyramid, climbing along one side. Relief carvings illustrate community celebrities, including priests, politicians and surprise, ancient sports stars.

2. Star Pyramid

The British Isles might seem like the last place to search for mysterious pyramids. But a small park located in the space between Stirling Castle and the Valley Cemetery in Scotland contains a massive sandstone ashlar pyramid known as Star Pyramid, the work of evangelist William Drummond, who created the park known as Drummond Pleasure Ground, on which he had the pyramid built. Decorated with marble bible likenesses and inscriptions from the Book of Psalms, the Star Pyramid is alternatively referred to as Salem Rock or the Covenant Monument.

The construction of the pyramid was completed by William Barclay in 1863, but weathering has made the pyramid appear significantly older. The mysterious looking pyramid is in fact dedicated to martyrs who died in protest against restrictions on civil rights and freedom of religion in historic Scotland. Drummond himself was laid to rest in the park which holds the pyramid in a stone sarcophagus. The pyramid is notably steep, forming not only a most striking landmark but also a destination for tourists and investigators who seek to read mystery into what seems to be an anomaly of world architecture, an early 19th century Scottish pyramid.

1. The Great Pyramid of Cholula

The world’s largest pyramid is not in Egypt; it is in modern day Mexico. The mysterious looking structure is also very cryptic – the pyramid is huge, with gentle lines and fully covered with greenery, which causes it to resemble a natural hill. A church is built on top of the pyramid, contrasting most sharply with the pyramid below. Located in Cholula in Puebla, Mexico, the structure is in present times 180 feet in height, with a footprint that measures an enormous 1,480 feet square. The Nahuatl name for the pyramid Tlachihualtepetl literally translates to “made-by-hand mountain,” a fitting name for the enormous structure. Built from a variety of materials including adobe bricks and stone, the pyramid was constructed in six different stages, which corresponded to different cultural groups that had a role in the pyramid’s construction.

Despite five miles of exploration tunnels being constructed in the pyramid starting in 1931, under the command of archaeologist Ignacio Marquina, only three of the six pyramid’s structural elements have been explored in detail. Finds have been diverse, with a number of artifacts and human remains being discovered onsite. The pyramid originally measured 217 feet high, with dedication to the deity Quetzalcoatl being the time honored understanding of the pyramid’s meaning. Construction of the temple-pyramid complex spanned the 3rd century BC to the 9th century AD.


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1 Comment

  1. As I scrolled, I was wondering if Cholula’s pyramid would be on this list! Monte Alban is on my list of places to visit in Mexico someday. I have been to El Tajín, and it’s a magical place. Sun or Moon Pyramid, Teotihuacán is in a class all by itself. And Cholula, well, it’s gorgeous. Thanks for this interesting list!

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