A tomb is a house, chamber or vault for the dead. The original purpose of a tomb was to protect the dead and provide the deceased with a dwelling equipped with necessities for the afterlife. Tombs probably arose from the prehistoric practice of burying the deceased in their own homes. Eventually, tombs were replaced with graves and funerary urns, and the practice of building tombs died out during the Renaissance. Some of the most famous tombs in the world include the pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal, the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.

History of Tombs

The earliest tombs were actually houses. In many prehistoric cultures people buried their dead in their own homes with their daily effects, to provide a dwelling and necessities for the deceased in the afterlife. Later people began to bury their dead outside of their homes, but the tombs they constructed were still built to resemble houses. In the Stone Age tombs were typically shaped like houses, with two large vertical stones and another stone slab laid horizontally across them as the “roof.” They too were filled with tools, food and personal possessions necessary for the next life. In Ancient Greece and Rome tombs continued to be furnished with daily effects, but their purpose expanded beyond providing shelter and personal effects for the dead to providing an impressive visual memorial for the living. Ancient Egypt boasted the most remarkable of these memorial tombs: the Great Pyramids. Tombs continued to be constructed throughout the Middle Ages up into the 16th century, when churches themselves often served as tombs. By the Renaissance the practice of building tombs mostly died out in the West and was replaced by the practice of constructing monuments or memorials, often along with funerary urns.

Did you know? The Greek historian Herodotus claimed that it took 100,000 men to build the Great Pyramid of Egypt, but modern archaeologists have revised that number downward to 20,000. Remarkably, this is around the same number of men that it took to build the much less immense but still glorious Taj Mahal.

The Egyptian Pyramids

The monumental pyramids of Ancient Egypt are perhaps the most famous tombs in the world. The origins of the pyramids were mastabas, Arabic for “benches,” which were mud or brick rectangular structures built over graves during Ancient Egypt’s First Dynasty (c. 2925–c. 2775 B.C.). The Step Pyramid of Djoser, a pyramid built by this pharaoh in the Third Dynasty (c. 2650-2575 B.C.), was the first mastaba to be made of stone and to take on the distinctive pyramid shape.

The most famous of the Egyptian pyramids are the three massive tombs of the Fourth Dynasty (c. 2575–2465 B.C.). These monumental pyramids built for the pharaohs Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure housed the royal mummies and their worldly effects thought to protect and be used by the kings in their afterlife. The Great Pyramid of Giza, built for Khufu, is the largest, soaring to a height of around 480 feet, and is the last standing of the Seven Wonders of the World. It is estimated that it took about 20,000 workers to construct the Great Pyramid over a period of about 20 years. The king and queen’s burial chambers are situated deep within the massive pyramid. Also part of the Giza complex are two mortuary temples honoring Khufu. Although the three pyramids have been looted over the centuries, extensive hieroglyphs and some surviving artifacts, such as jewelry and furniture discovered in the Giza pyramid complex, have helped archaeologists to learn about the Ancient Egyptian’s burial and religious practices, as well as their daily life.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

In the case of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, located in the Old City of Jerusalem, which is thought to be the burial place of Jesus Christ, a church was built over a pre-existing tomb. A “sepulchre” is a type of burial chamber that is carved into a hillside. The church is also said to be the location where Jesus was crucified and where Christians believe he rose from the dead.

After Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, came to power in 306 he ordered that the pagan temple built on top of Jesus’ tomb be demolished. Constantine’s engineers unearthed Jesus’ tomb, which had been carved out of rock and enclosed it in an edicule, or “little house,” and then constructed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre around the tomb. The church was dedicated in 336. Over the years, the church was damaged and refurbished several times. The Persians burned it down in 614, and then it was restored by Emperor Heraclius in 630. The Egyptians destroyed it in about 1009, and once again it was restored. Today, because of successive restorations and the influence of various Christian communities, the Holy Sepulchre’s architecture is a mix of aesthetic styles. According to an arrangement made in 1852 by the Ottoman Turks, who ruled Jerusalem at the time, six different Christian communities control the church, each with their own designated chapels within the space. This tradition continues today. The three main Christian communities are: the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholic and Armenian Orthodox.

The Prophet’s Mosque in Medina

The practice of locating the tombs of holy figures within places of worship was not only a Christian tradition. Located in Medina, Saudi Arabia, the Prophet’s Mosque (Masjid al-Nabi in Arabic) houses the Islamic prophet Muhammad’s tomb and is considered the second holiest site in Islam (the first is the mosque in Mecca that houses the Kaaba, the direction toward which Muslims worldwide pray). Muhammad himself built the original mosque on the site, which he located next to his home. He constructed a pulpit there, from which he led the faithful in prayer. When Muhammad died in 632, he was buried in a tomb on the site. In around 706, Caliph al-Walid destroyed the original structure and built a larger, more ornate mosque on the site surrounding Muhammad’s tomb. Subsequent rulers expanded and renovated the mosque, and the Ottoman sultan Mahmud II built a dome over the prophet’s tomb in 1818 and painted it green, a color that has come to symbolize Islam.

The Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty

At roughly the same time that the practice of building tombs was mostly dying out in Europe, an exquisite series of tombs was being built in China during the Ming Dynasty. At the start of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the capital was Nanjing, but the second emperor moved the capital to Beijing and chose a site 30 miles north of the city to build his own tomb. Thirteen of the 17 emperors of the Ming Dyansty were buried in this valley, along with their empresses and second wives. The Thirteen Tombs (Shih-san Ling in Chinese) were built over a period of more than 200 years, from 1409 until 1644. It took 18 years to build the first tomb alone.

The Thirteen Tombs are situated on a large complex, the entrance to which is a long path, a shen dao (spirit way), which is lined with oversized statues of guards and animals, real and mythological. The Ding Ling tomb is the most famous of the tombs and has been the most thoroughly excavated. It has three underground chambers, including the burial chamber, and thousands of artifacts, such as silks, jewels and utensils, have been unearthed here.

The Ming Dynasty is widely regarded as one of the most important eras in Chinese history, a time of great prosperity and progress in government. The Ming emperors established an impressive administrative system and army and oversaw major architectural projects, including the construction of the Forbidden City, the grandiose Ming palace in the center of Beijing. As a monument to the achievements of the Ming emperors, the Thirteen Tombs today continue to draw many tourists, who come to enter the tombs themselves and to view their artifacts in an adjacent museum built in the Ming Dynasty architectural style.

The Taj Mahal

The most famous structure in India is also a tomb. The Taj Mahal was built in 1638 in the Mughal style, an amalgamation of Persian and Indian architectural forms. Located in the northern Indian city of Agra, which was then the capital of the Mughal Empire, the Taj Mahal complex consists of a mausoleum, a main gateway, a garden, a mosque and a jawab, a building that mirrors the mosque. Notable for its Islamic domes and minarets, its symmetry and its refined decorative detail, the all-marble mausoleum and the exquisite gardens are celebrated as much for their elegant design as for the love story behind them.

The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (“Emperor of the World”) built the Taj Mahal as the magnificent eternal burial place for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. A description of the relationship between the ruler and Mahal, written by the royal historian, was extraordinary for its time. Recounting the deep and passionate love and friendship between the shah and his wife, the historian called Mahal the shah’s closest confidante and companion and described their extraordinary physical and spiritual compatibility. After she died in childbirth during the birth of their 14th child, Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal in tribute to his inseparable companion. The shah survived his wife by 35 years and continued to rule the Mughal Empire until 1658, when his own son deposed him and imprisoned him in a fortress across the river from the Taj Mahal. The story of the emperor’s deep love for his wife and the exquisite mausoleum that is a testament to that love has lured visitors to the Taj Mahal from around the world for hundreds of years.