An early stepped
Build a Pyramid
The ancient Egyptians loved pyramids. There are
sixty-seven, of various sizes, scattered around the city of Cairo
alone. The most famous, and largest, are at Gizeh, where what
is believed to be the three tombs of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkure,
are lined up side by side.
The end tomb, Khufu's, which is often referred
to as "The Great Pyramid," just by
itself is an impressive structure. It stood 480 feet tall when
completed and contains twice as much volume as the Empire State
Building. Until the 19th century it was the tallest building ever
erected. Not bad for a structure 45 centuries old.
So, how did the ancient Egyptians construct such
an impressive monument so long ago? Some wild theories exist.
Swiss Author Erick von Daniken suggested
that aliens assisted the construction using advanced technology.
Herodotus of Halicarnassus, a Greek writer who viewed the pyramids
around 450 B.C. was told that giant machines were used to lift
the blocks into place with the aid of 100,000 slaves working,
for the entire year, for twenty years.
Probably neither of these are correct. Most likely
the Pharaoh employed a large work force, indeed as many as 100,000
men, but for only a fraction of the year. During the months of
July, August, September and October, the Nile River flooded the
land. This was actually a blessing for the Egyptian farmers as
it allowed new fertile soil to be laid down over the fields. But
it meant the farmers were unable to grow crops during this period.
It is likely that the Pharaoh required his subjects to work on
public projects, like the pyramids, during this season.
Egyptian records indicate that the laborers, while
being drafted against their will, were actually well cared for
by ancient standards. Regulations have been found covering the
maximum amount of work allowed per day, the wages received and
holidays entitled to, each worker. By only requiring work to be
done during flood periods, the Pharaoh could get a lot done without
impacting the normal Egyptian economy.
He probably also employed a much smaller work force
year round on the project. Some would have been employed doing
the skilled stonework while others planned and prepared the site
for the laborers that would be available during the next flood
The shape of the pyramid are the logical one for
producing buildings of great height when the building material
available is stone. The design mimics the natural geometry of
a mountain, an incline of about 52 degrees. The Egyptian architects
realized the ever widening base would easily support the increasing
number of stone blocks above it making the structure very stable.
An average 2 and 1/2 ton limestone block used in
the pyramid construction would have probably taken 8 men nine
or ten days to move from the quarry, float across the Nile, and
drag to the top of the pyramid.
most likely method of getting the blocks to the top of the structure
was through massive construction ramps. Exactly how the ramps
were laid out is unknown and have been the source of heated debate
between archeologists for many years. A long straight ramp (as
pictured in the recent film 10,000 B.C.) seems to have
been too massive and impractical for something as big as the Great
Pyramid. To reach the top with a shallow enough grade to be able
to pull stones up it the ramp would have needed to be a mile in
length and contain a volume of material equal to that of the Great
A more practical design would have been a spiral
ramp going up around the pyramid. However, such an arrangement
would have only allowed a narrow path to the top and the turns
at each corner would have been difficult to negotiate while towing
a 2 ½ ton stone.
French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin advanced the
theory that a spiral ramp was used on the inside of the pyramid
to move the stone blocks. According to Houdin a straight external
ramp was used to get materials to the 140 foot level. From there
workers dragged the stones through a set of gently rising tunnels
just inside the outer walls. The last tunnel would exit on the
monument's top. A 1986 microgravity survey of the pyramid discovered
a peculiar anomaly: a less-dense structure in the form of a spiral
within the pyramid that may turn out to be what is left of Houdin's
tunnels. Scientists are now seeking permission from the Egyptian
government to do more non-invasive tests that would prove or disprove
Whatever the shape of the ramps may have been topped
with a surface of Tafla, a clay. Tafla, when wet, becomes very
slippery and may have allowed the Egyptian builders to use shorter,
steeper ramps than might have otherwise been possible. By wetting
the ground in front of the block a slick path would be created
allowing the stone to be dragged by rope as it sat on sledges.
It is also possible the stones could have been moved
on rollers. By placing rounded logs under the stone, crude wheels
would have made the load easy to pull. Pictures inscribed on ancient
monument walls, though, suggest the blocks were dragged without
the aid of rollers. Once a stone was at the top of the pyramid,
it was probably moved into its final position with the use of
We can see the Egyptains didn't become great pyramid
builders right away. They needed some practice. They started by
cutting tombs into the rock of the desert floor and building mastabas
(from the Arab word meaning "bench") over them. Mastabas were
raised, flat, platforms. Some were twenty-five feet high and two-hundred
feet square. Imhotep, architect to the Pharaoh Zoser, changed
this by building his king a mastaba and then placing another,
smaller mastaba right on top of it. On top of that he placed another
even smaller mastaba. When he was finally done the structure had
six levels and resembled a stepped pyramid.
number of stepped pyramids were built after that, but the most
interesting is the one at Meidum built for Pharaoh Seneferu. It's
an example of an early design that failed. The pyramid, which
has four levels, is in near ruins today with many of its blocks
laying in a heap around the base. Why did it do so poorly when
many other pyramids are in much better shape? The architect of
this pyramid apparently had not yet learned the importance of
laying the foundation on solid rock rather than sand. Also, the
construction trick of tilting the blocks on a slope inward toward
the center of the pyramid had not been invented. By tilting the
blocks slightly inward, the weight of the blocks helped lock them
into the structure.
Without this trick and with a poor foundation, the
pyramid at Meidum was easily shaken apart during earthquakes.
Later, better built pyramids show that the Egyptians learned as
they built and their masterpieces have stood the test of the centuries.
Copyright Lee Krystek 1997.
All Rights Reserved.