The Great Pyramid
and its surrounding complex soon after its completion
(Copyright Lee Krystek, 2010)
It's 756 feet long on each side, 450 feet high
and is composed of 2,300,000 blocks of stone, each averaging 2
1/2 tons in weight. Despite the makers' limited surveying tools,
no side is more than 8 inches different in length than another,
and the whole structure is perfectly oriented to the points of
the compass. Even in the 19th century, it was the tallest building
in the world and, at the age of 4,500 years, it is the only one
of the famous "Seven Wonders of the Ancient
World" that still stands. Even today it remains the most massive
building on Earth. It is the Great Pyramid of Khufu, at Giza,
Around 2560 BC
Tomb of Pharoah Khufu
Still stands today.
Height 480 ft. (146m)
of: Mostly limestone
Tallest building in the world till 1311 AD and again from
1647 to 1874.
Some of the earliest history of the Pyramid comes
from a Greek the historian and traveler Herodotus of Halicanassus.
He visited Egypt around 450 BC and included a description of the
Great Pyramid in a history book he wrote. Herodotus was told by
his Egyptian guides that it took twenty years for a force of 100,000
oppressed slaves to build the pyramid (with another 10 years to
build a stone causeway that connected it to a temple in the valley
below). Stones were lifted into position by the use of immense
machines. The purpose of the structure, according to Herodotus's
sources, was as a tomb for the Pharaoh Khufu (whom the Greeks
referred to as Cheops).
Herodotus, a Greek from the democratic city of Athens,
probably found the idea of a single man employing such staggering
wealth and effort on his tomb an incredible act of egotism. He
reported that even thousands of years later the Egyptians still
hated Khufu for the burden he had placed on the people and could
hardly bring themselves to speak his name.
three large pyramids at Giza: From left to right, Menkaure,
Khafre, Khufu. The far pyramid is the "Great Pyramid" and
the largest structure on the site. The middle one may look
larger, but only because it is built on higher ground.
However, Khufu's contemporary Egyptian subjects
may have seen the great pyramid in a different light. To them
the pharaoh was not just a king, but a living god who linked their
lives with those of the immortals. The pyramid, as an eternal
tomb for the pharaoh's body, may have offered the people reassurance
of his continuing influence with the gods. The pyramid wasn't
just a symbol of regal power, but a visible link between earth
Indeed, many of the stories Herodotus relates to
us are probably false. Engineers calculate that fewer men and
less years were needed than Herodotus suggests to build the structure.
It also seems unlikely that slaves or complicated machines were
needed for the pyramid's construction. It isn't
surprising that the Greek historian got it wrong, however. By
the time he visited the site, the structure was already 20 centuries
old, and much of the truth about it was shrouded in the mists
Certainly the idea that it was a tomb for a Pharaoh,
though, seems in line with Egyptian practices. For many centuries
before and after the construction of the Great Pyramid, the Egyptians
had interned their dead Pharaoh-Kings, whom they believed to be
living Gods, in intricate tombs. Some were above-ground structures,
like the pyramid, others were cut in the rock underground. All
the dead leaders were outfitted with the many things it was believed
they would need in the afterlife to come. Many were buried with
Giza complex as it looked in 1904 from Eduard Spelterini's
If we were to visit the location of the great pyramid
when it was just finished, it would look very different than we
see it today. Originally, the pyramid itself was encased in highly
polished white limestone with a smooth surface which is now gone.
At the very top of the structure would have been a capstone, which
is also now missing. Some sources suggest that the capstone might
have been sheathed in gold. Between the white limestone and the
golden cap the pyramid would have made an impressive sight shining
in the bright Egyptian sun.
Around the base of the great pyramid were four smaller
pyramids, three of which still stand today. On the east side of
the pyramid stood a now missing Funerary temple. Running down
the hill into the valley was a stone causeway, which linked the
Funerary temple with a temple in the valley. Around the pyramid
were six boat shaped pits that may have contained the hulls of
vessels that belonged to the pharaoh. Parts of one of these have
been found and reconstructed into a 147 foot long boat that today
is enclosed next to the pyramid in its own museum.
The other two large pyramids at Giza, the Pyramid
of Khafre (Khufu's son) and the Pyramid of Menkaure had not yet
been built, so the Khufu's pyramid and its associated structures
stood alone, though surrounded by the dwelling places and the
graves of many of those that helped construct it.
of the Great Pyramid showing the passageways.
(Copyright Lee Krystek
Even in ancient times, thieves breaking into the
sacred burial places were a major problem and Egyptian architects
became adept at designing solutions to this problem. They built
passageways that could be plugged with impassable granite blocks;
created secret, hidden rooms and made decoy chambers. No matter
how clever the designers became, however, robbers seemed to be
even smarter and with almost no exceptions, each of the great
tombs of the Egyptian Kings was plundered.
In 820 A.D. the Arab Caliph Abdullah Al Manum decided
to make his own search for the treasure of Khufu. He gathered
a gang of workmen and, unable to find the location of a reputed
secret door, started burrowing into the side of the monument.
After a hundred feet of hard going they were about to give up
when they heard a heavy thud echo through the interior of the
pyramid. Digging in the direction of the sound, they soon came
upon a passageway that descended into the heart of the structure.
On the floor lay a large block that had fallen from the ceiling,
apparently causing the noise they had heard. Back at the beginning
of the corridor they found the secret hinged door to the outside
they had missed.
Working their way down the passage they soon found
themselves deep in the natural stone below the pyramid. The corridor
stopped descending and went horizontal for about 50 feet, then
ended in a blank wall. A pit extended downward from there for
about 30 feet, but it was empty. When the workmen examined the
fallen block they noticed a large granite plug above it. Cutting
through the softer stone around it they found another passageway
that extended up into the heart of the pyramid. As they followed
this corridor upward, they found several more granite blocks closing
off the tunnel. In each case they cut around them by burrowing
through the softer limestone of the walls. Finally, they found
themselves in a low, horizontal passage that led to a small, square,
empty room. This became known as the "Queen's Chamber," though
it seems unlikely that it ever served that function.
secret entrance missed by the Caliph's men when searching
for treasure. (Courtesy Olaf Tausch and
Wikipedia Creative Commons).
Back at the junction of the ascending and descending
passageways, the workers noticed an open space in the ceiling.
Climbing up they found themselves in a high-roofed, ascending
passageway. This became known as the "Grand Gallery." At the top
of the gallery was a low, horizontal passage that led to a large
room, some 34 feet long, 17 feet wide, and 19 feet high. It became
known as the "King's Chamber." In the center was a huge granite
sarcophagus without a lid. Otherwise the room was completely empty.
The Arabs, as if in revenge for the missing treasure,
stripped the pyramid of its fine white limestone casing and used
it for building in Cairo. They even attempted to disassemble the
great pyramid itself, but after removing the top 30 feet of stone,
they gave up on this impossible task.
So what happened to the treasure of King Khufu?
Conventional wisdom says that, like so many other royal tombs,
the pyramid was the victim of robbers in ancient times. If we
believe the accounts of Manum's men, though, the granite plugs
that blocked the passageways were still in place when they entered
the tomb. How did the thieves get in and out?
In 1638 an English mathematician, John Greaves,
visited the pyramid. He discovered a narrow shaft, hidden in the
wall that connected the Grand Gallery with the descending passage.
Both ends were tightly sealed and the bottom was blocked with
debris. Some archaeologists have suggested this route was used
by the last of the Pharaoh's men to exit the tomb after the granite
plugs had been put in place and by the thieves to get inside.
Given the small size of the passageway and the amount of debris
it seems unlikely that the massive amount of treasure, including
the huge missing sarcophagus lid, could have been removed this
Scientists have long argued about how this massive
structure was built, but the most likely theory seems to be that
the Egyptians built a huge ramp that allowed them to drag the
blocks into position. Because a single straight ramp (as seen
in the recent movie 10,000B.C.) would have to be over a
half mile long to reach the top and would need to contain as much
material as the pyramid itself, engineers have suggested that
the ramp was in the shape of a spiral running around the outside
of the pyramid. Alternately the Egyptians may have combined a
straight ramp that ran part way up the pyramid with a spiral ramp
to the very top levels. Blocks were probably dragged up the ramp
by a team of men and put into their final position through the
use of levers (For more information on the construction of the
Great Pyramid, see our page How to Build
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
A project management group that studied the problem
of building the Great Pyramid estimated that the project, using
material and methods available at the time, might have required
less than ten years to complete: Two or three years site preparation,
five years of actual construction and two years to remove the
ramps and put on the finishing touches. This could have been done
with an average work force of less than 14,000 laborers and a
peak force of 40,000. By examining the ruins of dwellings and
workshops in the area, archeologists have estimated between 4,000
and 5,000 of these men were full-time workers committed to the
project through most of the construction.
complete one of the smaller pyramids on the eastern side
of the Great Pyramid (Copyright Lee Krystek,
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 each worker was entitled to. Also, by scheduling most
of the work to be done during annual flood periods, the Pharaoh
could get a lot done without impacting the normal Egyptian economy.
the Pyramid a Tomb?
Some have suggested that the pyramid was never meant
as a tomb, but as an astronomical observatory. The Roman author
Proclus, in fact, states that before the pyramid was completed
it did serve in this function. We can't put too much weight on
Proclus words, though, remembering that when he advanced his theory
the pyramid was already over 2000 years old.
Richard Proctor, an astronomer, did observe that
the descending passage could have been used to observe the transits
of certain stars. He also suggested that the grand gallery, when
open at the top during construction, could have been used for
mapping the sky.
Many strange (and some silly) theories have arisen
over the years to explain the pyramid and its passageways. Most
archaeologists, however, accept the theory that the great pyramid
was just the largest of a tradition of tombs used for the Pharaohs
pyramid as it appeared in 2005. (Courtesy
Nina Aldin Thune and Creative Commons)
So what happened to Khufu's mummy and treasure?
Nobody knows. Extensive explorations have found no other chambers
or passageways. Still one must wonder if, perhaps in this one
case, the King and his architects outsmarted both the ancient
thieves and modern archaeologists and that somewhere in, or below,
the last wonder of the ancient world, rests Khufu and his sacred
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