Pyramid of Giza
Nina Aldin Thune and Creative Commons)
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.
the Great Pyramid
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, Egypt.
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).
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.
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 and heaven.
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 of history.
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 untold
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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 way, however.
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 a Pyramid).
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
(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 of Egypt.
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 gold.