The Pyramids of Giza, built over 4,500 years ago, are ancient Egypt’s architectural masterpieces, serving as pharaonic tombs and symbolising the civilisation’s brilliance and mystery.
The Pyramids of Giza, designed for timeless endurance, have indeed achieved this feat. These grandiose tombs stand as a testament to the Old Kingdom of Egypt, dating back approximately 4,500 years.
The rulers of Egypt anticipated their transformation into deities in the afterlife. In preparation for their continued existence, they constructed temples honouring the gods and colossal pyramidal tombs for themselves, replete with all the essentials needed for their journey and sustenance in the beyond.
Each pyramid, a monumental structure in itself, forms part of a more extensive complex that includes a royal palace, various temples, and pits for solar boats, among other elements. This article delves into the creators of these wonders, the methods of their construction, and the remarkable treasures discovered within them.
Construction of the Pyramids of Giza
Who built the Pyramids?
Around 2550 B.C., Pharaoh Khufu embarked on a monumental endeavour, constructing the first pyramid at Giza. His Great Pyramid, the largest of the complex, originally soared to an impressive height of 481 feet (147 meters). Though now slightly reduced in height with the loss of its outer casing stones, it’s still a marvel, composed of an estimated 2.3 million stone blocks, each weighing between 2.5 to 15 tons.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Khufu’s son, Khafre, initiated the construction of Giza’s second pyramid around 2520 B.C. Khafre’s burial site is particularly notable, not just for the pyramid itself but also for the inclusion of the Sphinx. This enigmatic sculpture, featuring a pharaoh’s head on a lion’s body, was largely buried in sand until the 1800s, revealing only its head. While it is thought to guard Khafre’s tomb complex, the exact origins and purpose of the Sphinx remain a topic of ongoing debate and mystery.
Constructed by Menkaure, Khafre’s son, around 2490 B.C., the third pyramid at Giza is notably smaller than its predecessors, standing at approximately 218 feet, which is less than half the height of the first two. This pyramid is part of a sophisticated complex that features two distinct temples linked by an extended causeway, alongside three smaller pyramids dedicated to queens. Unique to the Giza site, Menkaure’s burial chambers are adorned with niche decorations and boast a vaulted ceiling. Tragically, the pharaoh’s intricately designed sarcophagus was lost in a maritime accident near Gibraltar in 1838.
How were the Pyramids of Giza built?
Cardinal Direction Alignment
The Great Pyramid’s base aligns remarkably well with the four cardinal directions, deviating by an average of just 3 minutes and 38 seconds of arc. This precision led to various theories on how the ancient Egyptians achieved such accuracy:
- Solar Gnomon Method: This technique involves observing the shadow of a vertical rod over a day. A circle drawn around the rod’s base intersects with the shadow line, and connecting these points yields an east-west line. Experiments showed an average deviation of 2 minutes, and 9 seconds using this method. A pinhole variant resulted in a 19-arcsecond deviation, while an angled block method was less accurate.
- Pole Star Method: This method involved tracking the polar star with a movable sight and a fixed plumb line, finding true north at the midpoint between its maximum eastern and western elongations. During the Old Kingdom, Thuban, the then-polar star, was about two degrees off the celestial pole.
- Simultaneous Transit Method: Around 2500 BC, the stars Mizar and Kochab aligned vertically near the true north. Over time, their eastward shift helps explain the pyramids’ slight misalignment.
Interior and Exterior of the Great Pyramids of Giza
Upon its completion, the Great Pyramids of Giza was entirely sheathed in white limestone, featuring exquisitely cut blocks arranged in horizontal layers, meticulously fitted with mortar. Their outer surfaces were sloped and polished, forming four uniform faces at an angle of 51°50’40” (a seked of 5+1/2 palms). Examination of the unfinished casing blocks in the pyramids of Menkaure and Henutsen at Giza indicates that stones were smoothed only after being set in place, as evidenced by chiseled marks guiding their correct alignment and indicating excess material to be removed.
The height of these layers varies significantly. The tallest layers are found at the bottom, with the first layer measuring 1.49 meters (4.9 feet) in height. As the layers ascend, they average just over one royal cubit (0.5 m; 1.7 ft) in height, displaying an irregular pattern of height variation.
Supporting the casing were “backing stones,” which were also precisely dressed and bound to the casing with mortar. These stones now form the pyramid’s visible exterior, following its partial dismantling in the Middle Ages. During earthquakes in northern Egypt, many outer stones were removed, reportedly used by Bahri Sultan An-Nasir Nasir-ad-Din al-Hasan in 1356 for construction in Cairo.
Muhammad Ali Pasha further removed casing stones in the early 19th century for his Alabaster Mosque in Cairo. Later explorations found large piles of rubble at the pyramid’s base from the casing stones’ collapse, which were eventually cleared during ongoing excavations. Today, some of the original casing stones can still be seen, particularly on the north side, uncovered by Vyse in 1837.
Chemical analysis of the mortar, which includes organic components like charcoal, dated to 2871–2604 BC, suggests that it allowed masons to precisely set stones by providing a level bed. Contrary to some theories, archaeological and petrographic analyses confirm that these casing stones were not made from cast concrete but were quarried and moved.
Flinders Petrie, in 1880, observed that the pyramid’s sides are distinctly concave, with grooves down the middle, possibly due to increased casing thickness in these areas. A 2005 laser scanning survey corroborated these findings. Under certain lighting conditions, the faces can appear split, leading to theories that the pyramid was intentionally constructed with eight sides.
Regarding the pyramidion, or capstone, its material remains speculative, with limestone, granite, or basalt being common suggestions. Popular culture often imagines it as solid gold or gilded. However, known 4th dynasty pyramidia, such as those of the Red Pyramid and Queen’s Pyramid of Menkaure, were made of white limestone and not gilded. Evidence of gilded capstones appears from the 5th dynasty onwards.
The Great Pyramid’s pyramidion was lost in antiquity, with ancient reports like Pliny the Elder’s describing a platform at the summit. The pyramid now stands about 8 meters shorter, missing approximately 1,000 tonnes of material from its top.
In 1874, Scottish astronomer Sir David Gill installed a mast atop the pyramid while surveying Egypt, providing measurements accurate to within 1 mm. This mast remains in place to this day.
Area Surrounding the Great Pyramids of Giza
Looting of the Pyramids of Giza
The looting of the pyramids of Giza, including the Great Pyramid, has been a topic of interest and research for many historians and Egyptologists. Authors Bob Brier and Hoyt Hobbs have stated that by the time of the New Kingdom, which saw the inception of royal burials in the Valley of the Kings, “all the pyramids were robbed.” This implies that the looting of these ancient tombs had become widespread by then.
Joyce Tyldesley has noted that the Great Pyramid itself was believed to have been opened and emptied during the Middle Kingdom, long before the Arab caliph Al-Ma’mun’s famed entry into the structure around 820 AD.
I. E. S. Edwards, discussing the account by the ancient Greek geographer Strabo, refers to a movable stone on one side of the pyramid leading to a sloping passage. Edwards speculates that the pyramid might have been breached by robbers after the Old Kingdom’s fall, and subsequently re-sealed and re-opened multiple times until the installation of what Strabo described. This hypothesis also suggests that by the time of Al-Ma’mun, the original entrance had either been forgotten or deliberately obscured again.
Notably, Gaston Maspero and Flinders Petrie pointed out that evidence of a similar secret door was found in the Bent Pyramid at Dashur, indicating a possible common practice in pyramid design to include concealed entries.
Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian who visited Egypt in the 5th century BC, recounts a local legend about secret vaults beneath the pyramid, supposedly containing Khufu’s tomb on an island. Edwards, however, remarks that the Great Pyramid had likely been plundered long before Herodotus’ time and may have been re-sealed during the Twenty-sixth Dynasty of Egypt, a period known for the restoration of many ancient monuments. The story recounted to Herodotus might have evolved over nearly two centuries, shaped by generations of pyramid guides.
Legacy of the Pyramids of Giza
The enigmatic pyramids of Giza remain shrouded in mystery, and as the scientific community tirelessly unravels their secrets, intriguing new inquiries continue to emerge.
Since 2015, the ScanPyramids project, a collaborative effort led by an international team operating under the authority of Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities, has harnessed state-of-the-art technology to explore the inner recesses of these ancient wonders, all without physically entering them. Leveraging the remarkable advancements in high-energy particle physics, this endeavour has harnessed cosmic rays to unveil concealed voids that have remained enigmatic for over four millennia. Among these revelations is a sizable void that rivals the dimensions of the renowned Grand Gallery within the pyramid, along with an intriguing passage known as the North Face Corridor leading to the Pyramid of Khufu.
While the contents of these newly discovered spaces remain a mystery, the consensus among experts leans towards their utilitarian rather than ritualistic purposes. It is widely believed that these voids played a crucial role during the construction process, serving as a meticulously engineered system to distribute the immense weight and stress of these iconic structures, which have undoubtedly endured the test of time.
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