The Pyramids of Egypt are perhaps the most fascinating and mysterious man-made structures in the history of mankind. Their giant size, precise alignment, complex inner passages and chambers and their astronomical orientations have long fueled speculation about how they were built and why? Indeed, many theories, some bizarre, have been proposed to explain a construction process that even with modern technology seems incredible.
They were built around 2500 B.C and were the last great monument to be built in Egypt before its civilization collapsed into a series of desultory internecine struggles for power.
They were built about 4,500 years ago. The first pyramid is believed to have been that of King Zoser (or Djoser) at Saqqara (or Sakkara). During the fifth dynasty (2494-2345 BCE), Egypt became an empire and pyramid building increased dramatically with as it did with the sixth dynasty (2345-2181 BCE). The largest and most famous is of course that of King Khufu (481 ft tall) at Giza which was built around 2550 B.C.
The Egyptians themselves were confused about who exactly had built the pyramids. The official version stated that they were built by the god-King ‘Ra’, who had passed his knowledge and skills onto the pharaohs. It was only at a much later date that it became accepted that these pyramids had been built by workers, artisans and common people; indeed there is no mention of such in ancient Egyptian historical records.
The core of the pyramids is believed to be a burial chamber that was originally covered in white limestone casing stones which were cut with such precision that a razor blade could not fit between them. The outer surface of the casing was smooth and flat and polished to perfection, so much so that it would reflect any light falling on it like a mirror.
The outer casing was removed with great difficulty using tools made specially for the purpose and transport of these enormous blocks from the quarries to the building site is another problem that has never been satisfactorily explained. Most of the limestone used in making statues, reliefs, obelisks etc came from very large quarries at Turah located around 7km from Cairo on the west bank of the Nile at Muqattam.
This limestone was transported using Nile water rafts, but it would have been an enormous and highly skilled undertaking to navigate these huge stones down river during a period in Egyptian history when there were no compasses or accurate way of determining longitude. However, recent discoveries at Giza have shed some light on this problem.
The builders of the pyramids did not need to use any form of surveying or measuring devices as they had precise knowledge about where north was, in fact more accurate than that used today by all forms of science using magnetic and other navigational instruments. It is now known from discoveries on the ground and by sophisticated examination of the north pole star (which changes position over a long period) that the ancient Egyptians used an accurate system of astronomy which enabled them to build with such precision.
The pyramids were not just tombs but in fact had many functions, which are still only just being revealed by modern science and investigation. The Giza pyramids were surrounded by a wall called the ‘serdab’ or ‘fortress’, and inside them was an entrance corridor leading into a large rectangular enclosed hall called the ‘antichamber’. This in turn led to a second closed fortress-like wall, and finally to two tunnels, one of which led up 186 rough stone steps towards the King’s chamber and the other down towards a granite-lined underground waterway.
The king’s chamber was built entirely of polished massive limestone blocks, with an average weight of 5 -6 tons each and measures roughly 20ft square. The most important part of this vast complex is known as the ‘great pyramid’ which rises to a height of 480 ft, and according to Egyptologists is built to house the remains of pharaoh King Khufu (ruling between 2589 – 2566 BCE).
This magnificent Structure is surrounded by three smaller pyramids which once held the bodies of his two sons and his wife. The whole complex took approximately 30 years to complete at a cost in excess of 10 million (25,000 tons) of limestone blocks. The work force involved in this project consisted of about 100,000 men and women from all parts of Egypt, according to Herodotus, the Greek historian. Modern Egyptologists say they were about 20,000 to 30,000 workers. They were well paid for their efforts; a whole piece of silver once a day for common workers and five times as much for skilled artisans.
‘Khufu’ is the ancient Egyptian name for the king buried in the Great Pyramid commonly known as ‘Khufu’, who reigned from 2609-2584 BC. The Old Kingdom period, which began around 2600 BC coincided with a significant increase in trade between Egypt and other surrounding countries such as Mesopotamia, Syria etc. This is evident from the large number of archaeological artifacts made from materials not normally found in Egypt, such as lapis lazuli (semi-precious stones), which was imported from Afghanistan.
Khufu’s first royal wife Henutsen is thought to have been buried at Giza but her greywacke sarcophagus now lies empty in the middle pyramid (Khafre) while his second wife, Hetepheres lies with their two daughters (situated in Menkaure). The pyramids of Khufu and Khafre are thought to be the world’s oldest man made objects that have survived 4500 years of continuous use.
Menkaure was the only son of Khafre and the father of Shepseskaf who built a small pyramid at south Saqqara and was buried there. The builders of the three pyramids all came from same royal lineage, a fact that is apparent from the portraits found on various artifacts found within these pyramids.
The main purpose of the pyramids is to house the tombs of ancient Egyptian pharaohs. They were built along the Nile River and were positioned so they follow a certain alignment. The pyramids are also often considered as significant architectural structures which symbolize strength.
The location was chosen for its closeness to Memphis, but the site also had several advantages. For one, because it sits higher than other sites in this area, the builders could build taller structures. This made it easier to use them as tombs. It also sits closer to stone quarries from which they would extract limestone.
The location was also easily accessible. It sits on the Nile Delta, which contains a great source of water for both drinking and irrigation. Because it is closer to the Nile River, traveling down this river would lead travelers straight to Memphis. This meant that people could reach the pyramids more directly from other parts of Egypt.
The site itself also has a special significance. If you look at the Giza plateau from above, it looks like an eagle with outstretched wings. This also symbolizes power and strength.
There is no doubt that the Great Pyramids of Giza, one of the most famous structures in the world, are arguably some of the most intriguing monuments to explore, but there is still much to learn about them. Scientists continue to try to discover and decode a lot of secrets about them. Who knows what else they will uncover in the years to come?
*The information provided in this article should be viewed with some skepticism because sources often disagree. Additionally, this article is based on a limited understanding of Egypt’s history which might change to be more accurate as more ancient sources are uncovered.
What are your thoughts about the pyramids of Egypt? Any questions you might have about them? Feel free to share, and take a look below at the private tours we provide that include the Pyramids as a visit.
Thank you for reading!