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A view of the pyramids at Giza from the plateau to the south of the complex. From right to left are the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the Pyramid of Khafre and the Pyramid of Menkaure. The three smaller pyramids in the foreground are subsidiary structures associated with Menkaure’s pyramid.
The earliest known Egyptian pyramids are found at Saqqara, northwest of Memphis. The earliest among these is the Pyramid of Djoser (constructed 2630 BCE–2611 BCE) which was built during the third dynasty. This pyramid and its surrounding complex were designed by the architect Imhotep, and are generally considered to be the world’s oldest monumental structures constructed of dressed masonry.
The Mastaba of Faraoun, at Saqqara.
The second historically documented Egyptian pyramid is attributed to the architect Imhotep, who planned what Egyptologists believe to be a tomb for the pharaoh Djoser. Imhotep is credited with being the first to conceive the notion of stacking mastabas on top of each other — creating an edifice composed of a number of “steps” that decreased in size towards its apex. The result was the Step Pyramid of Djoser — which was designed to serve as a gigantic stairway by which the soul of the deceased pharaoh could ascend to the heavens. Such was the importance of Imhotep’s achievement that he was deified by later Egyptians.
The most prolific pyramid-building phase coincided with the greatest degree of absolutistpharaonic rule. It was during this time that the most famous pyramids, those near Giza, were built. Over time, as authority became less centralized, the ability and willingness to harness the resources required for construction on a massive scale decreased, and later pyramids were smaller, less well-built and often hastily constructed.
Long after the end of Egypt’s own pyramid-building period, a burst of pyramid-building occurred in what is present-day Sudan, after much of Egypt came under the rule of the Kings of Napata. While Napatan rule was brief and ceased in 661 BC, the Egyptian influence made an indelible impression, and during the later Sudanese Kingdom of Meroe (approximately in the period between 300 BC–300 AD) this flowered into a full-blown pyramid-building revival, which saw more than two hundred indigenous, but Egyptian-inspired royal pyramid-tombs constructed in the vicinity of the kingdom’s capital cities.
Al-Aziz Uthman, son of the great Saladin who crushed the Crusaders, tried to demolish the Great pyramids of Giza, but had to give up because the task was too big. He found it almost as expensive to destroy as to build. However, he did succeed in damaging Menkaure’spyramid.
The shape of Egyptian pyramids is thought to represent the primordial mound from which the Egyptians believed the earth was created. The shape of a pyramid is thought to be representative of the descending rays of the sun, and most pyramids were faced with polished, highly reflective white limestone, in order to give them a brilliant appearance when viewed from a distance. Pyramids were often also named in ways that referred to solar luminescence. For example, the formal name of the Bent Pyramid atDahshur The Southern Shining Pyramid, and that of Senwosret at el-Lahun was Senwosret is Shining.
While it is generally agreed that pyramids were burial monuments, there is continued disagreement on the particular theological principles that might have given rise to them. One theory is that they were designed as a type of “resurrection machine.”
The Egyptians believed the dark area of the night sky around which the stars appear to revolve was the physical gateway into the heavens. One of the narrow shafts that extends from the main burial chamber through the entire body of the Great Pyramid points directly towards the center of this part of the sky. This suggests the pyramid may have been designed to serve as a means to magically launch the deceased pharaoh’s soul directly into the abode of the gods.
All Egyptian pyramids were built on the west bank of the Nile, which as the site of the setting sun was associated with the realm of the dead in Egyptian mythology.
Number and location of pyramids
In 1842 Karl Richard Lepsius produced the first modern list of pyramids, in which he counted 67. A great many more have since been discovered. As of November 2008, 118 Egyptian pyramids have been identified.
The location of Pyramid 29, which Lepsius called the “Headless Pyramid”, was lost for a second time when the structure was buried by desert sands subsequent to Lepsius’ survey. It was only found again during an archaeological dig conducted in 2008.
Many pyramids are in a poor state of preservation or buried by desert sands. If visible at all they may appear as little more than mounds of rubble. As a consequence archaeologists are continuing to identify and study previously unknown pyramid structures.
The most recent pyramid to be discovered is that of Queen Sesheshet, mother of 6th Dynasty Pharaoh Teti, located at Saqqara. The discovery was announced by Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, on 11 November 2008.
All of Egypt’s pyramids, except the small Third Dynasty pyramid of Zawyet el-Amwat (or Zawyet el-Mayitin), are sited on the west bank of theNile, and most are grouped together in a number of pyramid fields. The most important of these are listed geographically, from north to south, below.
The largely destroyed Pyramid of Djedefre
Originally it was thought that this pyramid had never been completed, but the current archaeological consensus is that not only was it completed, but that it was originally about the same size as the Pyramid of Menkaure, which would have placed it among the half-dozen or so largest pyramids in Egypt.
Its location adjacent to a major crossroads made it an easy source of stone. Quarrying — which began in Roman times — has left little apart from about 15 courses of stone superimposed upon the natural hillock that formed part of the pyramid’s core. A small adjacent satellite pyramid is in a better state of preservation.
Map of Giza pyramid complex.
Giza is the location of the Pyramid of Khufu (also known as the “Great Pyramid” and the “Pyramid of Cheops”); the somewhat smaller Pyramid of Khafre (or Kephren); the relatively modest-sized Pyramid of Menkaure (or Mykerinus), along with a number of smaller satellite edifices known as “Queen’s pyramids”; and the Great Sphinx.
Giza pyramid complex seen from above
Of the three, only Khafre’s pyramid retains part of its original polished limestone casing, near its apex. This pyramid appears larger than the adjacent Khufu pyramid by virtue of its more elevated location, and the steeper angle of inclination of its construction — it is, in fact, smaller in both height and volume.
The Giza Necropolis has been a popular tourist destination since antiquity, and was popularized in Hellenistic times when the Great Pyramid was listed by Antipater of Sidon as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Today it is the only one of those wonders still in existence.
This site, halfway between Giza and Abu Sir, is the location for two unfinished Old Kingdom pyramids. The northern structure’s owner is believed to be the PharaohNebka, while the southern structure is attributed to the Third Dynasty PharaohKhaba, also known as Hudjefa, successor to Sekhemkhet. Khaba’s four-year tenure as pharaoh more than likely explains the similar premature truncation of his step pyramid. Today it is approximately twenty meters high; had it been completed it is likely to have exceeded 40.
The Pyramid of Sahure at Abu Sir, viewed from the pyramid’s causeway.
There are a total of fourteen pyramids at this site, which served as the main royal necropolis during the Fifth Dynasty. The quality of construction of the Abu Sir pyramids is inferior to those of the Fourth Dynasty — perhaps signaling a decrease in royal power or a less vibrant economy. They are smaller than their predecessors, and are built of low-quality local limestone.
The three major pyramids are those of Niuserre (which is also the most intact), Neferirkare Kakai and Sahure. The site is also home to the incomplete Pyramid of Neferefre. All of the major pyramids at Abu Sir were built as step pyramids, although the largest of them — thePyramid of Neferirkare Kakai — is believed to have originally been built as a step pyramid some 70 metres high and then later transformed into a “true” pyramid by having its steps filled in with loose masonry.
The Step Pyramid of Saqqara/Djoser
Major pyramids located here include the Step Pyramid of Djoser — generally identified as the world’s oldest substantial monumental structure to be built of finished stone — the Pyramid of Merykare, the Pyramid of Userkaf and the Pyramid of Teti. Also at Saqqara is the Pyramid of Unas, which retains a pyramid causeway that is one of the best-preserved in Egypt. This pyramid was also the subject of one of the earliest known restoration attempts, conducted by a son of Ramesses II. Saqqara is also the location of the incomplete step pyramid of Djoser’s successor Sekhemkhet, known as the Buried Pyramid. Archaeologists believe that had this pyramid been completed it would have been larger than Djoser’s.
South of the main pyramid field at Saqqara is a second collection of later, smaller pyramids, including those of Pepi I, Isesi, Merenre, Ibi and Pepi II. Most of these are in a poor state of preservation.
The Fourth Dynasty pharaoh Shepseskaf either did not share an interest in, or have the capacity to undertake pyramid construction like his predecessors. His tomb, which is also sited at south Saqqara was instead built as an unusually large mastaba and offering temple complex. It is commonly known as the Mastaba of Faraoun.
A previously unknown pyramid was discovered at north Saqqara in late 2008. It is believed to be the tomb of Teti‘s mother, it currently stands approx 5m high, although the original height was closer to 14m. The opening of the tomb is scheduled for early December 2008.
This area is arguably the most important pyramid field in Egypt outside Giza and Saqqara, although until 1996 the site was inaccessible due to its location within a military base, and was relatively unknown outside archaeological circles.
Snofru’s Red Pyramid
The southern Pyramid of Snofru, commonly known as the Bent Pyramid, is believed to be the first Egyptian pyramid intended by its builders to be a “true” smooth-sided pyramid from the outset; the earlier pyramid at Meidum had smooth sides in its finished state – but it was conceived and built as a step pyramid, before having its steps filled in and concealed beneath a smooth outer casing.
As a true smooth-sided structure, the Bent Pyramid was only a partial success — albeit a unique, visually imposing one; it is also the only major Egyptian pyramid to retain a significant proportion of its original smooth outer limestone casing intact. As such it serves as the best contemporary example of how the ancient Egyptians intended their pyramids to look.
Several kilometeres to the north of the Bent Pyramid is the last — and most successful — of the three pyramids constructed during the reign of Snofru; the Red Pyramid is the world’s first successfully completed smooth-sided pyramid. The structure is also the third largest pyramid in Egypt — after the pyramids of Khufu and Khafre at Giza.
The pyramid of Amenemhet I at Lisht.
Two major pyramids are known to have been built at Lisht — those of Amenemhat I and his son, Senusret I. The latter is surrounded by the ruins of ten smaller subsidiary pyramids. One of these subsidiary pyramids is known to be that of Amenemhat’s cousin, Khaba II. The site which is in the vicinity of the oasis of Fayyum, midway between Dahshur and Meidum, and about 100 kilometres south of Cairo, is believed to be in the vicinity of the ancient city ofItjtawy (the precise location of which remains unknown), which served as the capital of Egypt during the 12th Dynasty.
The pyramid at Meidum is one of three constructed during the reign of Sneferu, and is believed by some to have been started by that pharaoh’s father and predecessor, Huni. However, that attribution is uncertain, as no record of Huni’s name has been found at the site.
It was constructed as a step pyramid, and then later converted into the first “true” smooth-sided pyramid when the steps were filled in, and an outer casing added.
The pyramid suffered several catastrophic collapses in ancient and medieval times; medieval Arab writers described it as having 7 steps – although today only the three uppermost of these remain, giving the structure its odd, tower-like appearance. The hill on which the pyramid is situated is not a natural landscape feature — it is the small mountain of debris created when the lower courses and outer casing of the pyramid gave way.
The pyramid at Meidum.
The Pyramid of Amenemhet III at Hawarra
Amenemhet III was the last powerful ruler of the 12th Dynasty, and the pyramid he built at Hawarra, near Faiyum, is believed to post-date the so-called “Black Pyramid” built by the same ruler at Dahshur. It is the Hawarra pyramid that is believed to have been Amenemhet’s final resting place.
The Pyramid of Senusret II. The pyramid’s natural limestone core is clearly visible as the yellow stratum at its base.
The pyramid of Senusret II at el-Lahun is the southernmost royal-tomb pyramid structure in Egypt. Its builders reduced the amount of work necessary to construct it by ingeniously using as its foundation and core a 12-meter-high natural limestone hill.
The following table lays out the chronology of the construction of most of the major pyramids mentioned here. Each pyramid is identified through the pharaoh who ordered it built, their approximate reign and its location.
|Pyramid / Pharaoh||Reign||Field|
|Djoser||c. 2630–2612 BC||Saqqara|
|Sneferu||c. 2612–2589 BC||Dashur|
|Sneferu||c. 2612–2589 BC||Dashur|
|Sneferu||c. 2612–2589 BC||Meidum|
|Khufu||c. 2589–2566 BC||Giza|
|Djedefre||c. 2566–2558 BC||Abu Rawash|
|Khafre||c. 2558–2532 BC||Giza|
|Menkaure||c. 2532–2504 BC||Giza|
|Sahure||c. 2487–2477 BC||Abu Sir|
|Neferirkare Kakai||c. 2477–2467 BC||Abu Sir|
|Nyuserre Ini||c. 2416–2392 BC||Abu Sir|
|Amenemhat I||c. 1991–1962 BC||Lisht|
|Senusret I||c. 1971–1926 BC||Lisht|
|Senusret II||c. 1897–1878 BC||el-Lahun|
|Amenemhat III||c. 1860–1814 BC||Hawara|
The Great Pyramid consists of an estimated 2.3 million limestone blocks with most believed to have been transported from nearby quarries. The Tura limestone used for the casing was quarried across the river. The largest granite stones in the pyramid, found in the “King’s” chamber, weigh 25 to 80 tonnes and were transported from Aswan, more than 500 miles away. Traditionally, ancient Egyptians cut stone blocks by hammering wooden wedges into the stone which were then soaked with water. As the water was absorbed, the wedges expanded, causing the rock to crack. Once they were cut, they were carried by boat either up or down the Nile River to the pyramid. It is estimated that 5.5 million tons of limestone, 8,000 tons of granite (imported from Aswan), and 500,000 tons of mortar were used in the construction of the Great Pyramid.
At completion, the Great Pyramid was surfaced by white “casing stones” – slant-faced, but flat-topped, blocks of highly polished white limestone. These were carefully cut to what is approximately a face slope with a seked of 5½ palms to give the required dimensions. Visibly, all that remains is the underlying stepped core structure seen today. In AD 1300, a massive earthquake loosened many of the outer casing stones, which were then carted away by Bahri Sultan An-Nasir Nasir-ad-Din al-Hasan in 1356 to build mosques and fortresses in nearby Cairo. The stones can still be seen as parts of these structures. Later explorers reported massive piles of rubble at the base of the pyramids left over from the continuing collapse of the casing stones, which were subsequently cleared away during continuing excavations of the site. Nevertheless, a few of the casing stones from the lowest course can be seen to this day in situ around the base of the Great Pyramid, and display the same workmanship and precision as has been reported for centuries. Petrie also found a different orientation in the core and in the casing measuring 193 centimetres ± 25 centimetres. He suggested a redetermination of north was made after the construction of the core, but a mistake was made, and the casing was built with a different orientation. Petrie related the precision of the casing stones as to being “equal to opticians’ work of the present day, but on a scale of acres” and “to place such stones in exact contact would be careful work; but to do so with cement in the joints seems almost impossible”. It has been suggested it was the mortar (Petrie’s “cement”) that made this seemingly impossible task possible, providing a level bed which enabled the masons to set the stones exactly.
The original entrance to the Great Pyramid is 17 metres (56 ft) vertically above ground level and 7.29 metres (23.9 ft) east of the center line of the pyramid. From this original entrance there is a Descending Passage .96 metres (3.1 ft) high and 1.04 metres (3.4 ft) wide which goes down at an angle of 26° 31’23” through the masonry of the pyramid and then into the bedrock beneath it. After 105.23 metres (345.2 ft) the passage becomes level and continues for an additional 8.84 metres (29.0 ft) to the lower Chamber, which appears not to have been finished. There is a continuation of the horizontal passage in the south wall of the lower chamber; there is also a pit dug in the floor of the chamber. Some Egyptologists suggest this Lower Chamber was intended to be the original burial chamber, but that King Khufu later changed his mind and wanted it to be higher up in the pyramid.
The Grand Gallery of the Great Pyramid of Giza
At 28.2 metres (93 ft) from the entrance is a square hole in the roof of the Descending Passage. Originally concealed with a slab of stone, this is the beginning of the Ascending Passage. The Ascending Passage is 39.3 metres (129 ft) long, as wide and high as the Descending Passage and slopes up at almost precisely the same angle. The lower end of the Ascending Passage is closed by three huge blocks of granite, each about 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) long. At the start of the Grand Gallery on the right-hand side there is a hole cut in the wall (and now blocked by chicken wire). This is the start of a vertical shaft which follows an irregular path through the masonry of the pyramid to join the Descending Passage. Also at the start of the Grand Gallery there is a Horizontal Passage leading to the “Queen’s Chamber”. The passage is 1.1m (3’8″) high for most of its length, but near the chamber there is a step in the floor, after which the passage is 1.73 metres (5.7 ft) high.
The Queen’s Chamber is exactly half-way between the north and south faces of the pyramid and measures 5.75 metres (18.9 ft) north to south, 5.23 metres (17.2 ft) east to west and has a pointed roof with an apex 6.23 metres (20.4 ft) above the floor. At the eastern end of the chamber there is a niche 4.67 metres (15.3 ft) high. The original depth of the niche was 1.04 metres (3.4 ft), but has since been deepened by treasure hunters.
In the north and south walls of the Queen’s Chamber there are shafts, which unlike those in the King’s Chamber that immediately slope upwards, are horizontal for around 2m (6′) before sloping upwards. The horizontal distance was cut in 1872 by a British engineer, Waynman Dixon, who believed on the analogy of the King’s Chamber that such shafts must exist. He was proved right, but because the shafts are not connected to the outer faces of the pyramid or the Queen’s Chamber, their purpose is unknown. At the end of one of his shafts, Dixon discovered a ball of black diorite and a bronze implement of unknown purpose. Both objects are currently in the British Museum.
The shafts in the Queen’s Chamber were explored in 1992 by the German engineer Rudolf Gantenbrink using a crawler robot of his own design which he called “Upuaut 2“. He discovered that one of the shafts was blocked by limestone “doors” with two eroded copper “handles”. Some years later the National Geographic Society created a similar robot which drilled a small hole in the southern door, only to find another larger door behind it. The northern passage, which was difficult to navigate because of twists and turns, was also found to be blocked by a door.
The Grand Gallery continues the slope of the Ascending Passage, but is 8.6 metres (28 ft) high and 46.68 metres (153.1 ft) long. At the base it is 2.06 metres (6.8 ft) wide, but after 2.29 metres (7.5 ft) the blocks of stone in the walls are corbelled inwards by 7.6 centimetres (3.0 in) on each side. There are seven of these steps, so at the top the Grand Gallery is only 1.04 metres (3.4 ft) wide. It is roofed by slabs of stone laid at a slightly steeper angle than the floor of the gallery, so that each stone fits into a slot cut in the top of the gallery like the teeth of a ratchet. The purpose was to have each block supported by the wall of the Gallery rather than resting on the block beneath it, which would have resulted in an unacceptable cumulative pressure at the lower end of the Gallery.
At the upper end of the Gallery on the right-hand side there is a hole near the roof which opens into a short tunnel by which access can be gained to the lowest of the Relieving Chambers. The other Relieving Chambers were discovered in 1837/8 by Colonel Howard Vyse and J. S. Perring, who dug tunnels upwards using blasting powder.
The floor of the Grand Gallery consists of a shelf or step on either side, 51 centimetres (20 in) wide, leaving a lower ramp 1.04 metres (3.4 ft) wide between them. In the shelves there are 54 slots, 27 on each side matched by vertical and horizontal slots in the walls of the Gallery. These form a cross shape that rises out of the slot in the shelf. The purpose of these slots is not known, but the central gutter in the floor of the Gallery, which is the same width as the Ascending Passage, has led to speculation that the blocking stones were stored in the Grand Gallery and the slots held wooden beams to restrain them from sliding down the passage. This, in turn, has led to the proposal that originally many more than 3 blocking stones were intended, to completely fill the Ascending Passage.
At the top of the Grand Gallery there is a step giving onto a horizontal passage approximately 1.02 metres (3.3 ft) long, in which can be detected four slots, three of which were probably intended to hold granite portcullises. Fragments of granite found by Petrie in the Descending Passage may have come from these now vanished doors.
The King’s Chamber is 10.47 metres (34.4 ft) from east to west and 5.234 metres (17.17 ft) north to south. It has a flat roof 5.974 metres (19.60 ft) above the floor. 0.91 m (3 ft) above the floor there are two narrow shafts in the north and south walls (one is now filled by an extractor fan to try to circulate air in the pyramid). The purpose of these shafts is not clear: they appear to be aligned on stars or areas of the northern and southern skies, but on the other hand one of them follows a dog-leg course through the masonry so there was not intention to directly sight stars through them. Longtime believed by Egyptologists to be “air shafts” for ventilation, this idea has now been widely abandoned in favor of the shafts serving a ritualistic purpose associated with the ascension of the king’s spirit to the heavens.
The King’s Chamber is entirely faced with granite. Above the roof, which is formed of nine slabs of stone weighing in total about 400 tons, are five compartments known as Relieving Chambers. The first four, like the King’s Chamber, have flat roofs formed by the floor of the chamber above, but the final chamber has a pointed roof. Vyse suspected the presence of upper chambers when he found that he could push a long reed through a crack in the ceiling of the first chamber. From lower to upper, the chambers are known as “Davidson Chamber”, “Wellington Chamber”, “Lady Arbuthnot’s Chamber” and “Campbell’s Chamber”. It is believed that the compartments were intended to safeguard the King’s Chamber from the possibility of a roof collapsing under the weight of stone above the Chamber. As the chambers were not intended to be seen, they were not finished in any way and a few of the stones still retain mason’s marks painted on them. One of the stones in Campbell’s Chamber bears a mark, apparently the name of a work gang, which incorporates the only reference in the pyramid to Pharaoh Khufu
The only object in the King’s Chamber is a rectangular granite “sarcophagus”, one corner of which is broken. The sarcophagus is slightly larger than the Ascending Passage, which indicates that it must have been placed in the Chamber before the roof was put in place. Unlike the fine masonry of the walls of the Chamber, the sarcophagus is roughly finished, with saw marks visible in several places. This is in contrast with the finely finished and decorated sarcophagi found in other pyramids of the same period. Petrie suggested that such a sarcophagus was intended but was lost in the river on the way north from Aswan and a hurriedly made replacement was used instead.
The entrance of the Pyramid
Today tourists enter the Great Pyramid via the Robbers’ Tunnel dug by workmen employed by Caliph al-Ma’mun around AD 820. The tunnel is cut straight through the masonry of the pyramid for approximately 27 metres (89 ft), then turns sharply left to encounter the blocking stones in the Ascending Passage. Unable to remove these stones, the workmen tunnelled up beside them through the softer limestone of the Pyramid until they reached the Ascending Passage. It is possible to enter the Descending Passage from this point, but access is usually forbidden.
Group photo of Australian 11th Battalion soldiers on the Great Pyramid in 1915.
Tim Hepher, Paris
A FRENCH architect says he has cracked a 4500-year-old mystery surrounding Egypt’s Great Pyramid, saying it was built from the inside out.
Previous theories have suggested Pharaoh Khufu’s tomb, the last surviving example of the seven great wonders of antiquity, was built using either a vast frontal ramp or a ramp in a corkscrew shape around the exterior to haul up the stonework.
But flouting previous wisdom, Jean-Pierre Houdin said advanced 3D technology had shown the main ramp, which was used to haul the massive stones to the apex, was contained 10-15 metres beneath the outer skin, tracing a pyramid within a pyramid.
“This is better than the other theories, because it is the only theory that works,” Mr Houdin said after unveiling his hypothesis in a lavish ceremony using 3D computer simulations.
To prove his case, Mr Houdin teamed up with a French company that builds 3D models for auto and aircraft design, Dassault Systemes, which put 14 engineers on the two-year project.
Now — as long as Egyptian authorities agree — an international team is being assembled to probe the pyramid using radars and heat-detecting cameras supplied by a French defence firm.
“This goes against both main existing theories,” noted Egyptologist Bob Brier said at the unveiling. “I’ve been teaching them myself for 20 years, but deep down I know they’re wrong.
“Houdin’s vision is credible, but right now this is just a theory. Everybody thinks it has got to be taken seriously,” said Dr Brier, a senior research fellow at Long Island University.
Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities was not immediately available for comment.
Dassault said Dr Brier and other Egyptologists attending the ceremony were supporters of Mr Houdin’s theory but had no financial links to him or the firm.
Mr Houdin, 56, began working full-time on the riddle eight years ago after a flash of intuition passed to him by his engineer father and five years before actually visiting the site.
He found that a frontal, 1.5-kilometre-long ramp would have used up as much stone as the pyramid, while being too steep near the top. He believes an external ramp was used only to supply the base.
An external corkscrew ramp would have blocked the sight lines needed to build an accurate pyramid and been difficult to fix to the surface, while leaving little room to work.
|How to Build a Pyramid|
|by Bob Brier|
Hidden ramps may solve the mystery of the Great Pyramid’s construction.
Of the seven wonders of the ancient world, only the Great Pyramid of Giza remains. An estimated 2 million stone blocks weighing an average of 2.5 tons went into its construction. When completed, the 481-foot-tall pyramid was the world’s tallest structure, a record it held for more than 3,800 years, when England’s Lincoln Cathedral surpassed it by a mere 44 feet.
We know who built the Great Pyramid: the pharaoh Khufu, who ruled Egypt about 2547-2524 B.C. And we know who supervised its construction: Khufu’s brother, Hemienu. The pharaoh’s right-hand man, Hemienu was “overseer of all construction projects of the king” and his tomb is one of the largest in a cemetery adjacent to the pyramid.
What we don’t know is exactly how it was built, a question that has been debated for millennia. The earliest recorded theory was put forward by the Greek historian Herodotus, who visited Egypt around 450 B.C., when the pyramid was already 2,000 years old. He mentions “machines” used to raise the blocks and this is usually taken to mean cranes. Three hundred years later, Diodorus of Sicily wrote, “The construction was effected by mounds” (ramps). Today we have the “space alien” theory–those primitive Egyptians never could have built such a fabulous structure by themselves; extraterrestrials must have helped them.
Modern scholars have favored these two original theories, but deep in their hearts, they know that neither one is correct. A radical new one, however, may provide the solution. If correct, it would demonstrate a level of planning by Egyptian architects and engineers far greater than anything ever imagined before.
The External Ramp and Crane Theories
The first theory is that a ramp was built on one side of the pyramid and as the pyramid grew, the ramp was raised so that throughout the construction, blocks could be moved right up to the top. If the ramp were too steep, the men hauling the blocks would not be able to drag them up. An 8-percent slope is about the maximum possible, and this is the problem with the single ramp theory. With such a gentle incline, the ramp would have to be approximately one mile long to reach the top of the pyramid. But there is neither room for such a long ramp on the Giza Plateau, nor evidence of such a massive construction. Also, a mile-long ramp would have had as great a volume as the pyramid itself, virtually doubling the man-hours needed to build the pyramid. Because the straight ramp theory just doesn’t work, several pyramid experts have opted for a modified ramp theory.
This approach suggests that the ramp corkscrewed up the outside of the pyramid, much the way a mountain road spirals upward. The corkscrew ramp does away with the need for a massive mile-long one and explains why no remains of such a ramp have been found, but there is a flaw with this version of the theory. With a ramp corkscrewing up the outside of the pyramid, the corners couldn’t be completed until the final stage of construction. But careful measurements of the angles at the corners would have been needed frequently to assure that the corners would meet to create a point at the top. Dieter Arnold, a renowned pyramid expert at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, comments in his definitive work, Building in Egypt: “During the whole construction period, the pyramid trunk would have been completely buried under the ramps. The surveyors could therefore not have used the four corners, edges, and foot line of the pyramid for their calculations.” Thus the modified ramp theory also has a serious problem.
The second theory centers on Herodotus’s machines. Until recently Egyptian farmers used a wooden, cranelike device called a shadouf to raise water from the Nile for irrigation. This device can be seen in ancient tomb paintings, so we know it was available to the pyramid builders. The idea is that hundreds of these cranes at various levels on the pyramid were used to lift the blocks. One problem with this theory is that it would involve a tremendous amount of timber and Egypt simply didn’t have forests to provide the wood. Importing so much lumber would have been impractical. Large timbers for shipbuilding were imported from Lebanon, but this was a very expensive enterprise.
Perhaps an even more fatal flaw to the crane theory is that there is nowhere to place all these cranes. The pyramid blocks tend to decrease in size higher up the Great Pyramid. I climbed it dozens of times in the 1970s and ’80s, when it was permitted, and toward the top, the blocks sometimes provide only 18 inches of standing room, certainly not enough space for cranes large enough to lift heavy blocks of stone. The crane theory can’t explain how the blocks of the Great Pyramid were raised. So how was it done?
The Internal Ramp Theory
A radical new idea has recently been presented by Jean-Pierre Houdin, a French architect who has devoted the last seven years of his life to making detailed computer models of the Great Pyramid. Using start-of-the-art 3-D software developed by Dassault Systemes, combined with an initial suggestion of Henri Houdin, his engineer father, the architect has concluded that a ramp was indeed used to raise the blocks to the top, and that the ramp still exists–inside the pyramid!
The theory suggests that for the bottom third of the pyramid, the blocks were hauled up a straight, external ramp. This ramp was far shorter than the one needed to reach the top, and was made of limestone blocks, slightly smaller than those used to build the bottom third of the pyramid. As the bottom of the pyramid was being built via the external ramp, a second ramp was being built, inside the pyramid, on which the blocks for the top two-thirds of the pyramid would be hauled. The internal ramp, according to Houdin, begins at the bottom, is about 6 feet wide, and has a grade of approximately 7 percent. This ramp was put into use after the lower third of the pyramid was completed and the external ramp had served its purpose.
The design of the internal ramp was partially determined by the design of the interior of the pyramid. Hemienu knew all about the problems encountered by Pharaoh Sneferu, his and Khufu’s father. Sneferu had considerable difficulty building a suitable pyramid for his burial, and ended up having to construct three at sites south of Giza! The first, at Meidum, may have had structural problems and was never used. His second, at Dashur–known as the Bent Pyramid because the slope of its sides changes midway up–developed cracks in the walls of its burial chamber. Huge cedar logs from Lebanon had to be wedged between the walls to keep the pyramid from collapsing inward, but it too was abandoned. There must have been a mad scramble to complete Sneferu’s third and successful pyramid, the distinctively colored Red Pyramid at Dashur, before the aging ruler died.
From the beginning, Hemienu planned three burial chambers to ensure that whenever Khufu died, a burial place would be ready. One was carved out of the bedrock beneath the pyramid at the beginning of its construction. In case the pharaoh had died early, this would have been his tomb. When, after about five years, Khufu was still alive and well, the unfinished underground burial chamber was abandoned and the second burial chamber, commonly called the Queen’s Chamber, was begun. Some time around the fifteenth year of construction Khufu was still healthy and this chamber was abandoned unfinished and the last burial chamber, the King’s Chamber, was built higher up–in the center of the pyramid. (To this day, Khufu’s sarcophagus remains inside the King’s Chamber, so early explorers of the pyramid incorrectly assumed that the second chamber had been for his queen.)
Huge granite and limestone blocks were needed for the roof beams and rafters of the Queen’s and King’s Chambers. Some of these beams weigh more than 60 tons and are far too large to have been brought up through the internal ramp. Thus the external ramp had to remain in use until the large blocks were hauled up. Once that was done, the external ramp was dismantled and its blocks were led up the pyramid via the internal ramp to build the top two-thirds of the pyramid. Perhaps most blocks in this portion of the pyramid are smaller than those at the bottom third because they had to move up the narrow internal ramp.
There were several considerations that went into designing the internal ramp. First, it had to be fashioned very precisely so that it didn’t hit the chambers or the internal passageways that connect them. Second, men hauling heavy blocks of stones up a narrow ramp can’t easily turn a 90-degree corner; they need a place ahead of the block to stand and pull. The internal ramp had to provide a means of turning its corners so, Houdin suggests, the ramp had openings there where a simple crane could be used to turn the blocks.
There are plenty of theories about how the Great Pyramid could have been built that lack evidence. Is the internal ramp theory any different? Is there any evidence to support it? Yes.
A bit of evidence appears to be one of the ramp’s corner notches used for turning blocks. It is two-thirds of the way up the northeast corner–precisely at a point where Houdin predicted there would be one. Furthermore, in 1986 a member of a French team that was surveying the pyramid reported seeing a desert fox enter it through a hole next to the notch, suggesting that there is an open area close to it, perhaps the ramp. It seems improbable that the fox climbed more than halfway up the pyramid. More likely there is some undetected crevice toward the bottom where the fox entered the ramp and then made its way up the ramp and exited near the notch. It would be interesting to attach a telemetric device to a fox and send him into the hole to monitor his movements! The notch is suggestive, but there is another bit of evidence supplied by the French mentioned earlier that is far more compelling.
When the French team surveyed the Great Pyramid, they used microgravimetry, a technique that enabled them to measure the density of different sections of the pyramid, thus detecting hidden chambers. The French team concluded that there were no large hidden chambers inside it. If there was a ramp inside the pyramid, shouldn’t the French have detected it? In 2000, Henri Houdin was presenting this theory at a scientific conference where one of the members of the 1986 French team was present. He mentioned to Houdin that their computer analysis of the pyramid did yield one curious image, something they couldn’t interpret and therefore ignored. That image showed exactly what Jean-Pierre Houdin’s theory had predicted–a ramp spiraling up through the pyramid.
Far from being just another theory, the internal ramp has considerable evidence behind it. A team headed by Jean-Pierre Houdin and Rainer Stadlemann, former director of the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo and one of the greatest authorities on pyramids, has submitted an application to survey the Great Pyramid in a nondestructive way to see if the theory can be confirmed. They are hopeful that the Supreme Council of Antiquities will grant permission for a survey. (Several methods could be used, including powerful microgravimetry, high-resolution infrared photography, or even sonar.) If so, sometime this year we may finally know how Khufu’s monumental tomb was built. One day, if it is indeed there, we might just be able to remove a few blocks from the exterior of the pyramid and walk up the mile-long ramp Hemienu left hidden within the Great Pyramid.
Bob Brier is a senior research fellow at the C. W. Post Campus of Long Island University and a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.
of the Great Pyramid
It is interesting to realize that over 70% of the time required to complete the entire pyramid went to bring the pyramid to just one third of the final height.
For the pyramid to reach 1/3 of its final height
70.37% of the total blocks of the pyramid had to be in place.
Here is a simple formula for calculating proportion of the volume of the unfinished pyramid Vh to the volume of the finished pyramid V:
Where x = h/H is the ratio of the “unfinished” pyramid height to the final height (note: 0 < x <1)
H= Height of the finished pyramid
h= height of the unfinished pyramid
Vh is the volume of the unfinished pyramid at the height h
V is the volume of the completed pyramid at the height H
This graph credit goes to “Draw Function Graphs”:
Here are a few interesting results of the equation above showing relationship between the height of the unfinished pyramid (h) and its volume (Vh )
Using this simple equation we can see that 57.8% of the total pyramid volume (equivalent of its mass) is concentrated in the pyramid that reached only 1/4 of its final height.
When the pyramid had only 1/3 of its final height, 70.4% of the total blocks of the pyramid were already in place!
Assuming even rate for adding blocks to the structure, it took twice as much time to reach 1/3 of the final height of the pyramid than to finish it from that point in time.
According to many estimates it took 30 years to build the Great Pyramid.
The above reasoning indicates that after 20 years of construction the pyramid height reached only 1/3 of the final height.
* * *
Proof of the equation:
The laws of solid geometry result in a common equation for
the volume of the pyramid:
(V = Volume of the entire pyramid, A = area of base,
L = length of the square base, H = height from base to apex)
V= L2 * H/3
Volume of the pyramid (Vh ) at the height h = x*H:
Vh = V – Vt
where Vt is the volume of the “missing” part of the pyramid:
where C is the length of the square top of the pyramid at the height h
(it is the base of the “missing” part of the pyramid
h =DE on the drawing below.)
From the drawing above we can easily see that:
Note: above the C is the length of the base of the “missing” pyramid = DE
The volume concentrated in the lower (finished so far) part of the pyramid at
the height h (h=x*H, where H is the final height) compared to the volume of the finished pyramid can be expressed as:
Pyramid Construction Theories – Introduction
The task of building a pyramid consists of four distinct stages:
- leveling the base (foundation)
- cutting the stones
- transport of the stones to the construction site
- moving and placing the stones in place (construction method)
Cutting the Pyramid Blocks
An average stone block used to build the GP weighs 2.5 ton.
There are few theories how these stone blocks were made:
- Cut in the quarries
- Casted like a modern concrete
Looking towards Khufu’s Pyramid an area in the forground shows
where blocks of limestone have been quarried.
Moving Big Stone Blocks
Moving big stone blocks requires energy to conquer:
- friction (horizontal movement)
- gravity (lifting)
- both (e.g. when using ramps)
To make this process efficient this energy should be as small as possible.
Transport of huge stone blocks in the ancient times was very likely accomplished by using basic laws of physics.
Long distance transport was made possible by use of boats and/or floating rafts.
Papyrus boats with the stones tided up underneath, waiting for high level of the Nile’s.
Copyright 2005-2006 by Andrzej Bochnacki.
This image is based on information from David Jeffreys, Institute of Archeology, University College, London; Oriental Institute Computer Laboratory, University of Chicago and Archeological Graphic Services. NOTE: Vertical scale exaggerated to show ancient Nile river channel (on the left).
Moving stone blocks on land was possible by use of sleds and ramps (with lubricating agents).
Cedar sled from Lisht.
© Copyright Dieter Arnold, Building in Egypt, p. 276
Moving a statue in 12th Dynasty Egypt. Please note the person pouring a “lubricant” in front of the sled.
Effectiveness of Lubrication
The Racetrack is a unique attraction of Death Valley National Park
where rocks slide across the ground all by themselves. Although no one has recently seen them slide across the ground, it’s the wind blowing through the canyon that makes them move after rain wets dried up silt.
With a friction level reduced to nearly to zero, even a finger could push a very heavy rock.
Pyramid Construction Techniques
How the Great Pyramid at Giza was constructed, with resources available to the ancient Egyptians? Was this a new method different from the methods used to build other pyramids? Here are few intriguing images which can suggest the answer.
It seems that over the ages, architects and builders used a different form of construction in the pyramids.
Although the use of ramps is commonly accepted method of getting the heavy stone blocks to their final location within the pyramid, the arrangement of the ramps is in much dispute.
The earliest form of pyramid, the step pyramid, dates back to the 3rd Dynasty, and consists of several steps. This pyramid type was common in the Mesoamerica.
The Step pyramid of King Netjerykhet Djoser at Saqqara
The Temple of Kukulcan (El Castillo), Chichen Itza, Mexico
In building this pyramid Senusret II’s architects took advantage of a natural stump of yellow limestone that they cut down into four steps to serve as the pyramid’s base core. Mudbrick was used to build the upper part of the core, and as several pyramids before, wings were built out from this core and cross walls within the wings were built to form a framework. The resulting sections were then filled with mudbrick.
Ruins of the pyramid Senusret (Senusret Shines)
Also like some prior 12th Dynasty pyramids, the casing was set into a foundation trench at the base of the pyramid. Most of the casing was carried off to build a structure for Ramesses II, though parts of the black granite pyramidion that set atop the pyramid have been found. There was also a cobble filled drainage ditch around the pyramid that was filled with sand to channel rain water.
(Source: http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/senusret2p.htm )
The early locals of this century called the Meidum Pyramid el-haram el-kaddab, meaning “false pyramid” and because of its form, it attracted attention as early as the Middle Ages from travelers. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the famed Arab historian Taqi ad-Din al-Maqrizi thought it looked like a huge, five stepped mountain. However, it eroded so badly that when Frederik Ludwig Norden visited it in the eighteenth century, the pyramid seemed to have only three levels. But it was not weather that eroded it so, but human beings.
Snefru’s Meidum Pyramid in Egypt near the Fayoum
The pyramid was originally a seven step structure built on a rock foundation, but perhaps even before it was finished, an eighth step was added. Each of these first two stages, designated E1 and E2, was intended to be the final structure. Yet, the pyramid was eventually rebuilt in order to transform it into a true, smooth sided pyramid. However, in contrast to E1 and E2, the extension designated E3 did not rest on a solid bedrock foundation, but on three layers of limestone blocks laid on sand.
Even more strangely, while the E1 and E2 stage blocks were angled toward the middle of the pyramid, as in the case of Djoser’s Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara, thus significantly increasing the structure’s strength, the E3 blocks were laid horizontally. (Source: http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/meidump.htm )
According to Charles Rigano, the architects and builders of the late Old Kingdom used interior step pyramid method first (before applying final casing) in order to mark the true apex which allowed greater control over the true shape of the pyramid: http://egyptstudy.org/Ostracon/RiganoStepPyrWinter2003-04.pdf
The pyramid and mortuary temple of Sahure, at Abu Sir ©
This new method of pyramid construction can be illustrated by the Great Pyramid and by later built Pyramid of Khafre.
Khafre was a son of Khufu and his is the second largest known pyramid in Egypt, only approximately 10 feet shorter than the Great Pyramid. Remnants of its original casing are still apparent at the top of the structure. After the accomplishment of the building of the Great Pyramid, King Khafre had a hard act to follow. Khafre rose to the occasion by building his pyramid on higher ground giving the illusion that his pyramid was taller. He also encased the lowest two courses in granite. The pyramid itself lacks the degree of precision that was present in the Great Pyramid. Its angle is slightly sharper and the four corners are not as well aligned to accurately meet the apex. Therefore it exhibits a slight twist at the top. ( Source )
Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren).
Original Height: 143.5 m (470.79 ft)
Current Height: 136.4 m (447.50 ft)
Length of Side: 215.25 (706.19 ft)
Angle: 53° 10’
In 1837 the English army officer Howard Vyse searched for a Southern entrance to the Great Pyramid by using dynamite to blast a hole. He found nothing and soon gave up. The resulting scar has come to be know
as ‘Vyse’s hole’.
Source and Copyright http://www.egyptarchive.co.uk/html/great_pyramid_04.html
The Pyramids at Dahshur
When you first get to Dahshur, you might be forgiven for not paying much attention to the strange looking hill or heap of rubble shown below. In fact, however, this is the so-called Black Pyramid of pharoah Amenemhat III who ruled from 1855-1808 BC during the Middle Kingdom period. Although it might look like a total wreck, the Black Pyramid is one of only three of the original eleven pyramids at Dahshur which are still standing, and the interior passageways and chambers of the Black Pyramid are almost entirely intact.
The background of date palms on the flood plain of the Nile tells part of the reason why this pyramid collapsed – it’s only 10 meters above sea level, and built on an unstable foundation of hard clay. Another reason is the building materials used – primarily mud brick and, apart from its outer covering, there was far less stonework in its structure than most other pyramids. It’s thought that this was the first pyramid with burial chambers built to house both a pharoah and his queens. The bones of both queen Aat and his second consort, who might have been Neferuptah, were found in their burial chambers – however, despite the presence of a sarcophagus in the king’s burial chamber, it seems that he was buried at another pyramid he built, at Hawara. Surprisingly, though, there were four other burials inside the Black Pyramid and archaeologists speculate that two of these might have been pharoah Amenemhat IV and his queen, Sobekneferu.
You can’t approach the Black Pyramid because it’s in a restricted military zone, so this photo was taken with a long lens from the Bent Pyramid, described later.
The Red Pyramid is much more what people expect when they hear the word “pyramid”. Although this is only the second true pyramid which was ever built, it comes close to achieving the ideal of the pyramid builders’ art. It gives away very little to efforts by later generations, and it’s still the third tallest pyramid ever built, behind the two largest at Giza. It’s really amazing that it’s so little known, despite the fact that it was in a restricted area until 1996. The slightly greater distance of Dahshur from Cairo – it’s about 25 kilometers south of Giza and 10 kilometers south of Saqqara – make it a bit more of a hassle for tourists and a bit less attractive for tour operators, especially since there aren’t any tourist shops in the area to make a commission from! All of which makes this an especially attractive place to visit.
On the right-hand side of this photo you can see a curved ramp of rubble which leads up to the pyramid’s entrance. Take a good look at how close to the ground that entrance is, just above where the rubble meets the face of the pyramid.
How look how high that entrance is when you’re at ground level! The edge of the pyramid in this photo isn’t even as steep as it is in real life, because of the angle from which I took this shot. It’s a fairly good haul up to the entrance, let alone to the top of the pyramid!
Once at the entrance, it’s then a 63 meter long hunched-over walk down this 27 degree ramp into the pyramid. The entrance in this photo would be square, except for the old arab man who was sitting there. Perhaps he was looking after the air pump, whose pipe you can see on the left of the ramp, or perhaps he was “guarding” the pyramid. Nevertheless, when I came out I took this as another Baksheesh Moment, and gave him a little something for his efforts, whatever they were. Despite the pumping of air, it was very hot and sticky inside the pyramid, even on a day which was rather cold and windy outside.
There are three rooms or chambers inside the pyramid, joined by a single corridor. The ancient Egyptians didn’t come up with the idea of the arch as a load-bearing mechanism in stone buildings, so when they did construct rooms in stone structures they either used lots of stone pillars spaced close together, as in many of the “hypostyle halls” found in temples, or they used large slabs of stone for the ceiling, or when they wanted a larger room, they built so-called “corbelled” ceilings like this one in the 12 meter high first chamber, with higher and higher levels of stone moving slowly in towards the center, the huge mass of stone above the room keeping the ceiling from falling in on itself. The black writing in two corners of this photo is graffiti left by people who marked their names in the mid-1800s in their own personal strivings towards immortality.
|Here’s the second corbelled chamber, which is directly beneath the apex of the pyramid. The staircase leads up to a passageway to the final chamber.
Thieves were breaking into burial chambers even from the earliest days, so the passageways inside the pyramids were deliberately made to be difficult to follow, with deep pits for unwary grave robbers to fall into and stone blocks called portcullises which were lowered from the ceiling to block the path. Nevertheless, almost all of them were eventually ransacked.
The third corbelled chamber is the burial chamber, which is 15 meters high and lacks ornamentation, unlike the much later highly decorated tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. As you can see from this photo, all of the chamber’s contents have been removed and its floor has been excavated, in an unsuccessful attempt to find other passageways.
Like everything else at Dahshur, the appearance of the Bent Pyramid is somewhat misleading. As you can see, much of the outer limestone covering is still intact, and yet this pyramid is older than the Black Pyramid, the Red Pyramid, or any of the pyramids at Giza, all of which have lost most of their outer layers to the ravages of time and pilfering by later generations of builders.
the Bent Pyramid and its close neighbour the Red Pyramid were built by the pharoah Sneferu, about 2,600 BC. His son Cheops went on to build the Great Pyramid at Giza. For such an early structure, the Bent Pyramid is massive, the same height as the Red Pyramid, which also makes it the third-highest in all of Egypt. The shape which gives it its name is something of a mystery, the result perhaps of a design error or cost cutting.
Audrey DeLange At The Queens Chamber,
“The Great Pyramid”, Khufu, or Cheops, Giza Plateau, Egypt.
Entering Stairs Of The Grand Gallery,
“The Great Pyramid”, Khufu, or Cheops, Giza Plateau, Egypt.
Its A Long Climb Up Into The Grand Gallery,
“The Great Pyramid”, Khufu, or Cheops, Giza Plateau, Egypt.
Half Way Up Into The Grand Gallery,
“The Great Pyramid”, Khufu, or Cheops, Giza Plateau, Egypt.
Near Top Step Of The Grand Gallery,
“The Great Pyramid”, Khufu, or Cheops, Giza Plateau, Egypt.
“It Was A Long Hard Climb, But Worth It”.
Kings Chamber, Pharaohs Sarcophagus, “The Great Pyramid”, Khufu, or Cheops, Giza Plateau, Egypt.
“It Was A Really!!! Long Hard Climb, But Worth It”.
Kings Chamber, Pharaohs Sarcophagus, “The Great Pyramid”, Khufu, or Cheops, Giza Plateau, Egypt.
Khufu Or Cheops The Great Pyramid
Plan Of Pyramid
Top Real Entrance
Bottom Forced Entrance
Looking Down Into Workers Shaft
From Bottom Of Grand Gallery
Toward Subterrarean Chamber
Subterranean Chamber Entrance & Exit
Facing West Inside
The Subterranean Chamber
Facing South Looking Down
Into The Decending Passageway
Facing South Looking Up Into
The Ascending Passageway
Where Ascending Passage
And Descending Passage Meet
Facing West Inside