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The Great Pyramids of Giza

by Dr. Amy Calvert
The Great Pyramids at Giza, Egypt (photo: KennyOMG, CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Great Pyramids at Giza, Egypt (photo: KennyOMG, CC BY-SA 4.0)

One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

The last remaining of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, the great pyramids of Giza, are perhaps the most famous and discussed structures in history. These massive monuments were unsurpassed in height for thousands of years after their construction and continue to amaze and enthrall us with their overwhelming mass and seemingly impossible perfection. Their exacting orientation and mind-boggling construction has elicited many theories about their origins, including unsupported suggestions that they had extra-terrestrial impetus. However, by examining the several hundred years prior to their emergence on the Giza plateau, it becomes clear that these incredible structures were the result of many experiments, some more successful than others, and represent an apogee in line with the development of the royal mortuary complex.
Pyramid of Khafre (photo: MusikAnimal, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Pyramid of Khafre (photo: MusikAnimal, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Three pyramids, three rulers

The three primary pyramids on the Giza plateau were built over the span of three generations by the rulers Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure.  Each pyramid was part of a royal mortuary complex that also included a temple at its base and a long stone causeway (some nearly 1 kilometer in length) leading east from the plateau to a valley temple on the edge of the floodplain.
The causeway of the Khafre (Chephren) pyramid complex, taken from the entrance of the Khafre Valley Temple (photo: Hannah Pethen, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The causeway of the Khafre (Chephren) pyramid complex, taken from the entrance of the Khafre Valley Temple (photo: Hannah Pethen, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Other (smaller) pyramids, and small tombs

In addition to these major structures, several smaller pyramids belonging to queens are arranged as satellites. A large cemetery of smaller tombs, known as mastabas (Arabic for ‘bench’ in reference to their shape—flat-roofed, rectangular, with sloping sides), fills the area to the east and west of the pyramid of Khufu. These were arranged in a grid-like pattern and constructed for prominent members of the court.  Being buried near the pharaoh was a great honor and helped ensure a prized place in the Afterlife.
Map of Giza pyramid complex (map by: MesserWoland, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Map of Giza pyramid complex (map by: MesserWoland, CC BY-SA 3.0)

A reference to the sun

 The shape of the pyramid was a solar reference, perhaps intended as a solidified version of the rays of the sun. Texts talk about the sun’s rays as a ramp the pharaoh mounts to climb to the sky—the earliest pyramids, such as the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara—were actually designed as a staircase. The pyramid was also clearly connected to the sacred ben-ben stone, an icon of the primeval mound that was considered the place of initial creation. The pyramid was viewed as a place of regeneration for the deceased ruler.
View up the side of Khufu's pyramid showing scale of the core blocks (Photo: Amy Calvert)
View up the side of Khufu's pyramid showing scale of the core blocks (Photo: Amy Calvert)

Construction

Many questions remain about the construction of these massive monuments, and theories abound as to the actual methods used. The workforce needed to build these structures is also still much discussed. Discovery of a town for workers to the south of the plateau has offered some answers. It is likely that there was a permanent group of skilled craftsmen and builders who were supplemented by seasonal crews of approximately 2000 conscripted peasants. These crews were divided into gangs of 200 men, with each group further divided into teams of 20.  Experiments indicate that these groups of 20 men could haul the 2.5 ton blocks from quarry to pyramid in about 20 minutes, their path eased by a lubricated surface of wet silt. An estimated 340 stones could be moved daily from quarry to construction site, particularly when one considers that many of the blocks (such as those in the upper courses) were considerably smaller.

Backstory

We are used to seeing the pyramids at Giza in alluring photographs, where they appear as massive and remote monuments rising up from an open, barren desert. Visitors might be surprised to find, then, that there is a golf course and resort only a few hundred feet from the Great Pyramid, and that the burgeoning suburbs of Giza (part of the greater metropolitan area of Cairo) have expanded right up to the foot of the Sphinx. This urban encroachment and the problems that come with it—such as pollution, waste, illegal activities, and auto traffic—are now the biggest threats to these invaluable examples of global cultural heritage.
Aerial view of the Giza pyramid complex and development nearby (photo: © Raimond Spekking, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Aerial view of the Giza pyramid complex and development nearby (photo: © Raimond Spekking, CC BY-SA 4.0)
The pyramids were inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979, and since 1990, the organization has sponsored over a dozen missions to evaluate their status. It has supported the restoration of the Sphinx, as well as measures to curb the impact of tourism and manage the growth of the neighboring village. Still, threats to the site continue: air pollution from waste incineration contributes to the degradation of the stones, and the massive illegal quarrying of sand on the neighboring plateau has created holes large enough to be seen on Google Earth. Egypt’s 2011 uprisings and their chaotic political and economic aftermath also negatively impacted tourism, one of the country’s most important industries, and the number of visitors is only now beginning to rise once more.
UNESCO has continually monitored these issues, but its biggest task with regard to Giza has been to advocate for the rerouting of a highway that was originally slated to cut through the desert between the pyramids and the necropolis of Saqqara to the south. The government eventually agreed to build the highway north of the pyramids. However, as the Cairo metropolitan area (the largest in Africa, with a population of over 20 million) continues to expand, planners are now proposing a multilane tunnel to be constructed underneath the Giza Plateau. UNESCO and ICOMOS are calling for in-depth studies of the project’s potential impact, as well as an overall site management plan for the Giza pyramids that would include ways to halt the continued impact of illegal dumping and quarrying.
As massive as they are, the pyramids at Giza are not immutable. With the rapid growth of Cairo, they will need sufficient attention and protection if they are to remain intact as key touchstones of ancient history.
Backstory by Dr. Naraelle Hohensee

Khan Academy video wrapper
Essay by Dr. Amy Calvert

Want to join the conversation?

  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Quinn McLeish
    Does anyone really believe that the building of the pyramids "had extra-terrestrial impetus"?
    (10 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user Daryl Norton
    I feel the only reason people believe that the work was aided by ET is the continual propagation of untruths or half truths.

    Statements such as, "We could not build a structure like this today.", or "We have know idea how they were so accurate in their measurements."
    (12 votes)
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  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user FlorianS
    In dutch we call them the pyramids of Cheops, Chefren and Mykerinos instead of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. I suppose we use the Greek names, correct me if i'm wrong. But why is that? Wouldn't it be clearer if the same names were used globally?
    (10 votes)
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  • hopper cool style avatar for user Nick Owen
    What does it mean by "Rock Cut Tombs"?
    (3 votes)
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  • leaf blue style avatar for user Victoria
    I personally find the pyramids very interesting, but I have always wondered how they set the traps inside and safely got out of the pyramids without setting one off. also what would Egyptians do if we did find the wealth left for the pharaohs
    (3 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Polina Vitić
      Those are really good questions!

      Although many Egyptian antiquities were taken out of the country many years ago, today whatever is found in Egypt would likely stay there. One of the world's leading Egyptologists is actually Egyptian himself, and he used to head the country's department of antiquities. The country is also planning a Grand Egyptian Museum near Giza.

      New tombs and treasures continue to be discovered - here is an article about several discoveries in 2017:
      https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/sep/09/mummies-tomb-ancient-egypt-valley-of-the-kings

      As for booby traps, they are kind of a myth: most tombs had obstacles like stone slabs but no real booby traps. Prevention against grave robbers included the death penalty for those caught, as well as curses placed on anyone entering the tomb.

      However, this video is has a lot of information about the practice of tomb raiding in ancient Egypt, and also tells how the treasures of the pharoahs were "recycled":
      https://youtu.be/dYJ2qfb-nKI

      Hope this helps!
      (4 votes)
  • boggle purple style avatar for user astoriabutler
    Id like to know how in the world the ancient Egyptians could build things this high. I mean, they probably had ladders, but Egypt has a dry climate and it would take a lot of tees to have wood to build a ladder that high.
    (3 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Marisa Roberson
      According to E. Raymond Capt in his book "The Great Pyramid Decoded", the Egyptians could've used logs underneath the huge stone blocks to make heaving the blocks easier. The Great Pyramid is also by the Nile River, meaning that the Egyptians would've used long boats to move the blocks across the river, making their job even easier. Hope this helps you, and I highly recommend you read all of Capt's books!
      (2 votes)
  • hopper cool style avatar for user Tej
    Why do queen,s pyramids have to be built differently?
    (2 votes)
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  • leafers tree style avatar for user George K.
    If it took about 10 years to build a pyramid wouldn't that be kind of morbid, for the Pharaoh? I mean there's this huge tomb waiting for him. Waiting, waiting waiting....
    Boogie boogie boogie.. Anyway what would happen if the Pharaoh died halfway through the construction? You can't just keep a dead body around for years, besides germs and such that'll smell. So what would they do?
    (2 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Amy Calvert
      Keep in mind that, to the Egyptians, these weren't morbid reminders of death, but rather a sort of pathway to the stars. There were definitely kings that died before their monuments were completed; we have several examples of partially finished or very hastily completed royal tombs. The three kings associated with the Great Pyramids, however, started early in their reigns and lived until after they were.
      (3 votes)
  • aqualine seed style avatar for user cmrodriguez3
    How could they even make something so big with the stuff they had back then.
    (2 votes)
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  • leafers seedling style avatar for user MELISSA
    Does anybody ever wonder if all these scientific questions and answers about ET are made up i know that some of its real but help me understand if its true or not?
    (2 votes)
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