How Were the Pyramids of Egypt Built?

The Pyramids of Giza were built nearly 5000 years ago, at the beginning of human recorded history.

The great pyramids of Giza are also known as the Pyramid of Khufu or the Pyramid of Cheops, are the oldest of the three main pyramids on the Giza plateau. This pyramid was built around 2580 BC and it is the oldest of the seven wonders of the Ancient World. In fact, it is the only Antique Wonder to remain largely intact.

For 3800 years, the great pyramid of Giza was the tallest man-made structure in the world which is comprised of 2.3 million stones, some of them dragged, floated, or rolled from 500 miles away. Until the Lincoln Cathedral (Lincoln Minster) was built in 1311 AD in England.

Introduction

Human beings have always endeavored to outdo their predecessors in the field of science and engineering. Construction is no exception. Architects and engineers have thought their vision and skills contributed to the construction of icon structures. These structures have made human beings wonder at either their extraordinary dimensions or massiveness or beauty and craftsmanship or skills and vision of the designer or professional knowledge and competence. In order to achieve these extraordinary milestones, some have succeeded and many have failed. In order to inspire professionals, we desire to cover some of the world-famous structures, often called “WONDERS OF THE WORLD”. From time to time, these “WONDERS” are listed by historians, writers, engineering associations, and professionals.

The seven wonders of the ancient/antique world were first designated by the Antipater of Sidon in the 2nd century BC. They were as follows:

  1. Pyramids of Giza (Gizah) in Egypt built in 2580 BC. The only surviving ancient wonders.
  2. The temple of Artemis (Diana) of the Ephesians, built-in 350 BC at Ephesus, Turkey. Only fragments remain as the temple was destroyed by the Goths in 262 AD.
  3. The Tomb of King Mausolus of Caria built at Halicarnassus, now Bodrum, Turkey in 325 BC. The only fragment of this structure now remains.
  4. Hanging Gardens of Semiramis at Babylon, Iraq in 600 BC. No trace of this wonder remains at present.
  5. The 40 feet tall marble, gold, and ivory statue of Zeus (Jupiter) by Phidias at Olympia, Greece. This was lost in the fire.
  6. The 117 feet tall statue of God Helios (Apllos) called the Colossus of Rhodes, sculptured by Chares of Lindees in 292-280 BC. This was destroyed in an earthquake in 224 BC.
  7. The 400 feet tall lighthouse built by Sostratus of Cnidus during the 3rd century BC on the island of Pharos (lighthouse) of the coast of El Iskanderiya (Alexandria) Egypt. This was destroyed by an earthquake in 1375 AD.

Historical Background of Pyramids      

 There was an ancient belief that after death the spirits lives on. They also believed that the survival of the spirit depended on the continued existence of the earthly body, for this reason, they embalmed the bodies of their dead to preserve them and they took utmost care and pains to ensure that the dead would benefit from the afterlife.

More important the person, the more care is taken to preserve the person’s body after death. Therefore the first act of a new pharaoh was to commission his tomb. Such work would generally go on till the day he died. The pharaohs were sent to the afterlife with fabulous treasures. It was therefore necessary to design the interior of the tomb in such a manner that the body and the costly belongings along with it were safe from grave robbers.

Step Pyramid at Saqqara, Egypt

The first tombs of the pharaohs were large, unimpressive flat bunker type structures called “Mastaba” which in the Arabic language meant a “bench”. The mastaba was the burial chamber of nobility and of the court dignitaries. Djoser (Zoser) the first pharaoh of the third dynasty, for the first time, entrusted an architect named Impotep with the construction of the first-ever pyramid.

While the mastabas were made using sun-dried mud bricks, Impotep used large stones. All he did was to first build a large mastaba and over it build a pyramid with 4 large steps. This was later extended to its final form having six large steps. Impotep was a high priest and famous as a doctor. A man of many talents, he was also an outstanding sculptor, scribe, and astronomer. This genius was responsible for the oldest known step pyramid at Saqqara, Egypt.

The six terraced or stepped pyramid was 204’ (62 m) tall and constructed using Tura limestone in 2650 BC. The surface was originally encased in smooth white limestone which has now completely disappeared.

The step pyramid is not as pleasing to the eye as the true pyramid and was probably quickly abandoned. The true pyramid is a natural development & improvement on the step pyramid. The construction is quite identical except that in the true pyramid, finishing blocks of limestone were used as packing material until the dimensions were right. This looked more aesthetic.

The age of the first ancient wonders of the world really began with the pyramid of Sneferu. He was responsible for building three pyramids and may have had a hand in a few more. Sneferu’s pyramid at Medum began as a step pyramid but was later modified to form the first true pyramid. Sneferu built two other pyramids at Dahshur, one of which was called the Bent Pyramid because its upper pan has a smaller angle of inclination than the lower part of the pyramid. The angle of inclination decreased from 540 31’3” to 430 21’.

The pyramid of Giza was built by three, 4th Dynasty Egyptian Pharaohs – Hwfw (Khufu or Cheops), Kha-f-Ra (Khafre, Khefen or Chephren), and Menkaure (Mykerinus), near El Giza (El-Gizah) southwest of El-Qahira (Cairo) in Egypt. These pyramids were taller and more massive than their predecessors. They involved huge costs, considerable human efforts, and skills and were indeed an engineering marvel and therefore undoubtedly they figured as one of the Wonders of the World.

Significance of the Pyramids

Amongst the monuments created by man, the pyramids of Egypt, symbolizing the Sun God, remain the most respectful that have attained the most attention. Provoking awe and admiration for the culture that created them nearly 4,500 years ago, they became international tourist attractions shortly after their construction as they were designed to protect and preserve the body of the king and his favorite earthly belongings so that he might enjoy eternal life. It is well known that the pyramids are Pharaonic tombs, but the tomb of a pharaoh was far more than just the grave of a king. One of the hallmarks of the Egyptian state from its inception in the first dynasty was the tradition that centered on the king who was an incarnation of the god Horus, whose totem was the falcon. According to the ancient Egyptians, the falcon soared above all other living creatures. When an incarnation of Horus died, the god passed to the next governing king. The dead king, who was physically entombed within the pyramid, became identified with Osiris, the father of Horus. The pyramid complex was a temple complex to Horus-Osiris, divinity merged with the sun god in the central icon of the pyramid.

Pyramid & Pyramidion

The word pyramid is derived from the Greek pyramis (pyramides) meaning wheaten cake. The Egyptians had a conical bread loaf called ben-ben which was also the word for the capstone of a pyramid Giza or the tip of an obelisk-ben-benet, named after the ben-ben stone, the revered icon in the temple of Heliopolis, and the oldest center of the sun cult.

Ben-Ben

The pyramid has been identified with the holy ben-ben stone in the temple of Heliopolis signifying that the pyramid was a symbol of the sun. The Heliopolitan Creation Myth, developed by the priesthood of Heliopolis, the holy city of the Sun-god, needs to be mentioned to get a better understanding of the ben-ben.

The Great Pyramid of Giza

Upon the reign of Rhampsinitus, Egypt was prosperous and governed well. Cheops or Khufu took over from Rhampsinitus. One of the first acts of Cheops was to curtail the growing power of the priesthood. He shut down all the temples and banned sacrifices. He was therefore not very popular with the religious orders.

Pyramid of Khefen
Pyramid of Mykerinus and the three pyramids of the queens

However, Cheops was then more known and remembered even now, after over four thousand years, for the colossal piece of work – his PYRAMID.

The great pyramid of Cheops with pyramids of Chephren (137 m tall), Mykerinus (66 m tall) along with three small satellite pyramids, and the Sphinx are located on a plateau. The three main pyramids are arranged diagonally but in such a way that none of them hide the sun from the other two.

Pyramid of Cheops

The pyramid of Cheops or Pyramid of Khufu is the largest of the three pyramids. It was originally 480’ 11’’ (146.58 m) high. Today it is only 449’6’’ (137 m) high. When constructed, it was the tallest monument in the world and remained so for 4128 years. The Central Tower of Lincoln Cathedral, in Lincoln, England overtook this monument in 1548 AD. This cathedral was 525’ (160.02 m) tall but no longer exists. The truncated summit of the pyramid has resulted in the formation of a platform, 10 m2 in area. All four cardinal points of the compass. The area covered by this pyramid is 13 acres. (53,077 m2).

The great pyramid of Cheops rises as high as a forty-two-story modern building and is large enough to house within it, the St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, St. Peter’s in Rome & the Cathedrals of Florence and Milan. It contains enough stone to build a low wall around the boundaries of France.

The pyramid of Cheops was built by maneuvering into position around 23,00,000 stone blocks averaging 2.75 tons each totaling about 72,25,000 tons and a volume of 9,07,00,000 cubic feet (25,68,338 CuM). It took 30 years to construct.

Foundation

The ancient Egyptian engineers were aware of the fact that the tall pyramid would need a truly horizontal foundation. They achieved this by cutting channels in the rock and filling them with water. On a calm day, they measured the waterline by dipping in rods. With this huge water level, they then determined the rock surface required to be cut and thereby maintained the horizontal level of the founding strata.

Leveling of the founding strata, as well as subsequent layers, was done using the principle that water finds its own level. The network of channels was dug within the mud or rock as a first step. The water level was marked along the channel’s sides as a second step. The third step was to drain out the water and cut the rock up to the marked line throughout the layer. The channel was then filled up with rubble thereafter as a fourth step.

An Engineering Marvel    

If one imagines the limitation that existed in those days such as mechanization to handle huge stones for masonry, knowledge of surveying, mining, and transporting, this massive structure was truly a marvel.

Water in channels cut in the bedrock and mud walls around the foundation acted as a spirit level
Step by step levelling of rock layers in the pyramid

Quarries worked at three widely separated parts of Egypt to supply different types of stone required for this monument. The stone for the massive central core of the pyramid was desert sandstone quarried from the Giza region itself. The casing limestone which gave the pyramid its true shape was provided from quarries located on the east bank of the Nile. The inner galleries and the burial chamber were lined using granite from the rock at Aswan, located at the first cataract of the Nile. The Aswan quarrymen used dolerite mallets as this stone is harder than granite. The mallets were useful to cut granite into blocks. Abrasives were used by masons at the pyramid site to accurately cut, trim and polish the blocks to give them their final high polish surface.    

The quarrymen used copper chisels hardened and tampered by heat and quenching. In those days no other metal was available for making tools. Chisels cut their way into the horizontally layered sedimentary rock faces splitting the rock along its bedding planes between the horizontal layers. It also tends to form vertical fissures easily. This helped the ancient quarrymen to chisel out huge limestone blocks.

The igneous granite rock does not have any natural layers like limestone to enable easy splitting and cutting. The quarrymen, therefore, built fire on the rock surface and when the stone was sufficiently hot, they poured cold water. The sudden quenching caused the flawed surface of the granite to split and make it easy for cutting.

The granite blocks were pounded on all four sides using dolerite balls. The masons cut grooves along the base of the blocks and hammered in large wooden wedges.

These wedges were later soaked with water. The soaked wedges expanded and split the rock. Further trimming and shaping of the limestone and granites were done using copper chisels and/or dolerite balls. The skilled masons further gave the finishing touches at the site. Wooden rods joined by a strip of twine were used to check undulations on the block surface. The blocks were mounted on wooden rockers to facilitate easy movement during the final smoothening of the surface. The rocker also helped in the easy positioning of the huge block at its final resting place.

Copper chisels used to shape the stone
Dolerite balls used in qurraying the granite by pounding

Transportation of these huge blocks was by itself an extraordinary feat. Limestone blocks were floated on huge barges for 600 miles downriver from Aswan. The building of this Great Pyramid was a highly organized and coordinated effort. Some reports state that Cheops subjected a hundred thousand laborers to work as slaves to transport huge stone blocks from the quarries to the pyramid site. Others feel that Cheops provided them employment for three months in a year when Nile’s annual flood made it impossible for these laborers to work in the farmlands. He provided them with food and clothing and looked after their welfare. He was remembered for his kindness in the folk tales for many centuries. Accommodation for workers had to be provided at the site. Therefore, all supplies had to be transported on donkeys or men or dragged on sleds. There were no camels or horses in use in Egypt as the beast of burden in those days.

Wooden rods and rocker for trimming and shaping rock

The laborers dragged blocks of stone from the quarries in the Arabian hills to the Nile. The work went on in three monthly shifts. It took 10 years to build the track along which the blocks were hauled. This work was of equal magnitude to the pyramid itself. The track was 923.5 m long, 18.47 m wide and 14.78 m high and extended up to the highest point. It was constructed using polished stone blocks. The gangs hauled the stones, on wooden sleds, using thick, strong ropes made from plaited reed, up a long ramp to put them in place. At the tip of the ramp, each block was slid into position on a bed of liquid mortar which acted as a binding agent and also as a lubricant. As the pyramid rose, these huge stone blocks were placed into position without any mechanical aids except the lever, the roller, and the inclined plane. The wheel too was unknown in Egypt in those days and only came to be known in this country 800 years later. The ramp was lengthened to facilitate the transport of huge stone blocks higher and higher. However, skilled craftsmen, who were employed all through the year ensured that the pyramid’s vital dimensions such as the slope, right angles at the corner, and width were maintained. The ancient architects managed remarkable feat using astronomical observations such that the sides of the pyramid precisely face the cardinal points of the compass – north, south, east, and west.

The pyramid was constructed in tiers or steps. When the base was completed the remaining blocks were lifted onto the tier above. The workmanship was of the highest order as it was virtually impossible to even insert a paper between the blocks. The names of some of the gangs and overseers have survived, painted roughly on the limestone surfaces.

By the time the entire inner core was completed and placed in position, the actual pyramid had got totally hidden due to the surrounding ramps. The final finishing of the pyramid using polished limestone commenced from the tip of the pyramid. As the external casing stones were fixed the ramps were gradually removed until the entire pyramid was revealed in its glistening white coat. In the interior of the pyramid Cheops are fascinating passages connecting various chambers.

The causeway ( ramp) built for hauling huge boulders above ground level
With the completion of the pyramid core, the ramp providing the gradient the tip of the pyramid
Dismantling of the ramp gradually took place as casing of the pyramid was finished

There was a slight error in the level of the platform under the great pyramid. This is a slope observed downwards from the southeast corner to the northeast corner. Considering the facilities available those days the surveyors did their work well. The 756’ (230 m) length of the pyramid had an error of around 7” (180 mm).

Before the erection of the pyramid began, a burial chamber was cut out of the rock beneath the site. As the pyramid rose, a second tomb 137’ (42 m) above ground level was constructed. Both these were probably done as precautionary measures in case Khufu died before the completion of the pyramid. However, the final burial was ultimately done in the heart of the pyramid more than 140’ (42.67 m) above the desert ground level but well below the peak of the structure. This room was called the king’s chamber and was lined with polished granite.          

The figure shows the internal layout of the great pyramid of the Cheops where Khufu was buried. Various locations Sr. No. 1 to 11 are marked to acquaint the readers with the interior. The entrance (9) to the great pyramid was so well concealed that explorers and archeologists took several years to discover it. It is located 55’ (16.75 m) above ground level. The entrance leads to a passage (8) sloping down at an angle of about 26 degrees. This passage leads straights to the first unused burial chamber (10). The passage on the right (1) of the entrance passage rising upward is low and narrow and persons have to bend down as they proceed upwards towards the king’s chamber (3) this passage leads to another passage towards its left which leads to the second unused burial chamber (11). The low passage (1) also leads to another passage called the grand gallery (2) leading upwards to the burial chamber (3). In this burial chamber is located the sarcophagus (4) the stone coffin.

Interior layout of the great Pyramid of Cheops

In order to ensure that the pharaoh’s body and his belongings entombed in the pyramid remain safe from robbers, after the royal funeral, large stones (5) held in position by wooden props were released by the workers after the burial ceremony of Khufu. This sealed the burial chamber (3). The workers later released three huge boulders of granite which slid down the ascending passageway (1) until where the passage narrowed. The boulders completely blocked and sealed the entrance down the almost vertical shaft (7) which interconnects the grand gallery to the descending passage (8) below. This may have facilitated them to walk through this passage and exit the pyramid. The burial chamber is a simple room 16’ x 32’ x 20’ high (5m x10m x 6m) made of nine huge stone blocks. To take some of the weight off the ceiling blocks there is a five-tier supporting compartment above it. This is topped by a pointed roof.

Cost        

An inscription on the pyramid in Egyptian characters records the amounts spent on horse-radish, onions, and garlic as 1600 talents of silver (41,884 kg). If this is true the cost of other foodstuffs, clothing of workers and other materials could have been many times more for the construction period of around 30 years. A cost estimate published in December 1974 indicated that, in 1974, this pyramid would require 45 men working 6 years at a construction cost of US$ 1130 million.

The Plundered Tomb                

In fact, man has proved over the centuries that this ability to plunder burial places of ancient kings matched his ability and skill in constructing them. In the 9th Century AD, Arab workmen tunneled through the pyramid and found only a rifled sepulcher. Later Arab rulers stripped the beautiful limestone casing and used it in building mosques. The enormous internal blocks of stone are exposed, which one can laboriously climb in order to reach the summit. However, the view from the top is stupendous and well worth the climb. Nevertheless, the Great Pyramid is the only one of the 80 or so pyramids which were built that stands almost in its original state, despite several years of plunder and exposure to aggressive weather.

Conclusion

The Pyramid of Giza remains today a symbol of man’s laborious effort and skill. It is undoubtedly an enduring monument and living proof of immortality or durability. A great effort proved beyond doubt that both human bronze and brain were necessary to create this wonder.

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