The Mystery Behind the Great Pyramids of Egypt
| LAST UPDATE 08/03/2022
The Great Pyramids of Egypt are the only remaining Seven Ancient Wonders of the World still around. Yet, despite standing strong for over 4,000, numerous mysteries surrounding the structures still remain.
A Mystery In Egypt
For many decades, thousands of visitors have made their way to Egypt to catch a glimpse of the incredible Great Pyramids of Giza. The large pyramids are arguably one of the most iconic structures ever built.
Despite remaining intact for more than 4,500 years, archeologists are still confused as to how the Ancient Pyramids were made with such precision. Especially since at the time they were built, modern technological advancements weren't around. This mystery still haunts many researchers.
Why They Were Built
In Ancient Egypt, Pharaohs were seen as divine power figures. Not only were they in charge, but these leaders were perceived to be mediators between God and the people of the society. According to their beliefs, the men in charge would continue to have great power even in the realm of the dead.
When the leaders of Egypt passed away, they connected with Osiris, the God of death. Then a process would occur where the Pharaoh's soul or "ka" was still living outside of the royal leader's body. Essentially pyramids were built as a tombstone where the Pharaoh's bodies were laid to rest.
The First Tomb
But before Pyramids were ever built, Mastaba tombs were where the royal leaders were buried as their final resting place. These burial chambers were commonly used during the Early Dynasty Period. One major difference between the old way and the Pyramids was the pointed top, which the Mastaba structures didn't have.
These tombs were also much smaller and were built by using mud brick. Because they were small-scaled mounds, it was easier for thieves to enter the chamber and steal the Pharaoh's belongings. Due to this serious issue, Egyptian builders came up with the idea for pyramids, as it would better protect their leaders.
It was critical that the Pharaoh's bodes were sheltered in the afterlife. The powerful kings were placed inside their burial chambers for the rest of time, so it was important that no intruder could invade it. The tombs were placed deep inside the pyramid, making it difficult to navigate where the room was inside the structure.
To get the deceased body ready for the chambers, Egyptian citizens mummified their former leader and then placed him into a sarcophagus - or a large coffin. To take with him into the afterlife, the Pharaoh's most prized possessions were laid by his side. This included food, gold vessels, artwork, win, and more luxury items.
The First One
Under the power of King Djoser, the first-ever pyramid started to undergo construction. It was around 2780 BC when the Step Pyramid was built. The name of the structure came to be because when the architect, Imhotep, and his builders finished the project, the pyramid looked as though it had 6 steps that led to the top.
The steps happened because at the beginning it was meant to be a Mastaba, but when they were halfway up, they changed the design into a pyramid. It took 20 years for the Djoser Pyramid to be finished. By the end, it was 204 feet high (62 meters) and could be found at Sakkara, the West Bank of the Nile River.
The first smooth-sided pyramid was built during the fourth dynasty in Egypt. More specifically, during the transition from the Early Dynasty to the Old Kingdom. The Meidum Pyramid was meant to follow the same design as Imhotep's Step Pyramid, but towards the middle of construction, the original design plan was changed.
The lead designer thought it was a good idea to fill in the steps of the pyramid's inner area with limestone encasing. This gave it the infamous pyramid look that many of us are familiar with today. But because the shift happened during the middle of construction, the Meidum eventually couldn't hold itself up any longer.
An Unfortunate Collapse
For hundreds of years, archeologists have wondered what the cause of the Meidum collapse was. Many claimed it was the unexpected change from a stepped pyramid to a smooth one that generated many architectural shortcomings. Since sand was used for the outside layer and rock for the inner sections, it was unstable.
By the 15th Century, the only part standing was the interior. Despite many theories, the cause is still a mystery. But that's not the only question that remains about this pyramid. Historians don't know if Pharaoh Huni was ever placed in the chambers. After all, he passed away before it was finished, when Pharaoh Sneferu took over.
While under the ruling of Pharaoh Sneferu, two pyramids were built that had systematic complications. The first was medium, and the second was what later on came to be known as the Bent Pyramid. Located in Dashur, builders tried to make a smooth-sided formation. The plan was to place each side at an angle of 54-degrees.
But, towards the middle of construction, the architects switched over to a 51-degree angle. And as they moved upwards, it continued to get smaller and smaller. The top of the pyramid was at an inclination of 43 degrees. The unstable slope is what gave it its name: the Bent Pyramid.
The Final Result
After two failed structures, Pharaoh Sneferu was able to get his builders to complete a smooth-sided pyramid. The now-iconic formation, known as the Red Pyramid, was finally finished during the king's 13th year in power. The giant building, located in Dashur, is known as the third tallest pyramid in Egypt.
A similarity this structure had to the Bent Pyramid was the 43- degree angle. Except this one was consistent with its inclination, so it didn't end up looking slanted. Each side reached 722 feet and 343 feet in height. The first-ever "true" smooth side pyramid was made out of limestones that had a reddish hue, hence its name.
Great Pyramids of Giza
Probably the most infamous and recognizable pyramids are the Great Pyramids of Giza, located in Greater Cairo, Egypt. These three icon large formations were built during the reign of Pharaohs Sneferu's son, Pharaoh Khufu. Sometimes these structures are referred to as Pyramids of Khufu.
It took roughly 27 years to complete the project, which started at around 2550 BC. By the end, the pyramid was 481.4 feet high. The 4 sides were each roughly the length of 755.75 feet (230 meters). As the years went by, the tomb decreased in size as the limestone casing slowly fell off. Now, it's 454.4 feet (138.5 meters).
Pyramid of Khafre
Pharaoh Khufu's son, Pharaoh Khafre, was in charge of the second Great Pyramid of Giza. The Pyramid of Khafre was extravagant, but not as much as his dad's pyramid was. The Fourth Dynasty king's burial chamber was located right next to his father's, and later on, it became the middle pyramid.
It was perceived to be higher than Khufu's structure because it was placed atop an area that was elevated. And because it was built at a steeper angle of 53 degrees, it gave the illusion that it was taller than it was. In actuality, it was 143.9 feet (143.9 meters, and each side was 706.3 feet (215.3 meters) in length.
Great Sphinx of Giza
Pharaoh Khafre didn't just get his very own burial chamber - he also got a special statue that was made to look like his face, while the bottom half was meant to portray a mythical creature, like a lion. The Great Sphinx of Giza was built on the Giza Plateau on the West bank of the Nile, right next to the Egyptian ruler's pyramid.
Rather than building it out of limestone encasing, they carved the sculpture out of the material. At roughly 240 feet long (73.1 meters) and 66 feet high (20.1 meters), the Sphinx has arguably become one of the most recognized statues in the world. Yet it still holds many mysteries.
Truth Behind The Sphinx
The giant sculptor has baffled historians for decades. While they already know the meaning behind the Pyramids and other ancient monuments, this statue's symbol remained unclear. What was the reason for it? And why did one Pharaoh Khafre get one? The Sphinx continues to hold many unknown facts.
It was seen as a spiritual guardian and referred to be the God of the Sky (Horus). But if it was so powerful, why was it partially destroyed? Over time, the limestone disintegrated, but that supposedly wasn't the only cause. Apparently, Sa'im al-Dahr, a Sufi Muslim, smashed the nose after people made offerings to the statue.
There were more rulers from this line of generations that got their own burial chamber. Therefore the third and final notorious Giza Pyramid was formed. While it was the smallest one, it didn't make it any less astonishing. Menkaure, son of Khafre's pyramid was built farthest to the South on the Giza Plateau.
The burial ground had a few design differences compared to the other Giza pyramids. It was much more compact than Khufures or Khafre's structures -Menkaure's pyramid was 215 ft. (65. meters). The second disparity was that it wasn't fully made out of limestone, but granite stone was used on the bottom corner of the casing stones.
The Big Question
Each limestone used to form the pyramids weighed nearly 2.3 metric tons (2.5 tons). To make the huge pyramids, millions of stones were needed. Just the Great Pyramid of Khufu had nearly 2.3 million stones! But how did the Egyptian builders manage to lift the hefty material without modern advancements?
This mystery has mind-boggled many archeologists for thousands of years. Not just because the equipment the builders used was so heavy, but because the architectural integrity of the pyramids was essentially perfect. How did they get the base and the sides of the pyramids to match up with the cardinal points of the compass?
Although there are still many questions that remain regarding the pyramids and how they were built, some historians have been able to discover some answers. For example, they learned that the limestone rocks were taken from quarries close by to where the pyramid was being built.
The tiles were transported by a boat on the Nile River from Aswan, which was roughly 800 km away. This finding was uncovered by archeologist Mark Lehner, the head of the Ancient Egypt Research Association, after he found remnants of the port they used to deliver the granite.
Who Built Them?
The discovery of the ports gave researchers insight into who were the people working on the pyramids. Previously many historians assumed that slaves were the builders due to the portrayal that Hollywood has had in movies. But it was actually very strong and skilled Egyptian civilians.
Thanks to the animal bones found at the construction site, historians surmised that the builders were given the best diet and meat to ensure they has enough muscle to work the pyramids. The Evidence of bureaucratic stamps provided further data that these men were also given homes - something slaves wouldn't have received.
Moving the Blocks
Despite being given a superior diet, no human could have the strength to lift the limestones all on their own. So how did they manage to place each block so perfectly? Numerous theories have been discussed surrounding this question. Daniel Bonn and his team of physicists at the University of Amsterdam tested one notion.
The researchers hypothesized that the men were wetting the sand so that there was less friction and the heavy material could be dragged from one area to the next. This belief arose from a painting on the tomb of Djehutihotep. It portrayed a builder pouring water onto the ground, followed by a group of men pulling a statue.
The conclusion Bonn and his team made was found to be credible. “Most of the Egyptologists I have spoken to agree with our interpretation,” he explained to OpenMind. “It seems that it is a very plausible explanation for what happens in the tomb drawing, so far everybody agrees.”
They found that adding 2-5% volume of water to the sand significantly decreased friction. They also replicated the research with sand that was nearly identical to the Ancient Egypt sand that included clay and slit, and they found the same results. The conclusions helped give insight into how the builders moved heavy material.
Methods of Building
The mystery of how blocks of limestone were brought from the Nile River to the Giza Plateau was resolved, but more questions remained. Especially how were the heavy material lifted upwards into the shape of a pyramid? Although many hypotheses were formed, they all had a similar idea. Many historians proposed the use of ramps.
Egyptologist Peter Der Manuelian, the director of the Semitic Museum of Harvard, explained to OpenMind: “Scholars mostly agree on a system of ramps for hauling up the blocks; the directions, angles, materials are still problematic, and there are always new (and often crazy) theories.”
A System of Ramps
For many years, the idea that ramps were used was discussed among archeologists. But it wasn't until remains of a system of ramps were discovered that this theory became more prominent. The remnants were found at the ancient alabaster quarry at Hatnub and were suspected of being built at around the same time the pyramids were.
Yet, the ramps weren't transporting limestone. “It’s a stretch to take an alabaster quarry and say this is how the pyramids were built because the pyramids weren’t built out of alabaster,” said Kara Cooney, an Egyptian architecture professor. “The way that the ancient Egyptians cut and moved stone is still very mysterious.”
What was even more astounding than lifting the heavy material was how the builders administered this with such perfection despite using basic equipment. Based on 60 Minutes, the pyramids were one of the most accurate buildings of all time, occasionally even more so than modern architecture.
Archaeologist, John Romer, discovered one of the many mysteries. "The plan of the pyramid is the pyramid itself," he explained. "By measuring out the life-size plan with string. The Egyptians were able to get their ancient calculations cubits perfect." Essentially they used the area near the structure as the blueprint.
By using string, the archeologists mapped out the placements of everything and used the Giza Plateau as their design lab. This was genius in the sense that using the same measurements in their plan as the same ones for the actual building helped the builders make accurate calculations.
John Romer claimed that measuring out 40 cubics (the measurement unit Egyptian builders used) onto the land near the pyramid would help prove his hypothesis. "You get exactly the angle of the pyramid… not vaguely, not nearly, but 51 degrees," he emphasized.
John Romer believed this discovery hadn't been made yet because archeologists were focused on searching for one design model. According to his research, the Egyptian builders had two design models. One for the interior of the pyramid and another for the exterior.
Inside the Great Pyramid of Giza is a Grand Gallery. At the top of this large section sits the Grand Step, which marked an important area for the builders. When they reached this large chunk of stone, they knew they were on track since this area was the exact centerline of the pyramid.
The Pharaoh's Chamber
The perfect architectural design carried well into the inside of the pyramid. Passed the Great Gallery was where Khufu's tomb chamber was built. And directly above it was the top of the pyramid, which was built in a way to prevent the structure from caving in.
The limestone blocks were marked with red by the construction workers to indicate which blocks were to be lined up with one another. Some of the stones even had messages on them. Historians found one that said "Khufu," proving this pyramid was built for the royal Pharaoh.
When Pharaoh Khufu had passed away, the Egyptian people mummified him and placed his body inside his royal chambers. Years later, when archeologists entered the pyramid, his body nor his personal possessions were anywhere to be found in the large pyramid.
This discovery led to many new mysteries about Egyptian structures. Researchers have still not uncovered where Khufu's body had gone. It still remains unknown what happened or who could have taken the items from inside the burial chamber. The only thing left behind was a small sculptor of the Pharaoh.
Although the Great Pyramids of Giza are arguably the most well-recognized structures in Egypt, there are still many others, such as the Pyramid Complex. Argeocligist Peter Clayton explained, "This consists of a pyramid itself, with an entrance on the North face which gives access via a descending passage to a burial chamber."
It was built between 2600 and 2500 BC. and is found not far from the Giza Pyramids by the Nile River. The complex started at the Valley Temple, the area where mummified bodies were brought to. After the ceremony was done on the body, the Egyptians carried it up the causeway all the way to the burial tomb.
The End of an Era
Pyramids were officially never built again after the reign of Pharaoh Ahmose. After that, instead of each King getting a burial chamber, their bodies were placed near the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes, at the Valley of the Kings. It's been speculated that the first of this royal tomb was constructed by Pharaoh Thutmose I.
Having a sacred area to place the Pharaohs to rest was important to Egyptians, hence the infamous Pyramids that we have come to know so well. But this left historians wondering why they ever stopped building them after the New Kingston began. Many answers to this mystery have been discussed.
The Reason For Stopping
Apparently, the pyramids were targeted by intruders. To solve the issue, Egyptians tried to place the chambers in a new location. "The last king's pyramid — that of Ahmose I, at Abydos — had its burial chamber over 0.5 km [1,640 feet] away, behind it, deeper in the desert," said Aidan Dodson, an Egyptology professor.
After robberies continued to occur, they moved to the Valley of Kings. Based on ancient records, this area was chosen because of its secretive location. Now, this spot has a peak, el-Qurn, that "closely resembles a pyramid, in a way all royal tombs built in the valley were placed beneath a pyramid," said Miroslav Bárta, an Egyptologist.
Ancient Egypt Today
Over 4,500 years ago, Egyptian builders spent hundreds of years between the Fourth and Sixth Dynasty creating large magnificent pyramids. Today, these structures are still standing strong. And while the original limestone white color has faded, tourists can visit see the infamous ancient structures.
Any person is welcome to visit the Great Pyramids of Giza. Each year thousands of travelers make their way to Egypt to see the only remaining Seven Wonders of the World. But to this day, the complete understanding of the architectural design of the Ancient Pyramids remains a mystery...