The Great Pyramid of Giza

The Great Pyramid of Giza is the most well-known of the seven wonders, probably because it is the only one left undestroyed. Also known as the Pyramid of Khufu and the Pyramid of Cheops (both alternate names of the pharaoh associated with it), the Great Pyramid was built as a tomb for Khnum Khuf (reigned from 2589 to 2566 B.C.), who was a cruel pharaoh from the fourth dynasty in ancient Egypt. It was really a religious structure, designed to protect Khufu from earthly invaders and to help him reach the Egyptian heaven.

The Great Pyramid at Giza

Like the name suggests, the Great Pyramid was built at Giza, which was much better than alternative sites for numerous reasons. It was relatively close to the Nile river, so building materials could be shipped in, but was outside the Nile’s flood plains, so water would not impede the building process or flood the area once it was finished. It was west of the Nile, which was important for religious reasons, and fairly near Memphis (then the capital and the main place where the pharaoh resided). Most importantly, the ground was composed of solid bedrock and there was a source of stone nearby. All of these factors helped allow the great pyramid to be built and to last until today.

One of the factors that sets the Great Pyramid of Giza apart is its sheer size. It is 230.4 meters long on each side, was originally 146.6 meters tall, weighs almost six million tons, and was for a long time the tallest man-made structure in the world. Its dimensions are also extremely precise. The base is level to within less than an inch and the sides of its square base face almost precisely north, south, east, and west. The limestone blocks that compose the vast majority of the pyramid are fitted together very accurately. Also, when it was first built it was covered with casing stones (smooth, white limestone blocks), and had a capstone covering the top, giving it a more magisterial, finished appearance. However, pillagers took the capstone and most of the casing stones for use in other projects, leaving it with rough sides and a flat top. (Some scholars say the capstone would be too heavy to pillage, but there is no reasonable alternative.)

Inside the Great Pyramid of Giza

The inner structure of the pyramid, though not particularly complex when looked at as a cross-section, is just as impressive as its overall size in view of the thousands of tons pressing down on the rooms and corridors. These can be mentally split into three main areas. The lowest area holds the subterranean chamber, located beneath ground level and connected to the entrance by means of the descending passage. The subterranean chamber seems to be unfinished, because there is a hallway to nowhere off one side and the walls are rough. There is also a square pit in the floor. On the middle level (around the same height as the entrance, about 17 meters above ground) is the queens chamber (called so because Arabs thought the design was similar to that of their queen’s tombs, not because queens actually had anything to do with it), which is connected by a horizontal hallway to the place where the ascending passage meets with both the Grand Gallery (a grander extension of the ascending passage), and the well shaft (a drop that twists its way to the near-bottom of the descending passage). As in the subterranean chamber, the floor is rough and unfinished. It is thought to be a room to hold the pharaoh’s ka (a concept similar to our soul); there is a niche to hold a ka statue. The top level (above the entrance but still in the bottom half of the pyramid) holds the antechamber, the burial chamber, and several stress-relieving spaces above the burial chamber. The ante chamber is a small room connecting the Grand Gallery and the burial chamber. The burial chamber itself is a large room holding a granite sarcophagus (too large for the ascending passage, probably placed when built) that used to hold Khufu’s mummy and coffin. The spaces above the burial chamber are there to take some of the tremendous weight off the burial chamber and prevent it from collapsing. Coming off from both the burial chamber and the queen’s chamber are diagonal "airshafts", the two from the burial chamber reaching the surface and the two from the queen’s chamber stopping before them. The "airshafts" in the burial chamber were put there for religious purposes, but the purpose of those in the queen’s chamber are unknown. In 1992, Rudolf Gutenbrink, a German archaeologist, sent a small robot with a camera up one of the blocked airshafts. after about 65 meters it found a stone with metal rods in it that was evidentially used to plug the shaft. This caused a huge amount of speculation, but no explanation that makes sense has been proposed.

The Great Pyramid was only part of a larger burial complex which included a mortuary temple, a smaller satellite pyramid, the three queen’s pyramids, boat pits (some of which contained boats, some of which were only dug in the shape of a boat), and a mastaba cemetery (which contained the remains of high officials and the pharaohs relatives), all surrounded by an eight-meter high wall. Contrary to popular belief, the Great Sphinx was not built until long after the Great Pyramid and was not part of Khufu’s building arrangements.

One challenge the Egyptians faced was finding efficient methods to cut and transport the stone blocks used to build the pyramid. The vast majority of their limestone came from Khufu Quarry (a horseshoe-shaped quarry that was filled in later) and could be cut easily with the copper tools of the period, but the other stones were a different matter. The white casing stones and other blocks of finer quality had to be imported, and no one knows exactly how the harder granite was cut. Some people think they used abrasion, which is chipping hard quartz crystals into stone, gradually wearing it down. Whenever possible, the heavy blocks created traveled by water, but they all had to be manually dragged on land at some point or another. One thing the Egyptians used to make this easier was slippery "railroad tracks", parallel slabs of wood with water poured on top to make mud. Most of the facts about where the stone came from are generally agreed upon, but once the blocks are dragged to the pyramid, controversy begins.

Most archaeologists agree that the Egyptians used ramps to raise the blocks up to the desired places (though some postulate a system based almost entirely upon levers) but the type of ramp is disputed. One of the simplest types is a straight ramp advancing up a side of the pyramid that was lengthened as the pyramid grew taller, but such a ramp would gave to be huge and would require a lot of manpower and almost as much building materials as the Great Pyramid itself. To other types, the spiral ramp and the zigzag ramp were proposed to remedy this, but both have their own problems. A spiral ramp, which would spiral around the outside of the pyramid, would obstruct calculations based on the corners. A zigzag ramp, which zigzagged up one side of the pyramid, would have a number of sharp turns that would be difficult to move blocks around. Currently the leading theory seems to be Jean-Pierre Houndin’s internal ramp hypothesis, postulating an external straight ramp was used for the lower levels and an interior spiral ramp for the upper. As progress continued, the external ramp would be dismantled and the pieces hauled up the interior to provide more materials. Other architects have verified that this is possible, and a French microgravimetric analysis provides tentative evidence for this theory, but administrative problems have delayed further investigation.

The Egyptians had fairly sophisticated mathematical and astronomical knowledge, so, despite the claims of believers in alien influence, the Egyptians had the ability to design the pyramid. They also had experience passed down from previous pyramid attempts and the Great Pyramid had certain architectural improvements over the others. For example, it was built around a small hill of bedrock, reducing the materials necessary, and the blocks were not leaning. Priests probably did all the calculations and Heminu, Khufu’s younger brother, oversaw the pyramid’s construction. The menial workers were conscripted laborers, not slaves, and by all accounts were treated decently.

Like the pyramid’s construction, the early history of the pyramid is controversial. Around 2150-2040 B.C. some Egyptians managed to find the secret entrance to loot the interior. The exterior was also looted; it was even used as a quarry for a different pharaoh’s pyramid. Eventually this stopped and the secret entrance was resealed, but by then the inside was bare and the capstone and some of the casing stones were gone. The Greeks and Romans knew about and toured certain parts of the great pyramid, even leaving ancient graffiti. In the end, it made enough of an impact on travelers to end up on Antipater of Sidon’s list of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Kate Rayment

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