The Egyptian pyramids are one of the defining architectural achievements of the ancient world. As an incredible feat of engineering, Egyptologists are still discovering more about these structures with each passing year.
The pyramids of Giza and others are thought to have been constructed to house the remains of the deceased pharaohs who ruled over Ancient Egypt. A part of the pharaoh's spirit was believed to remain with his corpse. It's theorised the pyramid not only served as a tomb for the pharaoh, but also as a storage pit for various items he would need in the afterlife. The pharaoh also believed that his death was an extension to a journey towards eternal life.
The Giza pyramid complex, also called the Giza Necropolis – the site on the Giza Plateau in Greater Cairo, Egypt, that includes the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure, along with their associated pyramid complexes and the Great Sphinx of Giza. All were built during the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt.
Most construction theories are based on the idea that the pyramids were built by moving huge stones from a quarry and dragging and lifting them into place.
The Great Pyramid
The Great Pyramid of Giza (also known as the Pyramid of Khufu or the Pyramid of Cheops) is the oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the Giza pyramid complex, bordering present-day El Giza, Egypt.
Initially standing at 146.5 metres (481feet), the Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure in the world for more than 3,800 years until Lincoln Cathedral was finished in 1311 AD. Originally, the Great Pyramid was covered by limestone casing stones that formed a smooth outer surface; what is seen today is the underlying core structure.
The pyramid was once covered with limestone that was polished and believed to be left white. The sides of the pyramid are carefully positioned to point north, south, east, and west. The base of the pyramid has sides that measure 230.4 metres (755.9 feet) in length. The Great Pyramid consists of an estimated 2.3 million blocks which most believe to have been transported from nearby quarries.
The second pyramid belongs to pharaoh Khafre. The Pyramid of Khafre or of Chephren is the second-tallest and second-largest of the ancient Egyptian pyramids of Giza and the tomb of the fourth-dynasty pharaoh Khafre (Chefren), who ruled from c. 2558 to 2532 BC. Unlike the pyramid of Khufu, the angle of this pyramid is 53° and the pyramid stands 148.5 metres (470.5 feet) tall.
This pyramid is 10 metres shorter than Khufu's, though appears to be larger due to the height of the bedrock and stands on the northern side of the Giza Plateau. The top of this pyramid has a smooth limestone cap also giving it the illusion of being larger than Khufu's pyramid too. Like Khufu's pyramid, this tomb was also looted.
The pyramid of Menkaure, or the third pyramid, is the smallest of the three pyramids. Its design is not as well detailed as the other two pyramids or as massive.
Today it stands at 66.5 metres (218 feet) and has an angle of 51°. The base of this smaller pyramid is 108.5 meters (355.9 feet). The pyramid was not complete when Menkaure died, so his son Shepseskaf took the task of finishing the project.
They are situated at the main pyramid's eastern side. The northern-most pyramid (G1a) was originally ascribed to Queen Meritetes (or Mertitiotes), but is now considered to be the secondary burial of Queen Hetepheres I. The second pyramid (G1b) is now ascribed to Queen Meritites, although there is no substantial evidence to support this. Others have suggested that the (unnamed) mother of Djedefre was originally interred in this pyramid. The southernmost of the three pyramids (G1c) is ascribed to Queen Henutsen. It is similar to the other two small pyramids in construction, but according to Lehner, it is the most complete.
Great Sphinx of Giza, colossal limestone statue of a recumbent sphinx, likely dates from the reign of King Khafre (c. 2575–c. 2465 BCE) and depicts his face. It features a lion's body and a human head adorned with a royal headdress. The statue was carved from a single piece of limestone, and pigment residue suggests that the entire Great Sphinx was painted. Most scholars date the Great Sphinx to the 4th dynasty and affix ownership to Khafre. However, some believe that it was built by Khafre's older brother Redjedef (Djedefre) to commemorate their father, Khufu. These theorists claim that the face of the Great Sphinx bears more resemblance to Khufu than Khafre, and that observation also led to speculation that Khufu himself built the statue.
Riddle of the Sphinx
What Egyptians called the Great Sphinx during its prime remains a riddle, because the word sphinx originates from Greek mythology some 2,000 years after the statue was built.
It's also unclear in what regard Egyptians held the Great Sphinx during the Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 B.C.), as there are few texts that discuss the statue. However, Khafre associated himself with the god Horus and the Great Sphinx may have been known as Harmakhet ("Horus on the Horizon"), as it was during the New Kingdom (1570-1069 B.C.).
Whatever the case, the statue began to fade into the desert background at the end of the Old Kingdom, at which point it was ignored for centuries.
Inscriptions on a pink granite slab between the Great Sphinx's paws tell the story of how the statue was saved from the sands of time. Prince Thutmose, son of Amenhotep II, fell asleep near the Sphinx, the story goes. In Thutmose's dream, the statue, calling itself Harmakhet, complained about its state of disarray and made a deal with the young prince: It would help him become pharaoh if he cleared away the sand from the statue and restored it.
Whether or not the dream actually occurred is unknown, but when the prince did, in fact, become Pharaoh Thutmose IV, he introduced a Sphinx-worshipping cult to his people. Statues, paintings, and reliefs of the figure popped up across the country and the sphinx became a symbol of royalty and the power of the sun.
Things you didn't know about the pyramids of Egypt
From statue vandalism to spite the gods and age-old mistaken facts about the labourers who built these triangular tombs that have stood the test of time, here are some facts you should know about Egypt's pyramids.
The mystery of the missing noses
You may have noticed that many ancient Egyptian statues and busts have missing noses, the Great Sphinx of Giza being a famous example. Many tourists had asked tour operators why so many of the ancient artefacts in museums had no noses, as if they had been chipped or knocked off. It was likely that protruding and 3D shapes would be more liable to damages. However, some researchers believe that this is no mere coincidence but actually vandalism, done by individuals who believed that it would stop the statue of a god from breathing. Other vandals would remove the ears of a statue to prevent certain gods from hearing and answering prayers. The statues remained noseless (or earless) ever since.
Contrary to the common belief that the pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo were built by slaves – namely those of some cruel pharaoh – they were actually built by labourers who were paid for their work. Graves found containing the bodies of labourers suggest that the workers were honoured in death for contributing to this great architectural and royal feat.
While each pyramid is technically connected to the Nile River via a canal, some even have underground tunnels. Some of the excavated ones are even known to the Egyptian government, who guard the secrets and whereabouts of these fascinating underground paths.
Room temperature, please
Ancient Egyptian civilisations knew a thing or two when it came to ventilation. The inside of the pyramids is said to stay a cool 20°C at any given time. Despite the bulky multi-tonne mass of the pyramids, the inside of them can withstand the harsh heat in summer and cold desert nights to provide a temperate zone for your favourite pharaoh to decompose and become a god.
Most pyramids were built west of the Nile
Most pyramids were built on the west bank of the Nile, and for a distinct reason. As the pyramids were the final resting places of pharaohs, it only makes sense they should reside where their souls can begin their journey into the afterlife. For ancient Egyptians, the afterlife and the sun were closely intertwined. Osiris, an Egyptian god closely connect with the afterlife, represented the strength of new life. Over time, he also became associated with the cycle of the sun and how it brought new growth from dormant seeds.
We are still figuring out how they were built
One of the biggest mysteries about the Egyptian pyramids is the construction techniques used to erect them. Researchers experimented pulling large amounts of weight on a sled across sand and found that when they added the right amount of water, the job was significantly easier. The dampness of the sand greatly reduced friction by up to as much as 50%, making it much more feasible to haul large amounts of weight.
The great pyramid can tell time
The Great Pyramid is impressive for many reasons, but one of the most interesting characteristics of this celebrated monument is that it can also tell time. The structure actually acts as an enormous sundial, with its shadow telling the hour by falling on marks made in the stone.