The Great Pyramid (of Khufu), at Giza
The Great Pyramid (of Khufu), at Giza
When the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484–between 430 and 420 b.c.e.) reported on the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops, in Greek) during the fifth century b.c.e., his inquiry was impeded because the door leading into the pyramid was concealed. That door has since been found, but the results of passing through it and exploring the pyramid have opened up as many mysteries as those that have been explained.
Rising up on a plateau called Giza, 10 miles west of present-day Cairo, Egypt, the Great Pyramid, its two companion pyramids, and the Sphinx are probably the world's oldest and best-known enigmas. Among the questions swirling about the pyramids include the location of the sites from which the immense amount of rock forming them (11 million cubic yards of stone for the Great Pyramid alone) was quarried, and how it was moved and then erected into an astonishingly precise structure. What kind of surveying methods and equipment did the ancient Egyptians use to ensure that the landscape was level and their measurements were accurate? And how could the vast number of workers required for such an undertaking be mobilized, housed, and fed?
Other mysteries abound: the pyramids are situated at cardinal points on the compass, and numerous astronomical uses show knowledge of mathematics in advance of other civilizations. In addition, the body of the Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops) (twenty-sixth century b.c.e.) for whom the tomb was built, and precious objects that usually surround the bodies of royalty in Egyptian tombs, have never been found.
In fact, all three of the pyramids at Giza were erected as tombs, yet not a single body has been found in any of them. A baffling series of chambers, tunnels, and shafts, blocked passageways, corridors leading to empty spaces, and false leads confront pyramid explorers. The bodies of the pharaohs and their queens might still be buried somewhere in the pyramids—or, perhaps their remains fell victim to tomb robbing, a crime so old it is mentioned in Egyptian texts and on papyrus dating back centuries before Herodotus reported on the pyramids.
The Pyramid of Khufu, largest of ancient Egypt's 70 pyramids, stands 481 feet high, measures roughly 756 feet on each side, and covers 13 acres of land. If the blocks that form the pyramid were reduced to foot-sized square cubes and lined up, the cubes would stretch for 16,600 miles. It is generally agreed that all three pyramids at Giza, including those of the Pharaohs Khafre (Chephren, in Greek) and Menaure (Mycernius, in Greek) were built during the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt, which spanned from 2613 to 2494 b.c.e. It was a custom then that as soon as a new pharaoh ascended to the throne he began building a pyramid as a final resting place. The pyramid of Khufu is the grandest of them all and is the sole survivor among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Having been built within seven hundred years after Egyptian civilization became stabilized, the vast structure has inspired many theories. Egyptian records, in the form of hieroglyphics, provided some information about the pyramids (for whom they were built, for example), but much information was lost during subsequent periods of decline. So much was forgotten that Egyptians themselves were speculating about some of the purposes of the pyramids by the time Greek civilization began thriving, some fifteen hundred years after the period in which the Great Pyramid is believed to have been erected.
Speculation then and now casts the pyramid as a gigantic sundial and astronomical observatory, as a symbolic stairway to heaven, its shape simulating the way rays of sun spread from a cloud. Other scholars see the pyramid as a secret temple where rituals were performed that transformed new leaders into god-kings.
An astonishing employment of mathematics agreements bolster the mystery of the Great Pyramid. The distance of Earth to the Sun, for example, was believed to match the height in "pyramid inches" (slightly less than the common inch) of the pyramid multiplied by 10 to the 9th power (10 to 9 is also the proportion of height to width of the pyramid). The latitude and longitude lines that intersect at the pyramid run across more land than any others, leading some to believe that Giza and the monuments there represent the center of the inhabitable world. Ancient Egyptians would have had to determine the world was round in order to reach such a conclusion, a possibility accepted by some scholars. Lines extending northwest and northeast from the Great Pyramid neatly encompass the Nile Delta, the naturally formed area of deposits where the Nile River branches to flow into the Mediterranean. Deltas are formed by streams and become triangular-shaped, the same shape as the pyramids themselves.
The perfect pyramidal shape has been cited as the purpose of the Great Pyramid in that it embodies and represents a universal system of measurement in material form. One such set of calculations suggests the Egyptians were aware of the constant pi, the figure used to determine the circumference of a circle, some two thousand years before it was formulated by the Greek mathematician Pythagoras (c. 580–c. 500 b.c.e.).
Englishman John Taylor (1808–1887), a well educated editor who had read voraciously about Egyptian culture and the measurements of the pyramids, discovered a formula whereby dividing the length of the perimeter of a pyramid by twice its height produces 3.14159+, the numerical equivalent of pi (a constant figure used to determine the circumference of a circle: pi times a circle's diameter produces its circumference). Taylor believed that the Egyptians not only knew the formula for pi thousands of years before the Greeks, but he contended further that they knew the circumference of Earth and derived standard units of measure from Earth's circumference.
The ratio of the pyramid's height to its perimeter, argued Taylor, is the same as the polar radius to Earth's circumference, 2Π. He viewed that equation, embodied in the pyramid, as an expression of the wisdom of ancients. It was the biblical God, concluded Taylor, who had instructed the pyramid builders, just as God had instructed Noah to build the ark.
Astronomer Charles Piazzi Smyth conducted studies at the pyramid and came up with another startling conclusion, expressed in his book Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid (1980). He claimed the pyramid was also an expression of time. Through his studies, Smyth devised a measurement called the pyramid inch—an ancient measurement within one-thousandth of a British inch. The perimeter of the structure in pyramid inches equals 365,200, or 1000 x 365.2. The latter figure is the number of days in a year. Smyth concluded that the pyramids were an expression of time spanning one thousand years.
In 1894, J. Norman Lockyer (1836–1920), director of the Solar Physics Observatory in London and founder of the journal Nature, published The Dawn of Astronomy. The book argued, based on his investigations, that ancient temples and monuments in Egypt were oriented for stellar observations and served as calendars—to determine the summer solstice, for instance.
Many centuries ago, ancient Roman and Arabian historians noted the interest of Egyptians in studying the heavens and the possible uses of the pyramids as astronomical tools. Egyptian hieroglyphics make numerous references to the stars. A constellation called Sahu (corresponding to Orion) was called the home for the dead, and two pharaohs who built pyramids outside of Giza have stellar associations in hieroglyphics (Nebka is "a star," and Djedefra is "a Sehetu star," or a star of Sahu).
During the ninth century, a caliph named Abdullah Al Mamun became convinced the Great Pyramid held astronomical charts, maps, and mathematical tables, as well as treasures. In 820, he gained entrance into the pyramid by breaking through the outer stone. After heating limestone bricks, workers doused them with cold vinegar, creating cracks in the pyramid that allowed the caliph's men to break through a wall and discover a passageway that led upward to the original entrance of the pyramid. Turning around, they descended until they located rooms identified as the King's chamber and another as the Queen's chamber. In the King's chamber they found an elaborate sarcophagus, but nothing was inside, as if it had never been used. The tombs had been looted, or they served as a purposeful deception, with the bodies and treasures located somewhere else in the pyramid. The mystery of the missing bodies and treasures continues to perplex to this day.
Subsequent findings and theories during the twentieth century tend to confirm astronomical and calendrical orientations of the Great Pyramid. The passageway discovered in the ninth century by Abdullah Al Mamun may have had an astronomical orientation as a kind of stationary telescope. The passage runs at an angle downward from the opening. From that corridor an ancient astronomer could watch and chart the passing night sky.
Two narrow shafts that were originally believed to provide ventilation in the pyramid may have had a similar astronomical purpose as the passage. It has been determined through calculations by astronomer Virginia Trimble, based on the angle of the shaft and the positions of stars from 3000 to 2400 b.c.e., that one of the shafts pointed to the Pole Star, which could have been used by Egyptians to determine the true north. Another shaft would have provided a view of the Orion/Sehu constellation every 24 hours during that same period in time.
Such findings and references contributed to a theory proposed by Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert in The Orion Mystery (1994). Noting that the third and smallest pyramid at Giza is somewhat out of line with the other two, they compared the alignment with that of three stars in the Orion constellation, and found a match. Bauval and Gilbert argued that two other pyramids also from the Fourth Dynasty—the Pyramid of Nebka (north of Giza) and the Pyramid of Djedefra (south of Giza)—together with the pyramids at Giza, form a pattern of five pyramids that align with five of the seven stars of Orion. However, the alignment does not fit quite precisely, and two corresponding pyramids are missing.
According to Herodotus, 100,000 men were needed to build the Great Pyramid. They were organized in groups that worked on the project for three-month stints. For many centuries it has been commonly believed that the workers were slaves forced to perform hard labor.
Modern scientific studies tend to support an ancient Egyptian civilization capable of acquiring the knowledge and the extended social system required for the building of such massive and sophisticated structures as the pyramids. Recent discoveries support a view that skilled engineers and masses of peasants were fed, housed, and clothed while performing work for a leader they revered as a god-king. Evidence that some of the laborers took great pride in their work is reflected in ancient graffiti. An inscription on one block of the pyramid has been translated as a signature for "The Craftsman Gang."
Egyptian civilization of the period had no beasts of burden and no wheel to assist in moving and erecting the 11 million cubic yards of stone used in the Great Pyramid. The transporting of the stone may not have been overwhelming, however. Limestone used for the pyramids distinctly matches a large bedrock on which the nearby Sphinx was sculpted. The limestone may have been quarried, moved, and then chiseled into blocks for the pyramid. A 50-foot drop-off, now filled in by sand, occurs just beyond the temples in front of the Sphinx, perhaps a result of quarried stone. Additional stone may have arrived through shallow boats. Dry canals have been discovered that lead from Giza to the nearby Nile River, where a harbor may have been located that was subsequently obscured by the steadily encroaching desert sands.
Contemporary experiments have demonstrated that the copper chisels and stone hammers used by workers were sufficient to chip away at limestone. Tests have determined that 2.5-ton limestone blocks can be transported a fair distance in a fair amount of time to match the estimated construction time of the Great Pyramid. In the experiments, quarried rock was fashioned into blocks and transported by rope pulled by 20 to 50 men.
Taking the view that the pyramids were built from the ground up, engineers have theorized that ramps were built as the level of building rose. Using water as a lubricant, workers pushed blocks up ramps and moved the stones into place. The ramp theory is popular, considering that 96 percent of the total mass of the Great Pyramid occurs in the bottom two-thirds of the structure. With the use of ramps, work actually became easier as the pyramid rose higher.
During the 1990s, archaeologists Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass (1947– ) developed theories for the pyramid building that reduced the workforce from the 100,000 laborers cited by Herodotus to a much smaller skilled crew of laborers that worked on the Great Pyramid year-round, but were joined by thousands of other workers only during the late summer and autumn months when the Nile River overflowed and drenched agricultural fields. When the annual flooding occurred, farmers and villagers left the fields to work on the Great Pyramid for their god-king.
Teams led by Lehner and Hawass found further remains of bakeries and buildings where fish may have been processed to help feed the workforce. They also discovered bones of young male cattle and evidence that grains were delivered to the site, rather than processed there. Beef from young male cattle was thought to be food only for the wealthy. The permanent crew of workers may have enjoyed the finest food and grains as reward for the skills they were employing to erect the pyramids.
In 1997, a grid of rooms was excavated. In addition to discovering more bakeries, and many molds used for bread, the crew found shops where artisans worked. One mudbrick wall led to another complex where a seal on a wall is believed to represent the Pharaoh Khafre (2558–2532 b.c.e.). Lehner believes an entire additional complex might be unearthed, which will provide more answers, and probably more questions, about the pyramids of Giza.
In July of 2000, two mini-replicas of the pyramids were unearthed at Giza in a spot between the Sphinx and the pyramids. They contained bodies of supervisors and laborers. "Ordinary people were also allowed to use the pyramid design to construct their own tombs," concluded Hawass, director of the Giza plateau. Inscriptions in the mini-pyramids identified one corpse as a building inspector. The upper level of the tombs were reserved for technicians and craftsmen, and the lower tombs housed bodies of workmen. Some of the bodies of workmen bore splints to repair broken bones. Among inscriptions were curses, and some frescoes showed laborers at work. "This care would not have been given to slaves," noted Hawass.
Lehner, an archaeologist associated with the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and the Harvard Semitic Museum, first traveled to Egypt during the 1970s. He was inspired then by the theories of Edgar Cayce (1877–1945), who believed that the pyramids were actually thousands of years older than they were credited. Cayce was among those mystics who believed that people from the legendary, advanced civilization of Atlantis built the pyramids not long after 10,500 b.c.e., just prior to the time when their own homeland was destroyed by a natural or human catastrophe. Lerner, while searching for evidence of Cayce's prophecies, discovered, as have so many researchers before him, that there exist many intriguing possibilities to further broaden the mystery, and the achievement, of the pyramid builders.
De Camp, L. Sprague. The Ancient Engineers. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1993.
Harpur, James, and Jennifer Westwood. The Atlas of Legendary Places. New York: Konecky & Konecky, 1997.
Hays, H. R. In the Beginnings. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1963.
Hodges, Henry. Technology in the Ancient World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.
"The Great Pyramid (of Khufu), at Giza." Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/great-pyramid-khufu-giza
"The Great Pyramid (of Khufu), at Giza." Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained. . Retrieved January 21, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/great-pyramid-khufu-giza
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.