The Pyramids of Giza

Undoubtedly one of the most famous sights in the world, the three great pyramids of Giza are for many the defining icon of ancient Egyptian culture. Built in less than 100 years, between 2600 and 2500 BC, they represent the pinnacle of precision and organisation; perfection in pyramid building. As they stand today, stripped of their fine white limestone casing and having lost integral parts of their complex, the pyramids are slightly less brilliant than they once were, but no less astounding. Who were the kings who envisioned such immense structures as their eternal resting place? How did they build them?

The 4th Dynasty

4th Dynasty kings

2613-2494

Sneferu

2613-2589

Khufu

2589-2566

Djedefre

2566-2558

Khafre

2558-2532

Menkaura

2532-2503

Shepseskaf

2503-2498

Tomb location

Meidum Pyramid

Dahshur ‘Bent’ and ‘Red’ pyramids

Giza

‘Great’ Pyramid

Abu Roash (north of Giza.) Pyramid

Giza

Pyramid

Giza

Pyramid

 South Saqqara

Mastaba tomb

The pyramid form was developed in the 3rd Dynasty and was already in use as the superstructure for royals tombs, but it was Sneferu’s reign that saw the first attempts to create a ‘true’ pyramid. When Khufu (Cheops in Greek) came to the throne his father’s extensive pyramid building programme had allowed techniques to be honed and important lessons learned. (Pictured is Khufu’s ‘great’ pyramid). The ambition of Khufu would be realised because the designers, masons and labourers had the ability and the knowledge to undertake such an exorbitant project. Surely this would distinguish their king for the rest of history.

In fact, despite his significant accomplishment, almost nothing is known about Khufu’s life. His regnal years are uncertain, though recent finds suggest at least 26 years, and the only known sculpture representing him is a tiny ivory figurine discovered by pioneering archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie. Khufu had at least two queens, Meritites I and Henutsen, and a large number of children, who are attested by their tombs in the Giza cemetery. With no further evidence for the man the enduring impression of him is a largely negative one, based upon Egyptian stories and reports left by Herodotus.

Herodotus 2: 124. Cheops (to continue the account which the priests gave me) brought the country into all sorts of misery.

Khufu was succeeded by Djedefre, who began his pyramid to the northwest of Giza. His reign was, however, a short one and he was followed by a brother named Khafre (Chepren in Greek), who was to build the second largest pyramid at Giza. Fine sculptures representing this king were found in his valley temple by August Marriette in 1860. He had several wives, including the well attested Meresankh III, buried in the tomb known as G7530-7540, and the less well known Khamerenebty I (G8978), and fathered at least 12 children. One of these children was Menkaure (Mycerinus in Greek) who was the owner of the final pyramid at Giza. Despite a larger amount of physical evidence remaining for Khafre, like Khufu, little is known of his life. His reputation has followed that of his father; he is remembered as a similarly unsavoury character.

Herodotus 2: 127. Chepren was no better than his predecessor: his rule was equally oppressive and like Cheops he built a pyramid but of smaller size.

Menkaure has escaped history’s wrath and is remembered as a benevolent king. His pyramid is considerably smaller, with approximately 1/10 the building mass of the great pyramid. However, the developments in size and decoration of the associated temples outstrip those of his predecessors. Some have suggested that the sheer scale of Khufu and Khafre’s pyramids has contributed to the perpetuation of their bad press, perhaps indicating a desire to focus on themselves and their cults over those of the gods.

Herodotus 2: 129. Such were the generosity and mild rule of Mycernius, when the first of his troubles fell upon him.

Again, the reign length is uncertain and it is probable that Menkaure died before completion of his complex, which was then completed hastily by his successor. In the excavation of his valley temple several exquisite statues of the king accompanied by the goddess Hathor, or his queens, were found. Menkaure is thought to have had two queens, Khamerenebty II (his sister) and possibly Rekhetre, who is a known daughter of Khafre (and thereby Menkaure’s half sister) but never mentioned in connection with a husband. (It was not uncommon in the Egyptian royal families for kings to marry their sisters and cousins). Menkaure’s children are not well attested, but it is assumed his successor, Sheseskhaf, was his son.

Construction

The phenomenal accuracy with which the Great pyramid was constructed, whilst no doubt having some cultic significance, was most likely a pragmatic reaction to the architectural problems encountered in earlier constructions. It is clear there was no ‘standard’ method of construction for pyramids; they are all different. And though certain aspects, such as quarrying the stone and moving the blocks were routine requirements for all pyramids, each site is unique and must have presented its own individual challenges. Pictured are the blocks of Khufu’s ‘great’ pyramid.

Along with the huge quantities of stone there was much more to factor into the decision to construct a pyramid.

  • The topography of the chosen site
  • The availability and quality of nearby stone for quarrying
  • Proximity of the river Nile for transport and supply of materials, which would have included food and water, tools, clothing and fuel
  • Housing the workforce

Herodotus claimed that it took 20 years to build the Great pyramid, with a workforce of around 100,000. Today it is generally thought that it would require 20-30,000. The stones used vary in size and quality, certainly getting smaller towards the top and less neatly cut than those used in the core (which is what is now exposed). Experimental archaeologists have shown that it is possible for ten men to pull a 2.5 ton block, the accepted average weight of one block, along a level, lubricated surface.

Ancient measuring tools have survived, including square levels, set squares and plumb rods and can be seen in Cairo museum. In addition copper chisels and dolerite pounders would have been used to cut and shape the stones. Though the technology was simple it would theoretically be possible for the Egyptians to have accurately worked out the orientation of the pyramids, the angles of their sides and the levelling of the foundation platforms using astronomical calculation and geometry.

Levelling the surface of each pyramid’s foundation was another challenge that the Egyptians faced, and defeated with incredible accuracy (less than 1 inch deviation from level). The most common theory on how this was achieved is by digging a grid of channels and filling them with water. The water level could then be marked and when it was drained there would be a level to cut to. However, at this period the lifting of water was likely limited to people physically carrying it in pots. The quantities needed for any of the Giza pyramids to use this technique is impractical.

With the question of raising the stones to the desired height, it is generally agreed that ramps of some kind were used. But this is where agreement ends. There are large quantities of material, including limestone chips, on the plateau that probably includes debris from the ramps. In some cases there is evidence in situ for construction ramps, for instance at Saqqara and South Abydos. Building was abandoned early on and so their ramps, perpendicular to the face, can only be assumed as a method for the lower levels. For the higher levels, in addition to a perpendicular ramp, there are a number of possible suggestions including ramps that zigzag around each layer and ones that encase the whole pyramid as it rises.

They were monumental undertakings in their day and indeed, even with modern technology it has proven difficult for us to fathom the methods or emulate the skill of the Egyptian pyramid builders. The techniques and form all herald from the work of Khufu’s predecessors. What makes the pyramids of Giza special is their accuracy, their scale and their perfection of workmanship. They still stand true and surprisingly complete after more than 4,000 years, while the pyramids of other kings have crumbled and been swept away beneath the grasping sands.

No pyramid before or after could hope to match such grand achievements.

Gemma Renshaw


See also article on the process of mummification, and articles on TutankhamunRameses the Great and Howard Carter.

Read more in Ancient Egypt: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats.

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