Constructed between 2589 and 2504 B.C., the Egyptian pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, built in that order, are a testament to ancient planning and engineering.
How these pyramids were built is a source of speculation and debate. Many researchers believe that a ramp system of some form was used to move the blocks into place during construction. When the pyramids were completed they were encased in white limestone, most of which is lost today.
Recent research suggests that when the blocks were being moved across the desert, a small amount of water was put on the sand in front of them, making them easier to move. Additionally, archaeologists have found new evidence that Giza had a bustling port, allowing goods to be shipped to the site from across Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean.
Despite the differences among the three pyramids (Khufu’s pyramid, the "Great Pyramid," is several times the mass of Menkaure’s) the southeast tips of each pyramid align together almost precisely. Each pyramid had a mortuary and valley temple, with a causeway connecting them. They also had smaller pyramids referred to as satellite or queens' pyramids.
The Sphinx, an enigmatic monument usually associated with king Khafre, stands watch near his valley temple. In addition, tombs sprawling to the east and west of Khufu’s pyramid contain the remains of officials, royal relatives and others who had the privilege to be buried there.
To the south of the Sphinx is the “Wall of the Crow,” which is 656 feet (200 meters) long and 32 feet (10 m) thick. South of the wall is a settlement that archaeologists sometimes refer to as “the lost city.” This city has barracks that may have housed troops. Recently, archaeologists have discovered a mansion in the city that would have been used by senior officials. The pyramid workers may have lived in simpler housing located by the pyramids themselves.
Recent research has also revealed evidence for a massive catering operation that kept people at Giza fed.
When it was completed by Khufu, the Great Pyramid rose 481 feet (146 m), approximately the height of a modern, 30-story office building. Today, with the loss of the some of the stone, the pyramid is slightly shorter, measuring 455 feet (138 m). It was the tallest building in the world until the 14th century, when the Lincoln Cathedral was completed in England.
Three smaller pyramids, often referred to as queens’ pyramids, are located adjacent to Khufu’s pyramid. It’s difficult to say for sure for whom they were built, but one of them may have been for Khufu’s mother, Hetepheres. In addition, a smaller satellite pyramid, located between the queens’ pyramids and Khufu’s, was discovered in the 1990s.
Seven boat pits have been found at Khufu’s pyramid, two on the south side, two on the east side, two in between the queens’ pyramids and one located beside the mortuary temple and causeway. The best preserved boat, carefully reassembled from more than 1,200 pieces, is 142 feet (43 m) long, with wooden planks and oars. The purpose of these boats is a mystery. [Related: Natural Disasters in Ancient Egypt Revealed]
Khufu’s pyramid held three chambers. A grand gallery lead up to the king’s chamber, a red granite room that contains a now-empty royal sarcophagus. In the center of the pyramid is the so-called queen’s chamber, although it probably never held a queen. Beneath the pyramid is a subterranean chamber, its purpose, like the queen’s chamber, a mystery.
Both the king’s chamber and the queen’s chamber contain two “air shafts” (it’s doubtful they were ever used as such). The shafts from the king’s chamber now lead outside, while the two from the queen’s chamber stop after a distance. Robot exploration of the shafts reveal that they lead to doors with copper handles and hieroglyphs.
Recently, archaeologist Zahi Hawass, the former Egyptian minister of state for antiquities, told Live Science that he believes these shafts lead to Khufu’s real burial chamber. "There is no pyramid of the 123 pyramids in Egypt that have these type of doors with copper handles," Hawass said. "Really, I believe they're hiding something."
The construction of Khufu’s pyramid complex was a massive undertaking. Archaeologist Mark Lehner, who excavates at Giza, estimates that — assuming Khufu reigned for about 30 years — an estimated 251 cubic yards (230 cubic meters) of stone per day had to be put down. That’s “a rate of one average-size block every two or three minutes in a ten-hour day,” he writes in his book "The Complete Pyramids: Solving the Ancient Mysteries" (Thames & Hudson, 2008), adding that estimates for the average size of these pyramid stones are as high as 2.5 tons.
Khufu’s successor, Djedefre, built his pyramid off-site at Abu Roash. The person who succeeded Djedefre, Khafre, returned to Giza and built a pyramid that, although smaller than Khufu’s, was on a slightly higher elevation.
Only one satellite pyramid sits outside Khafre's pyramid. Inside, the pyramid's architecture is simpler than Khufu’s. It has two entranceways, both on the north side, one located 38 feet (12 m) above the base of the pyramid and another on ground level.
Both entrances lead to passageways that ultimately lead to the burial chamber. Robbed long ago, this chamber contains a black granite sarcophagus that, when found in the 19th century, contained the bones of a bull, an animal loaded with religious symbolism in ancient Egypt; the body of the king himself was gone.
With a height of 215 feet (65 m) and a base of 335 by 343 feet (102 by 105 m), Menkaure’s is by far the smallest of the three pyramids. Lehner notes that its building mass is about one-tenth that of Khufu’s pyramid. Its complex includes three queens’ pyramids on its south side.
The entranceway for Menkaure’s pyramid is located just above ground level, its passages leading to an antechamber and burial chamber. An ornate sarcophagus was found in the 19th century by Howard Vyse but it was lost when the ship that was taking it to England, the Beatrice, sank.
It’s a mystery as to why Menkaure’s pyramid is so much smaller than the other two. It could simply be that there wasn’t room at Giza for another large pyramid or perhaps events during Menkaure’s reign prevented him from building another large structure. No future pharaoh would ever build a pyramid as large as those built by Khufu and Khafre.
All three of Giza’s pyramids had mortuary temples connecting to valley temples through a causeway. However, in the case of Khafre’s pyramid, his valley temple also has an enigmatic monument nearby known as the Sphinx, with an uncompleted temple dedicated to it.
The Sphinx is a 241-foot (74 m) long monument carved out of the limestone bedrock of the Giza Plateau. It has the face of a man and the body of a lion. The mythical creature is seen in art throughout the ancient Middle East, as well as in India and Greece. The word "sphinx" is, in fact, a Greek word meaning "strangler," according to Tour Egypt. The face of the giant statue at Giza may have been based on that of Khafre. Efforts at conserving and restoring the Sphinx go back at least as far as 3,400 years.
What purpose did the pyramids have?
The simplest explanation for the use of the pyramids is that they were places of burial for their respective kings; the discovery of a sarcophagus in all three pyramids back this idea up. The pyramid complexes, and the grave goods once located inside them, helped the king ascend to the afterlife.
In addition to being used to bury the pharaoh numerous mastaba tombs were built near the pyramids. These were used to bury royal family members and senior officials. Recently, an elaborate wall painting was discovered in one of these tombs.
Interestingly, the spiritual importance of Giza appears to cross the ages. In late 2010, archaeologists announced the discovery of about 400 malnourished people, buried with few grave goods, located near the Wall of the Crow. They date to between 2,700 and 2,000 years ago, two millennia after the pyramids had been built, their burial location suggesting they had a desire to be near Giza.
- UNESCO's World Heritage List, which recognizes sites with cultural, historical and natural significance, includes the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx.
- Take a tour of the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx at Tour Egypt.
- In Greek mythology, sphinxes were monsters with the body of a lion, wings of an eagle and the breast and face of a woman. Learn more at The Theoi Project.