The Pyramids of Giza, built between 2589 and 2504 BC.
Credit: Dan Breckwoldt | Shutterstock
Constructed between 2589 BC and 2504 BC, 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, with a general consensus that ramps of some form, and a tremendous amount of brute human labor, were used. When they were completed the pyramids were encased in white limestone, most of which is lost today.
Despite the differences between them (Khufu’s pyramid is several times the mass of Menkaure’s) the southeast tip of each pyramid aligns 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 a 656 feet (200 meters) long and 32 feet (10 m) thick. South of it is a place known, in the words of the excavators, as “the lost city” that housed at least some of the pyramid builders.
When it was completed by Khufu, the Great Pyramid rose 481 feet (146 m). Today, with the loss of the some of the stone, it 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 whom they belonged to 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 over 1,200 pieces, is 142 feet (43 m) long, with wooden planks and oars. The purpose of these boats is a mystery. [Natural Disasters in Ancient Egypt Revealed]
Internally, 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 one of the shafts revealing what appears to be a door with copper handles along with hieroglyphs.
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, 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 him, Khafre, returned to Giza and built a pyramid that, although smaller than Khufu’s, was on a slightly higher elevation.
It contains only a single satellite pyramid on the outside and inside its 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.
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 was a mythical creature seen in art throughout the ancient Middle East as well as India and Greece. The face of the giant example 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.
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.
It’s a mystery as to why it’s so much smaller than the others, 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.
The entranceway 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 he tried to send it to England, the ship he put it on, the Beatrice, sinking with it.
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 backing this idea up. The pyramid complexes, and the grave goods once located inside them, helped the king ascend to the afterlife.
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.