Pyramids of Egypt

QUESTION: How were the pyramids of Egypt constructed?


The first pyramids of Egypt vaguely resembled the shape we associate with the Egyptian pyramids. Low mud-brick buildings, mastabas, of decreasing size were stacked six stories high to create a “curved” structure. Design modifications then led to the Bent Pyramid, which sloped at a gentler 54° at the bottom, “bending” to a 43° slope halfway up. Finally, the more identifiable pyramid consisted of laying stone horizontally instead of leaning blocks inward. This dramatically improved the structure’s stability. Rather than flattening the entire site, the central bedrock was left. Next, a wide strip of bedrock was leveled as a foundation for the pyramid’s platform. Then the remaining bedrock was cut to form steps to receive the 40- to 50-ton meticulously carved limestone blocks.

As burial tombs, a pyramid’s “spiritual orientation” was just as crucial as its durability. Priests-astronomers were consulted prior to construction:
  • Pyramids must always line up with the four cardinal directions.
  • The north-south line must establish the one side of the pyramid’s square base.
  • The orientation must coincide with specific sacred constellations.
Who actually built the pyramids of Egypt?
As each pharaoh rose to power, every Egyptian citizen was expected to serve on public projects, such as pyramids, as a form of tax owed to the pharaoh’s government. Citizens would work for short periods of time (quarrying, hauling rocks) then a replacement crew of workers would fulfill their community obligations. In this way the creation of a pyramid was the work of the entire nation. Farmers who had nothing to do while their fields were underwater during inundation (yearly flooding of the Nile, July-October) worked for a season, receiving pay and hearty meals.

Myths perpetuated the idea that slaves constructed the pyramids. In reality, manual laborers (peasants) from all over Egypt worked under a core of architects, engineers, master builders, stonemasons, artisans, and scribes. The task of constructing these burial tombs to their god-kings demanded a highly motivated workforce. Accuracy equal to an optician’s work, but on a scale of acres instead of inches, rivals today’s engineers. Rocks weighing an average of 2½ tons each were set in place with a “gap” of five-hundredths of an inch.

What was the largest of the pyramids of Egypt? The Great Pyramid of Khufu (second king of the Fourth Dynasty) was the most intricate and best constructed of all pyramids. Khufu’s son, Khafre, built a smaller pyramid complex near his father’s. He added a unique touch: the Great Sphinx. Rising to a height of 481 feet, however, The Great Pyramid remained the tallest artificial structure on earth for more than 4,000 years.

No one is exactly sure how The Great Pyramid of Khufu (also known as The Great Pyramid of Giza) was constructed or how long it took to complete. The 5th century B.C. Greek historian, Herodotus, was told by Egyptian priests that the project required 20 years. Khufu spent his entire 25-year reign preparing for his afterlife.
  • Three burial chambers perhaps to store his statue, jewels, and sarcophagus
  • Five 60-ton granite beams to fortify the King’s Chamber
  • Shafts pointed towards Orion’s belt, to speed his remains to the afterlife
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