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The Great Pyramid of Giza

Learn the history and mysteries of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

The Great Pyramid is one of the three Giza Pyramids. [©Jupiter Images, 2008]
©Jupiter Images, 2008
The Great Pyramid is one of the three Giza Pyramids.

The Great Pyramid of Giza is one of the largest of the original Seven Wonders of the World, and is so massive that astronauts can see it from space. The enormous structure stands on the northern end of the Giza Plateau, not far from Cairo, Egypt.

The Great Pyramid is one of three pyramids commonly referred to as the Giza Pyramids. These pyramids were built as temples to honor the gods, as well as burial tombs for Egyptian pharaohs who expected to become gods in the afterlife. Because the ancient Egyptians believed they could take their possessions with them into the afterlife, a king's tomb was stocked with everything he could possibly need -- money, jewels, artwork, furniture, food and clothing -- and even boats and servants.

The Great Pyramid of Giza was the burial tomb of Pharaoh Khufu and is the tallest of the Giza Pyramids. The second pyramid was for Khufu's son, Pharaoh Khafre. Khafre also included an enormous limestone structure next to the pyramid called the Sphinx, which has the body of a lion and the head of a pharaoh. The third pyramid was for Pharaoh Menkaure and is much smaller than the other two.

Aside from the three monuments and the Great Sphinx, there are also small pyramids surrounding the area for queens and favorite sons. Like the pharaoh's tombs, the smaller pyramids were also packed with treasure and necessities for the next life.

National Geographic estimates that 2.3 million stone blocks were used to build the pyramid, and each block's average weight was about 2.5 to 15 tons. Once the structure was completed, it weighed an approximate 6 million tons. At 482 feet, the Great Pyramid of Giza was the tallest structure in the world for thousands of years until it was surpassed by the Lincoln Cathedral in England in 1300.

History of the Great Pyramid of Giza

According to Nova Online, around 2550 B.C. King Khufu, the second pharaoh of the fourth dynasty, commissioned the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza, which would later become his burial tomb. Building such a structure was an enormous task, especially considering the ancient Egyptians did not have cranes to lift the massive stones. Some historians speculate that it may have taken 10 years just to build a ramp leading from the ground to the pyramid.

A Greek traveler Herodotus, who visited Giza in 450 B.C., was told by a priest that the Great Pyramid was built by 100,000 men who worked for 20 years. Archaeologists now believe that the workforce was likely more limited than that. It is likely that about 20,000 men built the pyramid. According to the History Channel, the men who built the pyramid were not slaves, as people once believed. They were skilled craftsmen and paid laborers.

Even in ancient times, the pyramids were under the constant threat of thieves. The ancient Egyptians went to great lengths to discourage thieves and hide the treasures. They built hidden passageways and rooms that served as decoys. Over time, however, each of the Pyramids of Giza was broken into and looted.

Archaeologists know little about Khufu because his pyramid was robbed years before scientists found it. Judging from the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza, however, Khufu must have been an important ruler of great wealth. Archaeologists speculate that the smaller nearby pyramids may have been for his wives.

At one time, the exterior of the Great Pyramid of Giza was covered in marble, which has eroded over the years, reducing the size of the pyramid by 33 feet in all directions. The original entranceway to the pyramid was about 49 feet higher than the entranceway used today. The Grand Gallery inside the pyramid leads to the King's Chamber, which contains a huge sarcophagus made of red granite. Because the sarcophagus is too big to have been brought into the pyramid after construction, workers must have built the pyramid around it.

Today, the Pyramids of Giza are a major tourist attraction. About 3 million people visit them each year.

Building the Great Pyramid of Giza

No one is sure how the ancient Egyptians, who had only primitive tools and no wheels or pulleys, managed to build a structure as large and heavy as the Great Pyramid of Giza. Herodotus documented that they first laid out the base of the pyramid before they levered great slabs into place. However, when this theory was replicated in the 1980s, it became clear that it was not possible.

According to Nova Online, most archaeologists agree that the ancient Egyptians used ropes made of papyrus twine to haul the massive blocks up gradually sloping ramps. The workers likely put in 10-hour shifts and received one day off every 10 days. They were provided nearby housing and were fed meat, bread and beer.

The Pyramids: Gateway to the Stars

For many years, the odd positioning of the three pyramids was a mystery. They were not clustered around the Great Pyramid of Giza, and were not placed in a straight line or grouped in any symmetrical way. Many believed that the odd positioning may have had something to do with the terrain.

This theory was proved false in the 1990s when Robert Bauval, a Belgian engineer, discovered that the arrangement of the pyramids corresponds to the three stars of Orion's belt. The ancient Egyptians considered Orion to be sacred because they believed it was home of the god Osiris.

Bauval calculated that, around 2500 B.C., the southern vent of the pyramid pointed directly at Orion and the southern shaft pointed to Sirius, who was sacred to the goddess Isis. Bauval theorized that the pyramids were positioned as such in order to let the pharaoh's soul go directly to Orion where the pharaoh would also become a god. Though some experts do not believe in Bauval's theory, most consider it an intriguing possibility.

While the Great Pyramid of Giza reveals much about ancient Egyptian customs and culture, there are still mysteries surrounding the Giza Pyramids that have yet to be solved.


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