The Great Pyramid of Giza (also known as the Pyramid of Khufu or the Pyramid of Cheops) is the oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the Giza pyramid complex bordering what is now El Giza, Egypt. It is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the only one to remain largely intact.
Based on a mark in an interior chamber naming the work gang and a reference to the fourth dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu, Egyptologists believe that the pyramid was built as a tomb over a 10- to 20-year period concluding around 2560 BC. Initially at 146.5 metres (481 feet), the Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure in the world for more than 3,800 years. Originally, the Great Pyramid was covered by limestone casing stones that formed a smooth outer surface; what is seen today is the underlying core structure. Some of the casing stones that once covered the structure can still be seen around the base. There have been varying scientific and alternative theories about the Great Pyramid’s construction techniques. Most accepted construction hypotheses are based on the idea that it was built by moving huge stones from a quarry and dragging and lifting them into place.
There are three known chambers inside the Great Pyramid. The lowest chamber is cut into the bedrock upon which the pyramid was built and was unfinished. The so-called Queen’s Chamber and King’s Chamber are higher up within the pyramid structure. The main part of the Giza complex is a set of buildings that included two mortuary temples in honour of Khufu (one close to the pyramid and one near the Nile), three smaller pyramids for Khufu’s wives, an even smaller “satellite” pyramid, a raised causeway connecting the two temples, and small mastaba tombs surrounding the pyramid for nobles.
Egyptologists believe the pyramid was built as a tomb for the Fourth DynastyEgyptian pharaoh Khufu (often Hellenized as “Cheops”) and was constructed over a 20-year period. Khufu’s vizier, Hemiunu (also called Hemon) is believed by some to be the architect of the Great Pyramid. It is thought that, at construction, the Great Pyramid was originally 280 Egyptian Royal cubits tall (146.5 metres (480.6 ft)), but with erosion and absence of its pyramidion, its present height is 138.8 metres (455.4 ft). Each base side was 440 cubits, 230.4 metres (755.9 ft) long. The mass of the pyramid is estimated at 5.9 million tonnes. The volume, including an internal hillock, is roughly 2,500,000 cubic metres (88,000,000 cu ft).
Based on these estimates, building the pyramid in 20 years would involve installing approximately 800 tonnes of stone every day. Additionally, since it consists of an estimated 2.3 million blocks, completing the building in 20 years would involve moving an average of more than 12 of the blocks into place each hour, day and night. The first precision measurements of the pyramid were made by Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie in 1880–82 and published as The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh. Almost all reports are based on his measurements. Many of the casing-stones and inner chamber blocks of the Great Pyramid fit together with extremely high precision. Based on measurements taken on the north-eastern casing stones, the mean opening of the joints is only 0.5 millimetre wide (1/50 of an inch).
The pyramid remained the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years, unsurpassed until the 160-metre-tall (520 ft) spire of Lincoln Cathedral was completed c. 1300. The accuracy of the pyramid’s workmanship is such that the four sides of the base have an average error of only 58 millimetres in length. The base is horizontal and flat to within ±15 mm (0.6 in). The sides of the square base are closely aligned to the four cardinal compass points (within four minutes of arc) based on true north, not magnetic north, and the finished base was squared to a mean corner error of only 12 seconds of arc.
The completed design dimensions, as suggested by Petrie’s survey and subsequent studies, are estimated to have originally been 280 Egyptian Royal cubits high by 440 cubits long at each of the four sides of its base. The ratio of the perimeter to height of 1760/280 Egyptian Royal cubits equates to 2π to an accuracy of better than 0.05 percent (corresponding to the well-known approximation of π as 22/7). Some Egyptologists consider this to have been the result of deliberate design proportion. Verner wrote, “We can conclude that although the ancient Egyptians could not precisely define the value of π, in practice they used it”. Petrie, author of Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh concluded: “but these relations of areas and of circular ratio are so systematic that we should grant that they were in the builder’s design”. Others have argued that the Ancient Egyptians had no concept of pi and would not have thought to encode it in their monuments. They believe that the observed pyramid slope may be based on a simple seked slope choice alone, with no regard to the overall size and proportions of the finished building. In 2013, rolls of papyrus called the Diary of Merer were discovered written by some of those who delivered limestone and other construction materials from Tora to Giza.
The Great Pyramid consists of an estimated 2.3 million blocks which most believe to have been transported from nearby quarries. The Tura limestone used for the casing was quarried across the river. The largest granite stones in the pyramid, found in the “King’s” chamber, weigh 25 to 80 tonnes and were transported from Aswan, more than 800 km (500 mi) away. Traditionally, ancient Egyptians cut stone blocks by hammering into them wooden wedges, which were then soaked with water. As the water was absorbed, the wedges expanded, causing the rock to crack. Once they were cut, they were carried by boat either up or down the Nile River to the pyramid. It is estimated that 5.5 million tonnes of limestone, 8,000 tonnes of granite (imported from Aswan), and 500,000 tonnes of mortar were used in the construction of the Great Pyramid.
At completion, the Great Pyramid was surfaced by white “casing stones”—slant-faced, but flat-topped, blocks of highly polished white limestone. These were carefully cut to what is approximately a face slope with a seked of 5½ palms to give the required dimensions. Visibly, all that remains is the underlying stepped core structure seen today. In AD 1303, a massive earthquake loosened many of the outer casing stones, which were then carted away by Bahri Sultan An-Nasir Nasir-ad-Din al-Hasan in 1356 to build mosques and fortresses in nearby Cairo. Many more casing stones were removed from the great pyramids by Muhammad Ali Pasha in the early 19th century to build the upper portion of his Alabaster Mosque in Cairo, not far from Giza. These limestone casings can still be seen as parts of these structures. Later explorers reported massive piles of rubble at the base of the pyramids left over from the continuing collapse of the casing stones, which were subsequently cleared away during continuing excavations of the site.
Nevertheless, a few of the casing stones from the lowest course can be seen to this day in situ around the base of the Great Pyramid, and display the same workmanship and precision that has been reported for centuries. Petrie also found a different orientation in the core and in the casing measuring 193 centimetres ± 25 centimetres. He suggested a redetermination of north was made after the construction of the core, but a mistake was made, and the casing was built with a different orientation. Petrie related the precision of the casing stones as to being “equal to opticians’ work of the present day, but on a scale of acres” and “to place such stones in exact contact would be careful work; but to do so with cement in the joints seems almost impossible”. It has been suggested it was the mortar (Petrie’s “cement”) that made this seemingly impossible task possible, providing a level bed, which enabled the masons to set the stones exactly.
Many alternative, often contradictory, theories have been proposed regarding the pyramid’s construction techniques. Many disagree on whether the blocks were dragged, lifted, or even rolled into place. The Greeks believed that slave labour was used, but modern discoveries made at nearby workers’ camps associated with construction at Giza suggest that it was built instead by tens of thousands of skilled workers. Verner posited that the labour was organized into a hierarchy, consisting of two gangs of 100,000 men, divided into five zaa or phyle of 20,000 men each, which may have been further divided according to the skills of the workers.
One mystery of the pyramid’s construction is its planning. John Romer suggests that they used the same method that had been used for earlier and later constructions, laying out parts of the plan on the ground at a 1-to-1 scale. He writes that “such a working diagram would also serve to generate the architecture of the pyramid with precision unmatched by any other means”. He also argues for a 14-year time-span for its construction. A modern construction management study, in association with Mark Lehner and other Egyptologists, estimated that the total project required an average workforce of about 14,500 people and a peak workforce of roughly 40,000. Without the use of pulleys, wheels, or iron tools, they used critical path analysis methods, which suggest that the Great Pyramid was completed from start to finish in approximately 10 years.[
The original entrance to the Great Pyramid is on the north, 17 metres (56 ft) vertically above ground level and 7.29 metres (23.9 ft) east of the centre line of the pyramid. From this original entrance, there is a Descending Passage 0.96 metres (3.1 ft) high and 1.04 metres (3.4 ft) wide, which goes down at an angle of 26° 31’23” through the masonry of the pyramid and then into the bedrock beneath it. After 105.23 metres (345.2 ft), the passage becomes level and continues for an additional 8.84 metres (29.0 ft) to the lower Chamber, which appears not to have been finished. There is a continuation of the horizontal passage in the south wall of the lower chamber; there is also a pit dug in the floor of the chamber. Some Egyptologists suggest that this Lower Chamber was intended to be the original burial chamber, but Pharaoh Khufu later changed his mind and wanted it to be higher up in the pyramid.
28.2 metres (93 ft) from the entrance is a square hole in the roof of the Descending Passage. Originally concealed with a slab of stone, this is the beginning of the Ascending Passage. The Ascending Passage is 39.3 metres (129 ft) long, as wide and high as the Descending Passage and slopes up at almost precisely the same angle to reach the Grand Gallery. The lower end of the Ascending Passage is closed by three huge blocks of granite, each about 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) long. One must use the Robbers’ Tunnel (see below) to access the Ascending Passage. At the start of the Grand Gallery on the right-hand side there is a hole cut in the wall. This is the start of a vertical shaft which follows an irregular path through the masonry of the pyramid to join the Descending Passage. Also at the start of the Grand Gallery there is the Horizontal Passage leading to the “Queen’s Chamber”. The passage is 1.1m (3’8″) high for most of its length, but near the chamber there is a step in the floor, after which the passage is 1.73 metres (5.7 ft) high.
The “Queen’s Chamber” is exactly halfway between the north and south faces of the pyramid and measures 5.75 metres (18.9 ft) north to south, 5.23 metres (17.2 ft) east to west, and has a pointed roof with an apex 6.23 metres (20.4 ft) above the floor. At the eastern end of the chamber there is a niche 4.67 metres (15.3 ft) high. The original depth of the niche was 1.04 metres (3.4 ft), but has since been deepened by treasure hunters.
In the north and south walls of the Queen’s Chamber there are shafts, which, unlike those in the King’s Chamber that immediately slope upwards (see below), are horizontal for around 2 m (6.6 ft) before sloping upwards. The horizontal distance was cut in 1872 by a British engineer, Waynman Dixon, who believed a shaft similar to those in the King’s Chamber must also exist. He was proved right, but because the shafts are not connected to the outer faces of the pyramid or the Queen’s Chamber, their purpose is unknown. At the end of one of his shafts, Dixon discovered a ball of black diorite (a type of rock) and a bronze implement of unknown purpose. Both objects are currently in the British Museum.
The shafts in the Queen’s Chamber were explored in 1993 by the German engineer Rudolf Gantenbrink using a crawler robot he designed, Upuaut 2. After a climb of 65 m (213 ft), he discovered that one of the shafts was blocked by limestone “doors” with two eroded copper “handles”. Some years later the National Geographic Society created a similar robot which, in September 2002, drilled a small hole in the southern door, only to find another door behind it. The northern passage, which was difficult to navigate because of twists and turns, was also found to be blocked by a door.
Research continued in 2011 with the Djedi Project. Realizing the problem was that the National Geographic Society‘s camera was only able to see straight ahead of it, they instead used a fibre-optic “micro snake camera” that could see around corners. With this they were able to penetrate the first door of the southern shaft through the hole drilled in 2002, and view all the sides of the small chamber behind it. They discovered hieroglyphs written in red paint. They were also able to scrutinize the inside of the two copper “handles” embedded in the door, and they now believe them to be for decorative purposes. They also found the reverse side of the “door” to be finished and polished, which suggests that it was not put there just to block the shaft from debris, but rather for a more specific reason.
The Grand Gallery continues the slope of the Ascending Passage, but is 8.6 metres (28 ft) high and 46.68 metres (153.1 ft) long. At the base it is 2.06 metres (6.8 ft) wide, but after 2.29 metres (7.5 ft) the blocks of stone in the walls are corbelled inwards by 7.6 centimetres (3.0 in) on each side. There are seven of these steps, so, at the top, the Grand Gallery is only 1.04 metres (3.4 ft) wide. It is roofed by slabs of stone laid at a slightly steeper angle than the floor of the gallery, so that each stone fits into a slot cut in the top of the gallery like the teeth of a ratchet. The purpose was to have each block supported by the wall of the Gallery, rather than resting on the block beneath it, in order to prevent cumulative pressure.
At the upper end of the Gallery on the right-hand side there is a hole near the roof that opens into a short tunnel by which access can be gained to the lowest of the Relieving Chambers. The other Relieving Chambers were discovered in 1837–1838 by Colonel Howard Vyse and J. S. Perring, who dug tunnels upwards using blasting powder.
The floor of the Grand Gallery consists of a shelf or step on either side, 51 centimetres (20 in) wide, leaving a lower ramp 1.04 metres (3.4 ft) wide between them. In the shelves there are 54 slots, 27 on each side matched by vertical and horizontal slots in the walls of the Gallery. These form a cross shape that rises out of the slot in the shelf. The purpose of these slots is not known, but the central gutter in the floor of the Gallery, which is the same width as the Ascending Passage, has led to speculation that the blocking stones were stored in the Grand Gallery and the slots held wooden beams to restrain them from sliding down the passage.This, in turn, has led to the proposal that originally many more than 3 blocking stones were intended, to completely fill the Ascending Passage.
At the top of the Grand Gallery, there is a step giving onto a horizontal passage some metres long and approximately 1.02 metres (3.3 ft) in height and width, in which can be detected four slots, three of which were probably intended to hold granite portcullises. Fragments of granite found by Petrie in the Descending Passage may have come from these now-vanished doors.