How ancient Egyptian built the Great Pyramid of Giza

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Explore how the ancient Egyptians built the Great Pyramid, a tomb created for Pharaoh Khufu which took over 20 years to complete.

As soon as Pharaoh Khufu ascended the throne circa 2575 BCE, work on his eternal resting place began. The structure’s architect, Hemiunu, determined he would need 20 years to finish the royal tomb. But what he could not predict was that this monument would remain the world’s tallest manmade structure for over 3,800 years. Soraya Field Fiorio digs into the construction of the Great Pyramid.

As soon as Pharaoh Khufu ascended the throne circa 2575 BCE, work on his eternal resting place began. The structure’s architect, Hemiunu, determined he would need 20 years to finish the royal tomb. But what he could not predict was that this monument would remain the world’s tallest manmade structure for over 3,800 years. To construct the Great Pyramid, Hemiunu would need to dig a 6-and-a-half-kilometer canal, quarry enormous amounts of limestone and granite, and use kilometers of rope to pull stones into place. Today, there are still vigorous debates about the exact methods the Egyptians employed. But we do know that first Hemiunu needed a construction site.

The Egyptians spoke of death as going west like the setting sun, and the Nile’s west bank had a plateau of bedrock that could support the pyramid better than shifting sand. In a brilliant timesaving move, masons carved the plateau itself to look like the stones used for the rest of the pyramid. With this level foundation in place, construction could begin. The project called for a staggering 25,000 workers, but fortunately, Hemiunu had an established labor supply. Egyptians were required to perform manual labor for the government throughout the year, and citizens from across the country came to contribute. Workers performed a wide range of tasks, from crafting tools and clothes to administrative work to back-breaking manual labor. But contrary to popular belief, these workers were not enslaved people. In fact, these citizens were housed and fed with rations better than the average Egyptian could afford. To complete the project in 20 years, one block of stone would need to be quarried, transported, and pushed into place every 3 minutes, 365 days a year. Workers averaged 10-hour days, hauling limestone from two different quarries. One was close to the site, but its fossil-lined yellow stone was deemed suitable only for the pyramid’s interior. Stones for the outside were hauled from roughly 13 kilometers away, using 9-meter long sleds made from giant cedar trunks.

When mined from the ground, limestone is soft and splits easily into straight lines. But after air exposure it hardens, requiring wooden mallets and copper chisels to shape. The pyramid used over 2 million stones, each weighing up to 80 tons. And there was no room for error in how they were shaped. Even the smallest inaccuracy at the bottom of the pyramid could result in a catastrophic failure at the top. Researchers know where the materials used to build the pyramids came from and how they were transported, but the actual construction process remains mysterious. Most experts agree that limestone ramps were used to move the stones into place, but there are many theories on the number of ramps and their locations. And the pyramid’s exterior is just half the story. Since death could come for the pharaoh at any time, Hemiunu always needed an accessible burial chamber at the ready, so three separate burial chambers were built during construction. The last of these, known as the King’s Chamber, is a spacious granite room with a soaring ceiling, located at the heart of the pyramid. it lay on top of an 8.5-meter high passageway called the Grand Gallery, which may have been used as an ancient freight elevator to move granite up the pyramid’s interior. Granite was used for all the pyramid’s support beams. Much stronger than limestone, but extremely difficult to shape, workers used dolerite rocks as hammers to slowly quarry the stone.

To ensure the granite beams would be ready when he needed them, Hemiunu dispatched 500 workers in the project’s first year so that the material would be ready 12 years later. Five stories of granite sit atop the King’s Chamber, preventing the pyramid from collapsing in on itself. Once complete, the entire structure was encased with white limestone, polished with sand and stone until it gleamed. Finally, a capstone was placed on top. Covered with electrum and glimmering like gold, this peak shined like a second sun over all of Egypt.

Soraya Field Fiorio

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