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great pyramids of egypt

the ancient egyptians built more than 90 royal pyramids, from about 2630 bc until about 1530 bc.  during that time, the pyramid form evolved from a series of stepped terraces that resembled the layers of a wedding cake to the better-known, sloped pyramidal shape.

the first pyramid, the step pyramid at saqqarah (photo below), was constructed during the reign of king djoser (2630 bc-2611 bc). 

the largest pyramid is the one built for king khufu, at the site of modern giza.  khufu's pyramid, known as the great pyramid, is the only one of the seven wonders of the world that still survives.

ii. what is a pyramid?

egyptian pyramids served as tombs for kings and queens, but they were also places of ongoing religious activity. after a ruler died, his or her body was carefully treated and wrapped to preserve it as a mummy. according to ancient egyptian belief, the pyramid, where the mummy was placed, provided a place for the monarch to pass into the afterlife. in temples nearby, priests performed rituals to nourish the dead monarch's spirit, which was believed to stay with the body after death. in the old kingdom (a period of egyptian history from about 2575 bc to about 2134 bc), egyptian artists carved hieroglyphs on the walls of the burial chamber, designed to safeguard the dead monarch's passage into the afterlife. these hieroglyphic writings, which include hymns, magical spells, instructions on how to act in front of the gods, and other pieces of useful knowledge, are known as the pyramid texts.

during the old kingdom, the egyptians built their largest and most ambitious pyramids, typically of large stone blocks. over time, the size and quality of the pyramids decreased, probably because they were extremely costly. in the middle kingdom (2040 bc-1640 bc), the egyptians built pyramids mostly of mud brick. all pyramids were aligned to the cardinal directions, meaning that their sides ran almost exactly due north-south and east-west. most pyramids rose from desert plateaus on the west bank of the nile river, behind which the sun set. the egyptians believed that a dead monarch's spirit left the body and traveled through the sky with the sun each day. when the sun set in the west, the royal spirits settled into their pyramid tombs to renew themselves.

the internal layout of pyramids changed over time, but the entrance was typically in the center of the north face. from here a passage ran downward, sometimes leveling out, to the king's burial chamber, which ideally was located directly underneath the pyramid's center point. sometimes, in addition to the burial chamber, there were storage chambers within the pyramid. these chambers held objects used in burial rituals as well as items for the deceased to use in the afterlife. some of these items were valuable, and in later years people robbed many of the pyramids and stole the objects.

a pyramid never stood alone in the desert. instead, it was the focus of a complex of temples and smaller pyramids. priests and officials entered a typical pyramid complex through a temple near a harbor connected to the nile by a system of canals. this so-called valley temple was linked to the pyramid by a long, covered walkway, known as a causeway. the causeway ran up from the valley through the desert to another temple, called a pyramid temple or mortuary temple. this temple was connected to the pyramid at the center of its eastern face.

most pyramid complexes had satellite pyramids and queens' pyramids. the satellite pyramids were too small to serve as burial places, and their purpose remains mysterious. they may have contained statues representing the king's ka, an aspect of his spirit. the queens' pyramids were simpler, smaller versions of the kings', sometimes with small temples all their own. they were intended for the burial of a king's principal wives.

iii. the great pyramid

the largest pyramid ever built, king khufu's, is often called the great pyramid. it lies in the desert west of giza, accompanied by the pyramids of khafre and menkaure (khufu's son and grandson). the great pyramid was built during khufu's reign (2551 bc-2528 bc). vandals and erosion have stripped away some of the great pyramid's outer material, and some of its uppermost levels have been dismantled, but it still retains its sense of majesty.

a. construction

the base of the great pyramid forms a nearly perfect square, with only a l9-cm (about 7.5-in) difference between its longest and shortest sides, out of a total length of about 230 m (756 ft). this huge square is also almost exactly level. when newly completed, the great pyramid rose 146.7 m (481.4 ft)—nearly 50 stories high. the pyramid's core probably includes a hill of unexcavated rubble, making it impossible to determine its exact number of blocks. researchers estimate that 2.3 million blocks were used to build the great pyramid, with an average weight of about 2.5 metric tons per block. the largest block weighs as much as 15 metric tons.

the work of quarrying, moving, setting, and sculpting the huge amount of stone used to build the great pyramid was most likely accomplished by two crews of 2,000 workers each. teams of bakers, carpenters, water carriers, and others probably served the pyramid builders, so that a total of about 25,000 men and women may have lived year-round near the construction site. none of the workers were slaves. most were probably farmers, contracted to work for a limited period. specialists, who were permanently employed by the king, filled the positions that required the most skill—architects, masons, metal workers, and carpenters.

in building khufu's pyramid, the architects used techniques developed by earlier pyramid builders. they selected a site at giza on a relatively flat area of bedrock—not sand—which provided a stable foundation. after carefully surveying the site and laying down the first level of stones, they constructed the great pyramid in horizontal levels, one on top of the other.

most of the stone for the interior of the great pyramid was quarried immediately to the south of the construction site. the smooth exterior of the pyramid was made of a fine grade of white limestone that was quarried across the nile. these exterior blocks had to be carefully cut, transported by river barge to giza, and dragged up ramps to the construction site. only a few exterior blocks remain in place at the bottom of the great pyramid. during the middle ages (5th century to 15th century) people took the rest away for building projects in the city of cairo.

to ensure that the pyramid remained symmetrical, the exterior casing stones all had to be equal in height and width. workers marked all the blocks to indicate the angle of the pyramid wall and trimmed the surfaces carefully so that the blocks fit together. during construction the outer surface of the stone was left unfinished; excess stone was removed later.

as the great pyramid rose, the workers built large ramps to drag their materials up the sides of the structure. the exact form of these ramps is not known, but scholars believe that they were probably built wrapping around the pyramid as they rose. these ramps were probably made of desert clay mixed with water and bonded with limestone debris left over from the construction work.

when the workers had completed the pyramid and installed the pyramidion, or cap stone, ramps still covered the surface of the pyramid. as the workers dismantled the ramps from the top down, they slowly exposed the pyramid's stone surface, which stonemasons smoothed and polished. when the ramp was gone, the pyramid was displayed in its full majesty.

b. interior

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the interior of the great pyramid is complex, with a series of passages leading to several rooms. the most important room is the king's chamber, the room in which khufu's body was placed during his funeral. in this room the priests left items that khufu, like all egyptians, would need for the afterlife. although the builders tried to block passages and doors when they left the pyramid after the king's funeral, tomb robbers did eventually take everything of value.

the entrance to the great pyramid was set 17 m (55 ft) above ground level. it was intended to be used only once, during khufu's funeral, when special scaffolding was erected. once the scaffolding was dismantled, the entrance's height served as a security measure against tomb robbers. the entrance leads to the descending passage, which runs down through the pyramid into bedrock beneath the pyramid and levels out until it reaches the subterranean chamber. about 18 m (60 ft) from the pyramid entrance, before entering the bedrock, the descending passage intersects another corridor, called the ascending passage, now sealed with three large granite blocks.

the ascending passage runs upward for about 39 m (129 ft), until it levels out and enters the so-called queen's chamber. early arab explorers of the great pyramid gave it this name in the mistaken belief that the queen was buried here. instead, it most probably held a statue of the king that represented his ka, a form of his spirit. the walls of the unfinished queen's chamber grow closer as they rise and meet at a single point at the ceiling. this form results from each level of stones in the walls projecting slightly outward from the level beneath it, an arrangement called corbeling.

where the ascending passage levels off horizontally and runs toward the queen's chamber, it also intersects with one end of the grand gallery, a large, corbeled passageway 47 m (153 ft) long and 8.5 m (28 ft) high. the grand gallery most probably held some of the large stones that were used to plug passages after the king's funeral. in the western wall at the point where the ascending passage and the grand gallery meet, there is an opening to a tunnel that winds its way down through the core of the pyramid and the bedrock to meet the descending passage near the subterranean chamber. it probably provided air to the workers carving out the subterranean chamber.

at the upper end of the grand gallery, another level corridor runs south into the king's chamber, a simple, rectangular room faced entirely with red granite. all that remains in the room now is a granite sarcophagus in which king khufu was buried, near the western wall. about 1 m (3 ft) above the floor, near the center of the northern and southern walls of the king's chamber, are openings to shafts that run upward through the pyramid to the exterior of the pyramid. the exact purpose of these shafts is not known. similar shafts lead out from the queen's chamber but are blocked after 65 m (213 ft) and never reach the exterior of the pyramid.

iv. how the pyramid form developed

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the egyptian pyramids developed from royal tombs of the earliest periods of egyptian history. in the 1st and 2nd dynasties (2920 bc-2770 bc and 2770 bc-2649 bc), kings were buried at the city of abydos in graves topped with a pile of clean sand inside low-lying brick walls. by the 3rd dynasty (2649 bc-2575 bc), kings were being buried underneath large mud brick rectangles called mastabas, from the arabic word meaning "bench."

king djoser, who reigned from 2630 bc to 2611 bc, built a more elaborate royal tomb known as the step pyramid at saqqarah. this tomb started out as a mastaba, but its architect, imhotep, first expanded the mastaba then topped it with successively smaller mastabas. in the end, djoser's tomb looked like a rectangular wedding cake with six layers.

the step pyramid and later pyramids of the 3rd dynasty were constructed of small, almost brick-sized stones that were laid in vertical courses and inward-leaning to create the sloped sides.

king snefru, the father of khufu, built the initial true pyramids, developing the new technique during construction. the earliest true pyramid, at the town of maydum, began as a step pyramid with inward-leaning walls and eight levels. after working on the structure for 14 years, snefru moved his burial ground north to dahshor for unknown reasons, and construction began on another pyramid. this one, too, was made of stone blocks that leaned inward. the architects had designed it with an angle of 60 degrees (to the ground), but as the pyramid rose, it started to sink because of the weight and angle of the stones. to solve this problem, the builders put up an outer supporting wall, giving the half-finished pyramid a shallower angle of 55 degrees. after this, the architects finished the upper portion of the pyramid off with a slope of only 43 degrees. this shift in angle from 55 to 43 degrees gives this pyramid its name—the bent pyramid.

during construction of the bent pyramid, the architects made a discovery: on the upper portion, instead of leaning the stones inward, they laid down horizontal layers of larger stone blocks. with the new technique, the pyramid shape resulted because each level was slightly smaller than the one it lay upon. the new technique was then used to construct another giant pyramid for snefru, now called the north pyramid, located about 1.6 km (1 mi) north of the bent pyramid. it proved so successful that snefru returned to maydum, while construction was still in progress on the two dahshor pyramids, and refined the maydum pyramid by adding an outer level constructed with the new approach.

all the pyramid builders of the 4th dynasty (2575 bc-2467 bc), including the builders of the great pyramid at giza, used snefru's new technique. over the course of the 5th dynasty (2465 bc-2323 bc), however, the quality of the royal pyramids declined. the cores were made of smaller blocks of stone, laid more irregularly. by the end of the old kingdom around 2134 bc, the pyramids had a core of shoddy masonry and debris covered with a veneer of fine limestone.

after a chaotic period in egyptian history called the first intermediate period (2134 bc-2040 bc), egyptian kings chose to be buried in pyramids at their new capital city near modern lisht. these pyramids of the middle kingdom resemble those of the late old kingdom, being loosely constructed of rough stones, debris, and mud-brick, and coated with fine limestone. however, the associated temples were much larger than those of the old kingdom.

the pyramids built early on in the middle kingdom were entered through an opening cut into the center of the north face, from which a simple passage descended. by the reign of senwosret ii (1897 bc-1878 bc), builders altered this simple and predictable arrangement. at his pyramid at illahun the entrance led to a system of shafts on the south side of the pyramid and a passageway that circled the burial chamber before opening into it. during the rest of the middle kingdom, royal pyramids became increasingly complicated in plan, presumably to foil the intentions of tomb robbers.

in the new kingdom (1550 bc-1070 bc), kings were no longer buried in pyramids. the site of royal tombs had shifted to the valley of the kings near modern luxor. but private citizens used small pyramids for tombs that were barely higher and wider than the entrances to them.

v. studying the pyramids

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the pyramids of egypt have long captivated people's imaginations. the greek historian herodotus described his visit to egypt and its pyramids in the middle of the 5th century bc, and later greek and roman travelers admired and climbed the great pyramid. the roman writer pliny the elder, who lived in the 1st century ad, told of local egyptians who would help tourists in their ascents. but european descriptions of the pyramids largely ceased for more than 1,000 years after the decline and fall of the roman empire in the 300s and 400s ad. over time, the sands of the desert swept over many of the pyramids, burying them.

john greaves, a professor from britain's oxford university, undertook the first organized scientific expedition to egypt in 1638. greaves set out to describe the great pyramid, and his measurements proved to be highly accurate. throughout the rest of the 17th and 18th centuries the efforts of european diplomats and travelers, such as beno�t de maillet of france, richard pococke of britain, and frederik norden of denmark, helped stimulate european interest in the monuments of ancient egypt.

in 1798 napoleon bonaparte of france invaded egypt. a large team of scholars accompanied his army, with the intention of documenting not only every ancient monument but the plants, animals, geography, and culture of the modern inhabitants. the results of this effort, which ended in 1801 with the french retreat from egypt, were published in a monumental series of books entitled description de l'�gypte (1809-1828).

giovanni battista caviglia of italy carried out the first excavations at giza from 1816 to 1819. another italian, giovanni battista belzoni, joined him and discovered the upper entrance into the pyramid of khufu's son, khafre, only to find that tomb robbers had long since pillaged it. the next major work at giza was undertaken by englishmen richard william howard vyse and john shae perring, starting in 1837. working with dynamite and gunpowder, vyse and perring forced their way to the cores of several monuments, including the burial chamber of the third pyramid at giza, belonging to king menkaure.

in 1842 king frederick william iv of prussia sent an expedition to egypt led by the scholar karl richard lepsius. the results of this exhaustive survey of the egyptian monuments were published in painstaking detail in a 12-volume work entitled denkm�ler aus �gyten und �thiopien (monuments of egypt and ethiopia, 1849-1859). lepsius also carried out limited excavations at the step pyramid of djoser and at the mortuary temple of amenemhet iii at hawara.

between 1853 and 1858, french scholar auguste mariette cleared rubble and debris that filled the best-preserved valley temple in ancient egypt: the valley temple of khafre's pyramid at giza. in the final years before his death in 1881, mariette opened the pyramid of pepi i at saqqarah and discovered inside a set of pyramid texts carved on the walls of the tomb.

in 1881 british scholar sir flinders petrie, called the "father of egyptian archaeology," undertook the most accurate survey up to that time of the great pyramid and other monuments on the giza plateau. over the course of his career, petrie excavated at the pyramid of amenemhet iii at hawara, the pyramid of senwosret ii at illahun, and snefru's pyramid and temple at maydum.

in 1901 and 1902, the egyptian antiquities service divided the entire site of giza into different areas of excavation. the service gave george reisner of the harvard-boston expedition the northernmost area, which included the region east of the great pyramid. he later also received the southernmost area, containing the entire pyramid complex of king menkaure. reisner's excavations on the valley and mortuary temples of menkaure laid bare the original layout of an entire pyramid complex. the central area at giza was excavated by archaeologists of the german institute, principally by uvo h�lscher. he re-excavated the valley temple of khafre and the associated pyramid complex in 1909.

after this age of large-scale expeditions, the excavations in egypt tended to be smaller and more focused. world war ii (1939-1945) interrupted the work of scholars such as walter emery of britain and jean-philippe lauer of france, but they returned after the war to continue their studies. from 1963 through 1975, italians vito maragioglio and celeste rinaldi carried out an architectural survey of all the old and middle kingdom pyramids and produced a rigorously detailed eight-volume reference work entitled l'architettura delle pirimidi menfite (the architecture of the memphite pyramids).

explorations continued in the 1980s and 1990s, characterized by the use of robots and computers to map and analyze the structure of the pyramids. many aspects of the egyptian pyramids remain a mystery, but scholars continue to excavate them, explore them, and learn more about them.

saqqarah ... the step pyramid of djoser

camels for tourists are only allowed outside the main complex

dahshur ...the bent pyramid of sneferu

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