Great Pyramid at Giza

One of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World

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Brian Lawrence/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

The Great Pyramid of Giza, located about ten miles southwest of Cairo, was built as a burial site for Egyptian pharaoh Khufu in the 26th century BCE. Standing at 481 feet high, the Great Pyramid was not only the largest pyramid ever built, it remained one of the tallest structures in the world until the late 19th century. Impressing visitors with its massiveness and beauty, it's no surprise that the Great Pyramid at Giza was considered one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World.

Amazingly, the Great Pyramid has withstood the test of time, standing for over 4,500 years; it is the only Ancient Wonder to have survived to the present.

Who Was Khufu?

Khufu (known in Greek as Cheops) was the second king of the 4th dynasty in ancient Egypt, ruling for about 23 years in the late 26th century BCE. He was the son of Egyptian Pharaoh Sneferu and Queen Hetepheres I. Sneferu remains famous for being the very first pharaoh to build a pyramid.

Despite fame for building the second and largest pyramid in Egyptian history, there's not a lot more that we know about Khufu. Only one, extremely tiny (three inch), ivory statue has been found of him, giving us just a glimpse at what he must have looked like. We know that two of his children (Djedefra and Khafre) became pharaohs after him and it is believed that he had at least three wives.

Whether or not Khufu was a kind or evil ruler is still debated.

For centuries, many believed that he must have been hated because of stories that he used slaves to create the Great Pyramid. This has since been found untrue. It is more likely that the Egyptians, who viewed their pharaohs as god-men, found him not as beneficent as his father, but still a traditional, ancient-Egyptian ruler.

 

The Great Pyramid

The Great Pyramid is a masterpiece of engineering and workmanship. The accuracy and precision of the Great Pyramid astounds even modern builders. It stands on a rocky plateau located on the west bank of the Nile River in northern Egypt. At the time of construction, there was nothing else there. Only later did this area become built up with two additional pyramids, the Sphinx, and other mastabas.

The Great Pyramid is huge, covering a little over 13 acres of ground. Each side, although not exactly the same length, is about 756-feet long. Each corner is nearly an exact 90 degree angle. Also Interesting is that each side is aligned to face one of the cardinal points of the compass -- north, east, south, and west. Its entrance lies in the middle of the north side.

The structure of the Great Pyramid is made from 2.3 million, extremely large, heavy, cut-stone blocks, weighing an average of 2 1/2 tons each, with the largest weighing 15 tons. It is said that when Napoleon Bonaparte visited the Great Pyramid in 1798, he calculated that there was enough stone to build a one-foot-wide, 12-feet-high wall around France. 

On top of the stone was placed a smooth layer of white limestone.

At the very top was placed a capstone, some say made of electrum (a mixture of gold and silver). The limestone surface and the capstone would have made the entire pyramid sparkle in sunlight.

Inside the Great Pyramid are three burial chambers. The first lies underground, The second, often mistakenly called the Queen's Chamber, is located just above ground. The third and final chamber, the King's Chamber, lies in the heart of the pyramid. A Grand Gallery leads up to it. It is believed that Khufu was buried in a heavy, granite coffin within the King's Chamber.

How Did They Build It?

It seems amazing that an ancient culture could build something so massive and precise, especially since they had only copper and bronze tools to worth with. Exactly how they did this has been an unsolved puzzle perplexing people for centuries.

 

It is said that the whole project took 30 years to complete -- 10 years for preparation and 20 for the actual building. Many believe this to be possible, with the chance that it could have been built even faster.

The workmen who built the Great Pyramid were not slaves, as once thought, but regular Egyptian peasants who were conscripted to help with building for about three months out of the year -- i.e. during the time when the Nile floods and farmers were not needed in their fields.

The stone was quarried on the east side of the Nile, cut into shape, and then placed on a sledge that was pulled by men to the river's edge. Here, the huge stones were loaded onto barges, ferried across the river, and then dragged to the construction site.

It is believed that the most likely way the Egyptians got those heavy stones up so high was by building a huge, earthen ramp. As each level was completed, the ramp was built higher, hiding the level below it. When all the huge stones were in place, the workmen worked from top to bottom to place the limestone covering. As they worked downward, the earthen ramp was removed little by little.

Only once the limestone covering was completed could the ramp be fully removed and the Great Pyramid be revealed.

Looting and Damage

No one is sure how long the Great Pyramid stood intact before being looted, but it was probably not long. Centuries ago, all of the pharaoh's riches had been taken, even his body had been removed. All that remains is the bottom of his granite coffin -- even the top is missing. The capstone is also long gone.

Thinking there was still treasure inside, Arab ruler Caliph Ma'mum ordered his men to hack their way into the Great Pyramid in 818 CE. They did manage to find the Grand Gallery and the granite coffin, but it had all been emptied of treasure long ago. Upset at so much hard work with no reward, the Arabs pried off the limestone covering and took some of the cut-stone blocks to use for buildings. In total, they took about 30-feet off the top of the Great Pyramid.

What remains is an empty pyramid, still grand in size but not as pretty since just a very small portion of its once beautiful limestone casing remains along the bottom.

What About Those Other Two Pyramids?

The Great Pyramid at Giza now sits with two other pyramids. The second one was built by Khafre, Khufu's son. Although Khafre's pyramid appears larger than his father's, it's an illusion since the ground is higher under Khafre's pyramid. In reality, it is 33.5-feet shorter. Khafre is believed to have also built the Great Sphinx, which sits regally by his pyramid.

The third pyramid at Giza is much shorter, standing only 228-feet high. It was built as a burial place for Menkaura, Khufu's grandson and Khafre's son.

The help protect these three pyramids at Giza from further vandalism and disrepair, they were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979.