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Ancient Egypt
The Great Pyramids
Name _______________________________________
Date ________________________ Core _______
What are the Pyramids?
The pyramids of Egypt are massive structures
built as a tomb or grave to house and protect the
body of a pharaoh for the afterlife and as a
monument to honor the pharaoh and his
accomplishments on earth. A true pyramid has four
triangular sides that meet at a point. The Egyptian
pyramids were made from huge blocks of stone,
mostly limestone and granite. Before pyramids were
constructed with smooth sides, the sides of the earliest pyramids looked like steps. These
stepped pyramids might have symbolized a stairway to heaven and might have been seen as a
way for the dead pharaoh to climb up into the sky to become a star.
The stones of the pyramids were cut from rock quarries with primitive tools such as
chisels, saws, mallets, hammers, and wedges. Much of the stone used in the construction of the
pyramids came from areas very close to the building site so that it did not need to be
transported long distances, but some stone came from farther away. To make it easier to move
the stones to the pyramid sometimes they were placed on wooden sleds that were pulled
through canals of water leading to the building. No one knows exactly how the large,
incredibly heavy blocks were first lifted and then put into place. Some of the different methods
that have been suggested by scientists are the use of wooden sleds, the use of cranes, or possibly
the use of a complicated system of levers and rockers. It also seems certain that ramps were
used to make it easier to move the blocks. As the pyramid grew taller the ramps would be
extended. Remains of long straight ramps have been discovered, but it is also believed that a
series of smaller ramps, forming a type of scaffolding, would also have been used and later
There are about eighty to ninety Ancient Egyptian pyramids known about today. Many
are long gone, but their foundations or building sites have been found. Some, however, have
survived and the three largest and best-preserved of these were built on the plateau at Giza
around the beginning of the Old Kingdom which was from around 3100 B.C. to 2600 B.C.. So,
the best known symbols of Ancient Egypt were built very near the beginning of the great
Egyptian civilization. The largest and most well-known of the pyramids was built for the
Pharaoh Khufu. It is known as the “Great Pyramid”.
The Three Pyramids
When the Great Pyramid of Egypt was completed it was 484 feet high. Time has worn
the pyramid down by about 30 feet and it still continues to erode. The pyramid was once
covered with limestone that was possibly painted a bright red color. The sides of the pyramid
are carefully positioned to point north, south, east, and west. The base of the pyramid has sides
that measure 755 feet in length. The angle of the sides of the pyramid is 51 degrees. It was
designed so accurately that the error margin between the sides is less than 1 percent.
The Great Pyramid is made up of approximately two million blocks of limestone with
each weighing more than two tons or over 4000 pounds each. That means each block weighed
about as much as a pick-up truck or a large SUV. The Great Pyramid was built for the Pharaoh
Khufu and once held his body. His body in not there anymore. Today, this pyramid is the last
wonder of the ancient world that is still standing.
The second Pyramid on the Giza Plateau belongs to the Pharaoh Khafre. Unlike the
pyramid of Khufu, the angle of this pyramid is 53 degrees. This pyramid is about 10 feet shorter
than Khufu’s and stands on the northern side of the Giza Plateau. The top of this pyramid still
has some of the original limestone left with a white cap on top of the pyramid that can be still
seen. This large tomb had been looted (robbed) long before archeologists found it.
The pyramid of Menkaure, or the third Pyramid, is the smallest of the three pyramids.
It’s design is not as well detailed as the other two pyramids. Although the pyramid was not
complete when Pharaoh Menkaure died, his son Shepseskaf took the task to finish the large
project. This pyramid stands only about 216 feet high and is somewhat shorter than the other
The pharaoh Khufu, like the pharaohs before him, began planning his tomb or 'house of
eternity' as soon as he took the throne. So, the pyramid was being built while he was still alive.
A spot was chosen for building on the west bank of the Nile River. Cemeteries were usually
built on the west bank because Egyptians believed that each night the sun 'died' or went to the
land of the dead on the western horizon.
Khufu's architects were wise and experienced men. They knew the importance of
building the pharaoh's final resting place so that its sides faced directly north, south, east and
west. They planned a large pyramid- the largest one ever built in ancient Egypt. The outlines
of the pyramid were measured and marked in the desert sand.
Then the building began. Large blocks of
stone were cut from quarries nearby. They were
dragged by groups of men across the desert to the
site of the pyramid and set in place. Most of the
workers were farmers who worked on building the
pyramid during the flood season when their fields
were under water. They were required by the
government to spend a certain amount of hours a
year working on public projects like the pyramid.
After the first level of blocks was in place,
the workers built ramps of mudbrick, limestone
chips and clay. The workers dragged the large
stones up the ramps to build the next level of the
For about 20 years, hundreds of men
worked on building the pyramid. As they built
each level, they also built up the ramps around the
When the pyramid was almost finished, a
special smooth, shiny block (some thought it was
either gold or electrum but it was really polished
limestone) was placed on the top of the pyramid.
Then, blocks of white limestone from quarries
across the Nile were used to cover the pyramid.
The blocks were trimmed to make the outside of
the pyramid smooth.
The casing blocks from the Great Pyramid
were all removed in the 14th and 15th centuries
A.D. and used to build the city of Cairo. Some
casing blocks still remain on the top of the pyramid
next to Khufu's (belonging to Pharaoh Khafre).
Finally, the pyramid was finished.
Inside The Great Pyramid
1. Burial Chamber
The burial chamber consists of an
empty sarcophagus (a large stone
container for a coffin) with smooth
walls and a polished ceiling. The
floor is made with blocks of pink
granite, which covers almost 200
square feet. This chamber is almost
20 feet tall, and was built by solid
blocks of granite that all together
weigh about 50 tons. The blocks
were transported from Aswan from
the south. Egyptologists conclude
the sarcophagus was built inside the
pyramid during construction. It would have been almost impossible to transport such a heavy
stone structure in such a confined and narrow passage.
2. Grand Gallery
The Grand Gallery rises gradually to the King’s Chamber with a stepped hall. This hall is
over 160 feet long and about 36 feet tall. The walls are made of polished sand stone with
roofing that overlaps stone blocks to create a stepped effect. Its remarkable architecture was
thought to once be a ramp for large giant blocks said to seal the pyramid for eternal life. From
the bottom of this hall one can choose to enter the Queen’s Chamber or proceed to the top
and enter the King’s Chamber.
3. Shafts
The shafts are thought to have been built to allow air to proceed into the King’s
Chamber. They extend about 480 feet outward and travel in a sloping path. It is thought that
the shafts were built as a path to the stars, which allowed the pharaoh’s soul to escape.
Although these shafts are more predominant in the King’s Chamber, some also exist in the
Queen’s Chamber. The other two shafts that are present in the Queen’s Chamber do not exit
the pyramid but rather stop about midway. These shafts are believed to point to Sirius and
Orion in the constellation.
4. Queen’s Chamber
This chamber is located under the King’s Chamber and is smaller. Its name has falsely led
people into believing that this room once held the mummy of a queen. This chamber never
held the body of Khufu's wife.
5. Underground Chamber
This is thought to be the oldest chamber in the pyramid. This chamber was never fully
completed and holds very little oxygen. The low oxygen levels make it impossible to burn
lanterns and make it very difficult to breathe. One can only imagine why this section of the
pyramid was never completed.
6. King’s Chamber
The King’s Chamber is located at the exact center of the pyramid.
Khufu's pyramid was only part of the complex built for him at Giza.
This complex had many different parts including three pyramids for Khufu's queens,
several deep pits containing boats that had been buried, a mortuary temple where Khufu would
be worshipped after he died, a roadway leading from the pyramid complex down to the valley
temple, a valley temple down near the Nile River where the pharaoh's funeral would begin, a
much smaller 'satellite' pyramid, and many mastabas tombs of nobles buried nearby.
So, the pyramids do not stand-alone in the Giza plateau. There are many other objects
that surround these monstrous masses.
What is the Great Sphinx?
The Great Sphinx is a large humanheaded lion that was carved from a natural
outcropping of rock. The ancient Egyptians
carved the giant statue into the stone around
2500 B.C.. To make it even taller than the
height of the outcrop they chipped out a
depression around the base of the statue. The
paws were constructed from stone blocks. The
entire statue was painted in ancient times: red
for the face and body, yellow with blue stripes
on the headdress. Finally, a temple was built
in front of the statue as a place visitors could
offer gifts to the creature. It is located in Giza
where it guards the front of Khafre's pyramid.
Legends have been told for many years about the Great Sphinx. These stories tell about
the powers and mysteries of this Sphinx. Some people even believe that there are hidden
passageways or rooms underneath the Great Sphinx, but nothing has been found yet. Legends
claim that visitors would press their ear to the statue's lips seeking wisdom.
As time passed the statue was given less attention and, after a few centuries, desert sands
covered the Great Sphinx up to its neck. The beginning of one story about the Great Sphinx is
written on a tablet between the sphinx's paws. Around 1400 B.C. a Egyptian prince, named
Thutmose, while on a hunt, sat down to rest next to the Sphinx and fell asleep. While napping
he heard the Sphinx tell him it would make him ruler of Egypt ahead of his older brothers if he
promised to clear the sand away. When he woke up, the prince promised to clear the sand.
Sure enough, as the story goes, he became the Pharaoh and he kept his promise and ordered his
people to uncover the statue.
Historians believe that the prince made up the dream to cover up murder of his brother.
If his brother had not died, the prince, Thutmose, would have had to wait to become king.
Some people believe that Thutmose had his brother killed so that he could become king
quicker. Since according to the story, it was what the Sphinx promised, the people accepted
Thutmose as Pharoah.
Why Were the Pyramids Built?
This is an age-old question that had eluded many Egyptologists for centuries. Until
recently, we began to have a better understanding of why these great monuments were built.
The Pyramids of Egypt are the last of the “Seven Wonders of the World” that are left standing
today, and through centuries of history and excavations, we are beginning to truly appreciate
the last true wonders left on earth.
It is thought by many that the Ancient Egyptians were a culture obsessed with death and
dying due to the great tombs and pyramids that have been found and erected throughout;
however, this can’t be further from the truth. In fact, these prestigious monuments were built
to prolong their lives even through death.
To fully realize why the pyramids were constructed, we must first begin to understand
the beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians. They believed the dead would go on to the next world,
which was filled with happiness and a life better then they had known on this earth. In order
for this to happen, they had to somehow keep their bodies preserved and in good shape for the
next world. This led to the process of mummification or making mummies. Each body was
embalmed and wrapped in fine linen. Once the process of mummification was complete the
body was buried with its most prized possessions. These prized possessions could include items
such as jewelry or other items that would help them live comfortable in the afterlife. While
Egyptologists know that pharaohs did this for sure, it appears that this burial ritual was of great
importance to all citizens.
So, tombs or mastabas were built as “the home for eternity” and they had to be stronger
or more durable than the palaces of everyday life to withstand time and the harsh desert. The
mastabas were the parts of the tomb structure that you could see sticking out above ground.
These were rectangular tombs with a flat roof and were made out of mud, brick or stone. The
mastaba also usually had underground chambers that were dug into the ground with connecting
shafts to the entrance. The walls of the mastaba were painted with scenes that would show
scenes everyday life of the person for whom it was built.