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The Pyramids of Egypt
If you were to ask the average person today what came
to mind when you said the word “Egypt”, chances are that
pyramids would be among the most common answers. Most
people know why the pyramids were built, but the “HOW”
remains somewhat of a mystery. Information that scientists and
archeologists have gathered give us a good idea of how the
pyramids were built, but we don’t know for sure how these
massive stone structures were built.
The Egyptians were strong believers in life after death.
They believed that it was necessary for the body to remain complete so that it could be the resting place
for the soul, or ka, of the deceased. It was this belief that caused the Egyptians to develop a way to
preserve the body after death. The bodies of wealthier Egyptians were taken to the City of the Dead,
where people who were specially trained turned the bodies into mummies. Those who knew the secrets of
this process kept those secrets very close and did not share them with others. These secrets were guarded
carefully so that there would not be any competition. The procedure was rather gruesome, and we
believe we have a good idea of how it was done, but the exact chemicals used
to preserve the mummy remain a mystery today. We know that it was a very
long process because the time between death and burial was 70 days.
The great Sphinx sits proudly near the pyramid of the pharaoh Khafre
and was built with blocks of stone leftover after that pyramid was finished.
This massive structure has the body of a lion that measures 240 feet long, and
the head of a human wearing the royal headpiece that rises 66 feet above the
base. It is certain that the facial features of this monument are those of Khafre and the Sphinx was built
to honor him. Today, the Sphinx suffers the signs of abuse by man
and desert sandstorms, but considering that it was built between 2575
and 2467 BC, it looks mighty good and is a strong statement about its
As large as the Sphinx is, the most massive constructions in
Egypt make it look like a mere kitten. The largest construction
projects in ancient Egypt were those of the pyramids. They were built
to honor pharaohs of Egypt and to provide them with a tomb worthy
of their place of importance in the Egyptian culture. Construction of
a pyramid began while the pharaoh was still alive and often
continued years after his death. Around the bases of the pyramids,
large palaces, temples and storerooms were built. Here priests would oversee the worship of the pharaoh’s
spirit long after he was dead. Outside the temple complex, much smaller pyramids for the queens were
built. Beyond those, there were flat tombs called mastabas for the pharaoh’s officials.
The 80 pyramids of Egypt were located west of the Nile River and in the desert beyond the
irrigated land. It was very important that the pyramids be placed to the west of the river as that was
where the sun sets. Most of these pyramids are all within 20 miles of the ancient capital city of Memphis in
a place called Giza. It is estimated that 100,000 men worked for 20 years in the seasons between Nile
floods to complete the Great Pyramid.
The base of each pyramid was the same- they are all square. The Great Pyramid was built in
honor of Khufu and it has a base that is 755 feet long and it stands 481 feet tall. The construction process
was so exact that the measurements at the base are correct within 6/10 of an inch! The angles of the sides
made almost a perfect triangle.
Construction involved some very difficult geometric calculations, all made without the aid of
modern technology or tools. Consider the problems. Everything had to be built perfectly level, otherwise
it would never look right- it would be like the “Leaning Pyramids of Egypt!” The Egyptians used water in
trenches to test that things were level and this technique was so accurate that the northwest corner of the
Great Pyramid stands only a half inch lower than the southeast corner. Once the site was level, the
challenge then became finding the materials to build with. The rock used in the construction of the
pyramid had to be cut into blocks and then transported from the quarry 600 miles away. Once the stone
arrived, groups of 18-20 men pulled the 2.5 ton stone blocks up a ramp until they reached the proper spot
on the pyramid.
Since the main purpose of the pyramid was to create
a majestic resting place for the pharaoh’s body, a burial
chamber had to be constructed deep within the pyramid.
Included in this chamber were the Pyramid Texts, which
included instructions to the pharaoh on how to find his way
through the underworld to the sky to Re, the sun god. A
passageway was constructed so that workers assigned to
prepare this chamber could climb to the tomb. Once their
work was completed, this passageway became their way
out. To keep grave robbers out, stones were dropped into
place once all of the workers made it out of the pyramid.
These passageways created the threat of internal collapse
that could bring the entire structure down to the ground in
a pile of rubble. To prevent this, huge, heavy granite slabs
were laid over the king’s chamber.
Not all pyramids looked the same in ancient Egypt.
The first pyramid ever built in Egypt was built for King
Djoser. King Djoser had his architect, Imhotep, to design a huge structure to house his body after death.
The result was the “stepped pyramid”, named for its sides that resembled six steps climbing to the top.
The pyramid of King Snefru is called the “bent pyramid” because the angle of the sides is steeper at the
base than it is on the top half. The pyramids built later differed in size and types of stone used for their