Building of the Great Pyramid

The building of the Great Pyramid at Giza was a major architectural feat, producing a lasting and impressive monument.

Summary of Event

The three great pyramids at Giza in Egypt are undoubtedly the most celebrated group of monuments in the world. Although more than eighty of these great tombs erected over the long span of Egyptian antiquity are known to archaeologists, the specific period known as the Pyramid Age, or the Old Kingdom (c. 2687-c. 2125 b.c.e.), covers the Third through Eighth Dynasties, and the greatest of all these works is that of the pharaoh Khufu. His monument and those of two later kings of the same dynasty, Khafre (Chephren) and Menkaure (Mycerinus), compose the great triad of monuments on the plateau at Giza, at the edge of the Western Desert south of the modern city of Cairo. Khufu

The pyramid of Khufu, one of the largest stone structures in the world, is preeminent both for size and quality of workmanship. The Greek historian Herodotus, after visiting the site in 449 b.c.e., stated that the construction required the efforts of a hundred thousand men for a period of twenty years, and these are the figures most often repeated in the later literature. However, modern scholars believe that only between two thousand and four thousand construction workers were actually employed on the working face at any one time, with perhaps four times that number engaged in transport work and in the quarries at the site, in the Mukattam Hills on the east side of the Nile, and at Aswān, some five hundred miles (eight hundred kilometers) upstream. No exact estimate of the amount of hewn stone used is possible because the core of the Great Pyramid consists of a nucleus of living rock, but a likely conjecture is that the completed structure contained some 2.3 million separate blocks of stone weighing an average of 2.5 tons (2.3 metric tons) each and reaching an individual maximum of 15 tons (14 metric tons). The base of each of the four sides measures approximately 755 feet (236 meters) and exhibits an almost true north-south or east-west orientation, so that the four corners are almost perfect right angles. Rising at an incline of 51°52′, the sides originally reached a height of 482 feet (147 meters), but the top 31 feet (9 meters) are now lost. The total area covered by the base measures 13 acres (5 hectare).

Seen from a distance, the Great Pyramid appears to be well preserved, but closer observation shows that it has suffered severe damage over the centuries. Apart from the loss of some twelve courses and the capstone at the top, the entire outer facing of Tura limestone, once about 17 feet (5 meters) in thickness, has been lost. In its original condition, this gleaming white stone, fitted to the closest possible tolerances, presented a smooth and shining surface on all sides that must have dazzled the onlooker. Today, a surviving portion of this facing atop the neighboring Pyramid of Khafre gives the spectator some inkling of the grandeur of these monuments at the time of their completion.

The interior passageways of the Great Pyramid, the plans of which were changed three times during the course of construction, are open at the upper levels to the visitor. As in all pyramids, the entrance is on the north side, in this case 49 feet (15 meters) above ground level. At first the corridor slopes downward for 62 feet (19 meters), then ascends after a point at which the passage was blocked with granite to guard against tomb robbers. The passage rises for a distance of about 60 feet (18 meters) to reach the great chamber, which measures 153 feet (47 meters) in length, 30 feet (9 meters) in height, but only about 7 feet (2 meters) in width. At its upper end, the visitor passes through an antechamber into the royal funerary room, 137 feet (42 meters) above ground level, in which the granite sarcophagus of Khufu stands at the western end. This huge coffin is slightly wider than the passageway and therefore had to be in place when construction reached this level, not after completion of the entire monument.

The Great Pyramid was built mainly of limestone from the quarries nearby and across the Nile, but granite for the columns, architraves, doorjambs, lintels, and other parts of the sepulchral complex that forms the valley temple, covered causeway, funerary temple, and the pyramid itself came from Aswān, far up the Nile. As early as the First Dynasty, the Egyptians had copper saws and chisels capable of cutting any kind of limestone, but special dolorite hammers were required to chip rough slots into the quarry walls of the very hard granite. After wooden wedges were pounded into the slots, they were soaked in water, and the resulting expansion split off chunks of the stone. The finished blocks in all the quarries were moved by work gangs of about eighteen to twenty men using hawsers, levers, log rollers, and sledges. Heavy barges carried the blocks during the journey down the river.

The pyramids at Giza.


Preparation of the site and construction methods remain to be considered. A rocky knoll at the desert’s edge was selected as the substructure to support the great weight of more than 5.5 million tons (5 million metric tons) of the monument. Terraces to serve as the foundations had to be cut into the irregular sides of the hill at an absolute level if the structure was to be true, and to accomplish this, the architects designed a system of water-filled trenches about the base. Then, with the water level as a standard, areas between two trenches were leveled by measurements made from a string stretched between sticks of equal length, each of which was held at the surface of the water. This horizontal string-line provided a perfect level for the work of flattening the terraces.

The basic construction technique for moving the huge blocks up to the ever higher courses, on the other hand, remains a matter of dispute. One theory holds that four mud-brick ramps were built, one starting at each corner, against the outer surface of the casing stones. As each course added to the height, these ramps were extended, with the stones being dragged up three of them by sledge and with the fourth reserved for the descending work gangs. Elegant though it appears at first sight, this theory has serious flaws; I. E. S. Edwards in The Pyramids of Egypt (1961) describes an alternate and perhaps more probable method. Edwards rejects the view that one ramp began at each corner of the pyramid and continued in an upward, corkscrew manner around the four faces. Archaeology and engineering both tend to disprove this ingenious but overly complex theory. Such ramps would depend for their support beyond the first stage on the casing-blocks, which it is held were laid in a fairly well-cut, steplike progression. However, no evidence of such ramps has been found at any pyramid site. Undressed casing blocks that lie at the base of the Pyramid of Menkaure are not steplike and would not have supported such a ramp, and it is questionable whether the widest possible step would have provided sufficient room for blocks of the size used at Giza to be unloaded and fixed in place. It is far more likely that a single supply ramp was built to cover the whole of one side of the pyramid. As the building progressed upward, the ramp would not only increase in height but also in length in order to maintain an unchanging gradient for the work gangs dragging the great blocks up the ramp.

The attraction of the ancient Egyptians to the world of the dead is dramatized by their greatest architectural achievement, the Great Pyramid, which exacted an unimaginable cost in human and material resources as a tomb for the pharaoh Khufu. Although the Great Pyramid has lasted for thousands of years, the private and public buildings in which the people lived and worked, as well as the great capital cities of Memphis and Thebes, have all disappeared almost without a trace. The physical explanation for this strange imbalance of surviving objects is an obvious one: Egyptian tombs after the earliest period were all built of stone or hewn out of rock, while the houses and palaces in which the populace resided consisted of mud-brick, wood, and gesso. To the Egyptians, the houses in which they lived were finite and replaceable, but the tomb in which they would rest unendingly had to last forever. This attitude derived from the belief that bliss after death could be achieved only on the fulfillment of two essential conditions: A person’s body must be preserved and the physical needs of his or her ka, or spirit, must be supplied. Though the form of the final resting place varied many times during the long course of history, the essential purpose of this eternal and enduring last domicile remained unchanged.

Though the conventional photographs of the Giza pyramids invariably show them standing against the stark desert background and a clear sky, the implication that these monuments stand alone and isolated is a false one. Each pyramid complex consisted of four structures: the gate or valley temple, the covered causeway running westward toward the pyramid, the funerary temple in front of the great tomb, and the pyramid itself as the climax of this succession of monuments. The best preserved of these groups belongs to the Pyramid of Khafre not that of Khufu, the auxiliary structures of which have to a large degree been destroyed. To the north of the beginning of the causeway of the valley temple to Khafre’s pyramid lies the Sphinx in the form of a colossal, couchant lion with human head. This famous figure measures 65 feet (20 meters) in height and 238 feet (73 meters) in length, and was carved out of the remains of a limestone quarry from which the blocks for the pyramid of Khufu were cut. In Egyptian mythology, the lion is often the guardian of holy places. Incorporated into the majestic figure of the Sphinx at Giza, where it is combined with human facial features depicting the Sun god Ra, the lion represents Khafre acting as divine guardian of the great necropolis.

In the vicinity of each of the three pyramids stand smaller ones for members of the royal family and scores of mastaba tombs for members of the royal household and court. The valley temple or gateway for each of the three pyramids at Giza lay on a branch of the Nile. In the surviving valley temple of Khafre, the simplicity, proportions, and materials make it a structure of great beauty. Sphinxes flanked each of its two entrances on the eastern side. The main halls consist of an inverted T-plan with monolithic granite pillars 13 feet (4 meters) high. Against the walls, there once stood twenty-three statues of Khafre, the best surviving of which was moved to the Cairo Museum. From an oblique side corridor, the 500-yard (457-meter) covered causeway led to the funerary temple standing before the east side of the pyramid itself. This structure was built of local limestone faced with granite and consists of three successive entry halls, the last of which leads into the great court, where sacrifices on behalf of the dead king were offered. Adjoining this court on the west were five chapels, with a statue of the pharaoh in each for worship under one of his five names.

When the king died, his body was borne across the Nile to the great necropolis on the west side. In the valley temple, the corpse was prepared for burial by the process of mummification. On the day of interment, the mummy was hauled up the great causeway in a ritual barge to the funerary temple, where the last rites were performed. Then it was taken up into the great chamber of his pyramid, in which his loyal subjects confidently believed his body would remain for all time.


Because of their sepulchral purpose and their survival over a span of many millennia, the pyramids at Giza, especially the Great Pyramid of Khufu, remain an impressive sight. They represent both the dominant religious concept and the enduring architectural achievements of the ancient Egyptians.

Further Reading

  • David, A. Rosalie. The Pyramid Builders of Ancient Egypt: A Modern Investigation of Pharaoh’s Workforce. New York: Routledge, 1996. Although this study examines the pyramid of Sesostris II rather than that of Khufu, it centers on the workers who built the pyramids. Bibliography and index.
  • Dunn, Christopher. The Giza Power Plant: Technologies of Ancient Egypt. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: Bear, 1998. Dunn, an engineer, argues that the pyramid was constructed not as a tomb for Khufu but as a power generator. Bibliography and index.
  • Edwards, I. F. S. The Pyramids of Egypt. Rev ed. New York: Penguin, 1993. An excellent survey of the pyramids. Contains a chronological account of the types of pyramids created and a study of construction methods and the purpose of pyramids.
  • Herz-Fischler, Roger. The Shape of the Great Pyramid. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2000. A study that examines the Great Pyramid by focusing on its dimensions. Bibliography.
  • Hooghe, Alain d’, and Marie-Cecile Brusier. The Great Pyramids of Giza. Paris: Vilo, 2000. A pictorial study of the pyramids of Egypt. Index.
  • Tompkins, Peter. Secrets of the Great Pyramid. New York: Galahad Books, 1997. Explores various theories surrounding the Great Pyramid, including the idea that the pyramid was used as a geometric tool for measuring the outside world. Bibliography and index.

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