The Great Pyramid is the only construction that remains from the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Egyptian pyramids have always been surrounded by mystery. We know their purpose and who built them, but we are still unsure how and when they were built. Ancient Egypt was one of the most powerful, richest and advanced civilizations in our history. They showed a magnificent knowledge of astronomy, architecture, medicine, accounting, art and much more but it is still amazing how pyramids could be made at that time with primitive tools and without modern technology.
While there is much known about the pyramids, there are still many unanswered questions. Even if we know a lot about the pyramids, there is some general information that should be considered. The Great Pyramid is located at the Giza Plateau in Egypt. Besides the Great Pyramid, on the Giza Plateau were built other two pyramids for pharaohs Khafre and Menkaure, and the affiliated funerary complex. The earliest pyramids were step pyramids that evolved from the simplest form of royal tomb called mastaba (Silverman 168).
Putting a massive rectangular block one over another, Egyptian architects came up with the first example of pyramid that consequently evolved in the “real” pyramids of the Fourth Dynasty that we all know. The Great Pyramid is the biggest pyramid of the hundred built in Egypt. “It has lost little from its original height of 480 (146m) feet and base width of 755 feet (230m), formed by 2. 3 million limestone blocks” (Silverman 174). It was built for the pharaoh Khufu who ruled Egypt about 2547-2524 B. C. by his brother, Hemienu (Brier, “Build” 27).
The purpose of the pyramids is generally agreed upon. Egyptologists found enough evidence on the walls of the burial chambers. Inscriptions inside the chambers confirmed that pyramids are pharaohs’ tombs. Furthermore, pyramids were constructed on the West Bank of the river Nile where the sun is setting. Ancient Egyptians considered this side the land of death. Ancient Egyptians believed in the life after death, so pyramids were symbolizing the stairway to heaven for the soul, “ka” (Silverman 141).
Since ancient Egyptians believed in the life after death, haraohs’ eternal houses were built to satisfy their needs after the “real” life. It is also agreed upon regarding who built the pyramids. One of the most common myths is that the pyramids were build by slaves. Herodotus, the Greek philosopher, visited Egypt in the fifth century B. C. and he transferred the belief that one thousand hundred slaves worked for twenty years to construct the Great Pyramid (Hawass 159). Today, however, we have strong evidence that denies this myth. The most significant opponent of this myth is an archeological site next to Giza.
The pyramids were the national project of Egypt, and even if we have a hieroglyphic inscription that confirmed that skilled builders and farmers from the surrounding villages worked on the construction, no archeological evidence was found until recent time. This site revealed the town where the pyramids builders lived, including bakeries, workshops and storage facilities (Hawass 158-159). It was a unique discovery that ended speculations of who built the pyramids. Now we know for sure that they were not slaves.
The site showed that they were free citizens that were proud to work for the pharaoh in exchange of a salary. Additional evidence against the slave theory comes from Egyptian politics. Egyptian civilization was relatively peaceful. If we look through history, this civilization survived more than any other just because their culture was not so violent and they did not have the need to expand their territory. Egyptian rulers promoted well being of their empire without conquering, and with avoiding wars with neighbors they could not have enough slaves to build such huge constructions.
There is another controversy, regarding the date when pyramids were built. In 1984, Edgar Cayce Foundation claimed that the pyramids were built in 10,500 B. C. (“Dating” 26). This claim was not completely accepted by experts and even now research is still being done about the dating. Generally, Egyptologists define when the pyramids were built by using pharaoh lists, and their ruling dates, but also with the reference to their civil calendar (“Dating” 26). This technique of dating works well for the New and Middle Kingdom, but not for the Old Kingdom.
Pyramids were built during the Old Kingdom, and Egyptologists could not base their calculations on pharaohs’ ruling dates and lists because they were unreliable (“Dating” 27). Between the Middle Kingdom and the Old Kingdom is the First Intermediate Period, which is a time when neighbors invaded Egypt. We still do not know how long this period was, so we cannot base dating calculations on unreliable sequence of ruling years (“Dating 27”). Because of so many gaps in dating the pyramids of the Old Kingdom, Egyptologists had to use advanced techniques such as radiocarbon tests.
Radiocarbon tests use wood to determinate dates. “When organisms die, the radioactive isotope carbon-14 in their cells is no longer replenished and begins to revert back to nitrogen at a constant, measurable rate” (“Dating” 28). With this simple and scientific approach we can define the date of the pyramids. To put together the block, builders used gypsum mortar that includes pieces of charcoal (“Dating” 28). These pieces of wood were used by the Egyptologists to date the pyramids with the radiocarbon tests. However, the results were disappointing.
Some samples that were taken from the pyramids showed that they are younger and some that they are older. Such differences are caused by different types and ages of the wood used in the construction. “With wood there is always the chance that the tree from which the sample came was cut down long before it was incorporated in a site. If so, it could give a date centauries older than the real age of the hearth or structure in which it was found” (“Dating 28”). This is the biggest issue of the radiocarbon dating. If we are not sure how old the wood is, it is difficult to be precise in the pyramid dating.
Lastly, the biggest controversy regarding the construction of the pyramids is how these buildings were built. The earliest record theory was put forward by the Greek historian, Herodotus, who mentioned cranes used to raise the block. Darius of Sicily wrote, “The construction was effected by ramps”. Today we have the “space alien” theory which supports the thesis that Egyptians could not do such magnificent constructions without extraterrestrial help (Brier, “Build” 27). It is obvious that these theories are not based on hard evidence or true facts, so Egyptologists have to do further research.
Herodotus’ crane theory was eliminated immediately because Egypt did not have resources to do so (Hawass, 160). Egypt is mostly located in a desert, and thus does not have sufficient wood to be used to construct so many cranes. The alien theory has not been taken seriously. However, all Egyptologists agree that ancient Egyptians used some type of ramps. Two of most common ramp theories support the straight ramp and the spiral ramp. The straight ramp theory consists in one ramp on one side of the pyramid.
The problem of this theory is that the ramp should not be too steep because otherwise the massive blocks could not be moved upward. If the ramp is not steep, it is long, and calculations showed an eight percent slope as the maximum (Brier, “Build” 28). With so small inclination the ramp would be too long, and would not fit in the Giza Plateau. The only advantage this theory had was that the corners of the pyramid were always clear, so builders were able to measure the angles all the time to be sure the peak would be reached exactly at the same point.
The spiral theory consists of ramp going around the pyramid, which solves the problem of a ramp too long to fit in the Giza Plateau, but poses on a new problem. The ramp is obviously massive since it has to follow the rule of 8 percent inclination. If we already know that a ramp with this inclination cannot fit in the Giza Plateau, we can imagine how huge it would be, and it is very unlikely that such a massive construction could be on the pyramid without crushing it. Clearly, Egyptologists came up with a combination of these two ideas because neither of them worked as desired.
The new idea mixes the two ramp types. According to the Egyptologist Mark Lehrer, the ramp would reach the top of the pyramid in the shortest distance, and would not be too heavy for the pyramid (Silverman 176). This theory solved problems that both previous theories had, and is accepted as the most relevant theory. In contrast, Jean Pierre Houdin, a French architect, suggested a completely different idea. He believes that that ancient Egyptians used two ramps: one ramp was supposed to go inside the pyramid, and the other outside.
The new theory supports the idea that one external ramp was used for the construction of the bottom part of the pyramid, and the internal one for the top (Brier, “Build” 29). This new approach makes even more sense than the Lehrer’s theory, but it still needs concrete evidence. The internal ramp was built from the beginning, but used just for the upper section. Pursuing this theory further, we can notice that the presence of an internal ramp could be possible. The lower part of the pyramid is large and massive, and the blocks used are huge and heavy.
These blocks could not be brought trough the small and irregular internal ramp, thus the external ramp was kept until it became too steep, and until the volume of the pyramid decreased with the consequent decrease in the size of the blocks. According to Houdin there were some designing requirements that had to be considered: First, it had to be fashioned very precisely so that it did not hit the chambers on the internal passageways that connect them. Second, men hauling heavy block of stones up the narrow ramp cannot easily turn 90-degree corner; they need a place ahead of the block to stand up and pull.
The internal ramp had to provide a means of turnings its corners, so the ramp had openings there where a simple crane could be used to turn the blocks. (Brier, “Build 29”). Even though this theory seems to reveal how the pyramids were built, we still do not have evidence that would unconditionally support the presence of the internal ramp. The strongest evidence is a notch found at two-thirds up the northeast corner (Brier, “Return” 24). This notch could be the opening of the internal ramp, but once again we cannot be sure.
This theory is just another attempt to solve the biggest Egyptian mystery: how the pyramids were built. The purpose of the pyramids has never been questioned. There are enough inscriptions in the pyramids and other temples confirming that these great constructions were the houses of the pharaohs after their death. One controversy was successfully eliminated: slaves were not the builder of the pyramids. The discovery of the whole town near the Giza Plateau, confirmed that pyramid builders were regular Egyptians who worked for their king without being forced. Another two controversies are still impossible to solve.
The dating controversy is not such a big deal if you consider that the pyramids are so old that plus-minus a hundred years does not change things much. However, the most important question is still unanswered. How was it possible that an ancient culture without modern technology could do such magnificent construction? There are so many theories, but none of them can explain or prove the construction strategies. Perhaps it is better like this. We are fascinated by the pyramids because of so many unanswered questions and so many hidden secrets. The beauty of the pyramids stands in their mystery and unrevealed truth.