The Great Pyramid of Giza, also known as the Great Pyramid of Khufu, is a structure in which superlatives don’t really do justice.
It isn’t just old, it’s really old. It isn’t just big, it’s really big.
It has served as a sentinel to some of the most important people and events in history, and it has also been the focal point of speculation about the past.
Learn more about the Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
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If you only know of the Great Pyramid through photos, you’ve probably seen images of it against a backdrop of the desert, maybe with camels walking in the foreground.
If you’ve actually visited the pyramid, you know that is only half true. Part of the pyramid does in fact face the desert. However, the pyramid is also very clearly visible from modern Cairo.
If you look at a satellite image, you’ll see that the Great Pyramid is only about 120 meters from a block of modern buildings. In fact, there is a Pizza Hut which is within easy walking distance from the Pyramid.
The location of the pyramid is called the Giza Plateau. It is literally a rocky outcrop that overlooks the modern city of Cairo. The fertile region of the Nile basically stops at this point because of the rocks. Again, if you look at a satellite image, you’ll see a very green area, and then a very light tan area where the desert begins.
That boundary of the green of the Nile and the emptiness of the desert is exactly where the pyramids are located.
There are three major pyramids at the Giza complex. The aforementioned Great Pyramid of Khufu, the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure. The Great Pyramids is the oldest and largest of the three.
There were several other pyramids constructed before the Great Pyramid in other parts of Egypt. You could almost consider them alpha and beta versions of the Great Pyramid. South of Giza is a location called Dahsh?r which has a pyramid known as the Bent Pyramid. They literally changed the slope of the pyramid halfway through and it looks…..odd.
The Great Pyramid was believed to have been built around 2600 BC in what is known as the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt.
Dating the pyramids was at first very tricky because you can’t get accurate ages for stone. There is no marking on the exterior of the pyramid which would indicate who it was built for or when it was built.
Much of the information about the pharaohs of ancient Egypt has been lost and we don’t really have much more than a list of who many of them were.
The Greek historian Herodotus attributed the pyramid to the Pharaoh Cheops, which is just the Greek name for Khufu. He wrote this around 450 BC, which is over 2,000 years after the pyramid was built.
Just to put that into perspective, we live closer in time to the construction of the Colosseum in Rome, than Herodotus did to the construction of the Great Pyramid.
During the 17th, 18th, and 19th century there was a great deal of ambiguity in dating the pyramid because no one was quite sure when Khufu reigned.
Dating the pyramid improved in the 20th century as dating techniques improved. While you can’t date stone, you can date organic matter via carbon-14 dating, and here I’ll refer you back to my episode on radiometric dating.
There were two major sources of organic matter in the pyramids. One was the mortar used during construction. One of the ingredients was ash from fires, and this was able to be dated to be from 2871–2604 BC. This is a pretty wide range, however, it is believed to stem from what is known as the “old wood problem”.
This means that the wood might have been older than the construction, or that the wood was taken from the interior of a tree, which would show a different age than the exterior of the tree.
The other source was a piece of timber that came from one of the air shafts discovered in 1872. This wood was dated to 3341–3094 BC, almost 500 years older than the material found in the mortar. The best explanation researchers have to explain this is that the wood might have been older and resued, or taken from the core of a very old tree.
While there were no references to any Pharoah found on the exterior of the pyramid, Relieving Chambers above the King’s Chamber was discovered in 1837. There they found graffiti by the workers which identified Khufu by name.
The dimensions of the Great Pyramid are impressive. It is approximately 755 feet or 230 meters on each side. The difference in the length of the sides is only 58 millimeters or 2.3 inches.
The corners are very close to alignment with the points of the compass. They are only off by one-fifteenth of one degree, which is pretty good for 4,500-year-old architecture.
The height of the pyramid originally was 481.4 feet or 147 meters tall. If you remember back to my episode on the tallest structures ever built, the Great Pyramid held the record for over 3,000 years.
The slope of the sides of the pyramid is approximately 51 degrees. It is believed that the slope was chosen because the ratio of the perimeter to the height is very close to 2?.
The Great Pyramid has an estimated 2.3 million stone blocks and each weighs anywhere from 2.5 to 15 tons. The Great Pyramid is built out of an estimated 5.5 million tons of limestone, 8,000 tons of granite, and 500,000 tons of mortar. The limestone blocks were mostly mined from a nearby quarry.
The few granite stones came all the way from Aswan, near the southern border of Egypt.
The Great Pyramid didn’t originally look like it does today. It was originally covered with smooth white limestone. One of the reasons why the exterior of the pyramid looks so rough today is that it was never supposed to be the exterior. There are a few original cladding stones near the base of the Great Pyramid.
Most of the cladding stones were removed by local people wanting to use them for their own construction.
One of the biggest and longest-standing debates amongst Egyptologists is how the pyramid was built. If we are to believe the data we have, it must have been totally constructed within about 27 years.
There have been many tests run to see how people could both cut and moved two and a half-ton blocks. Given the results of these experiments, it is believed that it was possible, given the technology at the time, to cut 250 blocks per day, which is what they would have needed to do over 27 years.
It is estimated that it would have required an average workforce of 13,200 people, with a peak force of 40,000 people.
Contrary to popular belief, slave labor was probably not used to build the pyramids. It was thought that it was mostly, probably seasonal workers who had time when it wasn’t the growing season. The myth of slave labor came from the Greeks who engaged in slavery and probably just assumed that the Egyptians did too.
One of the biggest mysteries was how they got the stone up so high. The current best theory is that they built a spiral ramp around the pyramid. If they had built a ramp straight-up one side, it would have required almost as much material as the pyramid itself, and there is no evidence of that much material anywhere.
The Great Pyramid isn’t just a pile of stone. There are chambers, shafts, and access tunnels inside the pyramid. It is believed that these were for the sarcophagus of the Pharoah, however, no mummy was ever found inside.
There are still new discoveries to be had in the Great Pyramid. In 2017, a Japanese team did a study where they used cosmic rays to scan the interior of the Great Pyramid. Their research showed that there is a large void somewhere above the section known as the Grand Gallery.
They are planning another scan soon using updated equipment.
The Great Pyramid has been around for so long that they have become witnesses to many historical figures which have visited.
Herodotus, who I previously mentioned, listed the Great Pyramid as one of the seven wonders of the world, and it is the only one still standing.
Alexander the Great visited the pyramids when they were already 2,300 years old.
Julius Caesar visited them when he took a trip down the Nile With Cleopatra.
Napoleon famously fought the Battle of the Pyramids within eyesight of the Great Pyramid.
In 1979, the pyramid complex at Giza was named one of the first UNESCO World Heritage sites.
In 2001, when a global contest was conducted to name the New 7 Wonders of the world, the Great Pyramid was named an honorary one in advance, because it was already on the ancient list.
The Great Pyramid has been around for four and a half thousand years. Unlike almost every other ancient structure, there is little possibility that it will ever be destroyed by an earthquake or even deliberate vandalism. It’s just too big and massive.
It is entirely possible that in the distant future, even further away from us today than we are from the construction of the pyramids, they will someday be able to celebrate the 10,000th anniversary of the Great Pyramid.