Ancient Egypt, PYRAMIDS
In its most common form, a pyramid is a massive stone or brick structure with a square base and four sloping triangular sides that meet in a point at the top. Pyramids have been built by different peoples at various times in history. Probably the best-known pyramids are those of ancient Egypt, which were built to protect the tombs of rulers or other important persons. Pyramids were also built as platforms for temples by pre-Columbian civilizations in Central and South America. Still other pyramids exist in Sudan, Southwest Asia, and Greece.
In the 26th century BC, as Egyptian civilization was reaching its height, three kings--Khufu, his son Khafre, and his grandson Menkure--ordered the construction of three huge pyramids that would serve as their tombs. The first of these, the Great Pyramid, is the largest ever built. It stands with the other two pyramids and the Great Sphinx in a cluster near the town of Giza. The ancient Greeks named the pyramids one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and today they are the only one of those wonders that still exists.
King Khufu's pyramid rests on a base that covers 13 acres (5.3 hectares), and each side of the base is about 756 feet (230 meters) long. The Great Pyramid once rose to a height of 481 feet (147 meters), but the top has been stripped. Originally 471 feet (143 meters) high, Khafre's pyramid was only 10 feet (3 meters) lower than his father's tomb. Menkure's pyramid, much smaller, rose to 218 feet (66 meters). Three small pyramids built for Khufu's queens stand near his pyramid. Also nearby are several temples and rectangular tombs built for other relatives and courtiers.
The Egyptian rulers ordered the pyramids to be built because they feared their remains would be disturbed by grave robbers. They chose a site on the west side of the Nile River because they believed that the home of the dead was toward the setting sun. The burial chambers were placed under the exact centers of the pyramids. Passageways, which were built angling down from the sides and leading to the chambers, were later sealed with heavy stones. The pyramids did not achieve their purpose of protecting the ancient tombs, however. Over the centuries looters broke into most of them and stole the jewels and other treasures that had been buried in them.
The Greek historian Herodotus, writing 2,400 years ago, estimated that 100,000 men labored for 20 years to complete the Great Pyramid. It is also estimated that 2.3 million stone blocks were used to build the pyramid. It was once thought that the blocks--weighing an average of 21/2 tons each--were floated on rafts down the Nile from quarries hundreds of miles away. A more recent theory holds that the blocks were cut from limestone quarries that have been found near the pyramids. Another theory suggests that the blocks were formed in wooden molds at the site. Many authorities believe that the blocks of stone were moved up a circular ramp constructed around the pyramid as it was built up.
Other scholars have studied the relationship between the position of the pyramids and the apparent motion of the sun and other stars. They suggest that the pyramids' design may have been influenced by a religion based on sun worship.
The pyramids of Giza were not the first built in Egypt. Structures of this type appeared during the century preceding Khufu's reign. After burying their dead in sandpits, the early Egyptians placed a mastaba, a solid rectangular structure of brick or stone, over the grave to keep the sand from blowing away. This structure is considered the prototype of the true pyramid. Later King Djoser's architect, Imhotep, designed the step pyramid, which was simply a stack of six mastabas, each smaller than the one below. King Snefru, the father of Khufu, built a smooth-sided pyramid. It is called the bent pyramid because its lower half is steeper than its upper half. At least 80 royal pyramids have been found in Egypt, but none rival the three at Giza. Many of the lesser pyramids have been reduced to rubble.
2550 BC: Construction of the great pyramids
During the time of the Old Kingdom in Egypt, some of the most outstanding creations of the ancient world were designed and built: the great pyramids.
The pharaohs Khufu, his son Khafre, and his grandson Menkure ordered the construction of three tremendous pyramids that would serve as their tombs. The largest of these is Khufu's Great Pyramid, which rests on a base that covers 13 acres (5 hectares) and which originally rose to a height of 481 feet (147 meters). The other two pyramids are smaller.
At least 80 other pyramids were built for other pharaohs, who were believed to have descended from the Egyptian sun-god Ra. This may account for the position of the pyramids, which scholars believe was influenced by sun worship. Many theories exist as to how the pyramids were constructed. Some experts estimate that more than 2 million stones were placed by 100,000 men working for 20 years to build the Great Pyramid alone.
The pyramids were built in part to protect the bodies of pharaohs and other royal family members, as well as their possessions. However, robbers raided the tombs over the years, and many royal possessions were lost.