Pictures of the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt   Egypt THE PYRAMIDS OF GIZA
Pictures of astonishing tombs built for ancient Egypt kings
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THE ENIGMATIC PYRAMIDS

The Pyramids of Giza are the most famous monuments of ancient Egypt.  These massive stone structures were built around 4500 years ago on a rocky desert plateau close to the Nile.  But the intriguing Egyptian pyramids were more than just tombs for kings.  The mysteries surrounding their symbolism, design and purpose have inspired passionate debate.  It is likely that many of these mysteries will never be solved...

Picture of Pyramids of Giza, Egypt Picture of the Sphinx at Giza
The rise and fall of the pyramid era

The pyramids epitomize ancient Egypt, yet the biggest were constructed during a short span of time early in a civilization that was to last almost three millennia.  The first large Egyptian pyramid was the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, built during the third dynasty of the Old Kingdom to protect the body of the king Djoser who died around 2649 BCE.  It was this feat that heralded the short but remarkable age of the gigantic stone pyramids of ancient Egypt.

The greatest achievements of the pyramid builders were the Pyramids of Giza, built near the capital city of Memphis for the fourth dynasty kings Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure who ruled through 2589-2504 BCE.   But pyramid building soon waned as the power and prosperity of the kings of Egypt weakened with the end of the Old Kingdom.

Picture of Djoser Step Pyramid, Saqqara, Egypt
The first large pyramid in Egypt was the Step Pyramid for the king Djoser.  Essentially six stacked mastabas (tomb structures) of decreasing size, it was a major achievement and is the world's oldest known monumental stone structure.  It was built at Saqqara, about 15 kilometers from Giza.
 
Picture of Pyramids of Giza, Egypt
The ultimate triumph for the Old Kingdom Egyptians.  The mighty pyramids of Menkaure, Khafre and Khufu at Giza.
What was the purpose of the Egyptian pyramids?

The people of ancient Egypt believed that death on Earth was the start of a journey to the next world.  The embalmed body of the king was entombed underneath or within the pyramid to protect it and allow his transformation and ascension to the afterlife, and a place among the gods.

Each of the Giza Pyramids formed part of a pyramid complex that included an adjoining mortuary temple where rituals for the dead king and for the Egyptian gods may have been carried out.  A causeway ran to a lower temple near the Nile floodplain that acted as an entrance to the complex.  The complex around the Great Pyramid of Khufu also included three minor pyramids for his queens, pits for funerary boats and numerous mastaba tombs for the royal family and officials.

Unfortunately, pyramids became obvious targets for tomb robbers.  The Giza Pyramids were plundered long ago of bodies and anything entombed with them, despite the almost superhuman efforts of the Egyptians to protect the remains of their kings.

Photo of Sphinx and Khafre Pyramid, Giza, Egypt
The Great Sphinx in front of the Pyramid of Khafre.  The age and purpose of the Sphinx are debated, but it was probably part of Khafre's Pyramid complex.
Solar boat at Khafre's Great Pyramid
One of several cedarwood boats buried close to the Great Pyramid of Khufu.  They may have been used during Khufu's funeral, or intended as solar boats to transport the king in the afterlife.
Pyramids of Giza, ancient Egypt
  The pyramid shape might have represented the sun's rays which the dead king would use as a ramp to the celestial realm.  Or, it may have symbolized a primordial mound from which the Egyptians believed the world was created.
The kings Khafre (Chephren) and Menkaure
Agents of the Gods
During the Old Kingdom era, kings of Egypt began to emphasize their divine associations and their people believed them to be manifestations of the god Horus.  After the time of Khufu, kings were also proclaimed to be sons of the great sun god Re.  After his death, the king became associated with Osiris, father of Horus and god of the underworld.  The king's sacred powers were passed on to the new ruler - usually his son.
Photo of the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt
The pyramids of Menkaure, Khafre and Khufu tower into the sky over the Giza plateau.  Khufu's Great Pyramid, the most distant in this picture, is the highest.  When we stand before these Old Kingdom monuments, it can be hard to comprehend their huge size or their great age.
 
Sphinx and Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops)
The Sphinx and Great Pyramid of Khufu.  The mysterious Great Sphinx, with human head and lion's body, is a colossal sculpture cut from the Giza bedrock.  It appears to preside over the Giza necropolis. 
Marvels of size and precision

The Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza is the largest of the pyramids of ancient Egypt.   Khufu (Cheops to the Greeks) ruled about 2589-2566 BCE when the Old Kingdom of Egypt was nearing a peak of prosperity and culture.  His pyramid is astonishing for both its size and mathematical precision.

It is often said that the Great Pyramid of Khufu contains 2.3 million stone blocks, although some now question this figure.  The four sides of the pyramid are accurately oriented to the cardinal points of the compass.  The base is a near perfect square with sides 230 meters long and a difference between them of only a few centimeters.

The pyramid was originally encased in smooth, white limestone that must have gleamed in the harsh Egyptian sun.  Unfortunately, this was plundered long ago to provide building materials for Cairo.  This colossal structure was originally 146 meters high until it lost this outer casing and its capstone.

Photo of Great Pyramid of Khafre (Cheops)
The Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza is regarded as the most massive building ever erected in the world - a remarkable statistic for a construction feat achieved 4500 years ago!
How were the pyramids built?
It seems likely that the Pyramids of Giza were not built by slaves but by paid laborers motivated by a faith in the divinity and immortality of their kings.  Exactly how the pyramids were built is unclear.  It is likely that a sloping embankment was built up to or around the pyramid.  The huge blocks may then have been hauled on sledges with the aid of rollers, papyrus ropes and levers.  Although most stone was quarried locally at Giza, some had to be transported to the site along the Nile.
Inside the Great Pyramid of Khufu
From an entrance just above the base of the Great Pyramid, a cramped Ascending Passage climbs for 36 meters up through the solid stone core to a towering Grand Gallery.  This climbs another 46 meters to reach the King's Chamber and an empty sarcophagus in the heart of this colossal pyramid.  The enormous weight that bears down on the King's Chamber is dissipated by a series of ingenious stress-relieving chambers and massive granite beams built above it.
Picture inside Great Pyramid of Khafre (Cheops)
The Ascending Passage
Picture inside Great Pyramid of Khafre (Cheops)
The Grand Gallery
Picture inside Great Pyramid of Khafre (Cheops)
The King's Chamber in the heart of the Great Pyramid holds an empty stone sarcophagus.
The sarcophagus in the King's Chamber was fashioned from a single piece of red granite.  The stark chamber was walled by huge blocks of the same stone.  We will never know whether Khufu or anyone else was really entombed here.  Despite efforts of the ancient Egyptians to seal the sacred chamber, it was probably violated and robbed even before the end of the Old Kingdom.
 

KEY RESEARCH SOURCES
THE COMPLETE PYRAMIDS, by Mark Lehner. 
TREASURES OF THE PYRAMIDS,
edited by Zahi Hawass. 
ANCIENT EGYPT,
edited by David P. Silverman. 
THE OXFORD HISTORY OF ANCIENT EGYPT,
edited by Ian Shaw. 
CHRONICLE OF THE PHARAOHS,
by Peter A. Clayton. 

A NOTE ABOUT CHRONOLOGY
Dates are approximate because Egyptian chronology is sometimes uncertain.  Dates given on this page are those used in Chronicle of the Pharaohs by Peter A. Clayton.
 
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