The pyramids of Giza are the only surviving Ancient Wonder of the World and one of the most famous tourist attractions in the modern world. They are some of the oldest sacred sites in our index and certainly among of the most impressive. (The Great Sphinx of Giza has a separate article.)
Although it is clear the pyramids were used for the burial of pharaohs, the construction, date, and possible symbolism of the Giza pyramids are still not entirely understood.
This mystery only adds to the attractiveness of these ancient wonders and many modern people still regard Giza as a spiritual place. A number of fascinating theories have been offered to explain the "mystery of the pyramids," one of which is summarized below.
Giza is the most important site on earth for many New Age followers, who are drawn by the pyramids' mysteries and ancient origins. Since 1990, private groups have been allowed into the Great Pyramid, and the majority of these have been seekers of the mystical aspects of the site. But even the most skeptical visitor cannot help but be awed by the great age, grand scale and harmonic mathematics of the pyramids of Giza.
History of the Giza Pyramids and Necropolis
The Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza is the largest single building ever constructed. Originally 479 ft (146 m) in height, it still stands at an awe-inspiring 449 ft (137 m). Most of its height loss is due to the stripping of its original smooth limestone casing.
When the Greek historian Herodotus visited Giza in about 450 BC, he was told by Egyptian priests that the Great Pyramid had been built for the pharaoh Khufu (Cheops to the Greeks), who was the second king of the Fourth Dynasty (c.2575–c. 2465 BC).
The priests told Herodotus that the Great Pyramid had taken 400,000 men 20 years to build, working in three-month shifts of 100,000 men at a time. This is not implausible, but archaeologists now tend to believe a more limited workforce may have occupied the site without the need for shifts. Perhaps as few as 20,000 workers, with an accompanying support staff (bakers, physicians, priests, etc.), would have been adequate to the task.
The Great Pyramid was made of 2.3 million stone blocks, weighing from 2 to 15 tons each. When completed, the Great Pyramid of Khufu weighed 6 million tons, the weight of all Europe's cathedrals put together! The pyramid was also the tallest structure in the world for thousands of years, until it was surpassed by the spires of England's Lincoln Cathedral around 1300 AD.
The second-largest pyramid of Giza was built for Khufu's son Khafre (Chephren), who became the fourth king of the Fourth Dynasty after the death of his short-lived elder brother and died c.2532 BC. Although many of his relatives were hastily buried in cheap tombs, the Pyramid of Khafre is almost as vast as the Great Pyramid of his father.
Khafre's pyramid actually looks taller than the Great Pyramid of Khufu because it stands on a slightly higher part of the plateau, it has a steeper angle, and it is the only one with a smooth limestone cap. Khafre's pyramid measures 707 ft (216 m) on each side and was originally 471 ft (143 m) high; its limestone and granite blocks weigh about 2.5 tons each.
Like the Great Pyramid, Khafre's Pyramid included five boat pits (with no boats), together with mortuary and valley temples and a connecting causeway some 430 yards long carved out of the living rock. The burial chamber, which is underground, contains a red granite sarcophagus with its lid. Next to this is a square cavity that presumably once held the chest containing the pharaoh's insides. The Great Sphinx, near Khafre's pyramid, is believed to be a royal portrait of Khafre.
The southernmost and last of the pyramids to be built was the Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus), son of Khafre and the fifth king of the Fourth Dynasty. Each side measures 356 ft (109 m), and the structure's completed height was 218 ft (66 m).
In addition to these three monuments, small pyramids were built for three of Khufu's wives and a series of flat-topped pyramids for the remains of his favorite children. At the end of a long causeway lined with minor tombs of court officials, a mortuary temple was built just to mummify the pharoah's body.
Like all pharonic tombs, the burial chambers of the pyramids were packed with all the necessities for the next life: furniture, statues of servants (to be enlivened by an incantation when needed), and boats.
The question of how the pyramids were built has not yet found a definitive answer. Herodotus reported that the base was laid, then the great blocks (each weighing about seven tons) were levered into place, a step at a time up all 203 steps. But this cannot be done, as demonstrated by a Japanese attempt at a duplicate in the 1980s. The most plausible explanation is that the Egyptians employed a sloping and encircling embankment of brick, earth, and sand, which was increased in height and in length as the pyramid rose; stone blocks were hauled up the ramp by means of sledges, rollers, and levers.
The pyramids have impressively withstood the ravages of time, but not of grave robbers. They emptied the pyramids of their valuables in ancient times. In 1818 an Italian entered the burial chamber of Khafre with a hydraulic ram, but the gold and other treasures were long gone.
A Gateway to the Stars?
The positioning of the three pyramids of Giza is a bit surprising. They are not quite in a straight line, clustered around the largest one, or grouped in any kind of expected symmetrical way. The proposed explanation of most Egyptologists is that this had something to do with the terrain at Giza or it was simply the way the construction worked out.
In the early 1990s, Belgian engineer Robert Bauval noticed that the odd arrangement of the Giza pyramids is remarkably similar to that of the three stars of Orion's belt in the well-known constellation. This seemed to Bauval to be more than a coincidence, in light of the fact that the constellation Orion was sacred to the Egyptians. They believed it to be the home of the god Osiris and thought the shape of the constellation resembled him.
Among the many fascinating features of the Giza pyramids are the four airshafts in the north and south faces of the King's Chamber of the Great Pyramid, and the two in the Queen's Chamber beneath it. Bauval calculated that in 2500 BC, the southern vent would have pointed directly at Orion and the southern airshaft in the Queen's Chamber would have pointed at the star Sirius, which was sacred to Osiris' consort Isis.
Bauval theorized that the vent was intended to be a channel to direct the pharaoh's soul to Orion, where he would become a god. Many scientists have dismissed Bauval's ideas, yet they certainly remain intriguing and continue to generate a great deal of discusssion. You can read more about it in the links listed at the end of this article.
Another interesting observation is that the Great Pyramid is perfectly aligned to true north, south, east and west. This has led to speculation about an astrological meaning to its position. A number of theories have been advanced concerning occult meanings, secret codes or prophecies derived from the pyramid's dimensions.
Quick Facts on the Giza Pyramids and Necropolis
|Names:||Giza Necropolis · Great Pyramids of Giza|
|Categories:||archaeological sites; necropolises; World Heritage Sites|
|Dates:||c. 4500 BCE|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||29.977836° N, 31.131649° E|
|Lodging:||View hotels near the Giza Pyramids and Necropolis|
- Pyramids: The Inside Story – PBS NOVA
- Official Website of Robert Bauval
- A Picture Tour of The Great Pyramid - Great Pyramid of Giza Research Association
- Secret chamber may hold key to mystery of the Great Pyramid – The Guardian, August 30, 2004
Guided Tours of the Giza Pyramids and Necropolis
Map of the Giza Pyramids and Necropolis
Below is a location map and aerial view of the Giza Pyramids and Necropolis. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.