The Great Mystery of The Ancient Egyptian Pyramids


| LAST UPDATE 03/08/2022

By Hayden Katz

Of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, the Great Pyramids of Egypt are the only to still exist to this day. The structures hold numerous mysteries that have still not been unveiled, even after over 4000 years.

An Egyptian Mystery

For hundreds of years, thousands of tourists have traveled to Egypt to take a look at one of the largest structures ever formed. The Ancient Pyramids have become a notorious building in history.

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MOHAMED EL-SHAHED / Contributor via Getty Images

The pyramids were first built roughly 4,500 years ago and have been standing strong ever since. And yet, archeologists are still baffled by how it was possible to construct such an intricate design, without using modern equipment. Up until this day, it remains a mystery.

The Reason Why

Before unraveling the 'how' of the pyramids, historians figured out the 'why.' Egyptians believed that their ruler was of great power, the people of the society thought the Pharaohs were the mediators between humans and God. That power would persist even beyond their graves.

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Once Pharaoh passed away, they would connect with the God of the death, Osiris. A part of the royal's soul, known as 'Ka,' continued living outside the body of the pharaoh. To protect the spirit and the body, the pyramids were built as a final resting place for Egyptian rulers.

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Mastaba Tomb

During the Early Dynasty Period, Pharaohs weren't buried in pyramids. The Egyptian rulers were laid to rest in Mastaba tombs. There are a few differences between the two burial chambers. For one, instead of having a pointed top, the Mastaba structure had a flat rooftop and inward sloped sides.

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Another difference was that it was a small mound formed out of mud brick. Meaning anyone had easy access to it, and the Pharaoh's possessions were often stolen. This problem led to builders coming up with pyramids, as they could build the chambers in a more protected area.

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Pyramid Burial Tomb

Because the Pharaohs were seen as so divine, it was crucial to take care of them during their afterlife. The gigantic pyramids were used as burial tombs where the bodies would remain for years to come. The chamber was built deep inside the structure, so no one could find the burial room.

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Before placing the deceased ruler inside, he was mummified and placed inside a sarcophagus, or a big coffin. Alongside the mummified body were special belongings of the king that might be needed in the next life. Such as food, gold vessels, wine, artwork, perfumes, and other items.

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The First Pyramids

Egyptians began building their first pyramids at around 2780 BC when Egypt was under the ruling of King Djoser. It was named the Step Pyramid because, by the time the architect, Imhotep, and his team of builders completed the job, the structure looked like it had 6 steps leading to the top.

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The Djoser Pyramid technically started out as Mastabas, but the architects continued building upwards until the first pyramid was formed. Eventually, after King Djoser's 20 years as Pharaoh, the pyramid was complete. It reached 204 feet (62 meters) and was located at Sakkara, the West Bank of the Nile River.

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The Meidum Pyramid

It wasn't until the fourth dynasty that the iconic smooth-sided pyramid was first formed. During the shift from the Early Dynasty to the Old Kingdom, the Meidum Pyramid was being constructed. At first, it was meant to mimic the step pyramid designed by Imhotep, but things took a turn.

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The head designer of the Meidum decided in the middle of construction, that he wanted the steps' inner areas to be filled with limestone encasing. Making it the first "real" pyramid that we have come to be familiar with. Unfortunately, the structure eventually collapsed.

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The Collapse

Historians have long debated the real cause of the Meidum Pyramid caving in. Some believe the sudden transition from stepped to smooth led to architectural flaws. Because the outside layer was made from sand and the inner step part was constructed using rock. By the 15th Century, the only part that remained was the interior.

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Other archaeologists believe that the pyramid collapsed due to various environmental changes. Either way, it still remains unknown whether any Pharaoh was buried there. When it was first being built, Pharaoh Huni was in power. But, he sadly passed away before it was ever finished, and Pharaoh Sneferu took over.

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The Bent Pyramid

Pharaoh Sneferu's first pyramid (Meidum) wasn't the only one to endure structural complications. The second pyramid that was built while he was in charge was located in Dashur. It was another attempt at making a smooth-sided pyramid. The original design plan had builders position each side of the pyramid at a 54-degree angle.

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This seemed like a good idea at first, but as they continued building upwards, they started building unevenly, to a 51-degree angle. By the time they reached the top, the inclination was 43 degrees. The unbalanced steepness is untimely what led to its shape and name: The Bent Pyramid.

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The Final Product

It took Pharaoh Sneferu two tries before the now-infamous structure was perfected. After the failed attempts, builders finally constructed a successful pyramid, during his 13th year in reign. One design similarity between the Red and Bent Pyramid was the 43-degree angle.

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The large structure stood in Dashur and remains today as the third tallest pyramid in Egypt. Each one of its sides reached 722 feet and 343 feet in height. It was the first "true" smooth-sided pyramid. So, why was it named the Red Pyramid? Well, the limestone stones used to build it had a reddish tint.

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The Great Pyramids of Giza

Arguably the most notorious and well-known pyramids are the ones located in Greater Cairo, Egypt. The first, and largest, of the three huge structures were assembled under the reign of Pharaoh Sneferu's son, Pharaoh Khufu. This is why it may also be known as the Pyramid of Khufu.

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Construction began at around 2550 BC, and by the end of it, nearly 27 years later, the pyramid reached 481.4 feet (147 meters). Every 4 sides of the tomb reached a length of 755.75 feet (230 meters). Over time, the pyramid has gotten shorter as the white limestone casing slipped away. Today it's around 138.5 meters (454.4 ft).

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The Fourth Dynasty Ruler

The second pyramid in Giza was made for Pharaoh Khufu's son, Pyramid of Khafre, who became the Fourth Dynasty ruler. His burial tomb was built nearby his Khufu's and is the middle pyramid of all three of the Great Pyramids. It wasn't as grand as his father's, but it was still exceptionally big.

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Since it was built on an area that rose higher and had a steeper angle of 53-degrees, the pyramid seemed to look higher than his dad's, but the real height wasn't. It originally reached 472.1 ft (143.9 meters) and the sides were 706.3 (215.3 meters). And this was just the start.

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The Great Sphinx of Giza

With the Khafre's burial monument came the Great Sphinx, located on the Giza Plateau on the West Bank of the Nile. The statue was built to look like Khafre's face. And although the top half resembled the King, the bottom part of the monument depicts a mythetical creature, similar to a lion.

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It was carved out of limestone encasing, unlike the pyramids that were built using each piece one-by-one. Being nearly 240 feet long (73.1 meters) and 66 feet high (20.1 meters), the large statue has arguably become to be known as one of the most recognized sculptors in the world. Yet, the symbol of the Sphinx remains unclear.

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The Mystery of the Sphinx

The statue has confused historians for decades, and with it followed numerous questions. The Sphinx is unlike any other Egyptian monument, it doesn't serve as a funeral chamber for any rulers, so what was the reason behind building it? It was seen as a spiritual guardian and was often viewed as the God of the Sky (Horus).

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If it was so seen to hold such power, why does it look like the nose was demolished? Through the years, the original limestone eroded and caused damage. But, that may not be the only culprit, it has also been said that Sa'im al-Dahr, a Sufi Muslim, wrecked the nose because he heard people make offerings to the Sphinx.

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Pyramid of Menkaure

Of course, Pharaoh Khafre's son, Menkaure, also needed his very own burial grounds. Thus, the last and smallest of the three Great Pyramids was created. The Pyramid of Menkaure is located the farthest to the South on the Giza Plateau. Indeed, it was quite remarkable.

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The final structure had a few dissimilarities compared to Menkaures father and grandfather's chambers. When it was first built around the 26 Century BC, it was 215 ft (65.5 meters). Not only that, but this structure wasn't just composed of limestone, but granite stone was used for the bottom quarter of the casing stones.

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The Mystery

The stones used to build each one of the pyramids weighed roughly 2.3 metric tons (2.5 tons). Each structure needed millions of limestone and granite to reach its enormous size. The Great Pyramid of Khufu alone used at least 2.3 million. So how were the builders carrying heavy equipment without modern technology?

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That question has puzzled archaeologists for hundreds of years. Because not only did the material weigh tons, but the architectural integrity of each pyramid was basically perfect. The base of the pyramids and the sides were all positioned to align with the cardinal points of the compass.

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Building Blocks

While archaeologists continue researching the methods used by Egyptians to construct and move the blocks, some answers have been found. The limestone rocks, which essentially were the main building blocks, were withdrawn from quarries nearby the pyramids site.

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The granite was brought in by a ship on the Nile River from Aswan, a place that was around 800 km away. This was discovered when archaeologist Mark Lehner, head of the Ancient Egypt Research Association, found remains of the port used to bring in material.

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The Builders

Finding the ruins of the port helped researchers understand that it wasn't slaves that built the pyramids, but instead hard-working, strong, and skilled Egyptian men. The idea that it was slaves being ordered around by Pharaohs was encrypted into many people's heads due to Hollywood's depiction of Ancient Egypt.

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Animal bones found at the construction sites revealed that the builders were actually fed the best meats and food to ensure they had enough strength. The Evidence of bureaucratic stamps proved that the rulers of Egypt not only fed workers but housed them. Slaves wouldn't have gotten this good of treatment.

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Transporting Blocks

The workers were expected to perfectly place each stone in its accurate position. But even with all the best cuts of meat, no man could be able to lift the enormous materials. A few theories have been proposed on how it was accomplished. A team of physicists, led by Daniel Bonn, at the University of Amsterdam tested a hypothesis.

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They believed Egyptians got the sand wet, so when dragging heavy material along it the friction was decreased, and it became easier to transport. The idea for this was sparked by a painting on the tomb of Djehutihotep. It had depicted a man pouring water onto the sand, and he's followed by more men pulling on a statue.

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Accurate Results

Bonn and his team of researchers found credible findings. “Most of the Egyptologists I have spoken to agree with our interpretation,” he explained to OpenMind. “It seems that it is a very plausible explanation for what happens in the tomb drawing, so far everybody agrees.”

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Sciences physiques et chimiques via Facebook

The findings showed that adding about 2 to 5 percent volume of water to sand will significantly reduce friction. They even replicated the study with sand that was similar to the Ancient Egyptian sand that included clay and slit, and again it worked! The drawings helped figure out how builders transported heavy blocks.

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Building Upwards

One mystery was resolved, historians were able to figure out how builders got limestones and granite from the Nile river to the Giza Plateau. But how did they raise them upwards to form the pyramid shape? Various ideas have been discussed, but one similar theme remained. It's has been suggested that ramps were used.

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The director of the Semitic Museum of Harvard, Egyptologist Peter Der Manuelian, explained to OpenMind, “Scholars mostly agree on a system of ramps for hauling up the blocks; the directions, angles, materials are still problematic and there are always new (and often crazy) theories.”

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The Possibility of Ramps

Archaeologists have long theorized about ramps being used by Egyptians, but it wasn't until an actual ramp system was found that they got even more curious. The remains were discovered in the ancient alabaster quarry at Hatnub and were believed to be built nearly 4,500 years ago... around the same time pyramids were built.

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But the ramps weren't used for limestone. “It’s a stretch to take an alabaster quarry and say this is how the pyramids were built because the pyramids weren’t built out of alabaster,” said Kara Cooney, an Egyptian architecture professor, “The way that the ancient Egyptians cut and moved stone is still very mysterious.”

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What's even more remarkable than the way the blocks were lifted up, is how did they manage to do so with such precision using simple equipment? According to 60 minutes, it is one of the most accurate buildings of all time, sometimes even more than current architecture.

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A part of the mystery of the pyramids was uncovered by archaeologist, John Romer. "The plan of the pyramid is the pyramid itself," he explained, "by measuring out the life-size plan with string. The Egyptians were able to get their ancient calculations cubits perfect." Meaning the area near the pyramid served as its blueprint.

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Design Lab

By measuring out their plan in the same measurements as the final products, the Egyptian builders were able to produce a perfect calculation. The Giza plateau was their design lab, where everything was mapped out using string. There appear to be 4 survey points that are assumed to be the marks left by builders.

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According to John Romer, if a person was to measure out 40 cubics (the measurements Egyptians used) outwards on the ground near the pyramid, it would prove his theory. "You get exactly the angle of the pyramid... not vaguely, not nearly, but 51 degrees," he insisted.

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Two Designs

John Romer explained that this discovery hadn't been made earlier, because archeologists were focused on finding one deigns used by builders. But based on his findings, to get the angle of the pyramids right, they came up with two designs, one for the exterior and one for the interior.

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Inside the Great Pyramid is the Grand Gallery, the largest area inside. At the top is the Grand Step, which signified an important measurement. Once builders reached the big slab of stone, they knew their work was on target. The step lines up with the point of the pyramid perfectly, it's the exact centerline of the structure.

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Khufu's Chamber

The flawless design structure remains the same on the inside of the pyramid. Passed the Great Gallery, comes the royal tombstone where Khufu's mummified body was laid to rest. And the very top of the pyramid, right above the coffin, there's a upper area that prevents the top from collapsing.

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The rocks there were marked with red, by the builders. They signified how each rock lines up with one another, and some even had written messages on them. There is one that says the name "Khufu," which essentially proved that the entire structure was constructed by the ruler and the Egyptian people nearly 4,500 years ago.

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Stolen Items

When Khufus passed away in 2566 BC, his body was mummified and placed inside a sarcophagus, located in the burial chamber. Unfortunately, when researchers went inside the pyramid, neither Khufu's body nor his personal belongings, like the jewels and gold, were found.

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This is a whole other mystery regarding the Great Pyramids of Egypt. It was never revealed what had happened or who had stolen the possessions inside the tomb. The only remaining artifact from Khufu's reign is a tiny little sculptor of the pharaoh himself.

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Valley Temple

While the pyramids are easily the first thing that catches the eyes of visitors, there are other structures nearby, like the Pyramid Complex. Argeocligist Peter Clayton explained, "This consists of a pyramid itself, with an entrance on the North face which gives access via a descending passage to a burial chamber."

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The site is located near the pyramids of Giza by the Nile River and was built between 2600 and 2500 BC. The complex began at the Valley Temple, where typically the mummified body was brought to, and then during a ceremony, he would be brought up the causeway all the way till they reached the tomb inside the pyramid.

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No More Pyramids

After the reign of Pharoah Ahmose, constructing large pyramids was ceased. Rather than each royal getting his own burial chamber, their bodies were laid to rest near the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes, at the Valley of the Kings. It's been said that the first royal tomb was built by Pharaoh Thutmose I.

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It's clear that a sacred burial ground was important to Egyptians, or else they wouldn't have spent years of hard work constructing the iconic pyramids. So then why did they stop not long after the New Kingdom started? Historians have speculated for a few different reasons.

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Why They Stopped

Its assumed that there were too many seuirty difficulties when it came to keeping the inside of the pyramids safe. The first attempt at resolving it was to place the cmabers in a different area. . The last king's pyramid — that of Ahmose I, at Abydos — had its burial chamber over 0.5 km [1,640 feet] away, behind it, deeper in the desert," reveleaed Aidan Dodson, an Egyptology professor.

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But robbers persisted, so they turned to the Valley of Kings. According to a historical record, it was favored due to its secretive spot. Today, it contains a peak, el-Qurn, that "closely resembles a pyramid, in a way all royal tombs built in the valley were placed beneath a pyramid," said Miroslav Bárta, an Egyptologist.

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Visiting Them Today

Throughout Egypt's Fourth to Sixth Dynasties, builders worked hard to create magnificent pyramids, and luckily for us, they are still standing strong today. While we can no longer see the original pure white color, we can still see the Great Pyramids in Egypt in all their glory.

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Anyone can go, and they do! Thousands of tourists travel to Egypt each year to see the only remaining Seven Wonders of the World still undamaged. And if visitors are willing to pay a fee, they can go inside all 3 of the Pyramids of Giza. Yet to this day, the ancient architectural design remains a mystery on how it was fully formed.

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