Great Pyramids

 The Great Pyramid

And then came the Great Pyramid.  Khufu (Greek Cheops, 2551- 2528 BC) who built the Great Pyramid, was probably Snofru’s son and he was determined that even though his Dad had built three pyramids, be would build the greatest pyramid of all, and do it properly.

He began by choosing a new site at Giza, an outlier 20 miles north of Sakkara, opposite the modern city of Cairo where there was a sandstone bluff of very hard sandstone.  He, or rather the pyramid building team, had learnt by now that the first thing to do was to get the foundations absolutely right; and the foundations were laid with a perfection that even today is outstanding.  The pyramid was exactly square, being 440 cubits long either side, that is 230 metres or 755 feet, the difference in length of each side is less than 4.4 cms or about an inch and a half.  The pyramid was laid out exactly north-south and east-west and the side was levelled with an accuracy of within 2.1 cms, just under an inch over the whole area.  The precision of these elements is on quite a different scale of precision to that of the previous pyramids – indeed it is very remarkable even by today’s standards.

The pyramid is mostly built of the local limestone quarried from a pit only 300 yards away from the actual pyramid.  However it was then covered with a casing stone, a very high quality limestone, gleaming white which was quarried on the other side of the Nile at Tura, ten miles away.  So it was quarried, put on a raft and then travelled down the Nile to the docks from where it had to be dragged up to the pyramid.  However some of the most prominent parts, that is the actual tomb of the pharaoh deep in the centre of the pyramid, were made from granite which came from Aswan, near the site of the modern High Dam 500 miles to the south.  It must have been an immense task to transport it by the river.  There is a constant north-south wind blowing along the valley so it would not have been sailed down the river, it must have been allowed to drift down with the current – the return journey could then be made under sail.

It has been estimated that some 2,300,000 blocks of stone, each weighing 2-3 tons would have been needed to build the Great Pyramid.  And assuming that the pyramid took 20 – 30 years to build, and that the workers worked 10 hours a day for 365 days a year, one block would have been put in place in the pyramid every 2 – 3 minutes.

Dragging a two ton block of stone into position is not as difficult as it may appear: if the stone is placed on a sledge and a proper wooden roadway is laid out, a gang of 20 men can drag a single block at a speed approaching 1 mile an hour, judging by modern experimental archaeology.  There is much dispute as to how blocks were dragged up the pyramid,  but the most popular explanation is that a ramp was built round the outside of the pyramid up which the blocks were dragged, and only when the pyramid was completed was the ramp removed.   And it is often thought that the material from the ramps, which must have been very substantial, would have been dumped back in the quarries from which the stones for the pyramid had been quarried.

The interior layout of the Great Pyramid was complicated: it would seem that the pharaoh kept changing his mind. Inside, there are two chambers, one above the other: the larger of which is inevitably labelled the King’s Chamber and the smaller one, the Queen’s Chamber.  They were approached by a number of passages, possibly deliberately laid out in a somewhat chaotic fashion in order to try and confuse the tomb robbers.

But the task of building the pyramids, preparing that is for the pharaoh’s death and translation to the next world, did not just consist of building the pyramid, there were also the ancillary buildings. However the surround of the pyramid had evolved considerably from the complex layout at the original Step Pyramid, and a new arrangement of ancillary buildings was established that became standard.

In what became the classical layout, there were two substantial ‘mortuary temples’: one attached to the pyramid itself and providing the only access to the pyramid which was guarded by an 8m high wall.  There was then another mortuary temple down in the valley by the harbour, known as the Valley temple, though the one for the Great Pyramid is lost and is only known from the trenches of rescue excavations under the modern village that now surrounds the pyramids.  The two temples were joined by an elaborate causeway following the path of which the building stones would have been dragged from the harbour.   The finished causeway had elaborate carvings along its whole length.

The boat by the pyramid

There were then three smaller subsidiary pyramids for the wives of the pharaoh as well as well ordered rows of tombs for the senior officials, known as mastabas.  One of the surprising and comparatively recent discoveries has been of rectangular pits which contained dismantled boats. One of these pits has recently been excavated and was found to contain 1,224 parts of a boat, which have now been carefully reassembled, revealing it to be a splendid boat, 43m long. It is now on display in a special museum. These ancillary buildings tend to be even more complicated than the pyramid itself.

The Second Great Pyramid

Soon after Khufu died, his second son Khafre began building another pyramid almost as big as the Great Pyramid.  Khafre’s pyramid is in fact slightly smaller.  It was 215m square at its base as against 230 meters for Khufu’s pyramid, and it was 143.5 metres tall as against 146.6.  However its base is some 10 metres higher, so it appears to be taller – indeed in absolute terms, its peak is 7 metres higher than Khufu’s.

The trouble was that there was not all that much space on the Giza plateau to build huge pyramids and Khufu had taken the best space.  Khafre took the next best which though slightly higher was slightly smaller so that on the north-west side the terrace had to be cut down by some 10 metres while the base platform had to be built up at the south-east corner, but the resulting pyramid, though it is in fact slightly smaller actually looks larger.

Internally it is somewhat simpler. There are indeed two entrance passages both leading downwards, but they link up and a single passage leads to a burial chamber at the centre where the huge granite sarcophagus is still in position.  But it is in the external arrangements – the mortuary chapels — that the Khafre pyramid really excels.  On the eastern side there is a splendid mortuary temple which marks a real architectural advance for it includes all the five elements which according to Mark Lehner came to be the standard elements: an entrance hall, leading into a broad courtyard surrounded by columns, on the far side of which there were five niches for statues of the king; then there is a set of storage chamber and finally an inner sanctuary. It was an impressive structure in which the memory of the pharaoh could be gloriously celebrated and the glories of the empire duly emphasised.

From there a causeway nearly a mile long – 1.494 metres —  led down to lower temples and it was here that Khafre really excelled himself, for he built not one but two temples and in addition the Great Sphinx.

The Sphynx

The Sphinx is a one off phenomenon: it is often said to be largest statue to have survived from the Ancient World. It has the body of a lion but the head of a man. It was built from a natural formation of rock which seems to have been emphasised by the scooping out of a U-shaped quarry around it, no doubt to provide stone for the nearby temples. The body of the Sphinx was built of friable sandstone and has been much corroded and replaced by bricks, but fortunately the head was carved from a somewhat harder piece of rock and has survived somewhat better.  Adjacent to it were two temples: one the Valley Temple at the far end of the causeway from the pyramid, and the other adjacent to it and on the same alignment, known as the Sphinx Temple.  Both of them were soon covered by sand, indeed by the time of the New Kingdom 1,000 years later their very position had been lost and only the head of the Sphinx projected above the sand, and a new shrine was erected over the former temples oblivious of their existence.  The Sphinx remains something of a mystery — indeed there is no evidence that it was built by Khafre, though its position overlooking the two temples which are linked to his causeway, makes any other attribution seem somewhat unlikely.

But the building of the Sphinx and the temples, as well as the pyramids must make Khafre into a builder every bit as important as Khufu, or indeed Khufu’s predecessor Sneferu.

Menkaure’s Pyramid

The pyramids shown from the ‘other’ side, with Menkaure’s pyramid in the foreground, and in front of it, the three small ‘Queens’ pyramids, two of them step pyramids, the third a proper conical pyramid. Photo: Wikipedia

And so we come to the third and smallest of the Giza pyramids: that of Menkaure or Mycerinus.  This was very much smaller than the others:  it was not quite square having a base area of 102 by 104 metres as against 230 and 215 metres, and it was only 65 metres high as against 146 and 143 metres for the other two.  Indeed although only half the size in its dimensions, in actual capacity and the amount of stone needed to be quarried, it was only one tenth of the size.  But though it was by far the smallest, it is nevertheless one of the most interesting.

The burial chambers deep inside the pyramid were extremely complicated with two ancillary chambers in addition to the actual burial chamber with the sarcophagus.  Outside the pyramid there were three subsidiary pyramids known as ‘queens’ pyramids’, one of them being finished with granite rather than limestone casing, while the other two were step pyramids.  There was also an elaborate mortuary temple.  The original intention was that this should be cased in the very expensive granite brought 500 miles down the Nile from Aswan, but the pharaoh died before it was fully completed, so it was completed by his successor in mud brick.  However the really interesting temple was the Valley Temple at the end of the long causeway and herein lies a story.

In 1899 a new round of exploration was due to begin and the various teams chose which concession they would undertake, and the American team under George Reisner – who was in fact the best excavator – chose the concession to dig the site of Menkaure’s Valley Temple.  He knew what he was doing.

Statue in the Cairo museum

In its original stage, it  was a classic example of a valley temple of this period, with a large open court at the centre, an entrance hall to the south, with the inner sanctuary to the north, surrounded by magazines and offices.  However what was really interesting – and helped by Reiner’s careful excavation – was that it had a double life, for soon after it was built, squatters moved in and turned it into a shanty town, probably occupied by the priestly community who built a series of granaries in the northern part of the open courtyard, and a mass of accommodation buildings in the southern part, while adding an additional wing outside the main entrance; so the whole in effect became a fortified village. ( Being temple property, it was probably tax-exempt).  There was a further bonus in that buried in the rubbish that accumulated in the rooms were the formal cult statues of Menkaure and his wife. There were some half dozen of these, which in effect doubled the number of known statues from the Old Kingdom: they form one of the highlights of the Cairo Museum.

The Pyramid builders

But at this point we should perhaps pause to consider how the pyramids were built and where the workmen were accommodated, for this village at Menkaure’s Valley Temple forms a major part of this story.  In recent years, a lot of  effort has been spent on trying to find the places where the builders lived and where they were buried, and gradually a new picture is emerging.  There have been two major efforts: one by an American team working under Mark Lehner, author of The Complete Pyramids, who has been investigating the pyramid town to the south of the pyramids; while two large cemeteries of the workmen and their supervisors have been excavated by Zahi Hawass and Egyptian teams.

The workmen’s camps lay mostly to the south of the pyramid complex, and also to the east, down by the river Nile. The main pyramid complex was surrounded to the west by a very substantial wall known as the ‘Wall of the Crow’, and Mark Lehner and his team have been excavating a major work camp just outside the ‘Wall of the Crow’.  This was formally laid out with long narrow barrack blocks on either side of a main road.  Each of the barrack blocks could have housed between 40 – 50 men, all packed closely together in two rows with domestic facilities at the far end.

A major problem is of course feeding all the workers involved, and the first part of the work camp to be excavated was a rescue excavation of a small bakery.  At the far end were three large pottery vats where the dough would be prepared.  The bread was baked in clay moulds, which were placed in pits along the main wall,  and hot ashes were then placed around them. Just inside the door was a hearth where the bread moulds would be heated up. Bread moulds are ubiquitous and suggests that bakeries must have been ubiquitous too;  usually they are accompanied by breweries, as beer was consumed in vast quantities, though the Egyptian beer was not beer as we would recognise it, but something nearer porridge that was only mildly alcoholic, but fairly nutritious.

Not all the work camp was so regularly laid out: to the east the beginnings of a more chaotic town have been excavated where the workers took possession of spare land and built a town all higgledy piggeldy.  To the south of the main barrack block, the layout of the beginnings of a larger complex has begun to emerge which could possibly be some kind of royal administrative building – the term palace is rather too grand.

However the most tantalising results come from a long sewage trench that was dug in the late 1980s to install sewers for the teaming suburbs that now surround the Giza plateau.  At one point it cuts through a large mud brick and limestone clad building that may possibly have been a palace – if that is the right term for a large administrative building.  However the sewage trench was quickly backfilled leaving only tantalising questions.  But it appears that the whole area along the Nile  was a proto-city which continued to be occupied by the priests who maintained the cults at the temples attached to the pyramid.

The most interesting complex of all is that surrounding the tomb of Queen Khentkawes.  This is a complicated story which begins with the construction of the Valley Temple of the pyramid of Menkaure, which we have already described. Adjacent to the mortuary temple a large outcrop of rock had been left, not quarried away,  providing a free-standing rectangular podium.  However towards the end of the 4th Dynasty a female ruler called Khentkawes decided to make this into her tomb, for it resembled the mastabas which formed a traditional Egyptian tomb.  The lower section was encased in fine Tura limestone – the same limestone from the other side of the Nile that forms the outer face of the Great Pyramids – and a tomb chamber was hewn out of the rock.

However the interesting aspect was that outside the entrance to the temple, the position of the causeway was taken up by a long narrow housing block that formed the most elaborate settlement structure known from the Old Kingdom.  I suppose it might be described as being a row of upper-middle class houses if one may transfer the idiom.  There were eleven separate buildings in the usual Egyptian style with many small rooms forming a somewhat chaotic design, possibly to give a considerable degree of privacy.

At the far end there was an annex that ran southwards giving the whole complex an L-shaped plan, which might have contained four rather larger houses for residence or administration.  The whole gives an aura of quiet prosperity.  Were these perhaps accommodation houses for the priests that served the temples? They remain the best example of planned architecture so far known in the Old Kingdom: most of the accommodation was far more chaotic.

The burials

Meanwhile some of the tombs of the pyramid builders have been excavated by an Egyptian team under the direction of Zahi Hawass.  Zahi Hawass is a controversial figure, the former head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who has been called the Mortimer Wheeler of Egyptian archaeology.  He is a flamboyant personality, a wonderful lecturer and television performer, who deliberately makes himself into a great showman in order to promote archaeology so that he can protect the archaeology from the constant threats posed by the rapidly expanding population of Egypt. But underneath it all he is also a good excavator and scholar.

There are two parts to this necropolis: on the lower slopes lie the mud brick and rubble tombs of the gang overseers, surrounded by the smaller tombs of the workers under their supervision.  However on the escapement above stand the larger stone built tombs of the skilled craftsmen and administrators.  In several of the tombs, small statuettes have been discovered.   Some of the tombs contained skeletons, some of them not laid out prone as was the later habit with mummy cases, but crouched burials as in the earlier tradition.  The skeletons have been studied and many of the vertebrae showed signs of chronic stress from hard physical labour.


The final question that is always asked is how far were the pyramids built by slaves?  This is the explanation given by Herodotus no doubt repeating what he had been told by the priest–guides of his time, and  the same impression is also given by the fictional stories written in the time of the New Kingdom and known as the Westcar papyrus; it is perpetuated by modern Hollywood, which loves to portray teams of half-naked masculine slaves being whipped by cruel overseers.

Barry Kemp presents a rather different picture by asking how we define a slave.  Is someone who does military service or who is called up as a conscript, a slave?  Certainly they are not at liberty to come and go and are under the control of the authorities.  Nevertheless attitudes to conscription vary: at one extreme there are the conscientious objectors who object to the whole idea and who are punished for their disobedience.  Perhaps a rather larger number do their service slightly grudgingly, but nevertheless go along with the majority.  But the majority are rather proud to be serving ‘king and country’ and to be participating in a noble effort:  it is also an opportunity to get away from home, see strange sights, meet new people.  And for some, their experience turns out to be the most exciting part of their lives which they look back on with considerable pleasure. Should one not perhaps see the building of the pyramids in the same position?

It is interesting to consider the position of the shabtis, the small statuettes which in later periods are found in great profusion in burials.  They are servant figures inscribed with the name of the deceased and intended to act as substitutes in the afterworld. The idea seems to be that if you are summoned for duty, you can send your servant along in your place, and in the afterlife, your shabti could go in your place; there is the implication that even the richest members of society were always just a little bit concerned that they might be summoned for service by their superiors. In a pre-market or feudal economy, there is always the risk that you may be called for corvée duties – and this applies whatever your status. It is one of the advantages of a market economy, that on the whole, you will not be called up for corvée duty.

On to After the Great Pyramids

20th May 2012, new, 26th March 2017