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The Great Pyramid of Giza, in 2005. Built c. 2560 BC, it is the oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the Giza Necropolis.

Great Pyramid of Giza (also called the Pyramid of Khufu and the Pyramid of Cheops) is the oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the Giza Necropolis bordering what is now El Giza, Egypt, and is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that survives substantially intact. It is believed the pyramid was built as a tomb for fourth dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops in Greek) and constructed over a 20 year period concluding around 2540 BC. The Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years. Originally the Great Pyramid was covered by casing stones that formed a smooth outer surface, and what is seen today is the underlying core structure. Some of the casing stones that once covered the structure can still be seen around the base. There have been varying scientific and alternative theories regarding the Great Pyramid's construction techniques. Most accepted construction theories are based on the idea that it was built by moving huge stones from a quarry and dragging and lifting them into place.

There are three known chambers inside the Great Pyramid. The lowest chamber is cut into the bedrock upon which the pyramid was built and was unfinished. The so-called[1] Queen's Chamber and King's Chamber are higher up within the pyramid structure. The Great Pyramid of Giza is the main part of a complex setting of buildings that included two mortuary temples in honor of Khufu (one close to the pyramid and one near the Nile), three smaller pyramids for Khufu's wives, an even smaller "satellite" pyramid, a raised causeway connecting the two temples, and small mastaba tombs surrounding the pyramid for nobles.

Building of the Great pyramid of Giza

It is believed the pyramid was built as a tomb for Fourth dynasty Egyptian pharaoh Khufu and constructed over a 14[2] to 20 year period concluding around 2540 BC.[3] Khufu's vizier, Hemon, or Hemiunu, is believed by some to be the architect of the Great Pyramid.[4] It is thought that, at construction, the Great Pyramid was originally 280 Egyptian cubits tall, 146.59 metres (480.94 ft) but with erosion and the loss of its pyramidion, its current height is 138.74 metres (455.18 ft). Each base side was 440 royal cubits, 230.37 metres (755.81 ft) in length. A royal cubit measures 0.524 meters.[5] The total mass of the pyramid is estimated at 5.9 million tonnes. The volume, including an internal hillock, is believed to be roughly 2,500,000 cubic meters.[6] Based on these estimates, building this in 20 years would involve installing approximately 800 tonnes of stone every day. The first precision measurements of the pyramid were done by Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie in 1880ń82 and published as The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh.[7] Almost all reports are based on his measurements. Many of the casing stones and interior chamber blocks of the great pyramid were fit together with extremely high precision. Based on measurements taken on the north eastern casing stones, the mean opening of the joints are only 0.5 millimeters wide (1/50th of an inch).[8]

Great Pyramid of Giza from a 19th century stereopticon card photo

The pyramid remained the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years,[9] unsurpassed until the 160 meter tall spire of Lincoln Cathedral was completed c. 1300. The accuracy of the pyramid's workmanship is such that the four sides of the base have a mean error of only 58 millimeter in length [10] The base is horizontal and flat to within 15 mm. The sides of the square base are closely aligned to the four cardinal compass points (within 4 minutes of arc)[11] based on true north, not magnetic north[12], and the finished base was squared to a mean corner error of only 12 seconds of arc[13]. The completed design dimensions, as suggested by Petrie's survey and later studies, are estimated to have originally been 280 cubits in height by 440 cubits in length at each of the four sides of its base. These proportions equate to π/2 to an accuracy of better than 0.05% (corresponding to the approximation of π as 22/7). Some Egyptologists consider this to have been the result of deliberate design proportion[14]. Verner wrote, "We can conclude that although the ancient Egyptians could not precisely define the value of π, in practise they used it".[15] Petrie, author of ëThe Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh', who was the first accurate surveyor of Giza and the excavator and surveyor of the Pyramid of Meidum, concluded: "but these relations of areas and of circular ratio are so systematic that we should grant that they were in the builders design".[16] Earlier in the chapter he wrote more specifically, that: ěWe conclude therefore that the approximation of 7 to 22 as the ratio of diameter to circumference was recognisedî.[17] These proportions equated to the four outer faces sloping by approximately 51.842† or 51† 50' 35", which would have been understood and expressed by the Ancient Egyptians as a seked slope of 5 1/2 palms [18].

Giza's Materials

The Great Pyramid consists of more than 2.3 million limestone blocks. The Egyptians obtained the majority of the limestone blocks from a nearby quarry. The Tufa limestone used for the casing was quarried across the river. The largest granite stones in the pyramid, found in the "King's" chamber, weigh 25 to 80 tonnes and were transported more than 500 miles away from Aswan. Traditionally, ancient Egyptians cut stone blocks by hammering wedges into the stone which were then soaked with water. The wedges expanded, causing the rock to crack. Once they were cut, they were carried by boat either up or down the Nile River to the pyramid.[19]

Casing stones

casing stone

At completion, the Great Pyramid was surfaced by white 'casing stones' ń slant-faced, but flat-topped, blocks of highly polished white limestone. These were carefully cut to what is approximately a face slope with a seked of 5 1/2 palms to give the required overall dimensions. Visibly, all that remains is the underlying step-pyramid core structure seen today. In AD 1301, a massive earthquake loosened many of the outer casing stones, which were then carted away by Bahri Sultan An-Nasir Nasir-ad-Din al-Hasan in 1356 in order to build mosques and fortresses in nearby Cairo. The stones can still be seen as parts of these structures to this day. Later explorers reported massive piles of rubble at the base of the pyramids left over from the continuing collapse of the casing stones, which were subsequently cleared away during continuing excavations of the site. Nevertheless, many of the casing stones can be seen to this day in situ around the base of the Great Pyramid, and display the same workmanship and precision as has been reported for centuries. Petrie also found a different orientation in the core and in the casing measuring 193 centimeters ± 25 centimeters. He suggested a redetermination of north was made after the construction of the core, but a mistake was made, and the casing was built with a different orientation.[20] Petrie related the precision of the casing stones as to being "equal to opticians' work of the present day, but on a scale of acres." and "to place such stones in exact contact would be careful work; but to do so with cement in the joints seems almost impossible."[21]

Construction theories

Many alternative, often contradictory, theories have been proposed regarding the Pyramid's construction techniques.[22] Not all even agree that the blocks were quarried, they might conceivably have been cast[citation needed]. However, most accept it was built by moving huge stones from a quarry, being only unable to agree whether they were dragged, lifted or even rolled into place. The Greeks believed that slave labour was used but modern Egyptologists accept that it was built by many tens of thousands of skilled workers. They camped near the pyramids and worked for a salary or as a form of paying taxes until the construction was completed.[citation needed] Their cemeteries were discovered in 1990 by archaeologists Zahi Hawass and Mark Lehner. Verner posited that the labor was organized into a hierarchy, consisting of two gangs of 100,000 men, divided into five zaa or phyle of 20,000 men each, which may have been further divided according to the skills of the workers.[23]

One of the mysteries of the pyramid's construction is how they planned its construction. John Romer suggests that they used the same method that had been used for earlier and later constructions, laying out parts of the plan on the ground at a 1 to 1 scale. He writes that "such a working diagram would also serve to generate the architecture of the pyramid with a precision unmatched by any other means." He devotes a chapter of his book to the physical evidence that there was such a plan.[24]



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Last updated: 12/01/09.