The Great Pyramid of Giza is the biggest pyramid ever made and also one of the biggest buildings ever. It stands with some other pyramids in the area known as the Giza plateau, a few kilometres west of Cairo, Egypt, on the edge of the Western Desert. The pyramid was listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. At the time when the list was devised, it was already 2,000 years old. Now, 2,000 years later, it is the only one of the wonders still in existence!
The Pyramid is absolutely enormous. With a square base approximately 230m long, it rises to about 140m in height. It is difficult to convey in words how big this actually is. For those of us familiar with London's Millennium Dome, the base of the pyramid is smaller, being about three quarters as wide, but the pyramid is three times as tall and made of solid rock. For Americans, think of something with a base as big as the Louisiana Superdome and twice as tall.
The pyramid appears to have been built in about 2600 BC as a tomb for a king. The Greek historian Herodotus, writing more than 2,000 years later, said that the king's name was Cheops (pronounced kay-ops). The Egyptian form of this name was Khufu. Unlike most Egyptian tombs, the pyramid has no inscriptions in it to identify the king for whom it was intended. In 1837, an English archaeologist Howard Vyse found a hidden chamber, with the word Khufu scrawled on the wall. This is thought to confirm the identity of the pyramid as Khufu's, although some claim it is a forgery.
The pyramid was sealed when it was constructed. The original seals are still intact. It was broken open in 820 AD by Abdullah Al Mamun, in the belief that it contained treasure and arcane knowledge. Unable to find the exact location of the entrance, his workers tunnelled through the rock and found the passageway by chance. It is said that when the pyramid was opened, it was empty. There was no body found in it and no treasure. The rough passageway he made is still used as the entrance for tourists.
The pyramid was originally covered in a layer of polished white limestone. When nearby Cairo was demolished in an earthquake in the 14th Century, this covering was stripped off and used as building material for the reconstruction of the city. Descriptions dating from before this time say that the casing was covered all over with inscriptions. But descriptions of these imply that they were graffiti rather than hieroglyphs. Today the Pyramid is rough on the outside and slightly smaller than it was originally.
Where's The Mummy?
Although the pyramid was completed and sealed, it is not clear whether any king was ever buried in it. The insides of the pyramid are completely plain, without the inscriptions and pictures which abound in other Egyptian tombs. There are a number of chambers, the highest containing a large stone box without a lid. This could be a sarcophagus but it does not appear to have been used. There are no other artefacts of any kind in the pyramid.
Of course, it is possible the pyramid was ransacked after the king's remains were placed in it. If so, the thieves either escaped by an unknown route, or carefully replaced all the sliding slabs and boulders as they left. Whoever did it would have been unable to remove the sarcophagus, as it is too big to fit out the door, having been placed in the chamber during construction. This does not explain the lack of inscriptions, however.
Another possibility is that the passageways are just a cover up and that the king is still buried somewhere else in the pyramid. This was a common enough practice in later Egyptian pyramids. If so, we may never find out.
From the time the Great Pyramid was built in about 2600 BC, it held the record for the tallest man-made structure in the world for 4,000 years, until the wooden spire was put on Lincoln Cathedral, England, in the 14th Century AD. The original height appears to have been 147m, although this is only an estimate since the top is missing. It now stands at about 140m.
The base of the pyramid was originally an almost perfect square, about 230m along the side. These measurements are fairly accurate because excavations have shown the positions of the four original corners. The base was aligned exactly North/South and East/West, with an accuracy and precision which would be difficult to achieve even today.
It is estimated that there are 2.3 million blocks of stone used in the pyramid, averaging about 2.5 tons each. Most of the blocks are limestone, but granite is used for places such as the so-called King's Chamber where stronger slabs are needed. The biggest ones we know about are those used in the ceiling of the King's Chamber, which are up to 50 tons in weight.
Inside The Pyramid
Inside the pyramid there are a number of chambers. The main ones were given the names 'Pit', 'Queen's Chamber' and 'King's Chamber' by the early archaeologists and the names have stuck. There is no evidence that either a king or a queen were ever buried here.
Descending Passage And Pit
From the entrance, a passageway known as the 'Descending Passage' goes down at a slope of exactly 1 in 21 until it reaches a chamber deep below ground level. This is hollowed out of the bed rock. This chamber is known as the Pit. Although everything else in the pyramid is polished and smooth, the Pit is rough and has an unfinished look.
Ascending Passage And Queen's Chamber
Leading upwards from the Descending Passage is the Ascending Passage, also with a slope of exactly 1 in 2. It rises up until it reaches a junction. One path leads horizontally to a second chamber which is known as the Queen's Chamber. This chamber is 5.2m x 5.7m and has a sloped ceiling like the roof of a house.
The Grand Gallery And King's Chamber
The Ascending Passage continues on into the Grand Gallery, a tall narrow room which continues to ascend at the same slope. The ceiling of the Grand Gallery narrows in a series of steps, giving it a curious look. At the top of the Grand Gallery is a small antechamber and then the final major chamber known as the King's Chamber. This is a plain rectangular room about 10m x 5m and about 5.5m high.
There is an open stone box in the middle of the King's Chamber which is probably a sarcophagus. There is no lid, although the box is carved to take one. The box is carved from a single piece of stone. The internal volume is almost exactly half the external volume, a fact which is probably not a coincidence. Despite this, the box is not particularly well made. According to Flinders Petrie, the eminent Egyptologist:
It is not finely wrought... On the outer sides the lines of sawing may be plainly seen... On the N. end is a place, near the W. side, where the saw was run too deep into the granite, and was backed out again by the masons; but this fresh start they made was still too deep, and two inches lower they backed out a second time, having altogether cut out more than 1/10 inch deeper than they intended.
Extra Passages And Chambers
There are a few extra passages: the Pit has two narrow passages from it, one going straight down for about 20m, the other going straight across for about the same. There are two sloping shafts from the Queen's Chamber rising steeply towards the surface but stopping before they reach the outside. These are very narrow, 20cm x 20cm. Some people think they are ventilation shafts which were blocked by a change in plans before the pyramid was completed. The King's Chamber has two similar shafts which actually do reach the surface. One other passage is worth noting: it is very narrow and tortuous. It leads from the Grand Gallery to the Descending Passage. It is thought to be a workman's escape route.
Above the King's Chamber are a series of five flat chambers which it is thought are intended to relieve the strain on the ceiling caused by the millions of tons of rock above. These are known as relieving chambers.
Sealing the Pyramid
The King's Chamber was sealed by sliding three massive granite slabs of about 7 tons each into slots in the wall in the antechamber just in front of it. These were broken by Al Mamun when he forced entry, but you can still see the slots.
It is thought that the entrance passage to the Queen's Chamber was hidden by a false floor in the Grand Gallery. What happened to this floor nobody knows. It may also have been removed by Al Mamun.
Enormous granite plugs were kept in the Grand Gallery. When the pyramid was sealed, these were slid downwards into the Ascending Passage, completely blocking the end of it. You can still see them in place; the present-day entrance tunnel joins the Ascending Passage just beyond the plugs.
The plugs must have been fitted from inside the pyramid when it was being sealed. It is thought that the workmen who fitted the plugs then escaped through a very small crawlway which brought them down into the Descending Passage.
The end of the Ascending Passage, where it joined the Descending Passage, was covered in a granite block so that it could not be distinguished from any other roof block in the Descending Passage. Anybody finding the way into the pyramid would see a simple tunnel descending to the pit, and nothing else.
Finally, the entrance to the Descending Passage was sealed with a hinged stone which, when closed, covered up the passage and looked like any other of the millions of stones on the surface of the pyramid. The geographer Strabo, in 24 BC, wrote that this acted like a door and could be opened to reveal the Descending Passage and the 'vermin-infested pit'. The secret of this door was forgotten by the 9th Century when Al Mamun forced his entry.
Visiting The Pyramid
For a small fee, you can go into the pyramid and climb up the Ascending Passage as far as the King's Chamber. The Descending Passage, Pit and Queen's Chamber are closed to the public. The passageway is very claustrophic. It ascends quite steeply (a 1 in 2 hill), and is only slightly more than a metre tall, so you have to stoop as you climb. Once you reach the Grand Gallery, there is no problem, although some people are oppressed by the thought of millions of tonnes of stone above them.
A sign outside proudly proclaims 'No Smoking Inside The Pyramid'. However, other bodily actions, such as urinating, do not seem to be prohibited, to judge by the stench inside. Be prepared for this.
In a building as big as this, it is likely that there are as-yet undiscovered chambers. Here are some of the prime candidates:
A team of French researchers in 1986 decided, based on gravimetric readings, that there was a hidden chamber beside the Queen's Chamber. There were given permission to drill a hole 25 mm in diameter. They discovered another room which appears to be full of sand. No further excavation was allowed.
A robot exploring one of the shafts leaving the Queen's Chamber found a small slab of a different type of stone with two copper handles. This looks suspiciously like a door.
Most of the stones in the walls of the King's Chamber fit exactly with no gaps whatsoever. One stone has wide gaps on three of the four sides which were long ago filled with cement. What is behind it?
One of the stones in the base is carefully set at an angle while all the other stones are parallel to the base. This is no haphazard alignment. The surrounding stones are carefully cut so that this stone fits at this angle. Could this cover the entrance to a passageway?
Cranks And Crackpots
The Great Pyramid exerts a mystic force which attracts cranks and crackpots from around the world. They are forced into writing treatises explaining how the pyramid contains the secrets of life itself. This started in about 1800 when European culture first became interested in Ancient Egypt. As soon as genuine archaeologists started publishing measurements, the cranks got to work on them and found wondrous correlations, proving that the Egyptians had precise details of the Earth, the solar system and the history of the Earth (past and future).
One of these 'Pyramidologists' was even found filing down a step inside the pyramid to make it fit with his theories. The analysis of the mystic powers of the pyramid still goes on today. With the Internet as a universal publishing device, anybody can now publish their pet theory at very little expense.
Here are some of the crazy theories published, starting with the tame and getting progressively weirder. Comments in brackets provide the more reasonable view of this Researcher:
The mathematical units Pi and Phi (also called the 'Golden Ratio') were used in the construction of the pyramid. [Possibly so. We don't know the exact original dimensions well enough to tell.]
The Pyramid lies in the center of gravity of the continents. [What does this mean?]
The Pyramid lies in the exact centre of all the land area of the world, dividing the earth's land mass into approximately equal quarters. [Is it exact or is it approximate? Wasn't it convenient that a site with such mystical properties happened to lie a few kilometres from the Egyptians' capital city?]
The units that the Pyramid builders used were British Imperial Inches, thereby proving that the British system is far superior to the deluded Continental metric system. [In fact, the builders appear to have used a unit of 524mm which is neither Imperial nor Metric.]
The shape of the Pyramid has unusual properties that manifest in the abeyance of natural processes. This was used for preserving the mummy. [This obviously wasn't known to other pyramid builders, because all the Egyptian pyramids are slightly different shapes.]
The pyramid was constructed according to a detailed plan provided by God Almighty. The exact position of various features along the Ascending Passage gives a prediction of world events including the birth and death of Jesus Christ. [Only if you choose your measurement units carefully.]
A watermark of encrusted salt about half way up the pyramid shows that it was once under the sea. This puts its date of construction back before 10,000 BC, when all that area was under the Mediterranean. [Interesting.]
The pyramid was built by aliens and is a giant transmitter, sending messages back to them. The Queen's Chamber was a reactor producing hydrogen, and the angled shafts called air vents were filled with chemicals. The Grand Gallery was an amplifier of natural tectonic vibrations within the Earth's crust, which are focused by the sarcophagus in the King's Chamber before leaving for parts unknown. [No comment...]
The Pyramid was originally built upside-down with the point downwards and the square base on top, as a landing area for visiting space-craft. [Wow!]