The Pyramids of Egypt are symbolic of the great wealth and might of the Pharaohs, and an essential cornerstone of Egyptian life and culture. If you have ever looked at a picture of the Egyptian pyramids, chances are you have been looking at the pyramids of Giza, belonging to Pharaohs Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure of the fourth dynasty. The pyramid of Khufu is the largest among the three and was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the only one surviving to this day. The pyramid complex also contains smaller pyramids constructed for queens and nobles and temples to offer prayers to the dead king and the majestic Sphinx keeping watch over the entire plateau.
A number of pyramids have been constructed (138 at last count in 2008), varying greatly in size, design and also building material, but all of them have been built along the sacred Nile. This proved to be an advantage when it came to the transportation of the many thousands of tonnes of building materials from quarries which were away from the building site. Imagine the Nile and its smaller channels busy with large wooden boats carrying granite from Aswan and limestone from Tura into the Giza harbour, where they were quickly and skilfully made to take their place in the mammoth construction.
Divine inspiration or human ingenuity?
Towering over the desert landscape, the pyramids serve as a beacon to announce to the world the final resting place of the Pharaoh, King of Egypt. The Pharaoh was considered to be the earthly embodiment of the Egyptian God Horus and on his death would assume the role of the God Osiris, responsible for the prosperity and order of the empire. This kind of immortality is possible only with the preservation of the royal remains and facilitating the soul of the departed king to take his place in the other world by constructing elaborate tombs or mausoleums. It is for this reason that the royal remains had to mummified and preserved, to give the king his best chance at immortality. During the earlier times, the royal tombs were basically just rectangular structures with outward sloping walls with flat tops, called Mastabas. (Also read Egyptian mummy facts)
An innovative architect called Imhotep took this design one step further and started to stack up the traditional Mastabas, each layer smaller than the one below. The resulting structure called the Step pyramid of Pharaoh Djoser at Saqqara, inspired the pharaohs and their teams of architects and engineers after him to match or surpass its splendour.
Next step in the evolution of pyramid design was the numerous attempts of Pharaoh Snefru. He decided to build his pyramid with smooth sides and helped perfect the art of constructing pyramids. His first project was to complete the Meidum pyramid started by his father. He then planned to build a smooth walled pyramid but this had a wide base and got too heavy for the desert sands and began to sink. His engineers were great at troubleshooting and decreased the angle of the pyramid from 55° to 43° halfway through the construction giving it a bent appearance and its name – The Bent Pyramid of Snefru at Dahshur. This was followed by the Red pyramid at an inclination of 43°, a lesson learnt while building the Bent pyramid and this became the first perfectly shaped smooth walled pyramid.
Significance of the pyramid shape
The ancient Egyptians ardently worshiped the Sun god Re, and designed the pyramid structure from the triangle formed from the sun’s rays beaming down to earth. The sun was the apex of this triangle and held untold power and energy, which was showered on to the earth, which formed the base of this triangle. Also, the pyramidal shape is the best structure to support enormous weights, especially while using heavy building material like limestone and granite with no metal framework required. All of us, as children have made mounds of sand or mud while playing; constructing our own versions of pyramids before we even attempted mud cylinders or cuboids. This just serves to emphasize the simplicity and stability of the pyramidal shape and it is no mystery that many ancient cultures used pyramidal shapes to construct holy and sacred monuments. The pyramids of the Aztecs, the Ziggurats of the Mesopotamians, the steep Nubian pyramids, the flat topped pyramidal mausoleums of the ancient Chinese and the Gopuram pyramids of South Indian temples, all seem to illustrate the popularity of this design.
THE PYRAMIDS OF GIZA
The Giza Necropolis was of great importance to the ancient Egyptians as it symbolized the celestial landscape on earth. The Nile, the lion headed Sphinx and the three pyramids perfectly synchronize to the position of the Milky Way galaxy, the constellation Leo and the three stars of the constellation Orion respectively.
1) The Pyramid of Khufu: This is the largest of the three pyramids of Giza (standing tall at 488 feet) and was built by the Pharaoh Khufu or Cheops (2589-2566BC). This colossal project took 20 years to complete with at least 20,000 workers to quarry the stone, transport the blocks to the site and lay them in place, plus support staff to make stone tools, rafts, boats, ramps and ropes. It took a strong treasury to finance such a project as the pyramid was not built by slaves but by salaried workmen, artisans and craftsmen, who needed to be fed, clothed and given medical and social benefits. These people were involved in moving and laying 2,300,000 pieces of limestone weighing approximately 5.9 million tons. The finished pyramid was then covered entirely in a softer casing limestone which was highly polished allowing the pyramid to glimmer like a jewel in the hot and drab sandy desert. Unfortunately this casing stone has been reused and recycled for other building projects in Cairo by later Pharaohs.
The base of the pyramid is a near faultless square, aligned to the four cardinal directions of the compass. Complex mathematical proportions and constants like Pi and Phi are represented in the symmetry of the pyramid design. The dimensions used in the pyramid reveal hidden constants such as number of days in a year, mean distance to the sun, mean radius of the sun, mean radius of the earth, mean radius of the moon and velocity of light.
The entrance to the pyramid is found on the north wall, and through a narrow passageway leads into the Grand gallery, before opening into the King’s chamber. This was the most precious room of the entire structure, housing the Pharaoh’s immortal remains. This chamber contains a granite Sarcophagus or coffin which is too large to have been moved into the chamber through the narrow passageways after construction was complete. The workmen built the chamber and the pyramid around the sarcophagus with much care although there is no sign of Khufu’s mummy today. The Grand gallery also leads into the Queen’s chamber, which did not really house a queen but was used as a room to store the rations, provisions and treasures for the afterlife of the Pharaoh. Four narrow shafts have been built into the pyramid aligning with stars which were significant to their culture such as the Pole star, Kocab in the Ursa Minor constellation, Alnitak in Orion symbolising Osiris and Sirius symbolising Isis. These were meant to catapult the soul of the Pharaoh into the heavens in the direction of the most important deities.
2) The Pyramid of Khafre: This pyramid was built by the Pharaoh Khafre (2576-2551BC) who was the son of Khufu. His pyramid is slightly smaller than the Great pyramid rising to a height of 446 feet. It is surprisingly well preserved and still carries some of the original casing limestone towards the apex. The pyramid rests on a platform that is more ancient than the pyramid itself and is thought to be from the pre dynastic era. The pyramid has two entrances along the north and south walls, leading into an underground burial chamber. Since the entire weight of the pyramid sat on the roof of this chamber, the pressures on the roof would be unimaginably high. Khafre’s engineers were ready with a solution, something as simple as giving the chamber a pyramidal roof to distribute the weight lying on it more evenly.
3) The Pyramid of Menkaure: The third and smallest pyramid (at a height of 215 feet) of the Giza necropolis is that of Pharaoh Menkaure, the eldest son of Khafre. This pyramid was encased in pink granite from Aswan for the first fifteen meters from the ground and with white limestone from Tura beyond that and was surely a magnificently beautiful tomb.
Mysteries of the Pyramids
These pyramids also have many secrets that they refuse to divulge. Although many Egyptologists believe they were elaborate royal tombs, there was not a single royal mummy recovered from them. Of course, there lies the possibility that the pyramids were like giant landmarks for tomb robbers to loot the Pharaoh’s treasure. There also is the question of how these mega structures were built by a civilization four and a half millennia ago, people we consider antique. Did they construct long sloping ramps to ease each of the 2.5 ton limestone blocks into place? Was this a reasonable protocol considering the enormous labour force and cost and other logistic glitches to construct such a ramp. And then there is the somewhat farfetched idea that aliens helped with pyramid construction due to all the astronomical references and incredible mathematical calculations involved in building it.
No other monument better represents the spiritual and cultural contribution of ancient Egyptians to the world than the Pyramids. This was a race that took the afterlife seriously and by building these gigantic tombs did not engage in obsessing about the finality death, but took a keen interest in the fate of their soul after death. The pyramids of Giza refuse to crumble away even after all this time, reminding us of a civilization brave enough to evade oblivion