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The Great Pyramid of Giza


The Great Pyramid of Giza is by far the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the last to survive to present day. It was built around 2540 B.C. and took approximately 20 years to build. In fact, it is one of the oldest structures in the world still standing today. It originally stood 488 feet (137m) tall, and for 4000 years this pyramid was the largest manmade structure in the world until the Lincoln Cathederal was rebuilt at 535 feet (160m) tall in England around the year 1300 A.D.

 Khufu's pyramid was originally 488 feet (137m) tall.

Lincoln Cathedral in England.

An Old Kingdom Egyptian Pharoah named Khufu (Cheops in Greek) ordered this great pyramid be built for his burial place. It was the first of its kind to be built. Other much smaller step pyramids were built before this, but this new pyramid was going to have smooth sides and be many times larger than anything ever seen before. Khufu's son, Khafre, who ruled after his father died, had his own pyramid built next to his father's. And Menkaure, Khafre's son, had his own pyramid built next to his father's and grandfather's. Khafre's pyramid (below center) often appears taller in pictures, however, it is slightly smaller than Khufu's, but no less grand.

    Did You Know?
The sides of the pyramids on the Giza plateau face the cardinal points of a compass. This means the north side faces directly north, the east side faces east, and so on.   Menkaure's pyramid (front), Khafre's pyramid (center), and Khufu's pyramid (rear).

The numbers vary, but an estimated 2.3 to 2.5 million stones were used to build this large structure, each weighing between 2 to 15 tons. This included the casing stones. The casing stones were placed along the outside walls to give the pyramid a smooth appearance. They were made from white limestone and would have made the pyramids brilliant in the desert sun. Sadly, only a few of the casing stones remain today near the base of the pyramid. Many fell during earthquakes and were later used by the Turks in the 14th Century to build homes and mosques in nearby Cairo. Others were taken right off the sides of the pyramid to be used in other construction projects over the centuries. As a result, today the pyramid stands at a height of 455 feet (137m) tall.

Did You Know?    
Casing stones on Khafre's pyramid.   Some casing stones can still be seen at the top of Khafre's pyramid.

There are two entrances to the Great Pyramid, both located on the north side. The original is 55 feet (17m) above the ground and offset from the center of the pyramid face and was well hidden for centuries. In fact, it was so well hidden that in the 9th Century, around the year 820 A.D., a group of Arab soldiers under the command of Caliph al-Ma'mun were unable to locate it and decided to make their own entrance. They were determined to get to the treasure they believed was hidden inside. This entrance, known as the forced entrance, was created lower and to the east of the original entrance. After 3 months of carving through the stone and nearly ready to give up, they found the original descending passage. Today, visitors to the pyramid use the forced entrance to enter the pyramid.

The original entrance center, the forced entrance lower right.

Inside the pyramid there are passages and three different chambers.  Once through the tunnel at the end of the forced entrance you will encounter the descending passage. If you continue down the descending passage, it leads to the lowest chamber, known as the subterranean chamber, which is located 79 feet (24m) below ground level. Many Egyptologists (archeologists who study Egypt's history) believe that this was intended to be the original burial place for Khufu. However, this chamber was never finished as it is believed that the king changed his mind and wanted to be buried higher up inside of the pyramid.

The descending passage connects to the ascending passage. These passages are very small, only about 3-1/2 feet (1m) wide and almost 4 feet (1.2m) high. The ascending passage opens up into what is known as the Grand Gallery. From here, you can enter the middle chamber, which is called the Queen's Chamber. This name was given to this chamber centuries ago and is misleading because we know today that the queens were buried each in their own small pyramid right next door to Khufu's Pyramid. The Queen's Chamber is believed to have perhaps held a large statue of Pharaoh Khufu.

Diagram of the chambers and passages inside the great pyramid.


The granite plug (above).   When the great pyramid was sealed, the entrance to the Grand Gallery was sealed off to prevent theft. This was done with 3 large granite blocks stacked against each other. These blocks are known as the granite plug. This granite plug is still in place today; the tunneling that took place in the 9th Century went around these stones to gain entrance to the Grand Gallery.

The Grand Gallery is indeed grand. It is 161 feet (49m) long and 49 feet (15m) high, and a few feet wider than the previous passages.

The Grand Gallery.

If you continue on to the top of the Grand Gallery, you come to the passage that will take you to the King's Chamber. It is a large rectangular room with only a rectangular sarcophagus made from a single block of red granite. Egyptologists believe that any treasure that may have been found in the King's Chamber was stolen long ago. The sarcophagus is located almost at the very center of the pyramid.

Visitors have their picture taken while sitting on the sarcophagus.

Both the Queen's Chamber and King's Chamber have what are believed to be airshafts in both the northern and southern walls. The airshafts have small rectangular openings. The King's Chambers airshafts follow the angle of the pyramid up to the outside surface of the pyramid. The airshafts in the Queen's Chamber follow the same pattern but are believed to not reach the outside of the pyramid because no outside openings have ever been located. In fact, in the 1990s a small robot armed with a small camera explored the southern airshaft in the Queen's Chamber.  After traveling about 200 feet (62m), the robot encountered a mysterious stone door that blocked the passage. One idea is that these mysterious shafts may have been created so the king's soul would be allowed to travel out of the pyramid and on to the afterlife.

You can see an airshaft in the King's Chamber behind the woman in this picture.

Many theories exist about how the great pyramids were built. A ramp that spiraled along the outside around the pyramid towards the top is the most widely accepted idea. The workers would have used ropes made of papyrus to pull the stones on wooden frames. Still, it would have been a slow process to pull the large stones up the ramp and into place.

The pyramids seen from an air balloon in 1904.

How do you think the pyramids were built?

Click here to learn who built the pyramids.


  Did You Know?  
  A small portion of the Valley of the Kings.  
  The pyramids were only built in the Old Kingdom era of ancient egypt (ca. 2700-2200 B.C.). When the capital was moved to Thebes, Egyptian pharoahs were buried in the Valley of the Kings, located 419 miles (674km) south of Cairo.  

  The pyramids of Giza can be seen from space.  
  The pyramids seen from space.  
  You can see the pyramids in the center of this satellite photo from NASA. North is towards the left upper corner of the image.  



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