Sites of cultural significance

Giza Pyramid And The Great Sphinx

The Pyramids of Giza, built between 2589 and 2504 BC.

Credit: Dan Breckwoldt | Shutterstock

Constructed between 2589 and 2504 B.C., the Egyptian pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, built in that order, are a testament to ancient planning and engineering.

How these pyramids were built is a source of speculation and debate. Many researchers believe that a ramp system of some form was used to move the blocks into place during construction. When the pyramids were completed they were encased in white limestone, most of which is lost today.

Recent research suggests that when the blocks were being moved across the desert, a small amount of water was put on the sand in front of them, making them easier to move. Additionally, archaeologists have found new evidence that Giza had a bustling port, allowing goods to be shipped to the site from across Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean.

Despite the differences among the three pyramids (Khufu’s pyramid, the "Great Pyramid, " is several times the mass of Menkaure’s) the southeast tips of each pyramid align together almost precisely. Each pyramid had a mortuary and valley temple, with a causeway connecting them. They also had smaller pyramids referred to as satellite or queens' pyramids.

The Sphinx, an enigmatic monument usually associated with king Khafre, stands watch near his valley temple. In addition, tombs sprawling to the east and west of Khufu’s pyramid contain the remains of officials, royal relatives and others who had the privilege to be buried there.

To the south of the Sphinx is the “Wall of the Crow, ” which is 656 feet (200 meters) long and 32 feet (10 m) thick. South of the wall is a settlement that archaeologists sometimes refer to as “the lost city.” This city has barracks that may have housed troops. Recently, archaeologists have discovered a mansion in the city that would have been used by senior officials. The pyramid workers may have lived in simpler housing located by the pyramids themselves.

Khufu’s pyramid

When it was completed by Khufu, the Great Pyramid rose 481 feet (146 m), approximately the height of a modern, 30-story office building. Today, with the loss of the some of the stone, the pyramid is slightly shorter, measuring 455 feet (138 m). It was the tallest building in the world until the 14th century, when the Lincoln Cathedral was completed in England.

Three smaller pyramids, often referred to as queens’ pyramids, are located adjacent to Khufu’s pyramid. It’s difficult to say for sure for whom they were built, but one of them may have been for Khufu’s mother, Hetepheres. In addition, a smaller satellite pyramid, located between the queens’ pyramids and Khufu’s, was discovered in the 1990s.

Seven boat pits have been found at Khufu’s pyramid, two on the south side, two on the east side, two in between the queens’ pyramids and one located beside the mortuary temple and causeway. The best preserved boat, carefully reassembled from more than 1, 200 pieces, is 142 feet (43 m) long, with wooden planks and oars. The purpose of these boats is a mystery. [Related: Natural Disasters in Ancient Egypt Revealed]

Khufu’s pyramid held three chambers. A grand gallery lead up to the king’s chamber, a red granite room that contains a now-empty royal sarcophagus. In the center of the pyramid is the so-called queen’s chamber, although it probably never held a queen. Beneath the pyramid is a subterranean chamber, its purpose, like the queen’s chamber, a mystery.

Both the king’s chamber and the queen’s chamber contain two “air shafts” (it’s doubtful they were ever used as such). The shafts from the king’s chamber now lead outside, while the two from the queen’s chamber stop after a distance. Robot exploration of the shafts reveal that they lead to doors with copper handles and hieroglyphs.

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