The Pyramids at the Giza Plateau
Table of Contents
The Giza Plateau is home to the three most famous pyramids in the world, and it is the most important archaeological complex of ancient Egypt.
It is located on the western outskirts of Cairo, Egypt, and it was one of the necropolises of Memphis, the capital of the Ancient Egyptian Kingdom. It’s about 8 km away from the ancient city of Giza, on the Nile, and about 25 km from the center of Cairo in a southwest direction.
It includes the Pyramid of Cheops or Great Pyramid (which is the only one of the seven wonders of the ancient world of the list drawn up by Antipater of Sidon that is still standing to the present day), the Pyramid of Chefren, the Pyramid of Menkaure and the Sphinx (which is discussed in this other page), surrounded by other small buildings, known as the Pyramids of the Queens, funerary temples, processional ramps, downstream temples and cemeteries from various eras.
The perfect pyramid shape was allegedly adopted by the Egyptian builders because of a cult of the Sun: the edges of the Pyramid would represent the sun’s rays that descend on the earth and the Pyramid itself the ladder to climb to heaven.
The Egyptians were very precise in orienting each of the four faces in the direction of one of the cardinal points, as the three Pyramids at the Giza Plateau testify.
Although there is no written record that documents the construction of the three main pyramids, archaeologists believe the Merer papyrus may describe the transportation process of the blocks that were used for their building.
However, such papyrus only documents the transporting of a little portion of 30 tonnes block, which was the weight limit that could be transported, and took two months to move a ridicule amount of blocks compared to the ones used to build the pyramids of the Giza Plateau.
As a matter of fact, even though the Merer papyrus doesn’t describe the purpose of the blocks, it most likely refers to a renovation process on the pre-existing structures.
The numerous cemeteries found in the Giza Plateau, with mastaba (a particular type of monumental tomb used during the early stages of Egyptian civilization; the term means “bench” or “banquet”) and private tombs, were the burial places of high officials and members of royal families, including that of Queen Meresankh III.
The Great Pyramid Of Giza
The Pyramid of Cheops, also known as the Great Pyramid of Giza or the Pyramid of Khufu, is the oldest and largest of the three main pyramids in the Giza Plateau.
It is the oldest of the seven wonders of the ancient world as well as the only one that is not in a state of ruin. It consists of at least 2 million and 300 thousand (or, according to others, 2 million and 400 thousand) blocks weighing between 2.5 and 70 tons, according to Egyptologists, built in a period of time ranging from 15 to 30 years.
To get an idea about the stretch of this speculation, calculating an average period of 23 years, the consolidated opinion believed to be proven by the whole academic world maintains that each block was placed in any position and height, every 3 minutes, day and night, for over 20 years.
Modern Egyptologists believe that the pyramid was built as the tomb of Pharaoh Khufu, ruler of the 4th dynasty.
This hypothesis might be disproven by the simple fact that no mummies were ever found inside any of the pyramids at the Giza Plateau, as well as no hieroglyphic inscription.
It’s a well-known fact that the Egyptians used to adorn funerary structures with extensive hieroglyphic poems about the afterlife and the journey of the dead pharaoh.
Especially because Cheops was so important to have such a monument allegedly built for him, the fact that the Pyramid does not display any hieroglyphic writing is even more enigmatic.
Not only, we can see from the original entrance the presence of huge slant megaliths, which were covered afterward by more blocks, which could lead to believe that the original structure might’ve been different.
Modern theories also acknowledged that, instead of using slaves like previously thought, real laborers were involved in its building and they had great honor partaking in the construction works.
Although it is possible that it was built by an incredible workforce of men, it should be noted that the features of the foundation blocks and the way they are shaped are particularly different than the upper blocks, and so is the megalithic entrance.
It’s in fact possible that, like many other examples in Egypt and the rest of the world, a pre-existing structure was used to build on top of it.
The pyramid was completed by a top, called the pyramidion, which has now disappeared. At present-day, the top is located at about 138 meters in height and consists of an 11 meters wide square platform.
Its absence is superficially explained by Egyptologists with collapses due to environmental factors or with the fact that the Giza Plateau was the subject of intentional looting in the past.
The ancient traditions have sent us the rumor that the summit was all gold or stone painted in gold, such that it could be admired from far away because it reflected the intense sunlight and it shined from the top of the Pyramid throughout all of the Giza Plateau.
Inside The Great Pyramid Of Giza
Schematic section of the Pyramid of Cheops:
- original entrance
- new entry
- descending passage
- descending tunnel
- lower chamber
- ascending tunnel
- horizontal tunnel
- great gallery
- upper chamber
- vertical tunnel
We’ll use these numbers as reference from now on.
The King’s Chamber
The King’s Chamber (10) has a structure similar to that of a Djed, measuring 10.47 x 5.234 meters in length and 5.974 meters in height.
The walls, floor, and ceiling were made with large blocks of granite from the Aswan quarries, which are relatively far from the Giza Plateau.
The blocks are cut and placed with excellent precision, so much so that it is impossible to insert a sheet of paper between them.
The ceiling is flat, made up of nine stone blocks with a total weight of 400 tons.
In particular, the floor measures exactly 10 by 20 cubits for which the unit of measurement used (in relation to the meter) is 0.524 meters and not 0.525 generally used.
The only object present in the King’s Chamber is a rectangular monolithic sarcophagus in pink granite, with a broken corner and without a lid.
The sarcophagus is slightly wider than the passage to the chamber and therefore must have been placed before the ceiling was put in place. Contrary to the masterfully worked walls, the sarcophagus is roughly hewn, with traces of cutting and excavation tools visible in many places.
This is in contrast to the well-finished and decorated sarcophagi found in other pyramids of the same period. Petrie suggested that a decorated sarcophagus was originally planned but was lost in the river north of Aswan and a replacement was hastily arranged.
This theory, however, does not explain why the second sarcophagus was not finished in situ.
A plausible explanation is that the sarcophagus was placed in the Chamber in the conditions in which we see it today, as an artifact already considered historical by the builders themselves and therefore kept intact.
Again, the sarcophagus is nothing like many others that were found all over Egypt, which were bigger, colored, and often placed one inside another, and the mummy in the inside was masterfully and carefully preserved.
The ventilation ducts in the upper chamber were described as early as 1610, while the ducts in the middle chamber were not discovered until 1872.
In that year, Waynman Dixon, a Scottish railway engineer, and his friend, Dr. James Grant, noticed a crack in the south wall of the Queen’s Chamber. After shoving a long thread into the gap, indicating that there was probably a void behind the slab, Dixon hired a carpenter named Bill Grundy to cut the slab of the wall.
A rectangular channel was thus discovered, on average 20.5 cm wide and 21.5 cm high, which winds for almost 3 meters inside the pyramid, before curving upwards at an angle of about 39 °.
Since the upper chamber had two similar tunnels, Dixon measured the location, analogous to the newly discovered tunnel, on the north wall and, as expected, Grundy found the opening of the twin tunnel.
Inside the north tunnel, three artifacts were discovered: a small bronze hook, a wooden rod (described as similar to cedarwood) 12 cm long, and a sphere of black diorite with bronze inserts.
These objects remained in the hands of the Dixon family until the 1970s, when they were donated to the British Museum where they are still kept and, since the 1990s, exhibited.
In December 2020 the relic in cedarwood at the University of Aberdeen was radiocarbon dated, detecting a dating back exactly (+/- 200 years statistical error) to 3341 BC; based on these data it was hypothesized a possible construction of the pyramid at least 500 years earlier.
The adventurers also lit fires to channel the smoke into the vents in an attempt to find out where these led. The smoke stagnated in the north vent but disappeared in the south vent and was not seen exiting the outside of the pyramid.
The openings of both conduits are located at approximately the same level in the chamber, at the top junction of the first granite slab. The northern opening is slightly lower, while the plane of the southern opening is approximately at the height of the junction.
The ducts in the Queen’s Chamber were explored in 1993 by the German engineer Rudolf Gantenbrink, under the supervision of archaeologist Rainer Stadelmann of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, using a crawler robot of his own design called Upuaut 2. Exploring the south duct, at the end of an ascent of 65 m, he discovered a limestone slab with two eroded copper handles inserted, closing the tunnel.
Gantenbrink also tried to explore the north shaft, but it was decided not to continue beyond a bend 18 m from the entrance, because it could have caught the robot.
In 2002, the National Geographic Society created a similar robot, called the Pyramid Rover, which made a hole in the central area of the south conduit slab, only to discover, on Sept. 17, another slab of stone behind it, but devoid of any handles.
The following day the north duct was finally explored, where a completely similar closing slab was discovered.
The research continued in 2009 with the Djedi project, which adopted a camera able to orient itself freely within the duct (micro snake camera), was able to penetrate the first hatch of the southern duct through the hole in 2002, and view all sides of the small compartment behind it. Signs written in red paint were discovered, possibly hieroglyphs.
The camera also framed the copper handles built into the hatch inside the small compartment. The inside of the hatch had been refinished, which suggests it wasn’t just in place to prevent debris from getting into the duct.
The Great Gallery
The Great Gallery (9) constitutes the continuation of the Ascending Tunnel but is 8.6 meters high and 46.68 meters long. At the base, it is 2.06 meters wide, but after 2.29 meters the stone blocks fall inwards by 7.6 cm on each side. There are 7 of these steps so that at the top the tunnel is only 1.04 meters wide.
The roof is made of blocks placed at a slightly more inclined angle with respect to the floor, so as to fit each block into a recess made in the top of the tunnel-like a jack tooth. The aim is to have each block supported by the tunnel wall rather than resting on the block below it, which would have resulted in excessive cumulative pressure at the end of the tunnel.
The floor of the Grand Gallery consists of a double staircase arranged on each side, 51 cm wide, which leaves in the center space for a smooth 1.04-meter wide ramp. Near the floor, there are various niches of unknown use.
The lower end of the tunnel is an important crossroads, as, in addition to being the point where the ascending tunnel leads into the Great Gallery, on the right, there is a hole in the wall (now blocked by a metal mesh) which constitutes the upper outlet of the Vertical tunnel (12). From here also starts the horizontal tunnel (8) leading to the so-called Queen’s Chamber (7).
At the upper end of the tunnel, on the right side, there is a hole in the ceiling that opens into a short tunnel through which you can access the lower discharge chamber.
As usual, when it comes to archaeological theories regarding these structures, the purpose of the Grand Gallery has not been clearly determined.
There are speculations regarding the Great Pyramid of Giza containing more shafts and chambers that are yet to be discovered.
The Pyramid Of Chefren
The Chefren pyramid is the second largest pyramid of the Giza Plateau after the Great Pyramid. In the lower half, it has large rough and irregular blocks arranged with poor precision, while towards the top these appear more uniformly arranged. Over the millennia, various seismic movements have caused the stones to move by a few millimeters.
The pyramid appears higher than that of Cheops because it was built on a rock base about 10 meters high. Its height would appear even greater if it were not without part of the top and the pyramidion.
It has the particularity of being the only pyramid that preserves on the top a part of the white Tura limestone roof that originally covered the entire structure. The base is covered with “variegated Ethiopian stone” (as defined by Herodotus) or red and gray granite from Aswan.
It has two entrances, one at about 11.54 meters high, the other at ground level, which is the one currently used for visits.
Walking inside the entrance, there’s a descending gallery about 32 meters long which leads to a horizontal corridor ending into a chamber.
Egyptologists maintain this was the unfinished burial chamber of the pharaoh. However, a more logical hypothesis maintains this was never meant to be a burial chamber. Imagine building such a structure and then leaving the most important part of it unfinished.
This one measures 14.15 meters by five, it is unique, carved out of stone, with a gabled ceiling formed by 17 pairs of limestone beams and located below the level of the courtyard.
The only funerary furniture found in the red granite sarcophagus buried “at ground level”, completely devoid of inscriptions and broken, similar to the one found inside the Great Pyramid.
From the chamber, an uphill gallery leads to two apartments with a horizontal corridor connected to the first.
There is also another large room which purpose is still disputed today.
The Pyramid Of Menkaure
The Pyramid of Menkaure is the smallest among the pyramids of the Giza Plateau. Built about 450 meters southwest of the Chefren pyramid, the project went through several stages, and various materials and techniques were used.
This may suggest that the Egyptians built over and modified a pre-existing structure
Its volume does not exceed 250,000 m³, which is a tenth of that of Cheops, but the megalithic blocks used are much larger even than the ones used for the pyramid of Chefren.
Originally, the pyramid should have been completely covered with the spectacular red granite of Aswan.
The north side retains part of the coating, which, however, is not smooth towards the top, thus giving the impression of unfinished work.
There is also a large breach, due to Saladin’s son, al-Malik al-ʿAzīz ʿUthmān b. Yūsuf, opened it in 1196 to break into the pyramid.
The interior of the pyramid is very complex, has an entrance to the north at about 4 meters high and a descending gallery covered in pink granite of about 32 meters and with an inclination of 26 ° that leads to a vestibule decorated with bas-reliefs with the “palace facade” motif and a subsequent large corridor about 13 meters long, 4 meters wide and 4 meters high.
This corridor opens into the alleged burial chamber located 6 meters below the ground level which has a pit in the floor, from which a closed corridor extends.
The richness of the pyramid is given by the massive presence of granite from distant quarries in Upper Egypt, a very hard stone that is extremely difficult to work with.
The granite was removed as early as 500 AD. and in 1827 the pasha Muhammad Ali used it for the construction of the arsenal of Alexandria.
A feature noted by scholars is that the marks left on the walls by the tools of the Egyptian workers indicate with certainty that the first lower corridor was excavated from the inside out while the second, the upper one exactly from the outside inwards.
By observing the so-called casing stones from the Pyramid of Menkaure around the base of the Pyramid we can find the same workmanship and precision of the Osireion.
As a matter of fact, even though Zahi Hawass is a famous mainstream Egyptologist that goes against alternative theories, he himself believes that the Osireion may have three underground shafts that connect the temple to the pyramids at the Giza Plateau and to the Sphinx along with the Valley Temple.
Flinders Petrie, a famous English Egyptologist as well as one of the first real researchers of the pyramids and the Giza Plateau, 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 said that “to place such stones in exact contact would be careful work, but to do so without cement in the joints seems almost impossible”.