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12 Surprising Facts About the Pyramids of Ancient Egypt

The pyramids of Egypt fire imagination and inspiration in archaeology, architecture, and tourism. Some questions have been answered about

12 Surprising Facts About the Pyramids of Ancient Egypt
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Pyramid of Khafre from Western Graveyard, Giza

The pyramids of Egypt are a fantastic glimpse into ancient wonder for tourists, students, and scholars alike. They fire imagination and create inspiration in modern archeology, architecture, and art.

The pyramids prompt questions from people all over the world. Some questions have been answered, yet there are many left to explore. Read below to learn of some pyramid facts you may not have heard.

 


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12. Stairway to heaven

The Step Pyramid of Djoser was the very first pyramid built by the Ancient Egyptians and is the earliest large monument built with stone. Earlier royal tombs were constructed from mud brick. Djoser sourced granite from the far south at Aswan, and limestone from the other side of the Nile river for his vizier Imhotep to oversee construction.

The Aswan granite was used to line the King’s chamber inside the pyramid. The Step Pyramid’s construction was meant to act as a staircase for Djoser to move from his earthly body to the afterlife.

The Step Pyramid of Djoser, Saqqara
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The Step Pyramid of Djoser, Saqqara

11. The first true Pyramid

The pyramids were built for pharaohs to protect their sarcophagus and guide them towards the sun in the afterlife. The Red Pyramid of Sneferu at Dahshur is Ancient Egypt’s first true pyramid, meaning it is smooth-sided. It was designed to resemble the sun’s rays. It is the flattest pyramid of Ancient Egypt, with the gentlest slope, which unfortunately made it easy for robbers to walk along and steal the white limestone that covered the red underneath.

The Red Pyramid, Dahshur
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The Red Pyramid, Dahshur

10. Great Pyramids in alignment

From the Great Pyramid of Khufu in the northeast of the necropolis to the smaller pyramid of Menkaure in the southeast, the southeastern corners of all three Giza pyramids are aligned diagonally.

The structures were arranged deliberately so each of these corners pointed directly to the Temple of Ra at Heliopolis, and in concert with the constellation Orion. Pharaohs of the 4th Dynasty believed themselves directly descended from Ra, so by angling their pyramids perfectly their tombs were a natural part of the daily life cycle of the sun at the heart of their religion.

The Great Pyramid Necropolis, Giza
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The Great Pyramid Necropolis, Giza

9. Watching on from the Serdab

Just as important to the pharaohs as their pyramid was a building called a Serdab. A Serdab was a building close to the pharaoh’s mummy where his Ka statue (the statue holding the king’s life essence after death) was kept.

Ancient Egyptians believed that if the pharaoh’s mummy was destroyed, his spirit could live on inside the Ka statue. Given the very real threat of tombs being robbed and looted the Serdab and Ka statue were hugely important to the pharaoh maintaining a pleasant and peaceful afterlife.

King Djoser’s Ka Statue, Step Pyramid Complex, Saqarra
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King Djoser’s Ka Statue, Step Pyramid Complex, Saqarra

8. The Pyramid texts

200 years after the Pyramid of Menkaure was built came the pyramid of King Unas at Saqarra. On the walls of the burial chamber the “Pyramid texts” were found; magical spells in hieroglyph form meant to help King Unas’ soul leave his body and commence its journey to the afterlife.

The oldest known religious texts in the world, pyramid texts have been hugely influential in learning about pharaohs and the roles and the responsibilities they had in everyday life. The Unas Pyramid texts also provide the first reference to Osiris, the god of the Underworld.

Pyramid Texts, The Pyramid of Unas
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Pyramid Texts, The Pyramid of Unas

 


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7. Climbing the Great Pyramids

Tourists and Cairo locals attempt to climb to the top of the Great Pyramid of Khufu more often than you think. Most are arrested or detained on-site before being let go without charge because under Egyptian law climbing the pyramid is prohibited but not illegal. In 2016 a 16-year old German tourist was able to climb the pyramid in just over 8 minutes, while recently a local threw rocks at authorities and damaged the wooden mast at the top used to measure the Great Pyramid’s height.

The steep sides of the Great Pyramid
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The steep sides of the Great Pyramid, by Jono Elderton

6. Last of the Pyramids

The last Royal Pyramid of Egypt was built by King Ahmose I at Abydos, far to the south of the more famous pyramids at Giza, Saqarra, and Dahshur. His pyramid stood around 50 meters in height, was part of a traditional large mortuary complex and built with very steep sides.

The Ahmose pyramid collapsed into rubble as it was made primarily from mud brick, which couldn’t hold up over time like the gigantic limestone blocks used in pyramids further north.

The Ruins of Ahmose’s Pyramid, Abydos
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The Ruins of Ahmose’s Pyramid, Abydos, Wannabe Egyptologist via WikIMedia CC BY SA 3.0

5. Casing stones to shine bright

Casing stones displayed the precision of Egyptian pyramid building. Casing stones were white, polished limestone caps that covered the stone we see today. They locked together intimately, giving each pyramid a beautifully flat, smooth impression.

Casing stones reflected the sun like a mirror and shined brightly like burnished jewels. The casing stones are now mostly gone, as they were often stolen, repurposed to build other monuments or were damaged by seismic activity, such as the massive earthquake that struck Cairo in 1308 AD.

Casing stone from the Great Pyramid of Cheops, British Museum
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Casing stone from the Great Pyramid of Cheops, British Museum

4. Assault on Menkaure

During the 12th century Al-Aziz Uthman, the second Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt and son of Saladin made an aborted attempt to demolish the Great Pyramids of Giza.

Al-Aziz employed a massive crew of workmen to bring down Menkaure’s temple but the cost, time, and sheer physical difficulties the pyramid stones and sand presented meant the job was scrapped within a year. The Sultan’s efforts resulted in only a vertical gouge left in the north face of the smallest great pyramid.

Menkaure’s Pyramid, North Face, Giza
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Menkaure’s Pyramid, North Face, Giza

3. Professional construction teams

The Great Pyramids were built by workmen, not slaves, despite the claims of famous Greek historian Herodotus in his writing. Entire towns were built alongside the pyramids, where farming families often worked on the pharaoh’s amazing building projects while waiting for crops to grow.

In recent years archeologists have found evidence of these town’s professional builders and stonemasons and their tools. Worker cemeteries have been excavated close to the Pyramids of Khufu and Khafre and have also been explored in Luxor and the Valley of the Kings.

12 Surprising Facts About the Pyramids of Ancient Egypt
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Pyramid of Khafre from Western Graveyard, Giza

 


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2. Great Pyramid Fast Facts

It’s believed in excess of 2.3 million limestone blocks were used in crafting the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Blocks made from granite and placed in the tomb of Khufu came from Aswan in southern Egypt and weighed as much as 50 tons each. The Pyramid took over 23 years to complete, with calculations suggesting work crews would have laid an average of 12 stones every hour during the time frame.

Over the life span of the project more than 100,000 people were employed, with a peak workforce of at least 1000. The original entrance to the Great Pyramid is 17 meters from the ground, however, tourists enter via the “robber tunnel” created in 820 AD when the Sultan’s of Cairo’s men broke in to find loot. The Great Pyramid draws as many as 14 million visitors each year and pours almost $9 billion into the economy. It is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the World that remains standing.

The Robber Tunnel Entrance (bottom right), Great Pyramid
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The Robber Tunnel Entrance (bottom right), Great Pyramid

1. There’s more we need to learn

The more we learn about the pyramids the more questions have raised that need answering. Despite many theories – ramps and pulleys, water aided stone sledges, rolling wooden ramps, and massive causeways – there is no concrete evidence explaining exactly how these giant stones were lifted into place and secured.

Researchers have been unable to copy the mortar binding pyramid stones despite understanding what it’s made of. Scientists have found possible hidden chambers using heat imaging and satellite technology, but so far haven’t figured out what’s in them or their purpose. So much of the Great Pyramids remain a mystery for amateurs and professionals alike.

The Great Pyramid, Giza
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The Great Pyramid, Giza
Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae before the canopy. © Carole Raddato / WikiCommons
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