The Hellenistic Greeks traveled the ancient world searching for the most beautiful and significant monuments they could find. The Great Pyramid of Giza, built more than 4,000 years ago, was the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the only one we can still visit today. Let’s take a look at what makes this pyramid great, and why the ancients selected it as one of the world’s wonders.
How did the Great Pyramid of Giza Become a Wonder?
Any person who knows a thing or two about the Great Pyramid of Giza, even without having actually visited it, will agree that is a marvel of human engineering and art. With some imagination, we can even try to grasp what impressions it might have given the people in antiquity, people who had never seen any building taller than two stories. In addition to that, it stands among other, shorter pyramids, in the middle of a sandstone plateau, surrounded by sand and stone for hundreds of miles. It is no wonder (no pun intended) that it caught the attention of travelers who, upon returning to their communities, would tell amazing stories that mixed fantasy with reality.
People in the ancient world were eager to know what lay beyond the natural borders of the Peloponnese, and writers started to cater to that audience by compiling some of the best stories. Eventually, they began making lists where they would rank the most important “Wonders” of the known world. The most popular of these lists contained seven such wonders: The Colossus of Rhodes, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Temple of Artemis, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Hanging Gardens at Babylon, and two Wonders seen in the land of Egypt, the Lighthouse of Alexandria and the Great Pyramid. Different lists were created at the time, but there was ample consensus that the Great Pyramid of Giza qualified as one of the most breathtaking achievements of civilization at the time.
The Hellenistic Period
The Hellenistic Period was a period of enormous cultural development that lasted from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE to the Roman conquest of Egypt in 31 BCE. During this time, Greek culture spread throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond. Not only was it a time of incredible intellectual and artistic achievement, it saw the development of new schools of philosophy, mathematics, and science.
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The Hellenistic Period was also a time of great political and military change. Although Alexander of Macedon’s reign lasted a mere 13 years (he died in Babylon at the age of 33), his unstoppable armies had conquered every piece of land they found from the Peloponnese to the Indus River. So big an empire was naturally hard to rule, especially without the guidance of the hero Alexander, so his empire was divided into a number of smaller kingdoms, each ruled by one of Alexander’s generals. These kingdoms were constantly at war with each other, making the Hellenistic Period a time of great instability. One of Alexander’s greatest conquests was that of Egypt, snatched out of the hands of the mighty Persian Empire of Artaxerxes III. Upon Alexander’s death, this part of the empire was assigned to his faithful general, Ptolemy I Soter. His rule sparked a period characterized by a return to some Egyptian customs, and also an improvement in the local quality of life, fueled by commerce between other provinces of the Hellenistic empire.
Enormous wealth brought to Greece by Alexander the Great’s conquest, advancements in nautical technology, and the fact that one could find Greek-speaking people (as well as towns named “Alexandria”) almost anywhere made mobility during the Hellenistic Period easier. Thus, a new breed of explorers came to be: the Hellenistic traveler. The first of them set out to travel the known world out of interest in the stories some scholars who had traveled with Alexander brought back. Tales of endless deserts, impenetrable jungles, exotic peoples and animals, and wonderful monuments built in golden cities sparked the interest of many thrill-seeking Grecians, who embarked on long journeys and, more important to our story, wrote colorful accounts of them.
One such traveler was Philo of Byzantium (ca. 280 BCE – 220 BCE), also known as Philo Mechanicus for his work on mechanical engineering which included the invention of the first water mill in history and the automatic crossbow. He was also interested in the development of automata, machines that operated on their own without the need of a human operator. For his research he traveled far and wide, and ultimately established himself in the Egyptian city of Alexandria.
Philo and others like him captivated Antipater of Sidon, a poet born in Phoenicia in the 2nd century BCE. It is still unclear whether he saw all the monuments he described in his epigrams, but his beautiful descriptions of what he called the “Wonders” were incredibly influential. His most famous epigram reads as follows:
“When I behold the works of man, the pyramids, the walls of Tyre, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the hanging gardens of Babylon, I am filled with wonder. But when I behold the works of nature, the sun, the moon, and the stars, I am filled with awe.”
One of the world’s greatest Egyptologists, Erik Hornung (1933-2022), noticed a general interest in all things Egyptian that has been sustained throughout history. Not only had the Greeks marveled at the pyramids of Egypt but many peoples and cultures have shown a deep fascination with Egyptian history and art. Hornung called this Egyptosophy, explaining that it is somewhere between esotericism and true scientific interest. The fact is that, as Hornung has shown, most cultures who have had some kind of contact with Egypt were captivated by its exotic beauty and created their own image of Egypt based partly on real-life experience and knowledge but mostly on imagination.
Greek readers from the Hellenistic Period were particularly eager to learn about the monuments of Egypt, especially since they were catalogued as Wonders of the World. Around that time, a Ptolemaic priest known as Manetho wrote an account of the history of Egypt which was highly popular. But the main source for the Greeks’ knowledge about Egypt came from Book 2 of Herodotus’ Histories, where he described at length how he thought the pyramids were erected. This was also the work that popularised the now debunked belief that the Great Pyramid’s builder, King Khufu, was a cold-blooded tyrant.
The Mysterious Pyramids
Now, try to imagine what it would have meant for a Greek man or woman in the 3rd century BCE to stand next to the pyramids towering over the desert in the Giza plateau. They had to go by their imposing yet unassuming outer appearance, with no way of knowing what was inside. They knew, thanks to Herodotus and other chroniclers of the time, that they were huge tombs for pharaohs who died thousands of years prior. Although Herodotus claimed that his informants told him the pyramids had been built by giants, he did not believe this story, and neither did his readers.
The pyramids, and in particular the Great Pyramid of Khufu, were considered a testament to the greatness of the Egyptian people. They amazed people in the past and made them wonder what secrets and mysteries they were guarding. It was only in the early 9th century CE that al-Ma’mun, the 7th Caliph of the Abbasid Empire, became the first person to ever enter the Great Pyramid after it had been sealed off around 2570 BCE. They had remained an enormous mystery for millennia before that, and one that sparked countless stories and theories.
The Great Pyramid of Giza and Classical Antiquity
Ever since Herodotus wrote about what he saw and heard in Egypt (he had visited the country when it was under Persian rule, in the middle of the 5th century BCE), the land of the Nile became synonymous with exoticism and wisdom. Practically every important philosopher and politician was said to have been to Egypt, where they received arcane knowledge on a number of things that were kept secret from the rest of mortals.
One of the Seven Wise Men of Greece, Solon of Athens, was such a figure, although now we know he probably did not travel to Egypt. More plausible is the supposed visit of Plato to Egypt, which may have happened in 393 BCE. The lively accounts of the land of the Nile found in his dialogues certainly attest to it. Other visitors mentioned by Plutarch are Thales, Eudoxus, Pythagoras, and Lycurgus. However, we may never know which of these men actually went to Egypt. Furthermore, there is no indication that they ever saw the pyramids themselves.
The first credible, detailed account of the Great Pyramid of Giza is that of Strabo, who lived in the 1st century BCE. He was the greatest geographer of the ancient world, and in describing the land and monuments of Egypt, he accurately reported the shape, measurements, and materials that made the Great Pyramid. The only misconception derived from his work is that they were built by slaves, which is untrue. The pyramids were built by skilled free workers.
A generation later, Pliny the Elder published 37 volumes of his Natural History, in which he deals with the Great Pyramid as well. Here he points out that it is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the World that is still standing, which is not entirely true. The Lighthouse of Alexandria has been heavily damaged by earthquakes in the past and was abandoned at that time, but there are accounts of people visiting its ruins as late as the 1400s CE. He too thought the pyramid had been built by slaves, and he gives an estimate of how many people and how much time it took to build it: 20,000 slaves and 20 years. Finally, Pliny goes as far as to explain that inside the Great Pyramid, there was a network of chambers and passages, although he had never been inside it. All in all, these reports and stories were responsible for keeping the memory of the last standing Wonder of the World alive in the Western World, and their influence is felt to this day.