What Was the Great Pyramid of Giza Used For?

The Great Pyramid of Giza has fascinated historians for centuries, with many wondering what its original purpose would have been.

Jul 2, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

 

The Great Pyramid of Giza is the last remaining artefact in the seven wonders of the ancient world, a fascinating emblem of the ancient civilization that once ruled over Egypt. Along with the surrounding pyramids in the Giza complex, the Great Pyramid is remarkably well preserved, and has become a UNESCO World Heritage site which is under extensive protection. Built over 4,000 years ago, it is the largest pyramid in the world, and remained the tallest structure made by human hands for over 3,000 years, until the Eiffel Tower was constructed in Paris in 1889.

 

How, exactly, such a colossal structure was built has been a subject of fascination for centuries. The purpose of the Great Pyramid of Giza has also been a source of extensive study and research. Below we outline some of the most widely accepted purposes of the Great Pyramid that attracts millions of tourists every year. 

 

A Royal Tomb for King Khufu

statue king khufu great pyramid of giza
Statue of King Khufu, ca. 2580 BCE.

 

Historians believe the primary role of the Great Pyramid of Giza was to act as a tomb for the great Egyptian King Khufu. Egyptians believed that their pharaohs would go on to become gods in the afterlife, but in order to prepare for a safe transition into the next world, they had to have the right burial chamber. King Khufu spent 27 years planning the construction of his pyramid with his cousin and vizier, the architect Hemiunu.

 

In its day it was the most impressive structure in the world, unlike anything anyone had seen, and its sheer scale and ingenuity seemed to represent the almighty power of the man who once ruled over the ancient kingdom, although it was more likely a demonstration of his kingdom’s wealth, which waned in subsequent generations. When Khufu died, his sarcophagus was placed inside the king’s chamber, deep inside the pyramid, although his remains were never found. However, his pyramid was surrounded by several satellite pyramids built for his wife and family

 

A Treasure Trove?

pyramid-khufu-egypt-photo
Pyramid of Khufu in Giza, Egypt

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

 

Unusually, no treasures were uncovered inside the Great Pyramid of Giza when it was discovered during the late 18th and early 19th century, in contrast with the lavish, gold-filled tombs of later pharaohs such as Tutankhamun. There are several likely reasons for this. One is because historians believe the tomb had already been heavily looted over the centuries from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom onwards, leaving little of monetary value behind. Another reason is because the tombs of earlier pharaohs were far less indulgent affairs than those of later rulers, meaning the same kinds of treasures you might expect of an Egyptian tomb might never been there in the first place. 

 

A Temple to the Gods

zimmermann-giza-pyramids
The Pyramids of Giza, August Albert Zimmermann, 19th century, Bradford Museums and Galleries

 

The Pyramid of Giza, along with other Egyptian pyramids, have been the subject of speculation for centuries, with many pondering about why they were built in such a shape, and whether they had any purpose beyond being a burial site. Many historians believe pyramids were fundamental to Egyptian religious belief. Research suggests the pointed shape of the pyramid was made to resemble a mound of earth (what the Egyptians called a benben), from where they observed new life sprouting forth during the spring as it reached towards the sun. Much like a mound of earth, their pyramids pointed upwards towards the sky.

 

Originally made with gleaming white limestone, the pyramid would have glinted in the sunlight and shone with brilliant radiance at certain times of day, which researchers have argued was a tribute to the sun god Re, (also known as Ra), the giver of life. Experts have also observed how the pyramid’s four sides are built to align with the cardinal directions, which further emphasizes their dedication to the power of the sun.

Author Image

By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.