THE BUILDING OF THE PYRAMIDS
From the reign of Djoser until the beginning if the New Kingdom, almost
every pharaoh of substance and authority was buried under a pyramid. The pyramid, introduced by Djoser, reached its most definitive form with the Great Pyramid of Cheops, at Giza. At the end of this long tradition the splendid visions of the earlier dynasties had shrunk to monuments of poorly built steep-sided mud brick, that were no larger that about forty feet square, but a thousand years before, pyramids had been measured in hundreds of feet, their masonry in millions of tons, The largest of all, the Great Pyramid on the plateau of Giza, near modern Cairo, is still the biggest stone building ever build by man and one of the most accurately constructed. It was built less than one hundred years after Djoser's craftsman had started their work on the Step Pyramid. Singularly, the kings of the Third Dynasty who followed Djoser to the throne have not left any finished monuments- though there might still be some to be found lying under the desert sands a Sakkara. It was at the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty, in the desert north of the older monuments, that pyramid building on a
quite unprecedented scale was started. These Fourth Dynasty monuments are the
finest of the pyramids,: seldom do they measure less than three hundred and fifty
feet along their sides, and most are double that. After this time there was an
immediate reduction in size and quality of construction that continued throughout
the rest of the Old Kingdom. During the Middle Kingdom however, the pyramids
once again reached the colossal measurements of their forerunners, but these
monuments were of carefully crafted mud-brick, cased with stone.
The Egyptians all believed that the body of the god-king had to be preserved
intact in order for him to reach immortality. The belief that fulfillment in the
afterlife depended on the preservation of the body was a belief which was shared by
all. Villagers buried the dead in the sand- which in a way helped preserve the
remains, they also buried them with food and drink, which was meant to feed the
deceased on the journey to the next world. But sustaining the body of the pharaoh
was a matter of special urgency. To shield their remains throughout eternity, the
pharaoh's of the First Dynasty build sturdy tombs known as mastaba's. They were
meant to last forever, they were made of sun-baked mud bricks, with a flat roof and
sloping sides. Over the years the mastabas grew larger and larger, reaching up to
seventy feet high and as many as seventy chambers.
With the reign of the Third Dynasty's King Djoser, the royal burial place
underwent an enormous transformation. Djoser commissioned at Saqqara the
world's first great stone structure- an eternal house that would reach for the
Lumber was scarce in Egypt, but stone was plentiful. The Aswan area,
yielded granite, basalt and quartz. The hills of Tura, on the east bank, across from
Saqqara, afforded a fine white limestone. Peasants were conscripted in droves to
work for the king, and soon they mastered the art of working the quarries and
transporting huge blocks over land on rollers or sleds, and along the Nile by barge.
In building his tomb, Djoser also had the aide of a man named Imhotep. Imhotep was
an incredibly ingenious man, the king's vizier, and an accomplished sculptor.
The tomb Imhotep designed for Djoser took the mastaba form to new heights.
He assembled hundreds of thousands of limestone blocks, building six mastabas in
diminishing size, one over each other. The result was what is known as the Step
Pyramid. When complete it stood two hundred and four feet high.
The most spectacular feild of pyramids must surely be the plateau of Giza.
There during the greater part of the Fourth Dynasty multitudes of masons' chipped
and chiseled away at the landscape to re-form it into the pyramids of three kings,
(Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure in order from largest to smallest) and into hundreds
of other monuments. The men who built Khufu's pyramid, hauling and positioning
an estimated 2.3 million limestone blocks, most of which weighing 2.5 tons, would
have had to set a block in place every two and a half minutes.(II) These mountainous
efforts must have taken virtually the entire energy of the nation which, according to
modern estimated was around 1.6 million people.(III)
The perfect pyramidal form was finally achieved by Cheops at Giza, where
the natural plateau offered a more stable base for construction than at Dashur.
Cheops' tomb was the most incredible and well built of all the pyramids, and hardly
a generation has passed without a new theory on how Cheops' pyramid was
constructed or on its use.(IV)
There is now, a broad agreement among scholars concerning the outline of
the techniques that were used to build the pyramids, through many details, mainly
the methods used for the initial survey and the subsequent geometric controls,
One old theory which has been proven incorrect after new research on the
ancient flood levels in the Nile Valley, was the idea that the stone used in the
pyramids was brought to Giza on barges that were able to cross the Nile Valley at
the time of the annual inundation. It now appears that the shallow depth of the
annual floods during the Old Kingdom could have not have allowed the passage of
blocks. It is more likely, that special canals were dug from the Nile's bank to the
bottom of the desert ridge and the stone barges came up these, specially constructed
waterways to the foot of the pyramid.
The Nile was an essential transportation system for the enormous tonnage's
of hard stone that were brought to the pyramids from the deserts and the cataracts
of Upper Egypt. Aswan granite was especially favored as a finishing stone, often
used to line the interior chambers and corridors of the pyramids and also for the
massive lintels that spread the huge loads of masonry above the burial chambers.
The fine white limestone used for the outer surfaces of many pyramids was brought
from the quarries of Tura on the eastern bank, opposite Giza. The bulk of the
limestone in the pyramids however, was taken from the surrounding plateau.(V)
On land, the huge stone blocks were handled by gangs using sledges, rollers,
ropes and rocking platforms that, with the use of wedges, could be used to raise the
blocks small distances. For the final ascent to their position in the pyramid, the
blocks were dragged by the gangs up ramps of mud brick which, when lubricated
with water, would have had a surface almost as slippery as ice. Traces of such ramps
are still in position by their pyramid, and other more complete examples have been
cleared from later temples where they were used in the same way.
When the Great Pyramid of Giza was complete, it stood an incredible four
hundred and eighty one feet high, with sides at an angle of fifty one degrees. The
maximum error in the four sides at the bases, the mean length of which is seven
hundred and fifty five point eight feet, is just eight inches.(VI) The right angles at
the corners are equally precise: the largest single error in them amounting to less
than one twentieth of a degree.
To visit the pyramids today, one must fly through time zones, see the beauty
the flight path, the lights of modern cities, all those strange evolving landscapes.
Beneath the tall shadows of the pyramids, in modern Cairo, people are watching TV,
playing with cards and computers, and talking to each other as people ever did. The
sacred Nile is checked and channeled to provide electricity and year-round
irrigation. Cairo is just a part of a vast complex of processes that link all the cities.
The pyramids are not merely the world's first grand stone structures, nor are
they the largest either: they remain the most accurately build stone structures ever