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The Great Pyramid of Giza is one of the world’s famous seven wonders. It’s a real miracle that more than 4,000 years after it saw the light of day, it still stands in the sands of Egypt. This architectural masterpiece was constructed around 2560 BCE on the Giza Plateau. That’s in the suburbs of modern-day Cairo. It was the first of three pyramids that were built in the area which made up the so-called necropolis of ancient pharaohs.
The Great Pyramid was conceived as a tomb for Khufu whom you may probably know as Cheops. He was the second monarch of the fourth dynasty. It reigned in Egypt for a century during the period called the Old Kingdom. Before that, the locals had already been burying their royals in special vaults called mastabas. But it was only in the 27th century BCE when the concept of a pyramid with smooth and evenly tilted sides that we all know today was introduced. And Khufu was the one who happened to make the biggest one in the whole country.
Just look at its proportions: originally it rose about 480 feet above the ground, while the sides of its base were over 750 feet long. To be fair, today skyscrapers are so common that even the largest ones don’t seem to impress anybody. The pyramid of Khufu remained the tallest structure created by human hand in the whole world for more than 3,800 years!
And not only the size of it was striking. This giant monument was the result of literally enormous work which took around 20 years. It was comprised of about 2.3 million blocks of stone, and each of them had an average heft of over 2 tons.
In fact, those slabs varied both in size and material. For instance, the key section, the king’s chamber was built with huge hunks of red granite. And I mean huge because some of them were weighing up to 80 tons. They were so heavy so that they could withstand the pressure of the upper compartments. As for the room itself, that’s where the pharaoh Khufu’s sarcophagus was located, which by the way was also made of this remarkably solid rock.
But the main stuff used during the construction was different types of limestone. The exterior covering that you can see these days was built up from dark limestone. It looked rusty brown and was considered to be of lower quality. Besides, the bricks picked for this layer were rugged and pretty irregular in shape. There’s no way the burial place of any self-respecting sovereign could look like that. These long rows of craggy slabs that resemble stepped pyramids rather than the usual ones were actually the inner coating or the core. Perhaps we weren’t even supposed to see it. I know it’s hard to believe, but in ancient times the crypt was mesmerizingly white.
In fact, it was lined with sparkling white limestone. That’s what initially formed the outer layer of the pyramid. These so-called casing stones were cut with precision so that the structure had a flat and slanted surface. Every one of them had to be inclined at an angle of about 52 degrees. They were also polished up to give it extra smoothness. I can only imagine how it shimmered in the sunlight or under the moon. This way the shrine could be seen from miles away. But what could have happened to it? Well, in 1303 CE a major earthquake hit Crete. The tremors reached territories far from the Greek island, including modern Turkey, Cyprus, and Egypt. The shocks were so strong they severely damaged another wonder of the world, the lighthouse of Alexandria. Cairo was affected as well, and the Great Pyramid met a similar fate.
Fortunately, it didn’t break down completely. But many of the casing blocks caved in and ended up on the ground below. Half a century later sultan an-Nasir Hasan who was running the country at the time took the stones to Cairo. There they were used to build new forts and temples, apparently including the famous Mosque-Madrasa of Sultan Hassan. So if you’ve ever been to that city, it’s possible that you’ve seen bits of the Pyramid of Khufu without even knowing it. For hundreds of years, the ancient monument was wearing away in the wind and the sun. In the 19th century, the remaining pieces of limestone that once covered it were seized once again. This time it was then-monarch Muhammad Ali Pasha who commissioned the construction of the Alabaster Mosque in Cairo. In a way, it was a pretty symbolic thing too because just like the gem in Giza, this mosque among other things acted as a tomb for the ruler of Egypt. So it was kinda like a pyramid of its time. As for the Khufu’s mausoleum, it’s hard to imagine how many different eras and kings it’s seen in its time. Many adventurers who explored the site later stumbled upon the big stacks of strange debris at the foot of the pyramid. Surprisingly, that was the rocks of the original casing that managed to survive all the troubles and stayed in Giza. Though the spot was thoroughly cleaned out during the excavations, you can still find a few fragments of those stones near the memorial’s base.
Clearly, that rock must have been quite a catch since it was so popular with the local rulers for so long. Actually one of the mysteries of the Great pyramid was the way the precious materials got to Giza in the first place. You see, the dark, yellowish limestone for the internal structures was mined right there at the plateau, just hundreds of meters to the south of the monument itself. But the fine white stones that were really valued came from far away. They were mined at Tura which was located on the opposite bank of the Nile, about 8 miles from the necropolis. And remember the granite used for the king’s chamber? It was brought from an even farther quarry in Aswan. That’s over 500 miles away. So how were the ancient Egyptians able to transport such bulky freights across such lengthy distances? Especially considering that they didn’t have modern planes or trains or even proper wheel vehicles. Of course, there were many theories about that. It’s likely the workers used to put the stones on the wooden sleds to move them closer to the construction site. Scientists from the University of Amsterdam found out that to drag the sledge over the sand, they poured some water in front of it. The wet grit is much harder than the dry, which greatly lessens friction and allows to cut down the needed pulling force in half. But before they needed to haul the cargo they shipped it across the Nile by boats. Today the river runs a couple of miles from Giza. American archaeologist Mark Lehner discovered that thanks to one curious technique the ancient barges could approach the pyramids far easier than now.
The Egyptians probably changed the landscape of that place by digging canals that connected the Nile with the plateau. He also found the remains of an age-old port near the necropolis. There’s some evidence that sailors could stop there to drop off the load, while laborers who built the pyramids could live there. The excavation of this harbor had also confirmed the idea that the people who worked on the pyramid’s construction were, despite the popular belief, skilled and well-paid employees. They enjoyed a good diet with regular portions of beef and received decent health care. This wouldn’t be the case if the workforce consisted of servants who were just forced to do it. Whatever the case, the Egyptians sure spared no effort or expense to pay tribute to their ruler. Approximately 8,000 tons of granite and 5.5 million tons of limestone were put to use. No wonder that the total weight of the whole edifice was about 6 million tons. Let alone 500,000 tons of mortar which filled the space between the stones firmly holding them together. This unique compound is yet another pyramid’s mystery. Though it was most likely made of the gypsum mineral, researchers have still not been able to fully recreate it. But one thing is certain: it’s as tough as the blocks and it continues to fulfill its task thousands of years later.
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