Khufu's Great Pyramid
Workers finish one of the smaller pyramids at the Great Pyramid complex at
It's 756 feet long on each
side, 450 high and is composed of 2,300,000 blocks of stone, each
averaging 2 1/2 tons in weight. Despite the makers' limited surveying
tools no side is more than 8 inches different in length than another, and
the whole structure is perfectly oriented to the points of the compass.
Until the 19th century it was the tallest building in the world and, at
the age of 4,500 years, it is the only one of the famous Seven Wonders of
the Ancient World that still stands. It is the Great Pyramid of Khufu, at
Some of the earliest history of the Pyramid comes from a Greek traveler
named Herodotus of Halicanassus. He visited Egypt around 450 BC and
included a description of the Great Pyramid in a history book he wrote.
Herodotus was told by his Egyptian guides that it took twenty-years for a
force of 100,000 oppressed slaves to build the pyramid. Stones were lifted
into position by the use of immense machines. The purpose of the
structure, according to Herodotus's sources, was as a tomb for the Pharaoh
Khufu (whom the Greeks referred to as Cheops).
Most of what Herodotus tells us is probably false. Scientists calculate
that fewer men and less years were needed than Herodotus suggests. It also
seems unlikely that slaves or complicated machines were needed for the
pyramid construction. It isn't surprising that the Greek historian got it
wrong. By the time he visited the site the great pyramid was already 20
centuries old, and much of the truth about it was shrouded in the mists of
Certainly the idea that it was a tomb for a Pharaoh, though, seems in line
with Egyptian practices. For many centuries before and after the
construction of the Great Pyramid the Egyptians had interned their dead
Pharaoh-Kings, whom they believed to be living Gods, in intricate tombs.
Some were above ground structures, like the pyramid, others were cut in
the rock below mountains. All the dead leaders, though, were outfitted
with the many things it was believed they would need in the after-life to
come. Many were buried with untold treasures.
Even in ancient times thieves, breaking into the sacred burial places,
were a major problem and Egyptian architects became adept at designing
passageways that could be plugged with impassable granite blocks, creating
secret, hidden rooms and making decoy chambers. No matter how clever the
designers became, though, robbers seemed to be smarter and with almost no
exceptions each of the great tombs of the Egyptian Kings were plundered.
In 820 A.D. the Arab Caliph Abdullah Al Manum decided to search for the
treasure of Khufu. He gathered a gang of workmen and, unable to find the
location of a reputed secret door, started burrowing into the side of the
monument. After a hundred feet of hard going they were about to give up
when they heard a heavy thud echo through the interior of the pyramid.
Digging in the direction of the sound they soon came upon a passageway
that descended into the heart of the structure. On the floor lay a large
block that had fallen from the ceiling, apparently causing the noise they
had heard. Back at the beginning of the corridor they found the secret
hinged door to the outside they had missed.
Working their way down the passage they soon found themselves deep in the
natural stone below the pyramid. The corridor stopped descending and went
horizontal for about 50 feet, then ended in a blank wall. A pit extended
downward from there for about 30 feet, but it was empty.
When the workmen examined the fallen block they noticed a large granite
plug above it. Cutting through the softer stone around it they found
another passageway that extended up into the heart of the pyramid. As they
followed this corridor upward they found several more granite blocks
closing off the tunnel. In each case they cut around them by burrowing
through the softer limestone of the walls. Finally they found themselves
in a low, horizontal passage that lead to a small, square, empty room.
This became known as the "Queen's Chamber," though it seems unlikely that
it ever served that function.
Back at the junction of the ascending and descending passageways, the
workers noticed an open space in the ceiling. Climbing up they found
themselves in a high-roofed, ascending passageway. This became known as
the "Grand Gallery." At the top of the gallery was a low horizontal
passage that led to a large room, some 34 feet long, 17 feet wide, and 19
feet high, the "King's Chamber." In the centre was a huge granite
sarcophagus without a lid: otherwise the room was completely empty.
The pyramids at Giza. The far pyramid is the "Great Pyramid." The middle
one looks larger, but only because it is built on higher ground.
The Arabs, as if in revenge for the
missing treasure, stripped the pyramid of it's fine white limestone casing
and used it for building in Cairo. They even attempted to disassemble the
great pyramid itself, but after removing the top 30 feet of stone, they
gave up on this impossible task.
So what happened to the treasure of King
Khufu? Conventional wisdom says that, like so many other royal tombs, the
pyramid was the victim of robbers in ancient times. If we believe the
accounts of Manum's men, though, the granite plugs that blocked the
passageways were still in place when they entered the tomb. How did the
thieves get in and out?
In 1638 a English mathematician, John
Greaves, visited the pyramid. He discovered a narrow shaft, hidden in the
wall, that connected the Grand Gallery with the descending passage. Both
ends were tightly sealed and the bottom was blocked with debris. Some
archaeologists suggested this route was used by the last of the Pharaoh's
men to exit the tomb, after the granite plugs had been put in place, and
by the thieves to get inside. Given the small size of the passageway and
the amount of debris it seems unlikely that the massive amount of
treasure, including the huge missing sarcophagus lid, could have been
removed this way.
Some have suggested that the pyramid was
never meant as a tomb, but as an astronomical observatory. The Roman
author Proclus, in fact, states that before the pyramid was completed it
did serve in this function. We can't put two much weight on Proclus words,
though, remembering that when he advanced his theory the pyramid was
already over 2000 years old.
Richard Proctor, an astronomer, did
observe that the descending passage could have been used to observe the
transits of certain stars. He also suggested that the grand gallery, when
open at the top, during construction, could have been used for mapping the
Many strange, and some silly, theories
have arisen over the years to explain the pyramid and it's passageways.
Most archaeologists, though, accept the theory that the great pyramid was
just the largest of a tradition of tombs used for the Pharaohs of Egypt.
So what happened to Khufu's mummy and
treasure? Nobody knows. Extensive explorations have found no other
chambers or passageways. Still one must wonder if, perhaps in this one
case, the King and his architects out smarted both the ancient thieves and
modern archaeologists and that somewhere in, or below, the last wonder of
the ancient world, rests Khufu and his sacred gold.
A cross-section of the Great Pyramid
showing the passageways.