Social Studies

The Great Pyramid at Giza

The Outside

When people talk about Egyptian pyramids the ones that spring to mind are the pyramids of Giza. Of these, the largest is the known as the Great Pyramid, or the Pyramid of Khufu. Who built it and why? What exactly did it look like?

Although there are pyramids found in other parts of the world, when someone says “pyramid” people usually think of the three Egyptian pyramids that are world famous. The Ancient Egyptians built many pyramids, but these three in Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, are the best preserved and the ones we know most about.

The largest of the three was built by King Khufu, otherwise known as King Cheops (pronounced as Key ops). He was called Cheops by the Greeks. His pyramid was the first one to be built at Giza and, being the largest, is known as the Great Pyramid. It was built in about 2,500 B.C. (about 4,500 years ago). It covers an area of 13 acres. Each side is 756 ft long (give or take an inch or two). It was originally 481 ft tall, but has been eroded by sand and wind, and now stands slightly shorter. That makes it about the same height as a forty-story building.

The pyramid was built as a tomb for the King (or Pharaoh as he was known then). He wanted to have a bigger and better tomb than any of his ancestors, so he asked the best architects in the land to design one for him. In those days, as soon as someone became a Pharaoh they started planning their funeral. It seems odd to us today, but for them the funeral was the most important part of their lives (or actually, to be more precise, their deaths!) King Khufu reigned for 23 years, and the pyramid was completed in his lifetime. No one is sure exactly how long it took to build, they are only sure that it took less than 23 years.

Designing the Pyramid

For years the Egyptians built their tombs underground, with a large flat building above them. They looked very much like a large bench. The Ancient Egyptians were very vain, and were always trying to out do everyone else. Someone decided that the bench tombs were plain and boring, so they started to build bigger and grander tombs. These tombs were the very first Egyptian pyramids. Instead of building an underground tomb with one bench on top, they put a series of benches on top, each one smaller than the previous one. It was called a step pyramid. The most famous one isn’t far from the Great Pyramid of Giza, in a place called Saqqara.

From the step pyramid came the true pyramid, like the ones at Giza, made by flattening the sides of the step pyramid, so that there was a gradual slope to the side, rather than the giant steps.

Building the Pyramid

Once a tomb had been designed the next step was to choose a site for it. It couldn’t be just anywhere, so the priests and important people would decide on an auspicious site (just a fancy way of saying lucky). Most of the Pharaoh’s tombs are built on the West side of the Nile, since the sun sets in the West. They believed that you traveled to a New World after you died, and since you traveled towards the darkness, if you started out where the sun set you wouldn’t have as far to go.

The first thing that needed to be done was to clear the sand away until they reached rock beneath the desert. Then the rock had to be flattened out so that the pyramid would be level. Next they marked the area that would be the base of the pyramid, with one side facing each of the main compass points (north, south east and west). This might all sound fairly simple so far, but you have to remember that everything was done by hand; no jackhammers or earthmovers were around in those days. The Ancient Egyptians didn’t have compasses either, but knew the direction by watching the sun and the stars.

Next they needed to get the stones. Some were cut from hills nearby and others were taken from the other side of the Nile. They also took granite and marble from Aswan, in the South of Egypt, to build a cover for the pyramid. Each stone was cut very precisely, and weighed between 21/2 and 5 tons. To build the pyramid they used 2,300,000 blocks of stone. If it took them the whole 23 years to build, that was 273 stones that they had to cut and move every day. If you look at the picture below, it will give you some idea of the size of the blocks.

The stones were transported to the site on wooden sledges on the land, and barges on the river. The river could only be used when it was flooded, which happened twice a year.

Once the stones reached the site they were smoothed to fit exactly with the surrounding ones. They didn’t use mortar or cement to build the pyramid; they just cut the stones so perfectly that they fitted onto each other. Even after all these years, they fit so perfectly together that it is impossible to slide a sheet of paper between most of them.

We really aren’t sure how the stones were lifted into place. There were no machines, and the Egyptians didn’t have pulleys. The most likely theory is that they built ramps up the side of the pyramid, and dragged the stones on sledges up the ramps. As the building got higher they made the ramps higher and longer. If they didn’t make them longer the slope would have been too steep to drag the stones up. Once the entire pyramid was built, the workmen covered it with marble, to give it a smooth and beautiful finish.

The Workmen

Some people think that slaves built the pyramids, but this probably isn’t true. The farmers didn’t have much to do, or to eat when the Nile was flooded. Since that is the time that they could transport the stones most easily, it is most likely the time when the pyramids were built. The best theory that historians have come up with is that King Khufu used the farmers, during the flood, and paid them with food. Since the farmers had to pay food to the King every year, as a form of tax, it really didn’t cost him anything.


The outside of the pyramid has changed over the years. It is no longer covered in marble. The Ancient Egyptians grew lazy over time, and when they built palaces and grand houses in Cairo, instead of sending to Aswan for their marble, they just took it off the pyramids. By then King Khufu had been dead a very long time, so no one thought he would mind much.

Now read about the inside of the pyramid.

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