For many years, the Sound and Light Show at Giza opened with, “You have come tonight to the most fabulous and celebrated place in the world. Here on the Plateau of Giza stands forever the mightiest of human achievements. No traveler, emperor, merchant or poet has trodden on these sands and not gasped in awe”.
Though there are many outstanding ancient monuments in Egypt that survive to this day, one in particular is best known and the most closely associated by the general public with ancient Egypt. It is, of course, the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), the largest in Egypt, located on the Giza Plateau just outside Cairo. Its name was “Khufu’s Horizon” In fact, even if people have very little knowledge of Egypt, they will frequently not only know of this monument, but will also have any number of opinions about how and when it was built, as well as its function. Arguably, it is the best known manmade structure in the world, and for good reason.
Of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Khufu’s Pyramid is the first, and only survivor. It is indeed impressive, originally standing some 146.59 (481 feet) high and covering about thirteen acres of land , though in the last hundred or so years, modern marvels (the Empire State Building, built in 1930, is over three times as tall though situated on only two acres of land) probably make it seem less impressive to visitors than to those who, for thousands of years, came to visit the pyramid prior to our modern era. In reality, modern scholars for the most part probably find this pyramid less interesting than many other ancient structures in Egypt, mostly because it is not decorated with reliefs and inscriptions (though parts of its subsidiary structures were), and is otherwise, except for some parts of its internal structure, a fairly typical pyramid complex. Other pyramids are almost as large, and many pyramids are really more enigmatic. Khufu’s pyramid was not the first, nor was it even the first true pyramid. Other pharaohs, such as Sneferu, Khufu’s father, had moved probably as much stone, building three different pyramids himself.
Yet, Khufu’s pyramid was, in a line of astonishing architectural leaps forward, a significant link in Pyramid building’s evolution. In terms of its size, the technical accomplishments of its construction, the great concern for cardinality and the organization required for its construction, this pyramid represents a phenomenal effort. Like later pyramids, it encompasses all of the standard elements of the pyramid complex, though most have since disappeared. The finished pyramid, which included a superstructure and substructure, was surrounded by an enclosure wall of fine Turah limestone, which enclosed a court paved in limestone. There was a valley temple, a causeway from it leading to a mortuary Temple that was itself situated against the pyramid. There was also a cult pyramid, as well as three pyramids for the burial of queens, a number of boat pit and other structures.
Though we really do not know with absolute certainty, the pyramid complex of Khufu probably remained mostly intact for almost 4,000 years. During that period of time, most visitors to it must have been amazed by its enormity, and probably by the ancient Egyptian’s reverence toward the structure. In the end, the deterioration of this pyramid, like its conception, can be attributed at least partially to religion. It was created to bury the king in a complex that would conform to the ancient Egyptian religion. It probably survived in relatively good shape until that religion was replaced by another, and then another. By the time the Arabs invaded Egypt during the seventh century, there was little or no religious reverence afforded the structure, so casing stones and other building material from the complex were reused for new building projects in the area of Cairo. This process was not exclusive to Khufu’s pyramid and in fact, the reuse of material from older structures was not even uncommon during the age of the pharaohs. However, even this did not happen to the Great Pyramids until, in the Middle Ages, a series of earthquakes loosened the casing stones and allowed them to be harvested for other projects.
Most people with a limited knowledge of Egypt believe that the Great Pyramids of Giza lie out in the desert, and are therefore rather surprised when, traveling down Pyramid road to the east, they see them rise up, seemingly among the distant buildings. They in fact sit on the city limits of Greater Cairo, and are threatened by man’s expansion, though scholars are very aware of this today, and work to prevent damage to the structure. For awhile, mankind treated the Great Pyramid with more curiosity than reverence. It was tunneled through, climbed, and generally abused, right up to our modern era. In her book, The Mena House Oberoi, Nina Nelson tells us that, “Climbing Cheop’s Great Pyramid continues all and every day. … It is a labourious task yet everyone who does it enjoys it. The blocks of stone measure from two to five feet high and certainly one3 should have a guide to help pull one along the difficult places.” At one time, various people even attempted to set records for scaling the monument.
During World War II, there were even gun emplacements built on its apex. The Egyptological community, and particularly Zahi Hawass can be credited for bringing that to a halt. No longer are people allowed to climb it, unless very special permission is granted, and its investigation today is always non-intrusive. Planes are not allowed to fly above it and in general, it receives the national protection it deserves. Nevertheless, it has been and continues to be a place of considerable activity. Races were often held at the pyramids, and in recent years, it has served as a backdrop for artistic displays and musical performances. With Zahi Hawass as Chairman of the SCA, it is doubtful that we will see many more performances by artists such as Sting and the Grateful Dead, but it remains the primary venue for Verdi’s Aida opera.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Khufu’s pyramid complex is the amazing amount of investigation it has received, and the astonishing degree of controversy that it has inspired. The research of the complex continues even today, and new discoveries, sometimes major ones, have been made even in recent years. For example, only very recently, the estimated number of blocks used to build the pyramid itself has been cut almost in half, while as I write this article, a new robot is being prepared to further investigate the pyramid’s internal structure. The history of man’s thoughts about this structure is by far more complex, and often more interesting than the pyramid itself. Even in recent years, speculation that the pyramid was constructed by aliens or perhaps Atlantians continues. Countless books have been written about this Pyramid, many scholarly, but others not.
Take, for example, the matter of the metric system. Used by most countries as the official standard of measure, and by the scientific community worldwide, there has been a reluctance on the part of Americans and the British to incorporate the system. Much of this may be a reluctance on the part of their respective populations to change from the system familiar to them. However, the Great Pyramid of Khufu certainly played a part in all of this. John Taylor was an eccentric British publisher who, in 1859, produced a work entitled The Great Pyramid: Why Was it Built? And Who Built It? Borrowing from the work of Tompkins, he thought that the Pyramid was actually built by Noah of biblical fame. He thought that the Great Pyramid’s dimensions were very purposeful, which they probably were, but he saw in them relationships to many physical measurements, such as the number of days in the year and the radius of the earth. Part of his calculations involved a unit of measure he called the Pyramid Inch which he believed the Egyptians used in building the pyramid, which only differed from the British inch very slightly. He is essentially credited with being one of the founders of modern Pyramidology, but his ideas would probably not have caught on were it not for the work of Professor C. Piazzi Smyth, a British Israelite and the Astronomer-Royal of Scotland. Smyth built on Taylor’s ideas. Though Taylor had not traveled to Egypt, Smyth did, and set about measuring every minute detail of Khufu’s monument.
Smyth attempted to connect the measurements he made of the pyramid to many different natural aspects of the world and our universe, to the point were even many of his contemporaries thought him ludicrous. A Christian man, Smyth nevertheless though that the number relationships he derived from the pyramid were a record of “perfect” standards of measurement that God intended man to use. In reality, many of Smyth’s calculations seem artificial and arbitrary to us today. Smyth was hardly a dispassionate, objective scientist when dealing with the pyramid. His writings shows that he certainly had a deep emotional commitment to demonstrating “scientifically” that the Christian religion is true, and that he saw his work with the pyramid as a means by which he could do so.
In his work, he pointed out that the meter was devised by man, whereas he believed the Pyramid Inch, and thus the British Inch, were a measurement provided by god. And while scientists seem to have in general rejected the work of Taylor and Smyth, a number of Christian religious leaders accepted their theories and made them an article of faith, particularly in England and the US, but also even in France. Many of Smyth’s contemporaries and disciples were as hostile to the metric system as was he. With some amusement Martin Gardner recounts the fact that in the United States the pyramidologist Ohio Auxiliary Society, of which President James A. Garfield was a supporter, published a journal entitled The International Standard to defend the “true inch” and other measurements against the metric system. Thus, the Great Pyramid of Khufu became a star in the arsenal of 19th century Christianity, and at least for a time, helped arrest the expansion of the metric system of measurement. But perhaps more importantly, Taylor and Smyth helped create a mystic association with the Pyramid Khufu that spawned imaginative ideas that continue to this day. When one visits the Pyramid of Khufu, one is actually walking in the footsteps of the famous, both of the modern and ancient world. Alexandria the Great stood before it, just as modern visitors, and swore to build for his father, the Macedonian king Philip II, a funerary monument as large as the Great Pyramid, though death took him before he was able to do so. Herodotus, Strabo and Pliny certainly all made visits to the pyramid. Doubtless, every famous traveler in antiquity must have visited Khufu’s complex. Many later individuals came to see this wonder of the ancient world, and they continue to come today. For years, it was popular for them to climb the pyramid, though this is no longer allowed, but atop it one can see the names etched in stone of those who did.
Though most of the early visitors to the Great Pyramid were non-intrusive, by the time of the Arab Invasion of Egypt, the ancient Egyptian religion was gone and so too was apparently the Egyptian’s understanding of the monument. Fables arose of fabulous treasures and immense knowledge contained within the structure, long before Taylor and Smyth’s work. Finally, Caliph al-Ma’moun (831-832 AD) is believed to have acted upon this information. Though the pyramid, or at least the substructure had been breached by unknown robbers during antiquity, al-Ma’moun was apparently the first known individual to do so. After having at least looked for the original entrance, but unable to find it, al-Ma’moun instructed his men to tunnel into the pyramid from a point at the center of its north face, seven courses up. Apparently, the pyramid still held at least some of its casing stones, for they had to light fires to heat the blocks before cooling them rapidly with vinegar to induce fractures. Once past the outer core, they dug for about 100 feet, finding nothing in the process. However, one of the workmen heard a muffled thud of something heavy falling within the pyramid, not too far away, and they altered course and eventually broke through into what is now known as the “Descending Passage”. While al-Ma’moun’s men explored a considerable part of the pyramid’s interior structure, they apparently found nothing except an empty coffin, though rumors, legends and fables, also grew from their exploration.
Even though al-Ma’moun apparently found no riches or hidden knowledge within the Great Pyramid, it continued to retain its mysterious, hidden meaning for most travelers. All of the European scientific travelers and pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land seem to have visited it. They are too numerous to mention here. However, the first attempt at an Egyptological study, it seems, was conducted by John Greaves, and English scholar from whom Tomkins would later draw some of more fanciful ideas. he climbed to the top, measured the pyramid’s blocks and also made his way inside the pyramid. His sectional drawing of the structure is remarkably accurate for its time.
However, only at the turn of the nineteenth century did true archaeological work begin using scientific methods. Nathaniel Davison discovered a lower relieve chamber as well as a tunnel connecting it with the Great Gallery during the 1760s. The scholars with Napoleon’s expedition also measured and described the Great Pyramid again, and made exploratory soundings in and around it. Early in the nineteenth century, Giovanni Battista Caviglia cleaned out many spaces inside the pyramid and in 1937, both Vyse and Perring investigated the structure. Their books, Operations Carried Out on the Pyramids of Gizeh in 1837 (3 vols.) and The Pyramids of Gizeh (3 vols.), respectively, are still valuable sources. Between 1843 and 1844, Lepsius focused his attention primarily on the structure of the Great Pyramid, expressing his view that the core consisted of inclined accretion layers. For the birthday of the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the archaeologists honored their prince and patron by scaling the pyramid and flying a flat from its top. Petrie, who carefully examined the Pyramid between 1881 and 1882 did not agree with Lepsius’ accretion theory. Petrie, who seems to have always been more interested in his Egyptological studies than comfort, set up his headquarters in one of the nearby rock-cut tombs, and slept on a layer of sand, using a kerosene stove for cooking. The account of his investigations, The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh, remains even today one of the most important studies on the pyramids.
Borchardt also worked on the famous monument. He first concentrated on explaining the method originally used to measure and orient the ground plan, and on reconstructing the stages in which the pyramid was built. In 1954, The Egyptian archaeologists Kamal Mallakh and Zaki Iskander and their colleagues discovered on the south side of the Great Pyramid, two pits that contained intact burial boats. Later, in the second half of the 1980s, the French architects, Jean-Ptrice Dormion and Gilles Goidin made precise geophysical measurements of its inner core, which was later confirmed by a Japanese team.
Finally, Zahi Hawass, a longtime investigator at Giza and now the Chairman of the SCA (Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities), focused on the grounds of the presumed valley temple, the causeway and the mortuary temple. It was he who, not so long ago, discovered the cult pyramid as well as its pyramidion. Though he has now moved on to head Egypt’s antiquity community, work nevertheless continues. Today, the Pyramid of Khufu, though lacking its original luster, remains perhaps the most visited site in Egypt. It is said that “Man fears Time, yet Time fears the Pyramids” Hence, the Pyramid of Khufu, though not the oldest in Egypt, nevertheless has become a symbol of long lasting durability, and it is probably for this reason more than any other, that one can still find it pictured on the reverse of the US Dollar Bill.
Technical information: The Pyramid, Height 146.5m, Base 230.38m, Slope 51o 50′. Great Gallery, Height 8.48 to 8.74m, Length 47.85m, Slope: 26o 16′ 40″. Queens Chamber, Height 6.26m, Length 5.76m, Width 5.23m. King’s Chamber, Height: 5.84m, Length: 10.49m, Width: 5.42m. Causeway, Length: 825m. Boat Pits (On Northeast and Southeast Corners of Pyramid, Depth: 8m, Length 52m, Width: 7.5m.