This blog is Part One of a series: Engineering the Egyptian Pyramids. Tune in for a look into the impressive engineering behind the Egyptian pyramids and the modern tech we’re using to uncover their mysteries.
It’s a question that’s haunted humans for thousands of years: Who built the Egyptian pyramids, and how did they do it?
The Egyptian pyramids are old. Like, really old. One of the most famous pyramids, The Great Pyramid of Giza, is over 4,000 years old. To put that in perspective: In the second century B.C., the ancient Greeks put the Great Pyramid of Giza on their list of the Seven Wonders of the World, at which point it was already around 2,000 years old…and it’s not even the oldest pyramid.
Egypt certainly isn’t the only civilization to build pyramids. You can still find ruins of them all over the world, from Mexico, to Peru, to Sudan, and even Italy and China. Many of these structures served religious purposes or honored emperors and other leaders.
Why Did the Ancient Egyptians Build Pyramids?
Ever heard the phrase, “You can’t take it with you when you’re gone”? Not in ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife and thought that our bodies and earthly possessions came with us to the other side. If we wanted to bring our bodies and possessions into the afterlife, we had to preserve and protect them after we died.
They originally buried the dead underground like we do today, and the wealthy had mudbrick houses — called mastabas — over their burial sites to keep thieves away from their bodies and expensive possessions.
Later, the pharaoh Djoser figured out that he could stack mastabas on top of each other for more protection and glory. But there was a problem: as the vertical walls of his giant mastaba became taller, they became less stable. To create more stability, Djoser’s clever architect stacked bricks in an incline, AKA the first official pyramid, AKA the Step Pyramid. The pyramid shape was more stable, but also more efficient because it required the least amount of materials.
Did Slaves Build the Pyramids?
Pharaohs also didn’t need to do much convincing to recruit help. Since the Ancient Egyptians believed that pharaohs in the afterlife would protect everyone still on Earth and ensure their entrance into the next world, every worker had plenty of motivation. Pyramid-building was a community effort.
The First Pyramids
Popular movies like to show us near-perfect pyramids like the Great Pyramid of Giza, but they leave out how the Egyptians got there. Just as we didn’t go right from the rotary phone to the iPhone, the Egyptians didn’t go right from mastabas to the Great Pyramid. It took years of trial and error to reach the more recognizable pyramids we see on TV.
After Djoser’s team built the Step Pyramid, the pharaoh Sneferu ordered the construction of his own pyramid, which took a few costly tries.
It started with the Meidum Pyramid (named after its location). At some point during construction, Sneferu abandoned this first attempt, but experts aren’t sure why. Some say the structure collapsed, while others believe he simply wanted a different design that required starting from scratch—either way, on to pyramid two.
If you’ve ever tried building a sandcastle on the beach, you’ve felt Sneferu’s pain. Sand isn’t a stable foundation for small sandcastles, let alone giant stone pyramids, and Sneferu’s builders didn’t take the time to lay the blocks carefully. When the pyramid became too steep about halfway through, they changed their slope, and voilà! The Bent Pyramid.
Still not good enough for Sneferu. Start over.
This time, the builders knew that they needed a stable foundation and more precision. They set the stones in horizontal rows and cut the edges more precisely. The Red Pyramid, as it was later known, set a momentous milestone for pyramid-building, and it opened the door for Sneferu’s son Khufu to build his own pyramid with incredible perfection.
The Great Pyramid of Giza
Khufu’s pyramid, the Great Pyramid of Giza, is perhaps the most well-known pyramid, and it certainly deserves this infamy. Learning from the mistakes of his ancestors, Khufu built an architectural masterpiece. Initially 481 feet tall, it was the tallest structure in the world until the Lincoln Cathedral in 1311, which collapsed and made the pyramid the tallest again until the Eiffel Tower in 1889. It’s the last of the Seven Ancient Wonders still standing, and its precision and accuracy still stun archaeologists today. How did a civilization without modern technology or even wheels build a structure taller than the Statue of Liberty, and how did they do it so well?
Did Aliens Build the Pyramids?
Since the Great Pyramid of Giza is so old yet still massive and shockingly precise, it’s easy to assume that more advanced life forms must be responsible. No ancient civilization could complete such an endeavor without advanced tech, right?
Although ancient Egyptians lacked the technology, they had the brain power. Modern archaeologists and other experts have found evidence at pyramid sites that explains how ancient Egyptians built pyramids like the Great Pyramid of Giza. They didn’t need aliens—just science.
Check out Part Two to learn more: Engineering the Egyptian Pyramids: Engineering the Great Pyramid of Giza.
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