Engineering the Egyptian Pyramids: Who Built the Egyptian Pyramids and Why

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. 

Part Two: Engineering the Great Pyramid of Giza

Part Three: Planning the Great Pyramid of Giza

Part Four: How Modern Tech Is Revealing More About the Pyramids

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, to even Italy and China. Many of these structures served religious purposes, or they honored emperors and other leaders. The Egyptian pyramids did both.

Step Pyramid
The first official pyramid, also known as the Step Pyramid.

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 they believed that our body and earthly possessions came with us to the other side. This meant that we would need to preserve and protect our bodies and our belongings after we’ve 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 body and expensive possessions.

Later, the pharaoh Djoser figured out that he could stack mastabas on top of each other for more protection and more 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: it had the most stability with the least amount of materials.

Did Slaves Build the Pyramids?

These ambitious projects required labor, but not just any labor. Hollywood insists that slaves built the pyramids, but this is far from the truth. The pyramids required intricate designs and massive infrastructures, and pharaohs needed more than forced labor. It took skilled workers, and every worker had plenty of motivation. Ancient Egyptians believed that pharaohs in the afterlife would protect everyone still on Earth and ensure their entrance into the next world after death. Therefore, 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, and it 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, others say that 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 huge milestone for pyramid-building, and it opened the door for Sneferu’s son Khufu to bring his own pyramid to incredible perfection.

Sneferu's pyramids

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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Kelly Obbie

Social Media Coordinator at CADENAS PARTsolutions | A 2018 graduate of The Media School at Indiana University, Kelly studied journalism, public relations, English and Spanish and has experience in news writing and editing as well as social media writing and management. She also has professional and personal experience in videography and photography. She currently lives in Ohio but has lived in four states, and in her free time, she enjoys running, hiking, learning languages, and watching Disney movies.