On this Expedition, you get a chance to get a little bit closer to these amazing ancient structures.
Pyramids at Giza
The great age of pyramid building in Egypt occurred during the Old Kingdom, more than 4,000 years ago.
During the 4th Dynasty of pharaohs (about 2575–2465 B.C.E.), the ancient Egyptians constructed pyramids at Giza, on the west bank of the Nile, as part of a large funerary district.
The 3 enormous pyramids were built as tombs for the pharaohs Khufu (or Cheops), Khafre (or Khufu), and Menkaure. The Great Pyramid is the largest pyramid built on earth.
Pyramid of Khafre
Khafre was the 4th king of the 4th Dynasty. His pyramid originally stood 471 feet (143 meters) high, scaling over the people below. Atop the peak is the remains of the smooth white limestone that originally encased all 3 pyramids.
Pyramid of Menkaure
Menkaure was the 5th king of the 4th Dynasty. His pyramid is the smallest of the 3, standing 218 feet (66 meters) when it was completed. The smaller pyramid you see alongside is the burial site of a queen.
Pyramid of Khufu
The Great Pyramid, built for Khufu, the 2nd king of the 4th Dynasty, is the oldest and largest of the 3 pyramids. It originally stood about 481 feet (147 meters) high and covers approximately 13 acres at its base.
Four small pyramids lie along the east side of the Great Pyramid. You might recognize only one as a pyramid; the others are in various stages of ruin. Like the small pyramid near Menkaure’s pyramid, these too were queens’ tombs.
The Great Sphinx
Just as iconic of Egypt as the pyramids is the Great Sphinx. The figure symbolizes the divinity of the Egyptian king. The royal head rises majestically to a height of 65 feet (20 meters) from the body of a lion with outstretched front limbs.
It’s likely that the face was carved to resemble Khafre. While it has eroded naturally, some say it was mutilated intentionally by either a Muslim sultan or by Napoleon’s soldiers shooting at it for target practice.
Long Causeway from Pyramid of Khafre
Each of the 3 pyramids has a funerary temple at its base, from where a long, processional raised road—a causeway—leads toward the Nile valley to a 2nd temple. The Great Sphinx sits at the end of the Great Pyramid’s causeway.
Mastabas are low rectangular stone structures with flat roofs, which are the tombs of nobles, high government officials, and priests. They usually included a tomb-chapel, and were stocked with foodstuffs, tools, and anything else required during the long afterlife.
Valley Temple of Khafre
This valley temple belonged to the pharaoh Khafre, and was buried in sand until the 1800s, which helped to preserve it. Next to it, at the feet of the Great Sphinx, are the ruins of the Temple of the Sphinx.
Between Father and Son
The pyramids of Khufu and Khafre are the burial places of father and son. Khufu reigned for about 24 years (2589–2566 B.C.E.), but little is known about him other than that he ordered the Great Pyramid to be built. His father, Sneferu, was also a pyramid builder.
View of the Pyramids of Khufu and Khafre and the Sphinx (4th Dynasty) by Alexandra WoodsMacquarie University
Khufu moved the royal burial place to Giza during his reign. Khafre ruled from about 2558 to 2532 B.C.E., succeeding an older brother who did not live long.
Pyramid of Khafre
Khafre’s pyramid is built on a higher spot than Khufu’s and may seem taller, but these pyramids are about equal in height. Two entrances lead to the king’s burial chamber. Grave robbers long ago stole any treasures that lay within.
Pyramid of Khufu
Built more than 4,500 years ago, the 4 sides of Khufu’s pyramid align nearly perfectly with the 4 cardinal directions. More than 2 million stone blocks, weighing 2.5 to 15 tons each, were piled in almost perfect order.
In his afterlife, Khufu would need a ship to carry him to the stars, and 7 pits at the base of his pyramid contained wooden ships. One ship was painstakingly restored, and is now at the Giza Solar Boat Museum.
Mastabas line the southern base of the Great Pyramid. Cemeteries lie to the east and west. Belief in an afterlife was a central tenet of Egyptian religion.
View from the Pyramid of Menkaure
Menkaure was the son of Khafre and the grandson of Khufu. The length of his reign is unknown. His pyramid is the southwest-most pyramid of the great 3 at Giza.
Looking northeast from above the pyramid of Menkaure, you can see the expanse of the Giza funerary district, the pyramids of Khafre and Khufu, and, beyond, the vast Cairo metropolitan area.
Temple and Causeway
The rectangular ruin at the base of the pyramid is Menkaure’s funerary temple. A causeway leads away from it to the east and his valley temple.
The 3 small pyramids at the base of Menkaure’s giant pyramid are queen’s tombs.
Building the Pyramids
Exactly how the ancient Egyptians cut and moved the giant blocks of rock weighing tons to build the pyramids at Giza is not entirely known. Archaeologists believe that limestone from local quarries was cut with copper chisels and then moved by ropes.
The pyramid builders used ramps to drag the blocks up into position and levers to lift and place them. Until recently, historians believed that slaves were forced to build the pyramids at Giza. Modern thinking is different.
It’s now believed the pyramids were constructed by Egyptian commoners, and that skilled laborers also helped. These low ruins were once barracks for more than a 1,000 workers. The ruins of bakeries that produced long loaves of bread are nearby.
When the pyramids at Giza were built, they were on a plateau with little but desert around them. Today the vast metropolitan area of Cairo reaches Giza’s border. More than 16 million people live in the city and its suburbs.