Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: Great Pyramid of Giza

19th century stereopticon depicting the Great Pyramid
Known as the Horizon of Khufu, the Great Pyramid of Giza is the last remaining Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It served as a tomb of the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. It mobilized thousands of men and resources in order to attain such a gargantuan monument. A monument that served as the testament to the wealth and power as well as ingenuity of Ancient Egyptians.

Pyramids represented Ancient Egypt. Most people thought of the pyramids once Ancient Egypt had been mentioned. Most of the Pyramids of Ancient Egypt stood in the area known as the Giza Plateau, located west of modern day Cairo. The Plateau became home of the necropolis for the tombs of royals of the Fourth Dynasty (2613 – 2494 BCE). During the previous Third Dynasty, the mastaba or flat roofed structures that resembled an unfinished pyramid served as the burial site for the elite. As time went by the pharaoh of the Third Dynasty developed the step pyramid, the first being built under the Pharaoh Djoser. But then as the Fourth Dynasty rose to power, preferences change. The Egyptians revered their pharaohs as Gods. They saw them as the incarnation of the son of the god of the underworld Osiris, Horus. To show reverence to the living Gods, the Egyptians started to build pyramids with smooth exteriors, which they saw as the pathways of the soul of the pharaohs to heaven after their demise in earth. Other than that they saw the pyramid as religious symbol representing one of the most powerful Gods in Egyptian mythology – Ra. Because the pyramids served as the pathways of the Pharaohs to heaven, upon the burial of the deceased, they placed essentials for the pharaoh journey to the afterlife. It included servants, furniture, etc. The greatest pyramid that the Fourth Dynasty built was the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

The Great Pyramid was built during the reign of the Pharaoh Khufu. Sometimes called as Cheops, he ruled Egypt from 2589 to 2566 BCE and known both as a despot and a scholar. Regardless, during his reign, Egypt experienced a great deal of prosperity, power, and wealth. In order to display this, Khufu ordered the construction of a huge and magnificent burial pyramid that fit his rule. Construction began around 2600 BCE and lasted until 2565 BCE. Khufu’s vizier or chief minister, Hemiunu, managed the construction.

The construction of the Great Pyramid of Khufu was a daunting task. It required a huge labor force and also enormous amount of resources, most especially stones. The Greek historian, Herodotus, estimated that 100,000 slaves labored to build the Great Pyramid in a span of 30 years. Nevertheless, modern estimates suggested less manpower and less timespan to build the pyramids in contrast to the claims of Herodotus. Modern estimates stated that in order to build the pyramids, it required at least 20,000 men in order to finish it just around 2 decades. Slaves did not built the Great Pyramid unlike Herodotus’ claims. In fact, farmers comprised almost all of the construction workers of the Great Pyramid. Farmers worked in the pyramids during the off seasons (July to November), when the Nile flooded their fields. The government paid them with the surplus harvest that the farmers themselves gave to authorities as form of tax. Following the manpower, supplies of stones for the pyramid became another priority in logistics. Quarries of limestone and granite existed in different parts of Egypt, near the Nile River. Hundreds and even thousands of workers worked to take the stones from this quarries using simple stone and copper tools. Another group of workers then worked in transporting the stones from the quarries then to the Nile River before being brought to the site via a causeway connecting the Nile and the Giza Plateau. In order to bring up the stone to the designated level of the pyramid, many theories came up, ranging from a ramp encircling the pyramid as it rose or a single ramp being erected before it encircled the structure. In order to transport the blocks of stones, workers used sleds sliding over pieces of logs and pulled up by workers to the different floors of the pyramid. Thousands of Egyptians worked in the construction site for decades until the Great Pyramid of Giza was completed by 2565 BCE.

A grand pyramid complex became the result of decades of construction work. The pyramid itself covered 13 acres of land as its base and it had the height of 481 feet equal to a 40-story building. With its 200 steps, the Great Pyramid of Giza stood for more than a millennium as the tallest building in the world until man began to build skyscrapers. Each sides of the pyramid faced a cardinal direction in the compass. Outside, the pyramid appeared glistening white thanks to the white Turah limestone that enveloped the whole pyramid structure. And at the top, a golden pyramid sparkly surmounted the structure.

Inside the pyramid, it had corridors and chambers. A shaft from the entrance descended before an ascending shaft led to the Grand Gallery, which then ended with the King’s Burial Chamber.  But before the King’s a smaller chamber situated bellow the King’s – the Queen’s Burial Chamber. But before the ascending shaft that led to the Grand Gallery, another descending shaft existed and ended with an abandoned room, many speculated that the room was supposed to be the King’s burial chamber before the plan was change. Other features of the interior of the pyramid included chambers at the top of the King’s Burial Chamber that aimed in relieving the enormous weight from the top of the pyramid. Another included an air shaft that connected the King’s Burial Chamber to the outside. It was said that the shaft served as a pathway for the Pharaohs spirit to the heavens. The pyramid’s interior centered on the King’s Burial Chamber. It served as the last resting place of the Pharaoh Khufu. Its walls and floor made from the pink Aswan granite. And in the middle of the burial chambers laid the red granite sarcophagus that held the mummified corpse of the deceased Pharaoh.

Other structures existed along with the Great Pyramid of Khufu. The Pyramid itself was surrounded by a wall. At the east of the pyramid, a mortuary temple stood. Other than that, three other smaller pyramids served as tombs of Queen, related to the Pharaoh Khufu. A 2,630 feet causeway then connected the pyramid complex to a temple located in the banks of the Nile River. The builders also erected 70 mastabas for other members of the royal family. Besides these, there were also 5 boat pits around the Great Pyramid of Khufu, boats religiously deemed important in the afterlife. Finally, in 2566 BCE, the Pharaoh Khufu passed away and his mummy laid in rest in the pyramid he ordered built.

The Great Pyramid of Khufu lived on for more than a millennium. Travelers in the ancient world, Greek, Persians, and Romans showed their amazement over the white sparkling pyramid in the middle of a dessert. But over time, the Pyramids, not just the Great Pyramid but also others, fell victim to grave robbers, desiring valuable objects enshrined in it. The Great Pyramid of Khufu remained the only surviving wonder of the ancient world, but when the Muslims conquered Egypt, they threatened its existence. The Great Pyramid’s limestone taken by the Muslim invaders to build new mosque in Cairo. They also threatened to demolish the pyramid but later abandoned the idea because of daunting task. Although they vandalized the pyramids in 820, the Muslims attempted to map its interior. The Pyramids survived the Muslims and in 1798, a new invader arrived in Cairo – Napoleon Bonaparte. To magnify his great campaign and add interest, Napoleon named a famous battle of his against the Mameluk rulers of Egypt as the Battle of the Pyramids, even though the event happened miles away from the Giza Plateau. But paintings depicting the battle placed great emphasis in the structure.

The pyramids inspired many studies by westerners. In the 1830’s Colonel Howard Vyse measured the interior of the Great Pyramid. John Taylor, a mathematician, and Charles Piazzi Smyth, an astronomer, made an intensive study of the Great Pyramid and made several conclusions. It included the Israelites designed the Pyramid and the measurements of the interior of the Pyramid indicated a prophecy. Their study eventually resulted to the creation of a new field of study of the pyramid, known as pyramidology. In 1880’s, as many westerners wondered how the Egyptian built the pyramid, Ignatius Donnelly first suggested that the Egyptians did not built the pyramids but a people from a lost civilization known as Atlantis. For the following generations, the Pyramid had struck the interest of many scholars. Answer and new questions emerged.

In modern days, the Pyramids represented Egypt. It invited numerous tourist and scholars alike. It fed imagination and speculation. It stood as a living testament to the wonders of the Ancient World and the Ancient Egyptian in particular. Indeed, the Great Pyramid of Giza continues to be great wonder of the ancient world.

See also:

"Great Pyramid of Giza (Egypt)." In The Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena. edited by J. Gordon Melton. Canton, Michigan: Visible Ink Press, 2008.

"Great Pyramid of Cheops." in Encyclopedia of Architectural and Engineering Feats. Edited by Donald Langmead and Christine Garnaut. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO,LLC, 2011.

"Giza." Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Edited by Margaret Bunson. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2002.

"Pyramids of Giza, Cairo, Egypt." in Encyclopedia of Sacred Places. Edited by Norbert Brockman. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO,LLC, 2011.

White, J. E. Manchip. Ancient Egypt: Its Culture and History. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1970.

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