Building the Great Pyramid

Building the Great Pyramid

by Kevin Jackson, Jonathan Stamp

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Companion volume to The Discovery Channel's television program. The book looks at the building techniques used to create the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Egypt and its history, both the pyramid's, and the theories about it. See more details below


Companion volume to The Discovery Channel's television program. The book looks at the building techniques used to create the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Egypt and its history, both the pyramid's, and the theories about it.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
It is 481 feet tall, 756 feet long at its base, and consists of 2.3 million blocks of stone weighing two and a half tons each. One of the mysteries of the Great Pyramid of Giza is: How did the ancient Egyptians, with their primitive technology, build it? Writer Jackson (The Oxford Book of Money) and Stamp, producer of the TV program Pyramid, assert that the builders were young peasants conscripted into the pharaoh's service-and that, though Herodotus said 100,000 men were needed-in fact, probably no more than 4,000 men completed the job. Realistic computer images show workers cutting stone in the quarry, hauling the huge stones up a ramp and setting them in place. Other color and duotone archival images reveal the inside of the pyramid, including the king's burial chamber and the low-ceilinged main entranceway. The authors put the pyramid in context, discussing ancient Egyptian beliefs about death and the afterlife in general, and the funeral rites for the pharaoh in particular. Among the more striking images here is a photo of the mummy of Ramses II, so hardened it appears to be made of stone. This is an excellent beginning for anyone interested in the culture of ancient Egypt and the pyramids. (Mar.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
The building of the pyramids has long fascinated scholars and laymen alike. Jackson and Stamp intelligently and comprehensively examine the design and process of building the pyramid at Giza. Readers cannot help but be awed at the accuracy of the simple tool used to determine the exact axis on which the temple was aligned. Of special interest is the chapter on the daily life of those conscripted to build the pyramid ("covee" labor), which lies to rest the notion that the work was performed by slaves. The study of the exterior and interior of these monuments reveals much about the ancient Egyptian's belief in an afterlife and their burial rituals. There is information on the early discoveries of the Napoleonic era that gave rise to the science of Egyptology. For the curious and those who like obscure facts, there is a fascinating chapter that exposes all manner of cranks, charlatans, and mystics often referred to by the serious as "pyamidiots". Thoroughly researched, engagingly written with archival and reenactment photos, both the expert and neophyte will find a wealth of information here. 2003, Firefly Books,
— Beverley Fahey
Booklist - Ilene Cooper
The easy-to-digest text and the many illustrations give the book appeal to a wide range of readers.
E-Streams - Robert F. Skinder
Nicely done, easy to read and interestingly illustrated with a wide variety of materials... An entertaining book.

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Product Details

Firefly Books, Limited
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
7.50(w) x 9.50(h) x 0.75(d)
Age Range:
11 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt


By Kevin Jackson and Jonathan Stamp

Firefly Books Ltd.

Copyright © 2003 Kevin Jackson and Jonathan Stamp
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1552977196

Chapter One




In the course of his reign (2575-2551 BC), Khufu's father Sneferu - the first king of the IVth Dynasty - constructed four of the greatest buildings Egypt had ever seen. Most famously, he built the two colossal tombs at Dahshur, known respectively as the Bent Pyramid and the North Pyramid, as well as the smaller one at Seila. According to most modern accounts, Sneferu was also responsible for much, if not all, of the similarly remarkable pyramid at Meidum. These four monuments were, in fact, the earliest manifestations of what is now understood by archaeologists as the true pyramid form, and marked a major advance on the existing monumental structures, the IIIrd Dynasty step pyramids.

Before Sneferu's time, the history of royal tomb building had fallen into two main stages. In the first two Dynasties, kings and nobles were buried in fairly simple brick structures. Then, sometime in the nineteen-year reign of the IIIrd Dynasty Pharaoh Djoser, from 2630 to 2611 BC, the man who was Djoser's Chancellor and High Priest of the sun-god Ra designed and built the first step pyramid on a site in Saqqara, overlooking Memphis. His namewas Imhotep.

Later generations of Egyptians regarded Imhotep as a sublimely gifted astronomer, a magician and the lather of medicine; eventually he was deified, and regarded as the son of Ptah, the principal god of Memphis. When the Greeks conquered Egypt in the third century BC, they identified Imhotep with their own legendary founder of the healing arts, Asklepios. Imhotep has thus come down in myth and folklore as the mysterious, divinely inspired "inventor" of the pyramid: not altogether true, but not wholly without foundation, either.

Imhotep's design provided the earliest model from which all subsequent pyramid complexes, including Khufu's, were developed. What he built was a huge enclosure, covering some 37 acres (0.1 of a square kilometer, the size of a substantial town at the time) and protected by a limestone wall 34 feet (10.4 meters) high and 5397 feet (1645 meters) long. Within the walls were many buildings, some functional, some dummy - pavilions to the north and south, terraces, façades, columns, chapels, statues and more. Towering over all of these was his greatest feat: a prototype pyramid, rising in six large steps to a height of about 197 feet (60 meters), with a base of 397 by 358 feet (121 by 109 meters) and containing 11,668,000 cubic feet (330,200 cubic meters) of clay and stone. Excavations have shown that this was built in several stages, and started with a square mastaba - a simple raised tomb structure.

And like its illustrious descendants at Giza, Imhotep's pyramid was no mere pile of rocks. Below ground level, its builders carved out 3 1/2 miles (5.6 km) of huge shafts, tunnels, vaults, galleries, stairwells and passages - an underground complex on an unprecedented scale. Part of this complex, presumably intended to be a subterranean palace for the king, is beautifully decorated with blue faience tiles evoking the waters of the Egyptian Netherworld, and with raised limestone bands simulating the appearance of a reed mat.

Djoser's resting place was a vault of granite blocks, sealed off after his burial with another granite block weighing 3 1/2 tons. Three of the panels in he underground "palace" show Djoser performing a ritual, and his ka statue (which represented his "soul" or "spirit") was placed in a serdab (chamber) built in alignment with these apartments. Explorations of Djoser's step pyramid have turned up evidence of other burial sites, including two intact sarcophagi as well as some forty thousand plates, cups and other vessels, mainly Djoser's inheritance from his ancestors. The site has other splendors and mysteries, but its true significance for our story is that Imhotep's genius initiated the particular forms of tomb building which culminated in the Pyramid of Khufu.


When Sneferu inherited the throne of Egypt, Djoser's tomb was the only complete, large-scale pyramid in the land. He decided to follow Djoser's example, and ultimately followed it four times over: in terms of sheer scale, at least, he deserves to be known as the greatest of all the Egyptian pyramid builders. In the light of recent research, it appears that he began at Meidum by staying fairly close to Imhotep's basic design and constructing another step pyramid - the centerpiece, again, of a major necropolis. Later, though, he appears to have changed his mind and sent workers back to Meidum to fill in the original steps and remold his monument into a true pyramid, of the smooth-surfaced kind we recognize today, with an exterior slope of 51 degrees 50 minutes 35 seconds: in other words, very nearly the same as Khufu's Pyramid. When completed, this structure was 302 feet (92 meters) high and had a base length of about 473 feet (144 meters). The Egyptians came to call it "Sneferu Endures."

The history of this later development is clouded by the ruined state of the Meidum structure. Today, it consists largely of a three-stepped tower surrounded by a mound of debris. Did the whole thing start to collapse while still under construction, as some have conjectured? This now seems unlikely, since no bodies, ropes or timbers from the IVth Dynasty have ever been found in the rubble. Or was the work suddenly abandoned on the very eve of completion, perhaps because of Sneferu's unexpected death and the accession to the throne of an aggressive young man with plans of his own? The simplest, and probably best, guess as to what happened is that the pyramid was indeed completed, that looters subsequently stripped away its outer limestone casing, and that generations of later builders set about using it as a handy quarry. Certainly, the archaeologist Flinders Petrie reported that it was still being used by local builders as a free-for-all quarry at the time of his excavations in the early 1880s.

In addition to smoothing out the sides so that they rose to a summit, Sneferu's other main innovation was in the pyramid's internal structure. Workers built a long descending passage (very much like that in the Great Pyramid), with an entrance at about 54 feet (16.5 meters) above the base and running down, by way of a short horizontal passage and a vertical shaft, to a central corbeled burial chamber - quite small, just 19 feet (5.8 meters) long and 9 feet (2.7 meters) wide - roughly at the level of the original desert surface. Adapted in various ways, this interior arrangement became a standard pyramid feature, as did some other innovations.

Meanwhile, in the long interval between the building of the step pyramid at Meidum and its later adaptation, Sneferu had commanded two other monuments. Round about the fifteenth year of his reign, he shifted operations some 25 miles (40 km) north of Meidum to Dahshur, where he set about building another necropolis. The twin crowns of this project were two great pyramids.

One of them, known to the Egyptians as the Southern Shining Pyramid, is referred to today by a more straightforwardly descriptive title: the Bent Pyramid. It rose from the sands at the sharp angle of 54 degrees 27 minutes 44 seconds, but then, about halfway up, continued at the much gentler slope of 43 degrees 22 minutes to the summit. Why the abrupt change of angle? Probably because the builders were faced with subsidence problems: there is evidence that the Bent Pyramid was originally designed as a much smaller structure with sharply rising sides, at about 60 degrees or so. When this proved dangerously unstable, they added a stone "girdle" around the base - the 55 degree side. The gentler slope of the upper section can be accounted for by an urgent change in the method of laying stones: the method so far used, with the stones sloping inward, turned out to increase the stresses on the pyramid and reduce its stability. The final part of the building was made with the stones set horizontally.

Sneferu's other full-scale pyramid at Dahshur was the North or Red Pyramid, known to the Egyptians as the Shining Pyramid. Sometime around the thirtieth year of his reign, and perhaps prompted by the imperfection of the Bent Pyramid, the king suddenly gave up work on the southern structure - although, as at Meidum, he later went back and had it completed - and shifted his attention to making a new, rather more elegant tomb with sides set at the much gentler angle of 43 degrees 22 minutes. Its height was to be 345 feet (105 meters), and its base length 722 feet (220 meters).

The pyramid's interior developed the lessons of Meidum and its older sibling, the Bent Pyramid. Again, workers made a long descending passage, running from an entrance high up on the north side down to ground level, where it joins two almost identical antechambers, both corbeled and with high roofs. A short horizontal passage leads from the second of these to the main burial chamber, 50 feet (15 meters) high and also designed with a corbeled roof. The largest of the secondary structures in the vicinity of the North Pyramid is a mortuary temple, now mostly destroyed, perhaps finished in a hurry, and planned on a modest scale. It seems likely that Sneferu was actually entombed here, rather than in the burial chambers of any of his pyramids. If so, his death was attended by a melancholy irony: the greatest of all pyramid makers did not, after a lifetime of prodigious effort, manage even a short post-mortem tenancy of any of his magnificent tombs.

And so Sneferu's third son and immediate successor, Prince Khufu (2551-2528 BC), came to the throne, blessed with the inheritance of an all but perfected pyramid form, yet burdened with the challenge of outdoing his father's achievements by building something still more imposing. How would he do it?


History knows the scale of Khufu's solution, but before work could begin on his staggeringly ambitious monument, Khufu had to determine a suitable site. Every possible location would have to fulfill at least five basic requirements. For religious reasons, it would have to be built west of the Nile, in the region of the setting sun. For safety reasons, it would have to be located higher than the Nile's flood plain. For logistical reasons, since many of the building materials would be transported by river, it would have to be as near as safely possible to the Nile's bank. For political and social reasons, it would have to be reasonably close to the Egyptian capital, Memphis, and perhaps also to one of the king's smaller palaces. Finally, for geological and architectural reasons, it would have to be based on solid bedrock with no obvious cracks or weaknesses, and in a plain which would be suitable for the construction of level foundations.

There were several plausible candidates, all of which would eventually be the home to Old Kingdom pyramids. Saqqara - site of Imhotep's step pyramid for Djoser, and long a burial ground for Egypt's elite classes - was always a tempting possibility for the pharaohs: it would eventually provide a base for no fewer than eleven royal pyramids, more than any other location in Egypt, and hundreds of other minor pyramids, mastabas and tombs. It is fair to regard it as a full-scale City of the Dead, since it was well over 4 miles (6.4 km) long at its fullest development. Both Saqqara and Abu Sir were in easy sight of Memphis, Saqqara being a kind of other-worldly twin to the living capital. Other possible building sites included Sneferu's old choice, Dahshur, some 5 miles (8 km) to the south of Memphis; Abu Roash, 17 miles (27 km) to the north; and Meidum, 33 miles (53 km) to the south. In the end, Khufu opted for a site just a few miles downriver from Abu Roash, on the northwestern corner of the Giza plateau, at the edge of the desert and about 5 miles (8 km) from Giza itself.

Here lies a gigantic plate of limestone known to modern geologists as the Mokkatam Formation, about 1310 yards (1200 meters) across on a diagonal from SSE to NNW, and rising to a height of 197 feet (60 meters). The southeast corner of Khufu's Pyramid, and the southeast corners of the two smaller pyramids built on the same site over the next two generations after his death by Khafre and Menkaure, are aligned on the so-called "great Giza diagonal" which runs at roughly 43 degrees east of true north. Together, these three pyramids comprise the single most famous and instantly recognizable piece of architecture of all time.



For a moment, let us lump forward a little in time to the day on which Khufu performed the foundation ceremony for his life's great work. There are very few written records detailing any aspect of pyramid design or construction, and most of those that have survived date from around a thousand years later. The fullest of these texts indicate that when a king inaugurated a pyramid, he would first observe the position of the stars in the Great Bear, and then, with the aid of a priest personifying Thoth, ibis-headed or baboon-shaped god of writing and measurement, he would mark out the base lines of the four outer walls.

However, thanks to a fragmentary relief from the Vth Dynasty, it is possible to arrive at a much closer and more vivid portrait of the ceremony conducted by Khufu - broadly similar to the later pattern, but with telling idiosyncrasies. It would have gone something like this. Dressed in state, Khufu proceeded to the Giza site accompanied by a priestess personifying the goddess Seshet, Thoth's feminine counterpart. Both Khufu and his priestess carried a golden mallet and a cord with a peg at the end. The priestess hammered her peg into the ground at a prearranged spot. Khufu then aligned his cord to the heavens, stretched it taut, and drove in the second peg, thus indicating the precise axis on which his temple was to be aligned. To be exact, he used the visor of the priestess's head-dress as a pointer in the direction of a particular star, known to the Egyptians as the "hoof" star in the constellation of the Bull's Foreleg, and to modern astronomy as Benetnasch, part of the familiar constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear.

An impressive performance, no doubt. Yet, solemnly as the ceremony was carried out, it was more in the nature of an official seal of approval than a genuine act of calculation. Khufu was, of course, not really discovering an astral correspondence, but rather giving formal, regal notice that the calculations of others met with his favor. The actual process of alignment, far more complex and painstaking than this quick glance at a predetermined star, had been worked out carefully in advance by his savants.


Excerpted from BUILDING THE GREAT PYRAMID by Kevin Jackson and Jonathan Stamp Copyright © 2003 by Kevin Jackson and Jonathan Stamp
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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