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Khufu's Great Pyramid

Khufu's Great Pyramid

Workers finish one of the smaller pyramids at the Great Pyramid complex at Giza.

It's 756 feet long on each side, 450 high and is composed of 2,300,000 blocks of stone, each averaging 2 1/2 tons in weight. Despite the makers' limited surveying tools no side is more than 8 inches different in length than another, and the whole structure is perfectly oriented to the points of the compass. Until the 19th century it was the tallest building in the world and, at the age of 4,500 years, it is the only one of the famous Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that still stands. It is the Great Pyramid of Khufu, at Giza, Egypt.

Some of the earliest history of the Pyramid comes from a Greek traveler named Herodotus of Halicanassus. He visited Egypt around 450 BC and included a description of the Great Pyramid in a history book he wrote. Herodotus was told by his Egyptian guides that it took twenty-years for a force of 100,000 oppressed slaves to build the pyramid. Stones were lifted into position by the use of immense machines. The purpose of the structure, according to Herodotus's sources, was as a tomb for the Pharaoh Khufu (whom the Greeks referred to as Cheops).

Most of what Herodotus tells us is probably false. Scientists calculate that fewer men and less years were needed than Herodotus suggests. It also seems unlikely that slaves or complicated machines were needed for the pyramid construction. It isn't surprising that the Greek historian got it wrong. By the time he visited the site the great pyramid was already 20 centuries old, and much of the truth about it was shrouded in the mists of history.

Certainly the idea that it was a tomb for a Pharaoh, though, seems in line with Egyptian practices. For many centuries before and after the construction of the Great Pyramid the Egyptians had interned their dead Pharaoh-Kings, whom they believed to be living Gods, in intricate tombs. Some were above ground structures, like the pyramid, others were cut in the rock below mountains. All the dead leaders, though, were outfitted with the many things it was believed they would need in the after-life to come. Many were buried with untold treasures.

Even in ancient times thieves, breaking into the sacred burial places, were a major problem and Egyptian architects became adept at designing passageways that could be plugged with impassable granite blocks, creating secret, hidden rooms and making decoy chambers. No matter how clever the designers became, though, robbers seemed to be smarter and with almost no exceptions each of the great tombs of the Egyptian Kings were plundered.

In 820 A.D. the Arab Caliph Abdullah Al Manum decided to search for the treasure of Khufu. He gathered a gang of workmen and, unable to find the location of a reputed secret door, started burrowing into the side of the monument. After a hundred feet of hard going they were about to give up when they heard a heavy thud echo through the interior of the pyramid. Digging in the direction of the sound they soon came upon a passageway that descended into the heart of the structure. On the floor lay a large block that had fallen from the ceiling, apparently causing the noise they had heard. Back at the beginning of the corridor they found the secret hinged door to the outside they had missed.

Working their way down the passage they soon found themselves deep in the natural stone below the pyramid. The corridor stopped descending and went horizontal for about 50 feet, then ended in a blank wall. A pit extended downward from there for about 30 feet, but it was empty.

When the workmen examined the fallen block they noticed a large granite plug above it. Cutting through the softer stone around it they found another passageway that extended up into the heart of the pyramid. As they followed this corridor upward they found several more granite blocks closing off the tunnel. In each case they cut around them by burrowing through the softer limestone of the walls. Finally they found themselves in a low, horizontal passage that lead to a small, square, empty room. This became known as the "Queen's Chamber," though it seems unlikely that it ever served that function.
Back at the junction of the ascending and descending passageways, the workers noticed an open space in the ceiling. Climbing up they found themselves in a high-roofed, ascending passageway. This became known as the "Grand Gallery." At the top of the gallery was a low horizontal passage that led to a large room, some 34 feet long, 17 feet wide, and 19 feet high, the "King's Chamber." In the centre was a huge granite sarcophagus without a lid: otherwise the room was completely empty.

The pyramids at Giza. The far pyramid is the "Great Pyramid." The middle one looks larger, but only because it is built on higher ground.

The Arabs, as if in revenge for the missing treasure, stripped the pyramid of it's fine white limestone casing and used it for building in Cairo. They even attempted to disassemble the great pyramid itself, but after removing the top 30 feet of stone, they gave up on this impossible task.

So what happened to the treasure of King Khufu? Conventional wisdom says that, like so many other royal tombs, the pyramid was the victim of robbers in ancient times. If we believe the accounts of Manum's men, though, the granite plugs that blocked the passageways were still in place when they entered the tomb. How did the thieves get in and out?

In 1638 a English mathematician, John Greaves, visited the pyramid. He discovered a narrow shaft, hidden in the wall, that connected the Grand Gallery with the descending passage. Both ends were tightly sealed and the bottom was blocked with debris. Some archaeologists suggested this route was used by the last of the Pharaoh's men to exit the tomb, after the granite plugs had been put in place, and by the thieves to get inside. Given the small size of the passageway and the amount of debris it seems unlikely that the massive amount of treasure, including the huge missing sarcophagus lid, could have been removed this way.

Some have suggested that the pyramid was never meant as a tomb, but as an astronomical observatory. The Roman author Proclus, in fact, states that before the pyramid was completed it did serve in this function. We can't put two much weight on Proclus words, though, remembering that when he advanced his theory the pyramid was already over 2000 years old.

Richard Proctor, an astronomer, did observe that the descending passage could have been used to observe the transits of certain stars. He also suggested that the grand gallery, when open at the top, during construction, could have been used for mapping the sky.

Many strange, and some silly, theories have arisen over the years to explain the pyramid and it's passageways. Most archaeologists, though, accept the theory that the great pyramid was just the largest of a tradition of tombs used for the Pharaohs of Egypt.

So what happened to Khufu's mummy and treasure? Nobody knows. Extensive explorations have found no other chambers or passageways. Still one must wonder if, perhaps in this one case, the King and his architects out smarted both the ancient thieves and modern archaeologists and that somewhere in, or below, the last wonder of the ancient world, rests Khufu and his sacred gold.

A cross-section of the Great Pyramid showing the passageways.