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The Egyptian pyramids

What are the Egyptian pyramids?

The Egyptian pyramids are among the most iconic built structures in the world. In fact, the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the largest of all, is the only one of the seven wonders of the ancient world still standing.

Over the course of 3,500 years, more than a hundred pyramids were built by order of the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. These huge structures have square bases and triangular walls that are perfectly aligned with the four cardinal directions. Their construction was possible with a thousand-year-old process of perfecting construction techniques, which are now unknown. 

How were the Egyptian pyramids built?

The mystery of the construction techniques used by the ancient Egyptians to make the pyramids has been the object of study among archeologists and historians all over the world. They have visited the quarries, the markets, the oldest temples, and the tombs of those who built the pyramids to search for hidden answers.

Though it isn’t known for sure how they were built, we do know that ancient Egyptians had tools like sleds and wooden rollers, as well as ramps and vegetable-based ropes, to devise mechanisms. There are several theories about how the ancient Egyptians used these tools to build the pyramids:

Without ramps

The only ancient document that has survived to today was written two thousand years after the great pyramids were built. In it, the Greek historian Herodotus describes the construction of a series of steps. He mentions the use of wooden “devices” that made it possible for the blocks to be raised from the ground to the first step, then the second, and so on to the last one. This construction method is similar to the one used by ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as by master builders during the Middle Ages.

Incremental ramp

Another theory speculates on the construction of a large, rectilinear ramp made of sand, which was made wider and taller as the pyramid grew.

Multiple ramps

By using multiple ramps on each row, it would be possible to lift the stones to the next level. In this case, the hardest part would be putting the last blocks of each level in place.

Wooden cylinders

On each side of the faces of the block of rock, three wooden cylinders would be tied together by a system of ropes and special knots to act as bearings. This system would let less force be used and would reduce pressure and wear, which would explain why there are no traces of the construction process.

Internal ramp

According to this theory, a central spiral ramp with an inclination of no more than 20° would have been built to carry the rocks to each level on wooden sleds, and then with the help of levers and pulleys. This system would make it possible to traverse a section of the spiral in less than a minute with less than a dozen men. 

What materials were used to build the pyramids?

The main construction material was limestone (either squared off or uncarved) and adobe.

Wood also appears to have been essential to build the bearings, levers, and various devices that enabled moving the stones. The wood was probably also used to create the wedges and levers needed to cut through the limestone.

Besides that, it is thought that canals were dug to flood the land with water and mark level lines; this would make it possible to level the land and achieve a perfectly horizontal surface. There is also archaeological evidence that the paths were wetted to make it easier to slide the sleds. 

Fun facts about the pyramids

  • The Great Pyramid of Cheops was built more than 4,500 years ago (between about 2550 and 2527 BC) during the Old Kingdom, the period when the pharaoh’s power was at its height. It is estimated that more than two million stone blocks and over 100,000 men were needed to build it over 27 years.
  • Most of the pyramids were built west of the Nile River because the ancient Egyptians associated Osiris, the god of the afterlife, with this cycle of the sun. The setting sun was a symbol of eternal life.
  • The oldest pyramid is the Pyramid of Djoser, designed by the architect Imhotep. It was built between 2630 and 2611 BC, and it is located in the Saqqara necropolis (in Memphis, the capital of Ancient Egypt).
  • According to Kate Spence, a British Egyptologist, the stars (specifically, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor) were used to align the pyramids in a north-south direction.

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