Pyramids: Palaces for the Dead

The pyramids of Ancient Egypt have remained some of the most famous and impressive buildings in the world since their construction, around 4,600 years ago. When the ancient Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt, the pyramids were already over two thousand years old. He was so impressed that he called the pyramids one of the great wonders of the world. In fact, the pyramids are so ancient, they were already a thousand years old when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt.

We read in the story of Isis and Osiris that the Egyptians believed each pharaoh was the god Horus while he ruled, and became one with the god Osiris when he died. The kingdom of the dead was a very important part of Egyptian religion. They believed that the world of the dead was very much like the world of the living. It was ruled over by pharaoh as the god Osiris, and the souls of the dead continued to serve their king in death as they had in life.

Because the Ancient Egyptians believed that they would continue to live in the world of the dead very much as they had in the world of the living, they often buried useful objects with the dead. Farmers and craftsmen had their modest tombs stocked with tools that they would need to continue working in the afterlife. Land owners and nobles were often buried with fine clothes, jewelry and furniture. Some nobles even had their tombs stocked with statues of slaves and servants who would take care of them in the afterlife.

The kings of Egypt had the grandest tombs of all. In the earliest days of the kingdom, the pharaohs were buried in tombs called mastabas (mah-stab-ahs). Mastabas were big, flat-roofed, square buildings with walls that sloped gently inward. At the center, the builders cut a deep shaft into the bedrock, which led to a burial chamber deep under ground where the pharaoh was buried along with many precious possessions.

Building these grand tombs tool a lot of work. There were teams of stone cutters who worked for the pharaoh full time, building temples and monuments, palaces and tombs. When a pharaoh needed more workers, he sent out word to the governors of all his provinces, who sent word to every town and village, and farmers from all over Egypt were called up to come and work on the pharaoh's project.
As we read earlier, King Djoser of the Third Dynasty built the first pyramid, which was build in giant steps like six mastabas stacked one on top of the other. Other pharaohs after him built their own pyramids, each trying to build a more impressive monument than the last. During this time, the pharaoh's builders learned to build pyramids that were completely smooth, rather than built in giant steps. King Sneferu built three pyramids, each larger than the one before.

When Sneferu's son Khufu became pharaoh, he set out to build the largest pyramid yet. While building Sneferu's three pyramids, the royal engineers had learned many important lessons. One of the most important was that a pyramid must be built on a solid stone foundation. Just as important was a good stone quarry near the building site.

The royal engineers picked a site which we now call the Giza Plateau. There was a big flat area of limestone bedrock, more than a mile square, which would serve as the pyramid's foundation. And less than a mile away was a limestone quarry where they could cut the giant two to three ton limestone blocks from which the pyramid would be built. In the first years of work, the engineers and their professional stone cutters leveled the foundation for the pyramid and cut lines in it to show where the edge of the pyramid would be. Using the sun and the stars, they carefully aligned the sides of the pyramid so that they faced exactly towards the four points of the compass: north, south, east and west. They were also very careful to make each of the sides the same length. Each side of the pyramid is, in modern measurements, 755 feet and 8 inches long, and the differences in length between the four sides are less than two inches.

As the engineers carefully prepared the site for the pyramid, Khufu sent word to the governors of the forty-two nomes of Egypt that he would need workers to build his pyramid. Because Khufu was the god-king of all Egypt, every person who lived in Egypt owed him work every year. Most of the time, the farmers simply paid this debt by working on the Pharaoh's land. But now Khufu ordered that one out of every ten men and boys of working age must come to help build the pyramid. In each village, the scribes counted how many men would have to go to the pyramid. Most men were proud to go. Working on the pyramid which would be the eternal home for the god-king was a great honor.

The men formed into teams of 20-30 men and gave themselves names. Some work teams had silly names like "The Drunkards". Others named themselves after the Pharaoh. One was called, "Khufu is Bright". We know this because the work teams sometimes carved their names in hieroglyphics on hidden parts of the pyramid, where modern archeologists have found them.

Now the Giza Plateau was a very busy place. Stone cutters worked worked all day in the stone quarry cutting giant 2-3 ton blocks of stone out of the rock with copper chisels. Then the work teams tied ropes around the stones and dragged them up the long ramp that led to the top of the pyramid. On the top of the pyramid, the pharaoh's engineers told the work teams where to put each stone. And so layer by layer the pyramid rose up into the sky: a giant mountain of white stone.

After the first three years, as the pyramid rose higher and the top became a smaller and and smaller square, they didn't need as many workers. Each year some of the work teams were sent home. At last the pyramid was done, and the giant ramp leading up to the top was cleared away. Nearby, the engineers built much smaller pyramids for Khufu's favorite wives, and temples in which the royal priests would make offerings to the pharaoh's spirit after he died. It took sixteen years to build the pyramid, but the pharaoh's engineers continued to work on the surrounding tombs and temples until Khufu died.

Then the royal priests began to prepare Khufu's body for its burial, in the burial chamber deep within the pyramid.

Khufu's son and great grandson would later build their own pyramids on the Giza Plateau, but no pharaoh ever built a pyramid a large as Khufu's Great Pyramid. To this day, it is the most massive building that men have ever built. And it was done 4600 years ago by men who dragged each stone into place by hand.

Also See:
The Great Pyramid, by Elizabeth Mann
Mann's book on the Great Pyramid (other books in the series describe China's Great Wall and the building of the Panama Canal) combines good color illustrations, the most current archeological theories on the building of the Great Pyramid, and text at the right level for 5-7 year olds. Older children will probably prefer Macaulay's book -- though its archeology is now slightly out of date. The book also provides some good introductory information about Egyptian culture and mythology.

Pyramid, by David Macaulay
Macaulay's book on the building of the a Pyramid is simply outstanding, as are his other books about monumental architecture: Cathedral, City, and Castle. Told in story format, the book traces the building of the pyramid from the crowning of a new pharaoh, through the planning and construction of his pyramid. The illustrations give the reader a wonderfully clear sense for how this large building project was completed.

Based on Romer's book on the pyramids of Giza (linked below) I fear that some aspects of Macaulay's description of the pyramid's construction are no longer the most current in archeology, but this is a very minor issue given the book's virtues.

Children aged 5-7 would enjoy this as a read-aloud (if they have an interest in Egypt) while children 8 and up should have no problem reading it themselves.

The Great Pyramid: Ancient Egypt Revisited, by John Romer
I picked Romer's book up because it had information on the most current (the book was published in 2007) archaeological understanding of the Great Pyramid, as well as a wealth of other information about the pyramids built before and after. This hefty volume will only be of interest for adults or the most keenly interested middle and high school students, but I do recommend it for its detailed information of the geometrical layout of the Great Pyramid, our best data on how (and over how long) it was constructed, and some fascinating insights into how the surveying and measuring techniques available in the Old Kingdom shaped the amazing accuracies (and occasional imperfections) in its design.

Go back to: Elementary Program: Volume One

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