The Great Pyramid of Giza: Separating the Legend from Reality

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: HISTORY OF ANCIENT EGYPT

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

There are an awful lot of myths about the Great Pyramid: Its magical properties, people who have had strange experiences inside it, etc. However, we shouldn’t just believe these myths, we should try to analyze them. What if some of it is true?

The three Pyramids of Giza situated in Cairo.
There are many myths and legends about the Great Pyramid of Giza and its origins.
(Image: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock)

Giza is a suburb of Cairo today. It’s a plateau, and on it, Khufu decided to build his pyramid. It’s the largest pyramid ever built. It’s 480 feet high.

Until the Eiffel Tower was built, it was the largest building on earth. Its base is so large that it covers 13.5 acres. It’s made of 2.5 million blocks of stone, and they average about 2.5 tons each. It’s an incredible monument. However, it’s not the kind of monument that required higher mathematics. It’s not a high-tech monument. It required masses of labor and skills of social organization, but it didn’t require higher mathematics.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Popular Myths about the Great Pyramid

We hear many stories about the magical properties of a pyramid. For example, if we put a dull razor blade inside a pyramid shape it will become sharpened. Or that if we put food inside a small pyramid shape, the food won’t decay as quickly as if it were outside. All of these stories about the magical properties of the pyramids are silly.

The Egyptians would have thought it was silly. There was no magical significance to the pyramid shape for the ancient Egyptians.

Let’s see how they developed. In prehistoric times, we used to have sandpit burials which eventually developed into rock-cut burials. They went into the bedrock so the sand wouldn’t blow away and reveal the body. Then at some point, somebody had the idea of building a little structure on top of that, a mastaba, a benchlike structure.

In the Third Dynasty, Imhotep, the architect of Zoser, had the idea of putting a mastaba on top of a mastaba, and then he enlarged it and put a few more mastabas, giving this wedding cake effect of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. Then came Sneferu who had the idea of filling in the steps and getting the first true pyramid.

The point is that the pyramid shape was an architectural development, almost an accident of the way tomb building was going. It developed. It evolved. So these razor sharpening magical properties of the pyramid would have been silly even to the ancient Egyptians.

Learn more about prehistoric Egypt.

Napoleon Legend about the Great Pyramid

Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798 was the beginning of Egyptology. Bonaparte was a bit of a scholar, a mathematician of sorts. He was a member of the French Institute in the Division of Mathematics. He did indeed visit the Great Pyramid when he was in Egypt. He visited it with some of his men.

A portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt is considered as the beginning of Egyptology. (Image: Jacques-Louis David/Public domain)

Napoleon did not climb to the top of the Great Pyramid. He instead made a mental calculation and the calculation that he did was: given all these stones, we could build a wall around the world. He enjoyed doing these sorts of calculations.

But the interesting story is when he went inside the Great Pyramid. He went to the burial chamber with an entourage. Eventually, he asked if he could be left alone inside the burial chamber. They left him alone. When he came out, he looked kind of white, ashen. So one of his officers asked, “Are you okay? What happened?” And Bonaparte said, “Never mind. You wouldn’t believe me.” And he left without speaking about it.

This is the story that’s been repeated down the ages. Later, when Bonaparte was exiled on St. Helena, he was talking to one of his men, and the man said, “He was about to tell me about it, but he said, ‘no’, and never did it.”

So we really don’t know what happened with Napoleon inside the Great Pyramid. Maybe he had some mystical vision. Maybe nothing happened, and he just wanted to create a part of his legend. But there are plenty of legends associated with the Great Pyramid that just aren’t true.

Learn more about Napoleon and the beginning of Egyptology.

Herodotus’s Account of the Great Pyramid

Herodotus went to Egypt around 450 B.C. He saw and wrote down everything. One thing he said about the Great Pyramid which we’re certain wasn’t true, was that inscribed on the outside of the Great Pyramid were the onions and bread: the amount of food that was needed to feed the workmen. That’s certainly not true. Nobody is going to put that on a pyramid.

Herodotus was a famous Greek Historian.
Herodotus wrote a detailed account of the Pyramids. (Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art/CC0 1.0/Public domain)

But what Herodotus did tell us about the building of the pyramid in 450 B.C., when pyramids are almost 2,000 years old, was that it took 90,000 men working on the pyramid at the same time to build it. It’s 90,000 men, and they worked for three months at a time.

The 90,000 men is an interesting figure, and the three months at a time as well. The pyramids were built with free labor, no slaves. The Exodus, when we have all the Israelites in Egypt, is much later.

There was never a large number of slaves in Egypt that were used for work projects. There was no weapon in ancient Egypt that gave anybody a great advantage over a large number of people. It would be very difficult to control thousands of slaves.

We know for a fact that the Great Pyramid of Egypt was built by free labor. We have inscriptions by the work gangs that worked on the pyramid. So it was built by free labor, and Herodotus says 90,000 men worked on it a few months at a time. Egypt was mainly agrarian at the time: practically everybody was a farmer.

One of the seasons in Egypt was called inundation when the land was inundated with water. So perhaps during the inundation, you had 90,000 men working on it at one time. You’ve got the farmers, unskilled labor, everybody pulling together to build this pyramid. That’s probably what Herodotus means.

Herodotus also said that it was built with machines. Now, of course, this was 450 B.C. What did he mean by a machine? One possibility is levers. The Egyptians to this day have a device called a shaduf. They use a shaduf for raising water from the Nile to the fields. It’s a long pole, and at one end it’s got a weight. At the other end is the bucket. So the bucket goes down, and then the weight pulls the bucket up with the water in it, and you dump it into the field. It’s a kind of lever and fulcrum system. That’s what the Egyptians may have had.

What some people have suggested is that they had these levers, these shadufs, so to speak, on each level of the pyramid as they were lifting blocks up, up, and up, and that’s what Herodotus may have meant when he said they had machines. But he gives us one of the very few ancient accounts of building anything.

For some reason, the ancient Egyptians never wrote down how they built the pyramid. They left no papyrus at all that could give us a clue as to how they built the pyramid. We have no architectural papyri at all. Think about all the buildings that the Egyptians did. They never wrote down how to build a temple or how to build a pyramid. Never.

It may have been the case that they didn’t want trade secrets to go out. There were other things they didn’t write down. For example, they mummified people for thousands of years, but there was no papyrus that told us how to mummify a person.

These were trade secrets. So if we’re to figure out how the pyramid was built, we have to just look at it and think.

Common Questions about the Great Pyramid of Giza

Q: What does the Pyramid of Giza symbolize?

The Great Pyramid of Giza is considered as a defining symbol of Egypt and the last of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World. It is believed that it was built over a twenty-year period during the reign of the king Khufu. 

Q: Where did the pyramids come from?

Pyramids are said to be originated from simple rectangular mastaba tombs that were constructed in Egypt around 5,000 years ago, according to the findings of archeologist Sir Flinders Petrie. 

Q: How many people died building the pyramids?

About 600 skeletons of Egyptians similar to those you see in every cemetery in Egypt have been found till now. There is also evidence that these people had emergency treatments. They probably had accidents while building the Pyramids in Egypt.

Q: What was the use of the pyramids at Giza?

The pyramids of Giza were royal tombs built for three different pharaohs, including the Great Pyramid which was built for Pharaoh Khufu, the son of Sneferu.

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