The site of the most well-known Egyptian pyramids, known as the Giza Pyramid Complex, has been the subject of continuous investigation for more than a century.
The area is home to the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Pyramid of Khafre, the Pyramid of Menkaure, and the Great Sphinx of Giza. Over time, and through archeological research, the pyramids have divulged secrets once only known to their architects.
And these are just a handful of the pyramids in Egypt.
From hidden shafts to sapphire-toothed saws, these are the most fascinating facts about these engineering marvels.
1. The pyramids were once the tallest human-built structures
The Great Pyramid of Giza, also known as the Pyramid of Khufu, was built, according to most estimates, between about 2,550 to 2,490 B.C. The structure was truly colossal and remained the tallest human-built structure for many centuries until the construction of the Lincoln Cathedral (with its original spire) in 1311 AD.
This is an incredible achievement, especially given the ancient Egyptian's relatively rudimentary knowledge of construction and engineering. Even today, building such a structure would be a massive engineering task.
2. There are actually more than 100 pyramids in Egypt
When you think about the pyramids of Egypt, how many come to mind? 5? 10? In fact, there are, by some estimates, more than 130, give or take.
Not only that, but many experts believe more will be found in the coming years. The reason why so many were constructed is hotly debated, but it is clear they had a very important role to play in Ancient Egyptian culture.
3. Pyramid stones weighed more than an elephant
Would you believe us if we told that you that some of the stone blocks used to build the pyramids weigh in excess of 70 tons? The average weight of each of the 2.3 million stone blocks in the Great Pyramid is around 2.5 tons. However, many weigh as much, if not more, than your average elephant.
We may never really know all of the details of how these rocks were moved, but some ancient Egyptian documents and wall paintings do offer clues. For example, stones appear to have been maneuvered on sleds – likely over wetted sand. But, there is much more to learn, and this continues to be a highly interesting area of experimental archaeology.
4. The pyramids are not completely solid
Another fascinating fact about the pyramids is that there exists an intricate web of passages, shafts, and chambers within, and underneath, the pyramids at Giza. The purpose of these structures is not fully understood, but many theories exist.
5. The pyramids were not built by slaves
Contrary to popular belief, the builders of the pyramids were not slaves, either Israelite or other. Current research, especially the discovery of records from the time, indicate workers were well paid and well-fed. It also seems likely that the workforce, as well as food and other essentials, came from all across Egypt.
Not only that, but the work was considered highly prestigious, with many workers given the honour of being buried in tombs near the sacred pyramids.
6. The Great Pyramid was very well constructed
While the Ancient Egyptians built many pyramids, not all have survived intact to the current day. However, examples like the Great Pyramid and the other pyramids at Giza have. Why?
One reason is that the Egyptians got better at building pyramids over time. Some researchers think that the Egyptians hadn’t been able to cut the stones accurately enough to make the joints of earlier pyramids really tight. Over time, moisture got into the joints, and this expanded and contracted as the weather changed - pushing the stones apart, ultimately leading to erosion over time.
The Great Pyramid was also built using granite, which tends not to soak up water. Craftsman also learned how to make tight joints in the casing covering the pyramid, meaning the pyramid could shed water instead of absorbing it, ultimately preserving it.
7. The pyramids appear to be aligned with the stars
The Ancient Egyptians appear to have used two constellations to align their pyramids in a north-south direction – the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. This alignment is so precise that their north-south positions are within an accuracy of up to 0.05 degrees. However, it is important to note that the alignment of stars is constantly changing, albeit at a very slow rate.
8. Special mortar helped the pyramids survive
There is an old Arab proverb that translates, roughly, to “Man fears time, time fears the pyramids”.
Part of the reason for the pyramid's survival appears to be their builder's choice of mortar. Analysis has shown that a super-strong mortar may have been used to fix the stones in place. What's more, a lot of it was used. According to some estimates, around 500,000 tons of mortar were used in the construction of the Great Pyramid alone.
9. There are secret doors inside the pyramids
The Great Pyramid contains three main rooms: the Queen’s Chamber, the Grand Gallery and the King’s Chamber. Egyptologists have recently discovered two tunnels, about 20 cm wide, that extend from the north and south walls of the Queen’s Chamber and stop dead at stone doors with copper handles. The doors were discovered recently using a robot. Some believe that they could lead to a secret chamber.
10. The pyramids used to shine like diamonds
What did the Great Pyramid look like originally? Pretty impressive, if some historians are to be believed.
At the time of its construction, the Great Pyramid at Giza was covered with a well-polished casing of limestone blocks. Some have suggested that when the sun struck the casing, it would have shone like diamonds and been visible from many miles away. Over the millennia, most of the blocks were pried off and used on other building projects.
11. Not all pyramids were pointed
While the pyramids at Giza tend to get all the attention, there are many other, equally interesting, pyramids in Egypt, including the "stepped pyramids".
In fact, one of the first pyramids constructed by the Egyptians can be found at Saqqara, and appears to have been constructed around 4,700 years ago. Built as the tomb of the Egyptian king Djoser, it has stepped sides and a flat top.
Before this, tombs were constructed as mastabas — lower, flat-roofed structures with sloping sides. In fact, Djoser's pyramid is believed to have started off as a mastaba, and for unknown reasons underwent a series of expansions, to create the 197-foot-high (60 meters) step pyramid we see today.
12. The Giza Complex wasn't just for tombs to the Pharaohs
The funerary complex around the Great Pyramid at Giza includes two mortuary temples connected by a causeway, tombs for Khufu's immediate family and members of his court, and three smaller pyramids for Khufu's wives.
13. The Sphinx may have once been colorful
The huge statue of the Sphinx was built near the great pyramid, by some estimates, 4,500 years ago. It famously has the body of a lion and the head of a human.
Its current likeness is believed to be that of Pharaoh Khafra, but this may not have always the case. According to some researchers, the Sphinx may have undergone quite a few facelifts throughout its lifetime. Residues of red pigments on the face of the Sphinx suggest the statue may have been painted.
Today, most Egyptologists hold the view that the Great Sphinx was built in approximately 2,500 BC for the pharaoh Khafre, the builder of the Second Pyramid at Giza. While its purpose is not fully understood, some theories suggest that it was meant to guard the pyramid.
14. The step pyramid architect was later worshipped as a God
Imhotep was one of the earliest master architects known in history. But he appears to have been talented in a number of areas. His skills supposedly stretched from medicine to astronomy and the mystical.
He was a minister of Djoser and the probable architect of Djoser's step pyramid. He was later worshipped as a God of Medicine.
15. The Great Pyramid of Giza is heavy, very heavy
The weight of The Great Pyramid is based on it being built using an estimated 2.3 million blocks of stone, each weighing, on average, 2.5 tons (2,268kgs) apiece.
16. Centering in on the Great Pyramid of Giza
In 1877, Dr. Joseph Seiss thought he had found an interesting discovery. He "showed" that the Great Pyramid of Giza is located exactly at the intersection of the longest line of longitude and longest line of latitude.
But, of course, this is not true. The longest line of latitude is the equator, and all lines of longitude are, by definition, of equal length. In fact, the pyramid lies at 30 degrees north and 31 degrees east.
17. The pyramids have survived attempted demolition
In the 12th century, Sultan Al-Aziz Uthman, son of Saladin and ruler of Egypt, planned to destroy the pyramids at Giza, starting with the pyramid of Menkaure. After eight months, and great expense, his workers had made very little progress and he was forced to give up.
However, this attempt at grand-vandalism did leave a huge gash on one side of Menkaure’s pyramid.
18. A pyramid took about two decades to build
Building a pyramid on the scale of the Great Pyramid of Giza is no small undertaking (understatement of the year). But how long did they take to build? 100 years? 500?
19. Pyramids are mostly devoid of hieroglyphics
Whenever people think about ancient Egypt, hieroglyphics are one of the things that are assumed to be present in, or inside, the pyramids. However, this is not the case – at least not for a long time.
Most of the internal areas accessible to the general public of the pyramids are completely devoid of them. However, this all changed in 2011, when researchers finally found some in a secret chamber, thanks to a little help from a robot.
20. An estimated 10,000 - 50,000 people build the structures
To build a structure as large as the Great Pyramid of Giza in as short as a few decades must have taken a lot of labor. While estimates vary, most modern Egyptologists believe the work was done by a core group of no more than 10,000 to 20,000 experienced workers and support staff. Though this may have expanded to as many as 50,000 for some projects and periods.
That is still a lot. Especially considering that the population of ancient Egypt was probably not much more than 1.5 million.
21. The dead were buried with riches
For the ancient Egyptians, the afterlife was a paradise where one could "live" forever – as long as you go there, of course. For this reason, they believed that the dead would need some of their most prized possessions on the other side.
They buried the dead with more than just the bare essentials needed in the afterlife, like food and drink. If they were wealthy enough, jewelry and other valuables were also included – just in case.
22. We once thought the pyramids had more than four sides
In the 1940s, a pilot named P. Groves claimed that the Great Pyramid actually has eight, not four sides. He noticed indentations on each side that are very subtle from the ground and only become readily visible from the air. In 1880, Egyptologist Flinders Petrie had also noted that the sides of the pyramid, are "very distinctly hollowed" and that "each side has a sort of groove especially down the middle of the face".
In fact, a laser scanning survey in 2005 confirmed the existence of the grooves, but they have been attributed to damaged and removed stones. Under certain lighting conditions, the faces can in fact appear to be split. This has led to speculation that the pyramid was intentionally built with eight sides, but there is no evidence for this.
23. One airshaft may have functioned as a "starshaft"
In the Great Pyramid of Giza, a shaft exists that a few have argued is aligned to the former polar star "Alpha Draconis" (aka Thuban). That shaft was presumably a design feature of the pyramid during its construction, and its purpose is hotly debated.
The shafts likely wouldn’t have been useful for actually observing the stars, though. This is because they were only roughly oriented, and large stones blocked the shaft's exit. However, the mystery of the shaft's true purpose remains.
24. Construction tools may have included sapphire-toothed saws
Pharoah Khafre's sarcophagus is a very impressive piece of craftsmanship. Made from black granite, carving, and shaping must have required great skill and some very special tools. Some have speculated that the ancient Egyptians used saws with cutting points made from jewels such as beryl, topaz, chrysoberyl, corundum, or sapphire. However, most of the tools used were probably made of bronze.
25. The pyramids might have been aligned using gnomons
The Great Pyramid of Giza is aligned along with the cardinal points – north, south, east, and west (although it is slightly misaligned counterclockwise). Experts have struggled to explain how this was achieved, as the Egyptians did not have access to a compass.
It has been suggested that the Egyptians used the autumnal equinox – when the Sun is directly above Earth’s equator and daylight hours equal those of night – to achieve this. This may have been done using a tool known as a gnomon.
Similar to a sundial, the process involves placing a vertical rod in the ground to project a shadow and, by tracing out its path, an observer can use a piece of string to draw a line from east to west. The result is very close to the alignment of the pyramid.
26. The Great Pyramid of Giza's design might be based on Pi
Some researchers have proposed that the concept of Pi may have played a role in the design of the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza. First proposed by one John Taylor, he noted that if one divides the perimeter of the Pyramid by its height, the resultant value is equal to 2Pi.
However, this is thought by most to just be a complete coincidence.
27. We still don't really know how they were built
Despite being the subject of innumerable studies for centuries, we are still not entirely sure how these amazing structures were actually built. While many claims are made of some "breakthrough" discovery about the process, ultimately these are all just theories.
This is especially the case given the immense size of the blocks that make up the pyramids. We still do not know exactly how they were shaped, moved, and lifted into place. Obviously, it was possible, but exactly how did they do it?
We may never really know.
28. Napolean Boneparte once claimed you could build a wall around France from the pyramids
Believe it or not, but when Napoleon Boneparte visited the pyramids in the early-19th century, he calculated that they contained enough building material to construct a 1-foot (0.3m) wide, 10-foot (3m) tall wall around the entire perimeter of France.
Quite how he came to this conclusion is anyone's guess, but apparently, it was "confirmed" by one of his staff.
29. Each pyramid would cost around $1B to build today
The number of workers needed aside, the cost of building materials, equipment, etc to make the Great Pyramid of Giza would cost a fair bit today. According to some estimates, it would likely cost a bit over $1B to build similar structures today. This is actually not bad, considering the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, was completed in 2009 at a cost of $1.5 billion.
According to estimates, the cost of the limestone needed for the construction of the Great Pyramid would likely have cost $776 million, wages, travel time, plant hire, etc costing an estimated $102 million on top of that.
30. The pyramids still hold secrets
While we have learned a lot about these mysterious ancient buildings, they have not given up all their secrets just yet. Employing the latest in modern science, researchers have recently discovered a large, as yet unexplored, chamber inside the Great Pyramid of Giza.
By utilizing particle physics, the chamber was shown to be around 100 feet (30 meters) and appears to have not been ravaged by tomb raiders. Just what lies in wait for archaeologists inside it is anyone's guess.
And that "Egyptomaniacs" is your lot for today.
The pyramids of Giza truly deserve their honorific title as one of the ancient wonders of the world.