Digital Giza

Aerial photograph of the Great Pyramid at Giza. 2019. BlackBoxGuild.


The Pyramids at Giza are the most well-known ancient monuments in the world.

They are some of the oldest too! Many myths and legends have been invented about them since they were constructed 4,500 years ago.

The Pyramids are tombs for Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs, their kings and queens. The pharaohs were mummified and buried inside the pyramids with many treasures to ensure the pharaoh had a good life in the afterlife. The pyramids were built also to keep robbers away from the gold and offerings that the pharaohs were buried with.

The pyramids are built out of stone and have many hidden chambers inside them. Archaeologists today debate the purposes of these chambers. You can explore the chambers inside the Great Pyramid on the virtual tour.

You can also take a virtual guided tour inside the Great Pyramid to visit all the chambers.

The smaller tombs nearby the pyramids are a long flat rectangular structure, kind of like a house. If you picture several of these stacked on top of each other, you start to see the pyramid shape.

At Giza, there are three major pyramids and eleven smaller pyramids. The major pyramids are the pyramids built for the pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. The first pyramid to be built at Giza was the pyramid for Khufu. We call it today the “Great Pyramid”.

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Where did the pyramid shape come from?

The ancient Egyptians lived in an agrarian society. They watched the sun rise and set every day. They watched the moon waxing and waning. And they also watched the flood waters inundate their fields every year.

As the flood waters receded, they noticed that the higher peaks of earth, showing out of the water, would begin to sprout new growth. In the ancient Egyptian mind, these mounds of earth demonstrated new life. A mound of earth was seen as the source of new life emerging from water.

As they worshiped in their temples, they sometimes incorporated a mound of earth as a representation of the beginning of life. Sometimes this was a mound of earth or of sand, and after a time it began to evolve more permanently into a single block of stone.

The stone developed into a small pyramid shape. Thus, for the Ancient Egyptians, the pyramid shape was associated with the idea of new life, coming out of the water from the earth and thriving in the light and warmth of the sunrise.

Osiris was the god of the resurrection and afterlife, the god of fertility and agriculture and vegetation. As such, he is pictured with green skin and shows his authority with the pharaoh’s beard. He wears a distinctive feathered white crown, and he carries a shepherd’s tools. His legs are wrapped in cloth as a mummy's would be, symbolizing life arising after death.

These ancient Egyptians believed that death was not an ending, but it was the beginning of a new life in a new way. Therefore, the dead were buried to the west of the Nile River, where the sun set each day.

The pyramids that were built were not merely a monument created to honor a deceased ruler. Instead they were seen as a tool of resurrection and eternal life for the pharaoh inside.

In the minds of Ancient Egyptians, the pyramid shape combined the afterlife powers of their god, Osiris, with the life-giving power of the hill in the form of the pyramid to draw energy from the sun and bring a new form of existence for their ruler.

This was much like a seed would be planted in the earth and would sprout to grow a new crop.

Photograph of the pyramid of Khufu. 2019. Hollis, Luke. View item

In Focus

The Great Pyramid

The Great Pyramid, also known as Khufu’s Pyramid, is amazing for many reasons and the only surviving ancient Wonder of the World.

One of these reasons is its massive size. It measures 755 feet along each side at its base. It was originally 481 feet tall when it was built.

The Great Pyramid is estimated to contain over 2 million blocks of stone, which were cut and transported to the site. Researchers estimate that the whole pyramid weighs almost 6 million tons!

Diagram of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, cut along North-South. 1. Original entrance 2. Tourist entrance 3. Descending passage 4. Descending tunnel 5. Lower chamber 6. Ascending passage 7. Queen's chamber and ducts (almost but not quite to the outside) 8. Horizontal passage 9. Great Gallery 10. King's chamber and ducts to the outside 11. Well shaft from the Grand Gallery to the Lower chamber. View item.

The Great Pyramid has three chambers inside and a long system of passageways to access them. These passageways and chambers were all blocked with a series of traps and huge stones.

Looking at the pyramid, it’s easy to assume that thousands of slaves were forced to labor to create it. The ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote down that he had heard that 100,000 slaves built the pyramids.

But today, archaeologists have formed a contrasting opinion. The tombs and settlement of former builders of the pyramids were studied and their bones examined. The bones reveal that the people who worked on the pyramids were actually Egyptians.

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Who Built the Pyramids?

The pyramid builders were drawn to Giza from all over Egypt. It appears that there was a permanent workforce of skilled laborers, who lived with their families in an established village. It is not known exactly how many skilled workers lived in this village, but one estimate places the number at approximately 5,000.

This village offered many supportive services, including medical care for the workers. Two bakeries have been discovered, as well as a fish market, a copper processing plant, and other industries. Work on Khufu’s Pyramid is thought to have taken about 20 years.

Cemetery G 7000 SE (area S of G 7760): G 7796, and surrounding area, men at work, looking E to village and cultivation. View item.

Outside the pyramid village, in more temporary housing, there were potentially 20,000 additional workers, who lived at Giza, maybe for 3-4 month shifts. These extra workers may have been forced to build the pyramid or came to work willingly.

It is thought that many workers came during the period when the Nile was flooded, and the fields could not be tended. These workers received wages. The standard ration for a laborer was ten loaves of bread and a measure of beer. The bread could be used to barter or exchange for other items since there was no money system currently in place.

These workers also received proper burials including containers of food placed beside them for use in the afterlife. These types of burials would not have been given to slaves.

The Workers at the Pyramid Village

Pharaoh Khufu’s father was the Pharaoh Sneferu. During his lifetime, Sneferu requested four different pyramids to be built for him. His royal builders experimented with several techniques to learn the most stable way to build a pyramid.

By observing these designs, skilled artisans along with the temporary workers developed new construction abilities. In addition, seeing this important building being built gave the whole country a sense of national unity and pride. And they were helped by the food that they earned and took back thom with them to their villages.

As the new workers arrived to build the pyramid, they were organized into crews. A crew consisted of 2,000 men. This crew was divided into two gangs of 1,000 workers. And then each gang was further divided into five groups of 200 each–or perhaps 10 groups of 100 each. These smaller groups were called tribes.

Archaeologists have discovered some of the names of these gangs, such as “Friends of Menkaure” or “Laborers of Menkaure”. And they were assigned different building tasks, sometimes competing against each other.

There is graffiti on some of the blocks of the pyramids with the names of these gangs, written in hieroglyphics. The gangs used a simplified form of the hieroglyphs that was just starting to be used in Ancient Egypt, called hieratic.

One of the stone quarries where the blocks that the workers used to build the pyramids were cut. View item.

What were the pyramids built out of?

Archaeologists have determined that the stone for the pyramids came from different areas. The pyramids were mostly built from limestone, directly on the plateau to the south of the pyramids.

When they were almost finished, each pyramid was then totally covered with fine, white limestone from Tura, about nine miles downstream and across the Nile from Giza. This limestone was mined from underground tunnels, instead of open pit mining techniques Granite blocks from Aswan were used for the king’s burial chamber area.

These stones were floated on barges from over 500 miles away and brought to deep channels directly on the Giza plateau. In ancient times, the waters of the Nile came up close to the plateau where the modern city is today.

Continue Exploring the Pyramids at Giza

Keep exploring Giza and learn about the tombs and archaeologists that excavated there. Visit the Tomb of Queen Meresankh III and read about the archaeologists that worked at Harvard Camp.

Kings and queens of Ancient Egypt Learn More
Pharaoh and builder of the Great Pyramid Learn More
God of the afterlife and resurrection Learn More
Pyramid Village
A settlement of workers that built the pyramids Learn More