Digital Giza

"General plan of the Giza Plateau." Printed drawing from the Harvard University-Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition. View item.


For millennia, the Pyramids and Ancient Egypt have fascinated people of all ages and backgrounds.

This is a group of some of the most commonly asked questions about Giza and Ancient Egypt. If you have other questions, you can always click “Ask a Question” on any story or tour.

Where is Giza and where are the Pyramids?

To begin your journey to tour the Great Pyramid, you will have to visit Cairo, Egypt. Cairo is located in northeast Africa near the mouth of the Nile River.

You will see that the surrounding territory is brown, dry desert and that there is a green stripe extending from south (Upper Egypt) to north (Lower Egypt) along the Nile River. This green stripe is the fertile farmland along the floodplain of the Nile, where the Ancient Egyptians grew primarily barley and wheat.

As you arrive you will note that there are three immense pyramids in the desert just west of Cairo, along with several smaller pyramids, other rectangular structures and a large statue of a Sphinx. A sphinx is a mythical/religious creature with the head of a human and body of a lion.

What is the Great Pyramid?

The largest pyramid is called the Great Pyramid. When built it was 481 feet tall. It is now a little shorter, because the top is missing. For 3,800 years after it was built it was the tallest manmade structure on the earth. It is 750 feet by 750 feet at the base and is made of large stone blocks, primarily limestone blocks cut from the area near the pyramid.

It has been estimated that the pyramid is made up of between 1,260,000 and 2,300,000 stones, totalling about 6,000,000 tons (twelve billion pounds or over five billion kilograms.) Some individual stones are estimated to weigh between 30,000 and 160, 000 pounds (13,000 - 73,000 kilograms.)

Who made The Great Pyramid?

It is believed that the Pharaoh Khufu commissioned this building project, that is that he ordered it built and paid for the construction project. Khufu was a pharaoh of Egypt about 4,500 years ago, during a time called the “Old Kingdom” of Egyptian history.

Ancient Egypt was a very rich country, primarily due to the grain grown along the Nile River, which was exported to the surrounding countries. Because of this, Pharaoh Khufu could afford to build such a large building. It is estimated that a crew of about 20,000 workers built the pyramid.

Why did the Ancient Egyptians build the Pyramids?

Some historians say that the answer goes back to Ancient Egyptian religion and their belief in an afterlife.

Because they believed in life after death, the bodies of important Ancient Egyptians were frequently mummified and placed into tombs. Mummification was a process that preserved the body, with the idea that the deceased person could use it again in the afterlife.

The early tombs of Ancient Egypt were rectangular brick structures with an underground chamber. Bodies of royalty and important officials were placed in a coffin called a sarcophagus, and then the sarcophagus was placed into the underground chamber.

Above ground there was a separate chamber for holding food and drink for use by the deceased person in the afterlife. This chamber was also used to make offerings to their gods.

During the Old Kingdom of Egypt’s history, about 4,500 years ago, there was a limited time when the pharaohs’ tombs were built in the shape of large pyramids, such as these pyramids seen in Giza.

How did the Ancient Egyptians build the pyramids without modern tools and power equipment?

There are several theories about how they could cut these stones and move them into position, but it is still not clear exactly how this was done.

It is believed that the stones were cut in the quarry using quite time-consuming methods, such as pounding the rock with dolerite, a type of rock that is extremely hard. They might also have drilled into the rock or sawed in the rock using an abrasive (something that would rub or scrape on the rock), such as quartz sand.

Once these extremely heavy stones were cut in the quarry, some believe they were placed onto wooden sleds. Then mud was placed on the ground and the sleds were pulled over the mud. Others believe that the stones were moved by placing them first on wooden rollers.

After the stones reached the pyramid it is believed that they were pulled by a crew of men up a ramp to their individual place in the structure. Some believe there was a long, straight ramp perpendicular to the pyramid. Others believe that there was a spiral ramp, which was built around the pyramid and was extended higher as the pyramid was built.

There are also those who believe that there is an internal ramp which is enclosed in the pyramid and the stones were hauled up through the pyramid and then placed into position.

Were the pyramids at Giza built by aliens?

You also may have heard that there are those who believe that the pyramids were made by aliens. This theory is a problem because some people believe that it would have been impossible for the Ancient Egyptians to have built the pyramids by themselves for racist reasons.

Those who hold this theory state that the stones were too heavy for the Ancient Egyptians to move into position. They also state that the Ancient Egyptians did not have compasses, so they could not have placed the pyramids in Giza facing directly north, which is how they are positioned.

Sometimes people believe their own version of history to support their own beliefs without studying history. There is no archaeological evidence that anyone other than the Ancient Egyptians built the pyramids.

Were the pyramids built by slaves?

Archaeologists believe that the pyramids were not built by slaves, but by the Egyptians themselves. Some of these workers were potentially farmers, who likely had time to work on the pyramids after they were finished with harvest.

It is also possible that farmers would have had time to work on the pyramids during the part of the year when the Nile was flooded, before planting took place. Slaves were needed to support the workmen during the construction, bringing food and water and providing other services as needed.

Slaves were also commanded to make mud bricks, which were used to create other structures. Master builders, who directed the important work with stones, were of a higher social class. They lived in houses in a village at the base of the pyramid.

Other Egyptian workmen who were helping with the pyramid building lived in more temporary housing in this village. They were paid with food rations.

In this village archaeologists have found evidence of bakeries and fish processing areas among other services. They have discovered bones of poultry, sheep and pigs, as well as some beef, which was an expensive luxury. In cemeteries for the workmen, their bodies have been found buried with their tools and with food for their afterlife journey.