The Great Pyramid of Giza

For reasons lost in the history of Egyptian tourism, visitors today enter by the tunnel forced into the Pyramid by the 9th century Sultan al-Mamum and not by the proper entrance. The tunnel was dug by burning wood and then quenching the fire with vinegar. This slowly cracked the limestone.

The chances of a random tunnel finding a hidden passage in the 13 acres of the Pyramid are very small, but al-Mamum succeeded. As a plus, the stone covering that hid the ascending passage had (some say suspiciously) fallen, showing the way to the Grand Gallery and the King's Chamber.

The Descending Passage goes from the original entrance all the way down to the pit, an unfinished chamber below ground-level that would have been the burial chamber in earlier pyramids. The tunnel to the actual burial chamber was plugged by three large granite blocks. The limestone walls were softer so al-Mamum tunneled around them, arriving in the Grand Gallery.

The Grand Gallery

The entrance to the Grand Gallery.
The entrance to the well is at the bottom right of the back wall,
The tunnel to the Queen's Chamber is in the lower center of the photo.

Few tourists these days visit the Queen's Chamber - tour operators have realized that their clients are more interested in the bragging rights that accrue from having been inside the Pyramid than a detailed examination of the cramped interior. A narrow tunnel leads from the base of the Grand Gallery to this nearly forgotten place. These days the gate may be locked.

A horizontal passage leads to the Queen's chamber of the Great Pyramid of Cheops / Khufu - by E.J. Andrews, 1842.There isn't really much to see in the Queen's chamber, an empty room of about 18 X 18 feet (5 X 5 meters), a couple 8 inch (20 cm) holes in the wall, a little alcove ---- and something like silence, or at least diminished noise. The walls still are blackened with the smoke of countless torches, unlike the King's chamber which has been cleaned.
The plans in this section were drawn by E.J. Andrews, 1842.

The Grand Gallery.
(Left) From la Description de l'Egypte, 1809

The Grand Gallery ends at a small passage leading to the King's chamber in the Great Pyramid of Cheops / Khufu - by E.J. Andrews, 1842.

Between the King's and Queen's chamber is the Grand Gallery: 28 feet high (9 meters), 157 ft long (48 meters), and only 62 inches wide (less than 2 meters). A stunning sight after crawling through endless low tunnels! The walls are corbelled - each course of stone is set a few inches in from the course below - which enhances the effect of the place.

A small platform at the end of the Grand Gallery leads to another narrow passage.

The passage leads to a large room
built entirely of red Aswan Granite.

The plain empty sarcophagus - King's chamber, Great Pyramid of Cheops / Khufu - by E.J. Andrews, 1842.
The King's chamber is larger than the Queen's: 34 feet (10 meters) long, 17 feet (5 m) wide, 19 feet (6 m) high. The granite walls built thousands of years ago can cause one to pause, to reflect on how short one life is, be it ours or that of Cheops who is believed to have been laid to rest here in Pharaoic splendor.

The King's Chamber of the Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt.
The King's Chamber.
Photographs inside the Great Pyramid are from EgyptArchive.

Splendor? Perhaps, yet today the bare walls and empty, unornamented sarcophagus dispute the idea that these grand stone monuments were built solely for the gratification of Pharaohs' egos. A Pharaoh had great power, yes, but also great responsibility. Through his person was channeled the life force, source of the fertility of the land. In death he joined the god Osiris. Perhaps then his body served even more as a conduit, a bringer of life to the Nile Valley, amplified by the massive geometry of the Pyramid.


Forbidden Chambers

Gate in the Descending Passage to the Pit
secret entrance



The first historian
writes of the Great Pyramid

The Egyptians remembered Cheops as a great ruler. His cult continued four hundred years at his Gisa mortuary temple, with dozens of priests offering daily ritual for his well-being. The historian Herodotus (c. 425 BC, Turkey/Greece) writing 2000 years after Cheops, portrayed him as a cruel tyrant. Archaeology cannot answer, very little is known of the period. A workers' village has been excavated of fairly substantial homes, and evidence of mistreatment of what is assumed to have been a very large workforce has not been reported.

Scholars of today accept Herodotus' information as mostly accurate, but it is uncertain if he actually visited Egypt and what sources he used. His talk of "vaults of the hill upon which the Pyramids are erected." ( or, an alternate translation: "underground chambers on the hill upon which the pyramids stand") may have been partly confirmed by recent reports of a tunnel system, apparently built to move water from west of the plateau. Indeed geologists say the Nile was once located there - although that was thousands of years before Cheops ruled.

Historiae, Book II,
chapter 124–126
by Herodotus, c.425 BC

As long as Rhámpsinîtos was king, as the Egyptians told me, there was nothing but orderly rule in Egypt, and the land prospered greatly. But after him, Khéops (Cheops) became king over them and brought them to every kind of suffering: He closed all the temples; after this he kept the priests from sacrificing there and then he forced all the Egyptians to work for him. So some were ordered to draw stones from the stone quarries in the Arabian mountains to the Nile, and others he forced to receive the stones after they had been carried over the river in boats, and to draw them to the Libyan mountains.

And they worked by 100,000 men at a time, for each three months continually. Of this oppression there passed ten years while the causeway was made by which they drew the stones, which causeway they built, and it is a work not much less, as it appears to me, than the pyramid. For the length of it is 5 furlongs (3300 ft, 1KM) and the breadth 10 fathoms (60 feet, 18 meters) and the height, where it is highest, 8 fathoms, and it is made of polished stone and with figures carved upon it. For this, they said, 10 years were spent, and for the underground chambers on the hill upon which the pyramids stand, which he caused to be made as sepulchral chambers for himself in an island, having conducted thither a channel from the Nile.

For the making of the pyramid itself there passed a period of 20 years; the pyramid is square, each side measuring 800 feet, and the height of it is the same (sic, actually 755 X 479 feet). It is built of stone smoothed and fitted together in the most perfect manner, not one of the (outer casing) stones being less than 30 feet in length. This pyramid was made after the manner of steps, which some call 'rows' and others 'bases': When they had first made it thus, they raised the remaining stones with devices made of short pieces of timber, lifting them first from the ground to the first stage of the steps, and when the stone got up to this it was placed upon another machine standing on the first stage, and so from this it was drawn to the second upon another machine; for as many as were the courses of the steps, so many machines there were also, or perhaps they transferred one and the same machine, made so as easily to be carried, to each stage successively, in order that they might take up the stones; for let it be told in both ways, according as it is reported. However that may be, the highest parts of it were finished first, and afterwards they proceeded to finish that which came next to them, and lastly they finished the parts of it near the ground and the lowest ranges.

On the pyramid it is declared in Egyptian writing how much was spent on radishes and onions and leeks for the workmen, and if I remember correctly what the interpreter said while reading this inscription for me, a sum of 1600 silver talents was spent. (In equivalent, the Egyptians had no coinage, the pyramids were built by barter.)
Excerpt from Historiae, Book II,
chapter 124–126
by Herodotus c.425 BC.

Sphinx, Great Pyramid, and a line of three camels.
Photograph by Zangaki.

Khufu's Extraordinary Feat

by W M Flinders Petrie, 1897.

The Great Pyramid was set out from the first upon a vast scale, larger than any other pyramid, and it contains more stone than probably any other single building ever erected. Its base is far greater than the whole area of the great temple of Karnak, from Amenemhat to Ptolemy, its height is greater than any other building until the twentieth century, and those are but slender towers. Yet it stands as one of the earliest structures of the world.

Both this and the pyramid of Medum were designed to an exact dimension. The construction is of such an angle that the height was the radius of a circle equal to the circuit of the base. This is so exactly the case that it can hardly be questioned, and as the earlier pyramid of Sneferu has the same angle, it is evident that some attention was given to it.

The pyramid was built of stone from quarries on the opposite side of the Nile, both the fine casing and the rough core must have come from there, as no such stone, and no equivalent quarries, exist on the west bank.

"A stone that may be taken out,
which being raised up,
there is a sloping passage."
The door in the Pyramid was hidden,
but if pressed in the right way it could open.
Known to a few people in Greek times,
then left open to become choked with sand,
then, strangely, the entrance was lost.
Drawing by W M F Petrie.

That the entrance was closed by a hinging trap-door of stone is evident from the account of Strabo, and the remains of such a door are found in the south pyramid of Dahshur.

The workmanship greatly varies in different parts. The entrance passage and the casing are perhaps the finest; the flatness and squareness of the joints being extraordinary, equal to opticians' work of the present day, but on a scale of acres instead of feet or yards of material. The squareness and level of the base is brilliantly true, the average error being less than a ten-thousandth of the side in equality, in squareness, and in level. The Queen's chamber is also very finely fitted, the joints being scarcely perceptible.

Above that the work is rougher, the grand gallery has not this superlative fineness, and the construction of the King's chamber is flagrantly out of level, though its granite courses are fairly well wrought. A change of design is shown by the unfinished rough core masonry left for the floor of the Queen's chamber.

The granite box-coffin in the King's chamber seems to point to that as the sepulchral chamber, especially as the great subterranean chamber in the rock was abandoned before it was finished. The second highlevel chamber, called the Queen's chamber, is said by Edrisi (1236 A.D.) to have contained then a second coffin; but no trace has since been seen of it.

Outside of the Great Pyramid extended a wide pavement of limestone, which on the east side stretched out to a temple which stood there. Of this temple no walls remain, but there are portions of a pavement of brown basalt, 190 feet long and 80 feet from east to west. A shallow trench in the rock has a steady fall down to the cliff edge. As it is worn by water, it was doubtless a drain for the washing of the pavement.
Excerpted from: A History Of Egypt,
From the Earliest Times to the XVIth Dynasty,
by William Mathew Flinders Petrie, London, 1897.

A quarry has been found south of the Great Pyramid, and part of the ramp used to build the pyramid begins there.
The uneven flooring in the King's and Queen's Chambers is an indication that these parts were covered by fine woods and cloth originally. And Gold, certainly. Gold is thought to have been the source of Old Kingdom power. Cheops probably had gold everywhere. These places served the Pharaoh, they were not as they are today.

Narrow passages within the Great Pyramid.
Interior of the Great Pyramid of Cheops.
(A.) The Ascending Passage. (B.) The Grand Gallery. (C.) The Queen's Chamber.
(D.) The King's Chamber. (The relieving chambers are above it) (E.) The Descending Passage.
(F.) The Well, a tunnel dug between the ascending and descending passages.
(G.) The Pit. Engraving by Prisse d'Avennes, 1878.

The Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza

wings of the Sun.

Ancient Egypt's Age of the Pyramids

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The Second Greatest Pyramid - Chephren
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The Pyramid of Menkaure
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The Pyramids of Sneferu
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