The Inside Track on Pyramids

Pyramids are fascinating structures that have had historians, archaeologists and tourists scratching their befuddled brows for centuries. And they’re still a source of wonder and amazement. How were they built and what purpose did they serve? Read on to find out!

The Great Pyramids of Giza.

The Great Pyramids of Giza.

Pyramids – not just an Egyptian thing.

Though they are probably the most famous example of ancient pyramids, the ancient Egyptians were by no means the only ones building pyramids back in the day. You’ll also find pyramids that served various functions in Central America, Greece and China.

Different shapes and sizes

Pyramids evolved in different ways and weren’t always the iconic shape we recognise today. In North America and Europe, simple mounds of earth were used to cover burial chambers. The ancient Egyptians then built flat, box-shaped buildings called ‘mastabas’, and pharaohs began to add upper levels to the buildings, forming stepped pyramids (like the famous stepped pyramids of Saqqara). This stepped design was prevalent in Central America too.

Egypt gets serious about pyramids

The Egyptians really took pyramid building to the extreme, displayed most impressively by the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Built in the 26th century BC, here are some of its vital statistics:

Height: 146 meters
Area: 230 square meters
Weight: 6.5 million tons
Number of stones used: 2.3 million.

Even when one has been up close to these mighty monuments, the figures never cease to amaze. Featuring an elaborate interior, Khufu’s pyramid has burial chambers for both the king and queen, a gallery, weight-relieving chambers (preventing any interior collapse), descending and ascending passageways and air shafts – which may have been built to allow Khufu’s spirit to exit and rise to the heavens.

The pyramid of Chichen Itza, Mexico

The pyramid of Chichen Itza, Mexico

The base of Khufu’s pyramid is level to 2 centimetres.

Having learned from previous construction projects, the Egyptians were master builders by the time they came to build Khufu’s pyramid. Using the sun and the stars, they were able to calculate true north – and all their pyramids ran parallel to the north-south and east-west axis. Furthermore, they were somehow able to excavate and level the foundation. No one knows exactly how, but whatever method they used worked. Even today, the base of Khufu’s pyramid is level to 2 centimetres.

We still can’t say for sure how they did it…

Given the tools they had at the time and the surrounding desert sand and gravel (which would have made the use of wheels impossible) there are a number of theories as to how the Egyptians managed to transport the enormous 2.5 ton blocks from the quarry to the build site. Egyptologists and experts generally accept that giant ramps were used in the construction of the pyramids, but the dimensions of the ramps themselves are still disputed.

Teotihuacan Pyramid of the Moon. By Flikr user Olivier Bruchez

Teotihuacan Pyramid of the Moon. By Flikr user Olivier Bruchez

The pyramids of the sun and moon at Teotihuacan

Although smaller than the pyramids of Giza, these pyramids – located at the centre of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic empire – continue to puzzle historians and archaeologists. Making up a city that covered an area larger than ancient Rome, these pyramids were built around the 1st Century BC, but by a civilisation that we know very little about. By 750AD, the city had been abandoned – though no-one knows precisely why. Hundreds of years later, the Aztecs came upon the city and took it for their own. A total of 3 million tons of stone and rubble were transported to create the city, though exactly how it was done remains something of a mystery. What’s your theory?

Pyramids in China

Somewhat less well-known but no less fascinating, the pyramids of China are ancient mausoleums built to house the remains of early Chinese emperors. You’ll find about 38 of them in the Shaanxi Province, north-west of Xi’an. Flat-topped – and thus similar in shape to the pyramids of Teotihuacan, these pyramids are also shrouded in mystery.

Have you been to see the pyramids in Egypt, Mexico or even China? Tell us about it in the comments below!

References:       How Stuff Works
TLC: Pyramids of the sun and moon at Teotihuacan
Wikipedia: Chinese Pyramids

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