Who Really Built the Pyramids?

Pyramids are arguably among the most recognisable and impressive structures around the world. For millennia this design has been used in various forms of architecture: ceremonial complexes and tombs of the ancient world to the iconic Louvre in France and the Ryugyong Hotel in North Korea, in the modern world. Although the word “pyramid” is bound to conjure up an image of the pyramids at Giza, Egypt, the basic structure is not unique to this ancient civilisation. It has made appearances in various cultures all around the world over the years- Chichen Itza (Mexico), Koh Ker (Cambodia), Ji’an (China), Meroe (Sudan) and Borobudur Temple (Indonesia) are some such examples. But why on Earth did the ancient people decide to drag massive chunks of rocks and stack them up to make the pyramids? Why were the pyramids common to so many of the civilisations in a relatively unconnected ancient world? How did the primitive people even build them, especially in as little time as 20 years, in the case of the Great Pyramid of Giza? Questions like these have baffled historians for years and several theories have been proposed to provide an answer. In this article, I shall be focussing my attention on the most popular examples of the pyramids: the pyramids of the ancient Egyptian civilization and trying to address some of these questions and controversies associated with them.

Although the most famous site of the Egyptian pyramids is located in Giza, these pyramids are far from being the oldest examples of such architecture belonging to this early civilisation. The earliest attempt at a pyramidal design resides in Saqqara and dates back to around 2780 BC (almost 4800 years old). This is the Step Pyramid of Pharaoh Djoser. It was built by the pharaoh’s youngest architect, Imhotep, whose revolutionary ideas greatly impressed the king. This pyramid took over 10 years to reach completion and underwent several changes in the initial plan on its way. The final result was a stepped pyramid, a style we usually associate with the Aztecs. It is popularly assumed to symbolise the steps that the Pharaoh would have had to take to move on to his afterlife. The pyramid of Djoser is quite possibly the oldest pyramid in the world and it heralded a long standing tradition of building similar structures to house the sarcophagi of the Pharaohs of Egypt.

The next greatest attempt at such a feat would come during the reign of Huni, the last pharaoh of the third dynasty and it is located in Meidum, Egypt. It is popularly believed that although this pyramid was originally meant for him, he died before its completion and the process of construction was later taken up by the founder of the fourth dynasty, Sneferu. This pyramid is a type of step pyramid and is the oldest known example of a straight sided pyramid in Egypt. Unfortunately, due to some faults, it partially collapsed during the ancient times.

Sneferu’s next ambitious endeavour resulted in what is today known as the Bent Pyramid. It is located in Dashur, a necropolis in Lower Egypt. This pyramid is so called because of a very clear “bend” at its belly. However, the reason why this pyramid bears this unusual shape is not exactly known and multiple theories have been put forward to provide an explanation. One of these suggests that the initial plan was to build a structure that looks like what we have come to associate the word “pyramid” with today- a tetrahedron. The final result, however, has a slope of 54°27′44′′ below bend and 43°22′ above it. Clearly, the lower angle corresponds to a much greater total height. It is possible that the pharaoh, due to his rapidly advancing old age, wanted the process of construction to be accelerated. This left the architects with no choice but to reduce the angle to complete the structure faster. Another theory suggests that, as the Meidum Pyramid had already started collapsing, the architects decided that the base angle was way too steep (Meidum Pyramid also had a base angle of 51°50’35’’) and changed it mid-way through the construction process resulting in the infamous bend.

Sneferu left behind yet another pyramid in Dashur. This one is known as the Red Pyramid. This pyramid bears almost the same base angle as the upper portion of the Bent Pyramid- 43°40’ and is of the shape that we typically call a pyramid today. The Red Pyramid paved the way for the majestic pyramids at Giza during the reign of Sneferu’s successors. They were constructed roughly between 2550 BC and 2490 BC and house the burial chambers of Khafre, Khufu and Menkaure.

The pyramids of Giza looked very different back in its days than it does now. Firstly, they used to be white in colour owing to the use of locally found limestone on its exterior. In the sunlight, the pyramids would have had a startling and almost blinding glow. Most of this outer layer has fallen off or has eroded away. Another rather astonishing discovery in recent times is the fact that Khufu’s pyramid, also called the Great Pyramid of Giza, does not have a conventional pyramid-shape. In fact, it has eight faces and this is very clear in the aerial pictures of the structure. Each of the four faces has a slight concave split from the base to the top and all the faces have the same base length. Thus, it simply could not have been a mishap. It was planned. The outer walls of the Great Pyramid of Giza showcase the exceptional cutting skills of the builders as the rocks fit in perfectly with each other. The rocks away from the walls however, are shapeless and do not fit in well. It might have been a conscious decision to speed up the process of construction. It is popularly believed that the pyramids are so shaped to represent the rays of the sun. The sun god Ra was a central figure in the ancient Egyptian myths. The rays of the sun, called Aten, often associated with life giving properties, was just as important. In fact, during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten, the father of the legendary boy king Tutankhamun, a new monotheistic religion was adopted that involved worshipping only Aten. All these indicate that the pyramids were meticulously planned and they served to reinforce long held beliefs. Besides, the excellent craftsmanship of the workers is very apparent in the magnificent execution of the plans of the ambitious architects.

The most important question that arises at this point is this: how did the people of the ancient world build something as ambitious and remarkable as the pyramids? Egyptologists believe that the ancient Egyptians had not even invented the wheel yet. This adds to the laundry list of problems associated with the construction of such a gigantic structure during a supposedly technologically backward era. In addition, not only are these pyramids grandiose, they have defied the odds of nature and stood the test of time. Besides, the rocks that make up the pyramids of Giza weigh a few tonnes each. Let’s also not forget the fact that the pyramid itself rises to a staggering height of 146.7m (in the case of Khufu’s pyramid). Apart from these, the rocks on the outside of the pyramid and those that make up the burial chamber are so precisely cut that not even a credit card can slip in in between them. In a world where humans had only very primitive tools, this indeed seems like an impossible feat. Some people think that it really was impossible and the ancient Egyptians did not, in fact, build them. Question is, who did then? Their response is just as simple as it is shocking: aliens.

There many reasons why one could possibly believe in this theory. This is especially since pyramids are not only an architectural marvel but also a mathematical and scientific masterpiece. The recurrence of pi in different multiplicities in various calculated dimensions of the pyramid has baffled everyone for years. Another such remarkable discovery involves phi. The number whose square is one more than itself is referred to as phi and it is numerically equal to 1.618. Pythagorean Theorem can then be applied to find the values corresponding to any right sided triangle. Assume a triangle that has root phi as the height, 1 as the base and phi as the hypotenuse. The height to base ratio of this triangle, referred to as the Golden Triangle, is equal to 0.636. The Great Pyramid of Giza has a height of 146.7 m and the base perimeter is 230.34 m. The height to base ratio comes out to be 0.636 (approximately). The error is only about 0.025%. In addition, the pyramid is aligned within 1/15th of a degree to true North. These are only three of the numerous examples of astonishing mathematical knowledge that the ancient Egyptians supposedly possessed. The ancient alien theorists do not believe that the Egyptians are capable of having such impeccable command over the understanding of mathematics and honestly, very few disagree. In their view, it is a little too rich to expect people who didn’t know that a circular log could be used as a wheel, to understand astronomy and spend time deriving complicated mathematical equations. Another shocking fact that possibly supports the ancient aliens theory is that no Egyptian text mentions the construction of the pyramids. Egypt has around 120 pyramids and each of them is equally marvellous and unique. Yet, no one decided to write down how they managed the construction of possibly the most impressive set of structures to have been ever built in the history of mankind. There are several such arguments that have been put forward in favour of this theory about aliens being the masterminds behind the pyramids. In fact, there is an American TV series titled “Ancient Aliens” dedicated to this.

There are numerous theories aimed at debunking the hypothesis put forward by the ancient alien theorists. Various proofs have also been found that indicate that the ancient people did in fact build the enormous structures. There are scriptures that show numerous people working together to drag a humongous statue in the form of a seated figure while one person is committed to wetting the path right in front of the sledge with the statue on it. Water does reduce friction and thus, makes dragging the weight easier. Various tools have been found and possible plans on the ground in front of the pyramids prove exceptional architectural, mathematical and engineering skills of the ancient Egyptians. At this point, you might be thinking, how do we even know who commissioned the construction of the Great Pyramid, considering the fact that tomb robbers did not even leave the sarcophagus and the mummy behind for identification, if possible. The answer to this is a series of informally scribbled messages found inside the Great Pyramid of Giza. One of them has been translated and reads: “Friends of Khufu.” It is believed to have been left behind by one of the construction workers. In addition to this, the previous discussion on the evolution of the pyramidal structure in ancient Egypt is a clear indication of the fact that they gradually developed the knowledge and understanding. Everything did not happen all at once; it took centuries for them to perfect the pyramid.

A number of historians, architects and archaeologists have proposed several theories to explain how the gigantic structures of the ancient world like the pyramids were built. One of these theories suggests that a head on slope was employed. However, this hypothesis failed to garner support from the community of Egyptologists as the amount of rocks required to build such a slope would have been greater than that required to build the pyramid itself, in order to reach the full height. This renders the system rather inefficient and thus, unlikely. Others speculate that a slope that spiraled around the pyramid might have been used. This is popularly known as the ramp model. Some even believe that the spiral slope could have been inside the structure itself. Thermal scanning shows unexplained vacant spaces within the walls of the Giza pyramids. An elaborate mechanism has been proposed to support these findings and the theory. It involves the use of a pulley system. Although no concrete proof exists to validate this, possible carvings into the wall that could have been required for such a system to be set up, have been discovered inside the Great Pyramid of Giza.

While the modern world continues to believe that the ancient world was a dark age where knowledge was scarce and structures and weapons were very primitive, it is clear that we might be gravely wrong. I have also discussed how Egypt was a far more women friendly civilization than many cultures that we know of today, in one of my previous articles. However, very little of either of these is popularly known due to the efficient and long term erasure of non-cis straight male history and our long standing notions of what the ancient and medieval times were like. In fact, it is our conviction that the river valley civilizations were backward that has led us to believe in the possible involvement of aliens or even supernatural beings in the construction of the marvels of the ancient world. Whether aliens are real or not is not the concern here. The point is that we need to give the ancient humans due credit for their meticulous work and preserve history as it is.


Oindrila Ghosh

I am a student of Chemical Engineering at BITS Pilani and an Egyptology enthusiast, who loves reading about cold cases, creation and everything else that will probably never benefit me in my future career.

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