We know there are questions around travel amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Read our note here.
Egypt was the greatest civilization on Earth for nearly 3,000 years, and some of the evidence of that greatness still stands today. Ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife where their pharaohs would become gods after their death. To prepare them for this new role, massive pyramids were constructed and filled with objects and treasures to sustain them in the afterlife. Thanks to the efforts of archaeologists, we currently know of 138 pyramids scattered across the country — most famously at Giza, located on the outskirts of Cairo.
More than 4,000 years after the pyramids were erected, we remain fascinated by these impressive architectural feats that mystify even modern engineers. But how much do you really know about these iconic structures? Here are seven surprising facts about the pyramids of Egypt.
The Great Pyramid of Giza Is the Only Ancient World Wonder Still Standing
Although the official Seven Wonders of the Ancient World are highly debated by architects and historians, the original seven selected by Greek historian Herodotus matches the seven mentioned in a poem written many years later by Greek poet Antipater of Sion. On the list are the Colossus of Rhodes, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Temple of Artemis, the Statue of Zeus, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the Great Pyramid of Giza, also known as the Pyramid of Khufu or Cheops. Six of the ancient wonders have been lost to history; experts can’t even agree on precisely where the Hanging Gardens were located. But the Great Pyramid is still wowing visitors today, making it the only ancient wonder to survive recognizably intact.
The Great Pyramid Was Once the Tallest Structure in the World
Compared to our modern skyscrapers, the Great Pyramid of Giza probably seems tiny. The current tallest building in the world is the Burj Khalifa, which towers at an impressive 2,722 feet, more than five times the original height of the pyramid, which topped out at 481 feet. But when the pyramid was constructed around 2550 B.C., it was the world’s tallest building. It held the title until 1311 B.C., when England’s Lincoln Cathedral was finished with a spire measuring 525 feet. Since then, both of these historic structures have lost some of their height. Lincoln Cathedral’s three spires were toppled — most likely in a storm — leaving its height at 272 feet, while 31 feet have fallen from the top of the Great Pyramid, reducing it to 449 feet.
The Pyramids Were Once Fully Covered in White Limestone
In contrast to the rough blocks you see today, the pyramids were once completely covered in polished limestone. This higher-quality stone was quarried at a place called Tura, which was about nine miles south of Giza. Its smooth, white surface would have gleamed in the sunshine, creating a dazzling effect. Today, most of the casing is gone except for a cap on the peak of the Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren), which has dulled over time.
Each Pyramid Block Can Weigh More Than a Rhinoceros
Egyptologists estimate the average weight of a pyramid block to be about 2.5 tons. That means even the average block is about 800 times heavier than a standard brick — or a little more than the weight of an adult rhinoceros. The swivel door to the Great Pyramid weighs about 20 tons on its own, yet it’s balanced in such a way that it can be opened from inside with just one hand. How the ancient Egyptians managed to move such immense blocks to the site has fascinated people for centuries. A 2014 theory put forward by physicists at the University of Amsterdam suggests that the surrounding sand was wetted to create a more slippery surface over which men could haul a sledge.
Giza’s Pyramids Weren’t the First Pyramids Built in Egypt
Though the pyramids at Giza are clearly the main attraction, they weren’t the first pyramids to be constructed in Egypt. That distinction goes to the pyramid at Saqqara. Referred to as the Step Pyramid, it was built as the final resting place of King Dhoser, who reigned from 2630 B.C. to 2611 B.C. True to its name, the Step Pyramid features six stepped layers of stone, a design that was carried forward for other royal burials. The earliest known smooth-sided pyramid, meanwhile, was the Red Pyramid of Dahshur. It was built for Sneferu, the first pharaoh of the fourth dynasty, who died in 2589 B.C.
Neighboring Sudan Actually Has More Pyramids
Although we most closely associate the pyramids with Egypt, there are actually more of them in neighboring Sudan. At the time of the pharaohs, northern Sudan was part of the kingdom of Nubia, which extended north across what’s now the international border between Egypt and the Republic of Sudan. South of the border, there are an estimated 255 pyramids, which is roughly double the number excavated in Egypt. Perhaps the most impressive concentration is at Meroë on the east bank of the Nile about 125 miles northeast of Khartoum. Narrower and steeper than those at Giza, these pyramids were also built much more recently, between 2,700 and 2,300 years ago.
The Pyramid Shape Helps Withstand Earthquakes
Aside from their cultural contributions, the pyramids offer valuable lessons in construction techniques. Perhaps most impressive is their ability to withstand seismic activity. Egypt is prone to earthquakes, as the country has four major seismic zones. Although the areas around the Red Sea, Gulf of Aqaba, and Suez are the most active, Cairo has also experienced sizable earthquakes throughout history. The casing stones of the Giza pyramids came loose in a quake in 1303 B.C. Yet despite this, the stone structure beneath is still standing. The most recent quake to seriously impact the capital was in 1992, when a 5.9-magnitude event led to around 500 deaths and caused widespread damage, except to the Great Pyramid, which lost only a single block. The bottom-heavy shape also has been adopted for modern pyramid designs; San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid is one such building.