The Pyramids of Giza, built over 4,500 years ago, are ancient Egypt’s architectural masterpieces, serving as pharaonic tombs and symbolising the civilisation’s brilliance and mystery.

The Pyramids of Giza, designed for timeless endurance, have indeed achieved this feat. These grandiose tombs stand as a testament to the Old Kingdom of Egypt, dating back approximately 4,500 years.

The rulers of Egypt anticipated their transformation into deities in the afterlife. In preparation for their continued existence, they constructed temples honouring the gods and colossal pyramidal tombs for themselves, replete with all the essentials needed for their journey and sustenance in the beyond.

Each pyramid, a monumental structure in itself, forms part of a more extensive complex that includes a royal palace, various temples, and pits for solar boats, among other elements. This article delves into the creators of these wonders, the methods of their construction, and the remarkable treasures discovered within them.

Construction of the Pyramids of Giza

Who built the Pyramids?

Around 2550 B.C., Pharaoh Khufu embarked on a monumental endeavour, constructing the first pyramid at Giza. His Great Pyramid, the largest of the complex, originally soared to an impressive height of 481 feet (147 meters). Though now slightly reduced in height with the loss of its outer casing stones, it’s still a marvel, composed of an estimated 2.3 million stone blocks, each weighing between 2.5 to 15 tons.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Khufu’s son, Khafre, initiated the construction of Giza’s second pyramid around 2520 B.C. Khafre’s burial site is particularly notable, not just for the pyramid itself but also for the inclusion of the Sphinx. This enigmatic sculpture, featuring a pharaoh’s head on a lion’s body, was largely buried in sand until the 1800s, revealing only its head. While it is thought to guard Khafre’s tomb complex, the exact origins and purpose of the Sphinx remain a topic of ongoing debate and mystery.

Constructed by Menkaure, Khafre’s son, around 2490 B.C., the third pyramid at Giza is notably smaller than its predecessors, standing at approximately 218 feet, which is less than half the height of the first two. This pyramid is part of a sophisticated complex that features two distinct temples linked by an extended causeway, alongside three smaller pyramids dedicated to queens. Unique to the Giza site, Menkaure’s burial chambers are adorned with niche decorations and boast a vaulted ceiling. Tragically, the pharaoh’s intricately designed sarcophagus was lost in a maritime accident near Gibraltar in 1838.

How were the Pyramids of Giza built?

The foundation of the pyramid is a natural mound, which was sculpted into steps. Only the outermost area was meticulously levelled, achieving an impressive flatness with a deviation of just 21 millimetres (0.8 inches). At the site of the Grotto, the underlying rock reaches almost 6 meters (20 feet) above the base of the pyramid.

Around the edges of this base, several holes were carved into the bedrock. It’s theorised by Lehner that these were used to hold wooden posts for alignment purposes. Edwards and others have posited that water might have been used to ensure the base was even, although the practicality and effectiveness of such a method remains a topic of debate.

The Great Pyramid is composed of around 2.3 million blocks, utilizing about 5.5 million tonnes of limestone, 8,000 tonnes of granite, and 500,000 tonnes of mortar in its construction.

The majority of these blocks were sourced from a quarry located just south of the pyramid, now known as the Central Field. This quarry provided a specific kind of nummulitic limestone, characterised by the fossilised remains of prehistoric shell creatures, visible upon close examination of the pyramid’s blocks. Additionally, other fossils, including shark teeth, have been identified within the blocks and other structures at the site. The casing stones, made of white limestone, were ferried across the Nile from the Tura quarries in the Eastern Desert plateau, approximately 10 km southeast of Giza. In 2013, the discovery of the ‘Diary of Merer’ papyri shed light on the transportation of limestone from Tura to Giza during Khufu’s 27th year as pharaoh.

The pyramid’s granite, sourced from Aswan over 900 km south, includes massive stones weighing between 25 to 80 tonnes. These were used in the construction of the ‘King’s Chamber’ and the ‘relieving chambers’ above it. The ancient Egyptians employed a method of cutting stone by hammering grooves into the natural stone faces, inserting wooden wedges, and then soaking them in water. The expansion of the wedges due to water absorption allowed for the extraction of manageable stone chunks. These blocks were then transported via the Nile River to the pyramid’s construction site.

Contrary to the ancient Greek belief of slave labour, modern findings at worker camps near Giza indicate that the pyramids were constructed by thousands of conscripted labourers. Graffiti discovered at Giza reveals that workers were organized into groups called ‘zau’ (singular ‘za’), each comprising 40 men. These were further divided into four sub-groups, each led by an “Overseer of Ten.”

Regarding the immense task of cutting over two million blocks in Khufu’s reign, stonemason Franck Burgos conducted a practical experiment using an abandoned quarry linked to Khufu, found in 2017. Discovered there were an almost finished block and tools including hardened arsenic copper chisels and wooden mallets. Replicating these tools, Burgos demonstrated that four workers could extract a 2.5-ton block in four days, with progress accelerating significantly when the stone was moistened. His findings suggest that about 3,500 quarry workers could have produced the necessary 250 blocks per day, allowing for the Great Pyramid’s completion in 27 years.

A 1999 construction management study, collaborating with Mark Lehner and other Egyptologists, estimated an average workforce of about 13,200, peaking at around 40,000 people.

The first detailed measurements of the pyramid were conducted by Egyptologist Flinders Petrie between 1880 and 1882, detailed in “The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh.” Notably, the casing stones and inner chamber blocks were highly precise, fitting with an average gap of only 0.5 millimetres. In contrast, the core blocks were rougher, with rubble filling the larger gaps, and mortar binding the outer layers.

Petrie observed a decrease in block size and weight towards the pyramid’s top, with the bottom layer measuring 148 centimetres in height, while the upper layers were just over 50 centimetres.

The pyramid’s base is remarkably accurate, with an average side length error of only 58 millimetres and a mean corner error of just 12 seconds of arc.

The pyramid’s original dimensions were measured to be 280 royal cubits in height and 440 cubits per side at the base. The slope, defined by the ancient Egyptian measure of ‘seked’ (the horizontal run for one cubit of vertical rise), was set at 5+1/2 palms, equivalent to a ratio of 14:11.

Some Egyptologists speculate that this slope choice, which correlates the perimeter-to-height ratio closely with 2π, may indicate the Egyptians’ practical use of π, though they could not define it precisely. While Petrie posited that these measurements were intentional in the design, others argue that the ancient Egyptians likely did not conceptualize π and that the slope may be based solely on the chosen ‘seked’.

Cardinal Direction Alignment

The Great Pyramid’s base aligns remarkably well with the four cardinal directions, deviating by an average of just 3 minutes and 38 seconds of arc. This precision led to various theories on how the ancient Egyptians achieved such accuracy:

  1. Solar Gnomon Method: This technique involves observing the shadow of a vertical rod over a day. A circle drawn around the rod’s base intersects with the shadow line, and connecting these points yields an east-west line. Experiments showed an average deviation of 2 minutes, and 9 seconds using this method. A pinhole variant resulted in a 19-arcsecond deviation, while an angled block method was less accurate.
  2. Pole Star Method: This method involved tracking the polar star with a movable sight and a fixed plumb line, finding true north at the midpoint between its maximum eastern and western elongations. During the Old Kingdom, Thuban, the then-polar star, was about two degrees off the celestial pole.
  3. Simultaneous Transit Method: Around 2500 BC, the stars Mizar and Kochab aligned vertically near the true north. Over time, their eastward shift helps explain the pyramids’ slight misalignment.

Interior and Exterior of the Great Pyramids of Giza



Upon its completion, the Great Pyramids of Giza was entirely sheathed in white limestone, featuring exquisitely cut blocks arranged in horizontal layers, meticulously fitted with mortar. Their outer surfaces were sloped and polished, forming four uniform faces at an angle of 51°50’40” (a seked of 5+1/2 palms). Examination of the unfinished casing blocks in the pyramids of Menkaure and Henutsen at Giza indicates that stones were smoothed only after being set in place, as evidenced by chiseled marks guiding their correct alignment and indicating excess material to be removed.

The height of these layers varies significantly. The tallest layers are found at the bottom, with the first layer measuring 1.49 meters (4.9 feet) in height. As the layers ascend, they average just over one royal cubit (0.5 m; 1.7 ft) in height, displaying an irregular pattern of height variation.

Pyramid of Giza with gold pyramidion

Supporting the casing were “backing stones,” which were also precisely dressed and bound to the casing with mortar. These stones now form the pyramid’s visible exterior, following its partial dismantling in the Middle Ages. During earthquakes in northern Egypt, many outer stones were removed, reportedly used by Bahri Sultan An-Nasir Nasir-ad-Din al-Hasan in 1356 for construction in Cairo.

Muhammad Ali Pasha further removed casing stones in the early 19th century for his Alabaster Mosque in Cairo. Later explorations found large piles of rubble at the pyramid’s base from the casing stones’ collapse, which were eventually cleared during ongoing excavations. Today, some of the original casing stones can still be seen, particularly on the north side, uncovered by Vyse in 1837.

Chemical analysis of the mortar, which includes organic components like charcoal, dated to 2871–2604 BC, suggests that it allowed masons to precisely set stones by providing a level bed. Contrary to some theories, archaeological and petrographic analyses confirm that these casing stones were not made from cast concrete but were quarried and moved.

Flinders Petrie, in 1880, observed that the pyramid’s sides are distinctly concave, with grooves down the middle, possibly due to increased casing thickness in these areas. A 2005 laser scanning survey corroborated these findings. Under certain lighting conditions, the faces can appear split, leading to theories that the pyramid was intentionally constructed with eight sides.


Regarding the pyramidion, or capstone, its material remains speculative, with limestone, granite, or basalt being common suggestions. Popular culture often imagines it as solid gold or gilded. However, known 4th dynasty pyramidia, such as those of the Red Pyramid and Queen’s Pyramid of Menkaure, were made of white limestone and not gilded. Evidence of gilded capstones appears from the 5th dynasty onwards.

The Great Pyramid’s pyramidion was lost in antiquity, with ancient reports like Pliny the Elder’s describing a platform at the summit. The pyramid now stands about 8 meters shorter, missing approximately 1,000 tonnes of material from its top.

In 1874, Scottish astronomer Sir David Gill installed a mast atop the pyramid while surveying Egypt, providing measurements accurate to within 1 mm. This mast remains in place to this day.


Original Entrance

The pyramid’s original entrance is situated on the north face, positioned 15 royal cubits (7.9 m; 25.8 ft) east from the centerline. Before the removal of its casing in the Middle Ages, entry was made through an opening in the 19th layer of masonry, situated about 17 meters (56 ft) above the base. The height of this layer, at 96 centimetres (3.15 ft), matches the dimensions of the entrance passage, commonly known as the Descending Passage. Strabo, writing between 64 and 24 BC, mentioned a movable stone at the entrance of this sloping corridor, though it’s unclear whether this feature was original or added later.

A series of double chevron blocks above the entrance originally functioned to redistribute weight away from it. Today, several of these blocks are missing, as evidenced by the inclined surfaces where they once rested.

Around the entrance, there is a significant amount of graffiti, mostly of modern origin. Of particular note is a large square of hieroglyphs, inscribed in 1842 by Karl Richard Lepsius’s Prussian expedition in honour of Frederick William IV.

North Face Corridor

In 2016, the ScanPyramids team, using muography, detected a hidden cavity behind the entrance chevrons. Confirmed in 2019, this corridor extends at least 5 meters (16 ft) in length and runs horizontally or slopes upwards, differing from the angle of the Descending Passage.

In February 2023, exploration using an endoscopic camera revealed a 9-meter-long (30 ft) horizontal tunnel with a cross-section of about 2 by 2 meters (6.6 by 6.6 ft). Its ceiling, comprised of large chevron blocks, resembles those above the original entrance and is similar to the Relieving Chambers.

Robbers’ Tunnel

Currently, visitors to the Great Pyramid enter through what is known as the Robbers’ Tunnel. This passage, cut directly through the pyramid’s masonry, originates between the 6th and 7th layers of the casing, about 7 meters (23 ft) above the base. After a 27-meter (89 ft) straight horizontal run, it abruptly veers left, leading to the Ascending Passage’s blocking stones. The Descending Passage can also be accessed from here, though it is typically restricted.

The origins of the Robbers’ Tunnel are debated among historians. Tradition holds that it was created around 820 AD by Caliph al-Ma’mun’s workers using a battering ram. The noise of a dislodged ceiling stone in the Descending Passage, which subsequently fell and slid down the passage, supposedly directed them to turn left. They then tunnelled upward beside the blocking stones until reaching the Ascending Passage.

However, some scholars, like Antoine de Sacy, argue that this account may not be accurate. They suggest the tunnel was likely excavated shortly after the pyramid’s initial sealing, then resealed, perhaps during the Ramesside Restoration. This theory gains support from patriarch Dionysius I Telmaharoyo’s account, which claims that before al-Ma’mun’s expedition, a breach already existed on the pyramid’s north face, extending 33 meters (108 ft) inward before reaching a dead end. This implies the existence of an earlier robbers’ tunnel, which al-Ma’mun’s team merely expanded and cleared.

From its north-side entrance, the Great Pyramid features a descending passage that cuts through its masonry and extends further into the bedrock below, ultimately leading to the Subterranean Chamber.

The passage has a sloping height of 4 Egyptian feet (1.20 m; 3.9 ft) and a width of 2 cubits (1.0 m; 3.4 ft). Its descent angle is 26°26’46”, mirroring a rise-over-run ratio of 1 to 2.

At a distance of 28 meters (92 ft) from the entrance, the lower end of the Ascending Passage is encountered. Here, a square hole in the ceiling, now obstructed by granite blocks, may have originally been hidden. To bypass these granite obstacles, a small tunnel was carved, connecting to the end of the Robbers’ Tunnel. Over time, this passage was enlarged and equipped with stairs.

Further down, the passage continues for another 72 meters (236 ft) through the bedrock beneath the pyramid’s structure. Historically, guides, opting to avoid the lengthy descent, would block this section with rubble. This practice ceased around 1902 when Covington installed a padlocked iron gate to prevent such obstructions. Near the end of this stretch, on the western wall, is an entrance to a vertical shaft leading up to the Grand Gallery.

A horizontal shaft links the terminus of the Descending Passage to the Subterranean Chamber. This shaft measures 8.84 meters (29.0 ft) in length, with a width of 85 cm (2.79 ft) and a height varying between 91 and 95 cm (2.99–3.12 ft). Towards the end of the western wall of this shaft is a recess, slightly larger than the tunnel itself.

The Subterranean Chamber, also known as the “Pit,” is the deepest of the three primary chambers within the Great Pyramid and the only one excavated directly into the bedrock below.

Positioned approximately 27 meters (89 feet) below the pyramid’s base level, the chamber spans about 16 cubits (8.4 m; 27.5 ft) north to south and 27 cubits (14.1 m; 46.4 ft) east to west, with a ceiling height of around 4 meters (13 feet). The western half of the chamber, except for its ceiling, remains unfinished, displaying trenches left by the quarry workers running east-west. A notable niche is carved into the northern section of the west wall. Entry is only possible through the Descending Passage, located on the eastern side of the north wall.

While mentioned by Herodotus and other ancient writers, knowledge of this chamber was lost during the Middle Ages and was rediscovered only in 1817 when Giovanni Caviglia cleared the blockages in the Descending Passage.

Directly opposite the entrance is a blind corridor that extends straight south for 11 meters (36 feet) before bending slightly for an additional 5.4 meters (18 feet), with dimensions of approximately 0.75 meters (2.5 feet) squared. Discovery of a Greek or Roman character on its ceiling, visible by candlelight, indicates that the chamber was accessible during Classical antiquity.

In the eastern part of the chamber lies a large excavation known as the Pit Shaft or Perring’s Shaft. The topmost section, possibly of ancient origin, measures about 2 meters (6.6 feet) square and 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) deep, diagonally aligned with the chamber. Caviglia and Salt later expanded it to a depth of around 3 meters (9.8 feet). In 1837, under Vyse’s direction, the shaft was deepened to 50 feet (15 meters) in search of a water-surrounded chamber mentioned by Herodotus. Despite reaching 12 meters (39 feet) below, aligning with the Nile’s water level at the time, no such chamber was found.

The debris from this excavation was initially scattered throughout the chamber. When Petrie visited in 1880, he observed the shaft partially filled with rainwater from the Descending Passage. In 1909, the Edgar brothers, hampered by this material in their survey work, moved sand and smaller stones back into the shaft, clearing its upper section. This modern, deep shaft is sometimes incorrectly believed to be part of the pyramid’s original design.

Ludwig Borchardt proposed that the Subterranean Chamber was initially intended as Pharaoh Khufu’s burial site but was later abandoned during construction in favor of a higher chamber within the pyramid.

The Ascending Passage serves as a link between the Descending Passage and the Grand Gallery within the Great Pyramid. Spanning a length of 75 cubits (39.3 m; 128.9 ft), it maintains the same width and height as the Descending Passage but has a marginally shallower incline of 26°6′.

At its lower end, the passage is blocked by three granite stones. These stones, measuring 1.57 m (5.2 ft), 1.67 m (5.5 ft), and 1 m (3.3 ft) in length, were originally slid into place from the Grand Gallery to seal the tunnel. The shortest of these stones has sustained significant damage. The end of the Robbers’ Tunnel ends just below these granite blocks, necessitating the excavation of a small bypass tunnel around them to access the Descending Passage. This detour was feasible due to the relatively softer nature of the surrounding limestone.

An interesting feature of the Ascending Passage is the orientation of the joints between the wall blocks. While most of these joints run perpendicular to the passage floor, there are two notable deviations. Firstly, the joints in the lower third of the corridor are arranged vertically. Secondly, there are three girdle stones, placed approximately 10 cubits apart near the middle of the passage, which are believed to provide structural stability to the tunnel.

The Well Shaft, also known as the Service Shaft or Vertical Shaft, is a crucial structural feature of the Great Pyramid, connecting the lower end of the Grand Gallery to the Descending Passage, approximately 50 meters (160 feet) below.

Its path is neither straight nor direct. Initially, the shaft plunges vertically through the pyramid’s core masonry for about 8 meters (26 feet), then veers slightly southward for a similar distance, reaching the bedrock around 5.7 meters (19 feet) above the pyramid’s base level. It then continues downward in another vertical section, partially lined with masonry, breaking through into a space known as the Grotto. The Well Shaft’s lower half traverses the bedrock at an angle of roughly 45° for 26.5 meters (87 feet), followed by a steeper 9.5-meter (31-foot) descent to its lowest point. The final 2.6-meter (8.5-foot) stretch, nearly horizontal, connects it to the Descending Passage. It’s evident that the builders faced challenges in aligning this lower exit.

The purpose of the Well Shaft is commonly believed to be twofold: providing ventilation to the Subterranean Chamber and serving as an escape route for workers after placing the granite blocks that seal the Ascending Passage.

The Grotto, encountered within the shaft, is a natural limestone cave, which was likely filled with sand and gravel prior to the pyramid’s construction. It appears to have been later hollowed out, presumably by looters. Within this cave rests a granite block, believed to have been part of the portcullis system originally sealing the King’s Chamber.

The Horizontal Passage, which connects the Grand Gallery with the Queen’s Chamber, is marked by five pairs of holes at its beginning. These suggest that the passage was initially concealed by slabs flush with the gallery floor. The passage is 2 cubits (1.0 m; 3.4 ft) wide and stands at a height of 1.17 m (3.8 ft) for most of its length. Closer to the chamber, there’s a step in the floor, beyond which the passage height increases to 1.68 m (5.5 ft). An interesting architectural feature is that half of the west wall comprises two layers with unusually continuous vertical joints. Dormion has speculated that these could be entrances to storage areas that have since been sealed.

The Queen’s Chamber is precisely centred between the pyramid’s north and south faces. Its dimensions are 10 cubits (5.2 m; 17.2 ft) by 11 cubits (5.8 m; 18.9 ft), with a pointed roof reaching a height of 12 cubits (6.3 m; 20.6 ft). On the eastern end, there are a niche 9 cubits (4.7 m; 15.5 ft) high, originally 2 cubits (1.0 m; 3.4 ft) deep, but later expanded by treasure hunters.

In 1872, British engineer Waynman Dixon discovered shafts in the north and south walls of the Queen’s Chamber, hypothesizing they were similar to those in the King’s Chamber. These shafts don’t connect to the pyramid’s exterior or the chamber itself and their purpose remains a mystery. Dixon found a diorite ball, a bronze hook, and a piece of cedar wood in one shaft, the latter two items now housed in the British Museum. The cedar wood, recently rediscovered at the University of Aberdeen, has been radiocarbon dated to 3341–3094 BC. The northern shaft exhibits variable angles, including a 45-degree turn to bypass the Great Gallery, while the southern shaft aligns with the pyramid’s slope.

In 1993, German engineer Rudolf Gantenbrink explored these shafts using his crawler robot, Upuaut 2. He discovered a limestone “door” with eroded copper “handles” blocking one shaft. In 2002, a National Geographic Society robot drilled a small hole in the southern door, revealing another stone slab behind it. The northern passage, complex due to its twists, was also found to be blocked by a slab.

The Djedi Project in 2011 used a fibre-optic “micro snake camera” to peer through the hole in the southern door, uncovering hieroglyphic characters in red paint, interpreted by mathematician Luca Miatello as “121,” the length of the shaft in cubits. The team’s examination of the copper “handles” suggested they were decorative, and the polished backside of the door indicated it might have been placed for reasons beyond merely blocking debris.

The Grand Gallery, an architectural marvel, extends the incline of the Ascending Passage up to the King’s Chamber, spanning from the 23rd to the 48th course of stones, rising a significant 21 meters (69 feet). Esteemed for its exceptional stonework, the gallery stands at a height of 8.6 meters (28 feet) and stretches a length of 46.68 meters (153.1 feet). The base measures 4 cubits (2.1 m; 6.9 ft) across, but after rising 2.29 meters (7.5 ft), the stones in the walls are progressively set inward by 6–10 centimetres (2.4–3.9 inches) on each side.

This inward tapering results in seven distinct steps, narrowing the gallery to a mere 2 cubits (1.0 m; 3.4 ft) at the top. The roof comprises stone slabs positioned at a steeper angle than the floor, each fitting into a slot at the gallery’s summit, resembling a ratchet’s teeth. This design ensures each block is supported by the gallery’s wall, rather than the block below, effectively distributing the weight and avoiding pressure buildup.

At the gallery’s upper end, on the eastern side, a hole near the ceiling leads to a short tunnel, providing access to the lowest of the Relieving Chambers.

The Grand Gallery’s floor features a ledge or step on both sides, each 1 cubit (52.4 cm; 20.6 in) wide, creating a central walkway 2 cubits (1.0 m; 3.4 ft) in width. Along these ledges are 56 slots, 28 on each side. Above these slots, 25 niches are carved into each wall. While the exact purpose of these slots remains unclear, the central gutter’s width, mirroring the Ascending Passage, has sparked theories that they were used to store and secure blocking stones from sliding down. Jean-Pierre Houdin suggested these slots supported a wooden framework utilized with a trolley system for hauling heavy granite blocks up the pyramid.

The gallery culminates in a step leading to a small horizontal area, where a passage through the Antechamber, once blocked by portcullis stones, gives way to the King’s Chamber.

In 2017, the ScanPyramids project team, leveraging muon radiography, uncovered a substantial void above the Grand Gallery, dubbed the “ScanPyramids Big Void.” This discovery was led by Professor Morishima Kunihiro’s team from Nagoya University, employing advanced nuclear emulsion detectors. The void, extending over 30 meters (98 feet) in length, shares a similar cross-section with the Grand Gallery. Its detection was substantiated through three distinct technologies: nuclear emulsion films, scintillator hodoscopes, and gas detectors.

The function of this cavity remains a mystery, and it currently cannot be accessed. Egyptologist Zahi Hawass has theorized that it might have been a construction gap related to the building of the Grand Gallery. However, the Japanese research team contends that this void is markedly different from any construction spaces previously identified within the pyramid.

To further investigate and accurately locate this void, a collaboration involving Kyushu University, Tohoku University, the University of Tokyo, and the Chiba Institute of Technology was planned in 2020. They intended to use an innovative muon detector for this purpose. Unfortunately, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic caused delays in their research efforts.

The final barrier designed to prevent unauthorised entry into the pyramid was a compact chamber known as the Antechamber, intended to hold portcullis-blocking stones. Almost entirely encased in granite, it is positioned between the Grand Gallery’s upper end and the King’s Chamber. The chamber features three slots on both its east and west walls, each equipped with a semi-circular groove at the top to accommodate a log, around which ropes could be wrapped.

The granite portcullis stones, about 1 cubit (52.4 cm; 20.6 in) thick, were designed to be lowered into place using ropes passed through a series of four holes at the top of each block. Corresponding to these holes, four vertical grooves can be found on the chamber’s south wall, serving as recesses for the ropes.

However, the Antechamber’s design includes a critical oversight: it’s possible to access the space above the portcullis stones, allowing bypassing of all but the final block. Looters historically exploited this weakness by breaking through the ceiling of the adjacent tunnel, thereby gaining access to the King’s Chamber. Eventually, all three portcullis stones were shattered and removed. Today, remnants of these blocks are scattered throughout various parts of the pyramid, including the Pit Shaft, the Original Entrance, the Grotto, and the recess before the Subterranean Chamber.

The King’s Chamber, situated at the highest level among the three principal chambers of the pyramid, is entirely lined with granite. Its dimensions span 20 cubits (10.5 m; 34.4 ft) from east to west and 10 cubits (5.2 m; 17.2 ft) from north to south. The chamber’s flat ceiling, positioned approximately 11 cubits and 5 digits (5.8 m; 19.0 ft) above the floor, is constructed from nine massive stone slabs, collectively weighing about 400 tons. All these ceiling slabs have developed cracks due to a settling of the chamber by 2.5–5 cm (0.98–1.97 in).

The chamber walls are composed of five layers of blocks, characteristic of the 4th dynasty’s burial chambers, which typically lack inscriptions. These stones are meticulously fitted together, with their facing surfaces dressed to different extents. Some even retain remnants of lifting bosses that weren’t completely removed. As per standard Egyptian practice for hard-stone facades, the backsides of these blocks were roughly shaped, presumably to economise on labour.


The sole fixture within the King’s Chamber is a sarcophagus, crafted from a single block of granite that has been hollowed out. Discovered during the Early Middle Ages, it was already broken open by that time, and any original contents it might have held were gone. Its design aligns with the early Egyptian style for sarcophagi: rectangular with channels for sliding in a lid, which is now missing, and three small holes for pegs to secure the lid.

The craftsmanship of the sarcophagus is not of a perfectly smooth finish. It bears tool marks consistent with the use of copper saws and tubular hand drills, indicating the methods used in its creation.

Internally, the sarcophagus measures approximately 198 cm (6.50 ft) in length and 68 cm (2.23 ft) in width. Externally, it is 228 cm (7.48 ft) long and 98 cm (3.22 ft) wide, standing at a height of 105 cm (3.44 ft). The walls of the sarcophagus are around 15 cm (0.49 ft) thick. Notably, its size is too large to navigate the turn between the Ascending and Descending Passages, suggesting that it was placed in the chamber before the final construction of the roof.

Air Shafts

The King’s Chamber features two slender shafts in its north and south walls, often referred to as “air shafts”. Positioned roughly 0.91 meters (3.0 feet) above the floor and 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) from the eastern wall, these shafts have widths of 18 and 21 cm (7.1 and 8.3 inches) and a height of about 14 cm (5.5 inches). Initially, both shafts extend horizontally as they pass through the granite blocks, then they shift to an upward trajectory.

The southern shaft rises at a 45° angle, curving slightly westward. Interestingly, one of its ceiling stones is noticeably unfinished, humorously referred to by Gantenbrink as a “Monday morning block”. The northern shaft, on the other hand, alters its angle multiple times, veering westward, possibly to circumvent the Big Void. The builders seemed to have faced challenges in calculating the correct angles, resulting in certain sections of the shaft being narrower. Currently, both shafts extend to the pyramid’s exterior, but it remains uncertain if they originally breached the outer casing.

The purpose of these shafts has been subject to debate. Initially believed to be ventilation shafts by Egyptologists, this theory has largely been set aside in favor of a more ritualistic interpretation, suggesting a symbolic role related to the king’s spirit ascending to the heavens.

The theory that these shafts were aligned with specific stars or celestial regions has been largely discounted. The northern shaft’s zigzagging route and the southern shaft’s 20-centimeter (7.9-inch) bend indicate they were not intended to align with any celestial bodies.

In 1992, as part of the Upuaut project, ventilation systems were installed in both of these shafts in the King’s Chamber.

Situated above the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid are five compartments, known as “Relieving Chambers.” Named sequentially from the bottom up, they are “Davison’s Chamber,” “Wellington’s Chamber,” “Nelson’s Chamber,” “Lady Arbuthnot’s Chamber,” and “Campbell’s Chamber.” These chambers were likely designed to protect the King’s Chamber below from potential collapse due to the immense weight of the stones above.

The granite slabs separating these chambers have flat undersides but are roughly hewn on the top, resulting in uneven floors but uniform ceilings for each chamber, except for “Campbell’s Chamber” at the top, which features a pointed limestone roof.

Nathaniel Davison is credited with discovering the lowest chamber in 1763, guided there by information from a French merchant named Maynard. This chamber is accessible via an ancient passage originating from the Grand Gallery’s south wall top. The remaining four chambers were uncovered in 1837 by Howard Vyse, who, after noticing a crack in the ceiling of Davison’s Chamber, used a long reed to probe upwards. This exploration, aided by gunpowder and boring rods, led to the creation of a tunnel through the masonry to these chambers, which had been inaccessible until then, lacking any entry shafts like Davison’s Chamber.

Inside these four upper chambers, numerous red ochre graffiti adorn the limestone walls. These include levelling lines, mason’s marks, and hieroglyphic inscriptions naming the work-gangs. Similar to inscriptions found in other pyramids, such as those of Menkaure and Sahure, these names typically incorporate the name of the reigning pharaoh, in this case, Khufu. The positioning and partial coverage of these inscriptions by other blocks suggests they were added before the stones were set in place.

Deciphered much later, these inscriptions include:

  1. “The gang, The Horus Mededuw-is-the-purifier-of-the-two-lands,” found once in the third chamber. “Mededuw” is Khufu’s Horus name.
  2. “The gang, The Horus Mededuw-is-pure,” appears seven times in the fourth chamber.
  3. “The gang, Khufu-excites-love,” identified once in the fifth (top) chamber.
  4. “The gang, The-white-crown-of Khnumkhuwfuw-is-powerful,” discovered once in chambers two and three, ten times in chamber four, and twice in chamber five. “Khnum-Khufu” is Khufu’s full birth name.

Area Surrounding the Great Pyramids of Giza

The Pyramid Temple, originally located on the east side of the pyramid, was a significant structure, measuring 52.2 meters (171 feet) in its north-to-south span and 40 meters (130 feet) in its east-to-west dimension. However, time has not been kind to this ancient edifice, and today, almost all of its structure has vanished, with only portions of the black basalt paving still visible.

Little remains as well of the causeway that once connected the pyramid to the valley and the Valley Temple. The Valley Temple itself lies buried under the village of Nazlet el-Samman. Some evidence of its existence, including basalt paving and fragments of limestone walls, has been discovered, but the site remains largely unexcavated and holds the potential for further archaeological insights.

The tomb of Queen Hetepheres I, who was both the sister and wife of Pharaoh Sneferu and the mother of Pharaoh Khufu, is situated roughly 110 meters (360 feet) east of the Great Pyramid. Its discovery was a serendipitous event for the Reisner expedition. Although the tomb was found intact with the coffin carefully sealed, to the surprise of the archaeologists, it was empty.

Subsidiary pyramids

In the vicinity, on the southern part of the east side of the Great Pyramid, lie four subsidiary pyramids. Three of these, which have maintained almost their full height, are commonly referred to as the Queens’ Pyramids (G1-a, G1-b, and G1-c). The fourth pyramid, a smaller satellite structure (G1-d), was in such a state of ruin that its presence went unnoticed until remnants of the first layer of stones and later, parts of the capstone, were unearthed during excavations conducted between 1991 and 1993.

East of the pyramid, three boat-shaped pits have been found, which are of a size and shape that could have accommodated entire boats. However, these pits are relatively shallow, suggesting that any structures they might have contained were either removed or disassembled.

To the south of the pyramid, two more boat pits were discovered, both long and rectangular, and still sealed with massive stone slabs weighing up to 15 tons each.

The first of these southern pits was uncovered in May 1954 by Egyptian archaeologist Kamal el-Mallakh. Inside, he found 1,224 pieces of wood, ranging in length from 23 meters (75 feet) to just 10 centimetres (0.33 feet). The reassembly of these pieces was a complex task, entrusted to boat builder Haj Ahmed Yusuf. It took fourteen years to piece together the boat, which involved conservation efforts and the straightening of warped wood. The finished vessel, a 43.6-meter-long (143 feet) cedar-wood boat, originally kept together by ropes, was displayed in the Giza Solar Boat Museum. This special boat-shaped, air-conditioned museum was located beside the pyramid, and the boat has since been moved to the Grand Egyptian Museum.

In the 1980s, while the Giza Solar Boat Museum was under construction, the second sealed boat pit was found. This pit remained unopened until 2011, when excavation efforts on the boat commenced.

Adjacent to the Giza pyramid complex stands an impressive cyclopean stone structure known as the Wall of the Crow. Mark Lehner, an archaeologist, unearthed a workers’ town located just outside this wall, which he dubbed “The Lost City.” Through the analysis of pottery styles, seal impressions, and stratigraphic layers, this town was determined to have been built and inhabited during the reigns of Khafre (2520–2494 BC) and Menkaure (2490–2472 BC).

In the early 21st century, Lehner and his team made several significant discoveries in the area, including what seemed to be a bustling port. This finding suggested that the town and its residential quarters, known as “galleries” and previously thought to house pyramid workers, might have been for soldiers and sailors utilising the port. Given this new information, Lehner proposed that the pyramid workers might have lived elsewhere, perhaps on the ramps believed to be used for pyramid construction, or possibly near the quarries.

In the 1970s, Australian archaeologist Karl Kromer conducted excavations at a mound in the plateau’s South Field. He uncovered artefacts, including mudbrick seals of Khufu, leading him to associate the findings with an artisans’ settlement. Close to Khufu’s Valley Temple, mudbrick buildings containing mud sealings of Khufu were uncovered, suggesting they were part of a settlement serving Khufu’s cult after his death.

A workers’ cemetery, dating back to at least the time of Khufu and used up until the end of the Fifth Dynasty, was discovered south of the Wall of the Crow by Zahi Hawass in 1990. This cemetery further illustrates the extensive use and habitation of the area surrounding the Giza pyramids.

Looting of the Pyramids of Giza

The looting of the pyramids of Giza, including the Great Pyramid, has been a topic of interest and research for many historians and Egyptologists. Authors Bob Brier and Hoyt Hobbs have stated that by the time of the New Kingdom, which saw the inception of royal burials in the Valley of the Kings, “all the pyramids were robbed.” This implies that the looting of these ancient tombs had become widespread by then.

Joyce Tyldesley has noted that the Great Pyramid itself was believed to have been opened and emptied during the Middle Kingdom, long before the Arab caliph Al-Ma’mun’s famed entry into the structure around 820 AD.

I. E. S. Edwards, discussing the account by the ancient Greek geographer Strabo, refers to a movable stone on one side of the pyramid leading to a sloping passage. Edwards speculates that the pyramid might have been breached by robbers after the Old Kingdom’s fall, and subsequently re-sealed and re-opened multiple times until the installation of what Strabo described. This hypothesis also suggests that by the time of Al-Ma’mun, the original entrance had either been forgotten or deliberately obscured again.

Notably, Gaston Maspero and Flinders Petrie pointed out that evidence of a similar secret door was found in the Bent Pyramid at Dashur, indicating a possible common practice in pyramid design to include concealed entries.

Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian who visited Egypt in the 5th century BC, recounts a local legend about secret vaults beneath the pyramid, supposedly containing Khufu’s tomb on an island. Edwards, however, remarks that the Great Pyramid had likely been plundered long before Herodotus’ time and may have been re-sealed during the Twenty-sixth Dynasty of Egypt, a period known for the restoration of many ancient monuments. The story recounted to Herodotus might have evolved over nearly two centuries, shaped by generations of pyramid guides.

Legacy of the Pyramids of Giza

The enigmatic pyramids of Giza remain shrouded in mystery, and as the scientific community tirelessly unravels their secrets, intriguing new inquiries continue to emerge.

Since 2015, the ScanPyramids project, a collaborative effort led by an international team operating under the authority of Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities, has harnessed state-of-the-art technology to explore the inner recesses of these ancient wonders, all without physically entering them. Leveraging the remarkable advancements in high-energy particle physics, this endeavour has harnessed cosmic rays to unveil concealed voids that have remained enigmatic for over four millennia. Among these revelations is a sizable void that rivals the dimensions of the renowned Grand Gallery within the pyramid, along with an intriguing passage known as the North Face Corridor leading to the Pyramid of Khufu.

The Great of Pyramid of Giza being visited by tourists

While the contents of these newly discovered spaces remain a mystery, the consensus among experts leans towards their utilitarian rather than ritualistic purposes. It is widely believed that these voids played a crucial role during the construction process, serving as a meticulously engineered system to distribute the immense weight and stress of these iconic structures, which have undoubtedly endured the test of time.


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  2. “Exploring the Giza Pyramids,” National Geographic, accessed [23.12.23]. Available at: Exploring the Giza Pyramids.
  3. “Pyramids of Giza,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed [23.12.23]. Available at: Pyramids of Giza.