The pyramids on the Giza Plateau of Egypt were erected as royal tombs in the 26th century b.c.e. The Great Pyramid, largest of three major structures, housed the remains of the pharaoh Khufu (Cheops), while the other two were built for Khufu’s son Khafra and grandson Menkaure.
One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—and the only one still standing—the Great Pyramid was the tallest human-made building on earth until 1885, when the Washington Monument was completed. The pyramid stands 481 feet high. Experts estimate that its original 2.3 million blocks of limestone and granite, quarried from pyramids of Giza 373 a site southeast of the pyramid, weighed an average of 2.5 tons each. These blocks were moved over a series of ramps up to 164 feet wide to the construction site.
All of the pyramids at Giza were built during the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Several factors combined to make the switch of labor from agriculture to building feasible. Egypt faced no strong foreign threats; its only military efforts were raids on weaker states. Better administration and collection of taxes and a favorable trading position allowed Khufu to trade royal land for labor from the nobility. The first king of that dynasty, Sneferu, built the Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid, south of Seqqara at Dahshur. Khufu, his son, reigned from 2589 to 2566 b.c.e. Khufu’s vizier (and cousin), Hemiunu, who was also the son of Sneferu’s vizier, oversaw the building of the pyramid complex and was buried in the western cemetery of the complex.
Archaeologists are certain now that neither the Great Pyramid nor other edifi ces in Giza were built by slave labor. Up to 40,000 workers toiled for 10 to 15 years during Khufu’s reign to erect the pyramid as well as the temples, causeways, and other tombs that lined the Giza Plateau. Three smaller pyramids for wives of Khufu were constructed on the east, exactly one-fifth the scale of Khufu’s. Khufu was buried in his pyramid in the King’s Chamber, which was reached through ascending corridors and the Grand Gallery. Only his red granite sarcophagus remains; grave robbers took his body and personal effects centuries ago. Khufu was followed by two sons: Djedefe, who was buried in his unfi nished pyramid at Abu Rawash, and Khafra, who ruled Egypt from 2558 to 2532 b.c.e. Khafra’s son Menkaure ruled from 2532 to 2503 b.c.e.
Both Khafra and Menkaure built pyramids at Giza, and those, along with the Great Pyramid, dominate the site. Khafra’s pyramid looks almost as large as his father’s because it was built on higher ground; it reaches 471 feet high. Khafra’s complex includes the Great Sphinx, a unique statue close to the causeway, with an early sun temple in front of it.
The pyramids at Giza are surrounded by smaller, stone mastabas of family members, offi cials, and priests. Often, these were gifts of the pharaoh and built by the same artisans that erected the pyramids. Giza is unique in that these mastabas are arranged in grids, like city blocks with streets running by them.