Egypt’s pyramids offer tourists, students, and scholars a wonderful glimpse into the wonders of antiquity. They capture the imagination and inspire modern archaeology, architecture, and art. The pyramids are asked questions by people from all over the world. Some questions have been answered, but many more remain. On this page, you will find some little-known facts about the pyramids.
the staircase pyramid at Joselu is the oldest pyramid in Egypt
The Staircase Pyramid at Joselu was the first pyramid built by the ancient Egyptians and is the oldest large monument made of stone. Earlier royal tombs were built of mud bricks. Joselu procured granite from Aswan in the far south and limestone from the opposite bank of the Nile for his vizier, Imhotep, to oversee construction.
The granite from Aswan was laid out in the king’s chamber within the pyramid. The stair pyramid structure may have been meant as a stairway for Joselu to move from the earth to the afterlife.
the Red Pyramid is the first true (smooth) pyramid in Egypt.
The pyramids were built for the pharaohs to protect their sarcophagi and to guide them to the sun in the afterlife. The Red Pyramid of Sneferu at Dahshur is the first true pyramid in ancient Egypt with a smooth surface. It was designed to resemble the light of the sun. It is the flattest pyramid in ancient Egypt and has the most gentle slope, which unfortunately makes it easier for robbers to walk around and steal the white limestone that covers the red underside.
the three pyramids of Giza are aligned
The southeast corners of the three pyramids at Giza, from the Great Pyramid of Khufu northeast of the necropolis to the Pyramid of Khafre and the Small Pyramid of Menkaure to the southeast, are aligned at an angle.
These corners are directly connected to the Temple of Ra at Heliopolis, and were intentionally placed to correspond with the constellation of Orion. The pharaohs of the Fourth Dynasty believed themselves to be descended from Ra, so by perfecting the angles of the pyramid, their tombs became a natural part of the daily life cycle of the sun, the center of their religion.
the pyramids had secret chambers where the souls of the deceased rested
Just as important to the pharaohs as the pyramids were the secret chambers known as “seldabs.” The seldab was located near the pharaoh’s mummy, where the ka statues of kings (statues that contained the life force after death) were kept.
Ancient Egyptians believed that even if the pharaoh’s mummy was destroyed, his soul could live on in the ka statue. Given the very real threat of the tomb being looted, the serdab and ka statues were crucial to the pharaoh’s ability to maintain a comfortable and peaceful afterlife.
the pyramid text is the oldest religious text in the world
Two hundred years after the Pyramid of Menkaure was built, the Pyramid of King Unas was built at Saqqara. On the wall of his burial chamber was found the Pyramid Text, a hieroglyphic incantation for the soul of King Unas to leave his body and travel to the afterlife.
The Pyramid Texts are known as the oldest religious texts in the world and have been influential in learning about the pharaohs and their roles and responsibilities in daily life. The Unas Pyramid also contains the first mention of Osiris, god of the underworld.
climbing the Great Pyramid is prohibited
More tourists and Cairo citizens attempt to climb to the top of the Great Pyramid of King Khufu than one might imagine. Under Egyptian law, climbing the pyramids is prohibited but not illegal, and most people are arrested or detained on site and then released without charge; in 2016, a 16-year-old German tourist managed to climb the pyramid in just over eight minutes, but recently locals threw stones at the authorities, damaged the wooden mast at the top used to measure the height of the Great Pyramid.
the last pyramid in Egypt was made of mud bricks
Ahmose I built Egypt’s last royal pyramid at Abydos, far south of the famous pyramids of Giza, Saqqara, and Dahshur. His pyramid was about 50 meters high, part of a large traditional mausoleum, and built with very steep sides.
It was built primarily of mud bricks, which, like the massive limestone blocks used in the northern pyramid, did not hold up for long, and Ahmose’s pyramid collapsed into rubble.
the pyramids were actually white
The “clapstone” is a testament to the precision of Egyptian pyramid construction. This stone is a white polished limestone cap that covers the present stone. This stone adheres closely to the pyramid, giving it a beautifully flat and smooth appearance. The foundation stone reflected the sun like a mirror and shone like a jewel. Today, very little of this stone remains, as it has been stolen, diverted to other sites, or damaged by seismic activity, such as the great earthquake that struck Cairo in 1308.
the sultan who tried to destroy the pyramids at Menkaure
In the 12th century, al-Aziz Usman, son of Saladin and the second sultan of the Ayyub dynasty, aborted an attempt to destroy the Great Pyramid at Giza.
Al-Aziz hired a large crew to destroy the Temple of Menkaure, but the cost, time, and physical difficulties posed by the stones and sand of the pyramid caused the work to be abandoned within a year. As a result of the sultan’s efforts, only a vertical trench was left on the north face of the smallest Great Pyramid.
the pyramids were built by professional construction teams, not slaves
The Great Pyramid was built by craftsmen, not slaves, according to the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus. Entire towns were built near the pyramids, and farmers often worked on the pharaohs’ amazing building projects while they waited for their crops to grow.
In recent years, archaeologists have discovered evidence of professional builders, masons, and their tools in these towns. Workers’ cemeteries have been excavated near the pyramids of King Khufu and King Khafre, and have also been explored in Luxor and the Valley of the Kings.
2.3 million pieces of limestone were used for the Great Pyramid of King Khufu
It is said that over 2.3 million blocks of limestone were used for the Great Pyramid of King Khufu. The granite blocks housed in King Khufu’s tomb were transported from Aswan in southern Egypt and weighed as much as 50 tons each. The pyramid took more than 23 years to complete, during which workers are calculated to have piled an average of 12 stones per hour.
It is estimated that more than 100,000 people worked on the project, with at least 1,000 at its peak. The original entrance to the Great Pyramid is 17 meters above ground level, but tourists enter through a “robber’s tunnel” built in 820 when the Sultan of Cairo’s men broke in to search for booty. The Great Pyramid attracts as many as 14 million tourists each year and is estimated to have an economic impact of about $9 billion. It is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the World still in existence.
More to Know.
The more we learn about the pyramids, the more questions we have. There are many theories about ramps, pulleys, water-powered stone sleds, wooden rolling ramps, and giant causeways, but no concrete evidence to explain how the massive stones were lifted and secured.
Even if the mortar material used to bind the pyramid stones together is known, researchers have been unable to copy it. Scientists have used thermal imaging and satellite technology to discover possible hidden chambers, but so far they do not know what is in them or what they are for. Thus, much of the Great Pyramid of Egypt remains a mystery to laymen and experts alike.