Wikipedia/Ricardo Liberato

Wikipedia/Ricardo Liberato

The pyramids of ancient Egypt have rendered observers awestruck from the day the royal tombs first rose from the desert floor. Thousands of years ago, people were just as dumbfounded by their visual impact as we are today, and just as prone to mythologizing their origins.

The astonishingly prescient achievement of the pyramids has fueled speculation the geometrical structures must have been made by an alien species or perhaps a race of giants. Indeed, the Egyptian pyramids pose interesting questions from a modern standpoint. How did primitive surveyors with crude tools, limited scientific knowledge, and no industrial production create a work of such magnificence?

Before we attribute the Egyptians’ hard work to aliens from outer space, however, it’s worth examining what we know about the pyramids, the Egyptians, and the knowledge and skills they possessed as the fruits of their own labor and ingenuity. Let’s take a look.

Scope of the Pyramids

The largest of the pyramids of ancient Egypt is the Great Pyramid of Giza, the most imposing edifice within the Necropolis funerary complex, about 13 miles from the Nile River just outside Cairo. When the Great Pyramid of Giza was built in 2560 B.C., it was easily the tallest building in the world and remained so until the modern industrial revolution. In fact, it is still the most massive building on the planet, with a 13-acre base and enough volume to fit two Empire State Buildings.

Despite their magnitude, the pyramids are mathematically precise down to the last crevice. The Great Pyramid is perfectly symmetrical and aligned with true compass directions. The placement of every stone is precise to within 8 inches — no small feat considering each of its 2.3 million stones weighed on average two-and-a-half tons each. How on earth did they make the pyramids so big? Who did the dirty work? Here’s a quick overview.

Building the Pyramids

How did the Egyptians move those ridiculously heavy stones? The Nile River was the primary means by which raw materials were transported to the Necropolis, says American Egyptologist Mark Lehner. Huge blocks of limestone were floated on barges down the Nile from quarries as far away as 500 miles to the south in Aswan. Most of the stone was quarried much closer, however, within plain view of the construction site.

How were the stones moved over land? Various theories have been proposed, generally centering on the question of whether the heavy materials were dragged, sledded or rolled to the site. To haul them into place, a system of ramps and levers may have been used, although its exact configuration is still a matter of debate.

Who built the pyramids? The architectural wonders were the handiwork of the Egyptian people themselves, who voluntarily gave their minds and bodies to a project they believed would secure the continuity of their civilization and their place in eternity. They were not slaves, but paid, rank-and-file laborers who took pride in their work and truly embraced the pyramids’ religious purposes as vessels of the gods and purveyors of life itself.

Both men and women helped raise the pyramids, according to Egypt’s chief archaeologist, Zahi Hawass. The evidence suggests the seasonal laborers, who worked in 3-month shifts, enjoyed copious meals of high-grade meat and earned for their troubles a privileged burial alongside the pyramid where the pharaoh himself would be entombed — an honor that would only have been accorded to those held in high esteem.

Bonus Facts To Arouse Your Curiosity

500-Year Learning Curve

Egyptians did not acquire the knowledge and skills to build pyramids overnight. It took 500 years to build the momentum that resulted in the works at Giza. Engineers started out by making smaller, rectangular, bench-like tombs, called mastabas. The first pyramid consisted of several mastabas of decreasing size stacked on top of each other — a step pyramid, like the first one in the city of Saqqara, built for the pharaoh Djoser by 2611 B.C.

The Great Pyramid: Modern Redux

According to Live Science, it would take about $5 billion to replicate the Great Pyramid of Giza using modern technology like cranes, helicopters and heavy-duty trucks. Of course, the ancient Egyptians had none of these things. Rather than relying on complex, energy-intensive technologies, they stuck to the fundamentals of engineering, mathematics and building science — fields of study they helped invent.

The Slaves Who Didn’t Build The Pyramids

Why do we think slaves built the pyramids? We first learned of the pyramid-building ‘slaves’ from the Greek historian Herodotus. The Father of History was repeating a fourth-century rumor spread by descendants with a sour opinion of their pyramid-obsessed ancestors. Later, Hebrew scriptures took up the theme, claiming the landless tribes had been held as forced laborers in Egypt for 400 years.

In fact, however, the pyramids were quarried out of the hills long before the tribes of Israel even existed. There is no evidence of the Hebrew people having lived in ancient Egypt, free or enslaved. Finally, Hollywood gave widespread credence to what was always an apocryphal legend, dramatically depicting the Hebrews as Egyptian slaves in popular movies such as The Prince of Egypt (1998).