Why Ask Why the Pyramids Were Built?

Marcell GraeffÊ

The topic of my WRT 209 class was to write a research paper about an "unsolved mystery" of interest to me. As an architecture student with a longtime interest in the unexplained, I chose a topic of unexplained architecture. And what a big mystery, literally , I chose to research - the pyramids. The enormous lengths that an ancient civilization went through to build these huge monuments in stone fascinated me. And hopefully you too will be fascinated by the theories that have been proposed to explain why the pyramids were ever built. The paper is quite long but it can only begin to unravel the mysteries of the pyramids. I myself would like to visit the pyramids and experience firsthand the powers of awe they radiate. Perhaps then I can better understand why these artificial mountains were made by men.


Why ask why the Great Pyramid was built? Because it is the most massive building on the planet, at least twice the volume and thirty times the mass of the Empire State Building. Because it is aligned to the true cardinal points of the compass even though no compass is known to have existed at its time of construction. Because its masonry which weighsup to seventy tons is joined to the fiftieth of an inch. Because its casing stones were polished to the standard of modern optical work. Why was such an enormous undertaking, combined with such incredible accuracy, deemed necessary for the construction of a mere tomb and funerary ornament to a dead king who never occupied it?

It is an enormous undertaking for such a seemingly useless building - a building that is thought of by most to be a house for a dead pharaoh. But there are other reasons to question why the Great Pyramid and indeed why any of the thirty or so pyramids were built than simply because of its immense size, features, and effort that must have been involved in its construction. A large amount of theories exist that speculate about its "true" or other functions. Is the Great Pyramid an astronomical observatory, a huge public works project, the Bible written in solid stone, a prophetic work, or an energy collector? Who designed and built the Great Pyramid? God, Thoth, a past civilization, or space aliens? It is these questions that will be examined so that we can gain a better understanding of why such seemingly enormous undertakings of pyramid construction were ever carried out.

Why do some believe that the Great Pyramid (or the pyramid of the pharaoh Khufu or Cheops) at Ghiza was designed with clear mathematical links between the Pyramid's dimensions and the Earth's basic geophysical data and orbital astronomy? In 1865 Piazzi Smyth measured the Great Pyramid and synthesized many of John Taylor's ideas and theories presented in 1859 in The Great Pyramid, Why was It Built and Who Built It into his own theories (filling 600 pages of calculations) grounded in his measurements about extraordinary relationships between the Great Pyramid and the Earth and events supposedly prophesied in the measurements of the inner passages of the Great Pyramid (Mendelssohn 206). The basic unit of measurement (the pyramid inch) apparently used by the designer, turns out to be exactly the five-hundred-millionth part of the earth's polar radius. This is significant because the pyramid has five sides. The Pyramid's designed base square has a side measuring just 365.242 of these same units - a figure identical to the number of days in the solar tropical year - and the same figure can be found in other features of the design. Further measurements appear to give exact figures for the eccentricity of the earth's orbit, for the mean distance of the earth from the sun, for the period of the earth's full precessional cycle (a period of over 25,000 years), as well as the mean density of the earth (Lemesurier 8). It also turns out that the ratio of height to its base-perimeter as a circle's radius to its circumference is 1/2 pi. Also present is phi - or the Golden Section ratio of 1 to 1.618 . . . (supposedly discovered by Pythagoros). If one wished to have an architectural symbol for the planet Earth itself one could scarcely do better than to take the Great Pyramid (Lemesurier 8).

All of these amazing facts seem to suggest that it is no mean feat for an ignorant, superstitious, semi-prehistoric architect to achieve by mere accident. There may be nothing accidental about it at all. The Great Pyramid's measurements may reflect an extraordinarily advanced level of knowledge in its designer -- a level rivaled only by the technology of its builders (Lemesurier 11). The Egyptians may have had a much greater knowledge of geometry than we may have supposed. Ptolemy measured the circumference of the earth to an amazing degree of accuracy. Did the Egyptians do the same before him?

It also may all be a grand accident. The Great Pyramid probably wasn't designed with these relationships in mind. There are three explanations for the "coincidences" found through the numerical experimentation of Smyth and others. The relationships, especially with pi, may have come about through the measuring tools used or it could be the choice of the slope angle because of a construction failure with a steeper angle. Most of the relationships can probably be explained by numerical experimentation. An interesting article by Cornelius de Jager, an astrophysicist with the Laboratory for Space Research, called "Adventures in Science and Cyclosophy" points out some of the main errors of pseudoscience in the "religion of the Great Pyramid" based on the accidental coincidence of certain structural data of the pyramid with fundamental astronomical data. He then finds coincidental relationships between his bike's measurements and physical constants such as the speed of light. One of the errors of pseudoscience in the Great Pyramid is that the measurements are expressed with the accuracy of three to four decimal places. This does not seem possible with the measuring equipment of the Egyptians or even the equipment of 100 years ago. A more surprising statement that he examined was that a precise mathematical formula could be found relating the base length of the pyramid in pyramid yards with the distance between the earth and the sun in kilometers! This would mean that the builders of the pyramid already knew the length of the kilometer before the introduction of the metric system. He goes on to explain that "Coincidences occur regularly in numerical experiments, as in daily life. Those who do not realize that such coincidences are not 'rare' often incorrectly use them to imply paranormal events. Most people greatly underestimate the enormous amount of possible combinations between numbers. And that has helped make it easy for many pseudoscientific misconceptions to arise and grow, and gain public appeal." (De Jager 172).

But there is probably even more evidence that illustrates the conjectural nature of the numerical experimentation of Piazzi Smyth. Its seems that Piazzi Smyth was one of the most ardent supporters of the system of British measurements, weights, and standards. He was against the decimal and metric standards that many wanted to adopt at this time. He wished to find a connection between Britain and the Bible. According to his math and theories the Great Pyramid was built in British inches. His argument was that the profound mathematical truths shown in it show that its construction was inspired by God. Hence the inch is a God-given measure and as such necessarily superior to the centimeter which was inspired "by the wildest, most blood-thirsty and most atheistic revolution of a whole nation, that the world has ever seen." - that being the French Revolution - originator of the Metric system. The meter was based on one ten millionth of the earth's quadrant - a curved line, whereas the inch, pyramid or British, was based (in his opinion) on the earth's polar axis - a straight line (Mendelssohn 206). Smyth evidently felt that a straight line base was superior.

As for the occurrence of pi in the Pyramid's measurements, the Egyptians may have arrived at this transcendental number without realizing it. Most scholars believe that the Egyptians didn't know the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle to a greater accuracy than three for more than a thousand years after Khufu. Therefore, the occurrence of pi may be due to the fact that the Egyptians may have measured long horizontal distances by counting the revolutions of a drum. In this way they would have arrived at 3.141 . . . without realizing it. A drum would be more accurate than ropes of palm fiber since they tend to stretch. It seems that the Egyptian architects never did anything more sophisticated than to build Pyramids in the simple gradients of 4:1 or 3:1. Out of these angles come the gradients 51 degrees 52' and 43 and 1/2 degrees (Mendelssohn 64-73).

Is the Great Pyramid an enormous energy collector? Today, many claim that pyramids, especially the Great Pyramid or models with the same proportions, are sources of tremendous energy. Belief in "pyramid power" seems to have begun in the 1930's when a traveler named Antoine Bovies visited the Great Pyramid. He noticed that the garbage in the King's chamber did not smell the way most such refuse does. He built a model of the pyramid and placed a dead cat in it. The cat did not putrefy but instead dehydrated into a mummy. Another experimenter with model pyramids, Karel Drbal, claimed that dull razors placed in a pyramid framework would sharpen. Pyramids supposedly make plants grow faster, crystals grow in unusual shapes, cure various ailments, and amplify the power of prayer. When these experiments are repeated the results are contradictory. In order for a claim to be made in science, experimental results must be consistent (Stiebing 125-129). We must only think back to the recent claim by two scientists that they had made "cold fusion" in a jar. The "New Age" theories about the pyramid require much more empirical experimentation before they can be substantiated.

Another theory quite quickly debunked with scientific research is the idea that the pyramids could not have been constructed without the aid of modern tools. "Since dump trucks did not exist in Egyptian times aliens must have aided in their construction." This theory was proposed by Erich von Daniken in his book Chariots of the Gods published in 1968. A clear lack of scientific research, historical understanding, and outright fraud have discredited von Daniken's theories significantly. It is agreed that the construction or "how" of the Great Pyramid is a great wonder and a fantastic achievement of humankind. It is also agreed that there are still mysteries about some of the techniques used by the Egyptians to build the pyramid with such great accuracy. But ongoing research, especially that of Mark Lehner, of the whole Ghiza site have recently shed, and continue to, great light upon the methods of construction. Apparently a study of the whole site such as Mark Lehner's has not been done yet. By using the tools and methods that the Egyptians had developed as discovered through his own research, a team of twelve men were able to build a mini-pyramid 18 ft high with blocks of the same size as that of the Great Pyramid in three weeks. Mark Lehner and the team note that with common sense and practice the building of the pyramid with low technology was even easy (Hadingham 52).

A couple of paragraphs about the construction of the pyramids does not end all the controversies. There are many conflicting views of how it was done in the field of Egyptology. But Mark Lehener does seem to be making progress through empirical scientific method and a survey that looks at the whole picture. Of course there is no way to disprove the theory that space aliens aided in the construction of the pyramids. But there isn't any concrete evidence to make it likely either. But the how is not my concern here. The why of the pyramids is the great issue.

Another theory that does not seem worth pursuing is that there is a historical connection between the Egyptian Pyramids and the pyramids of South America and Mesopotamia as well as rudimentary pyramids found in North America and Britain. The function and form of the Egyptian pyramids as a tomb is a clear case of what is known in architecture as development. The pyramid as a tomb developed from the rectangular mud brick mastabas of earlier Egyptian history. Less powerful Egyptians used this type of tomb throughout the time of the Pyramids and even beyond. The rectangular shaped mastaba tomb with angled sides became the stepped Pyramid of Zoser and then the smooth perfect pyramidal form of for example the Great Cheops Pyramid.

The ziggurats or pyramidal mounds of the Mesopotamians (a civilization of a time period that spanned from before the Egyptians and their pyramids into that time) have a different function and development than that of the pyramids of Egypt. These ziggurats are in essence mud-brick mountains or platforms for the most important temples. They are a meeting place between the heavens and earth. The stairs of the ziggurat are to human scale and therefore are for climbing while the stair-like structure of the Egyptian pyramid is not - it may only be an analogy to a stairway to heaven and a fitting result of its construction. The top of the pyramid is not a place to be reached physically - it is more about a mental journey or connection.

The pyramids of the Americas are the Peruvian pyramids that serve the purpose of a temple platform and the Meso-American or Mexican pyramids that also served as temple platforms and burial tombs. The dates of these pyramids and their construction methods vary significantly with each other and the Egyptian pyramids. The Peruvian pyramids are from the time of 2500-1800 B.C. and the Mexican fromthe classical period much later from c. A.D. 300-900 or later (Stiebing 122).

The theories for connections between the pyramid types just because of their form have little historical evidence behind them. The pyramidal form seems to be a "universal" much like the other pure geometric forms. The form of a pyramid is quite easily reached by a child playing with blocks perhaps because our inherent connection with this geometric form or the stability of the structure. The form may be common to the different civilizations because the easiest and most stable way to create a structure with height out of blocks - out of wood or megalithic stone - is to make a pyramid.

Looking at the greater context of Egyptian society and religion, the amazing physical features of the Great Pyramid may make more sense. Context is one of the most important relationships to examine if we are to begin to understand any work of architecture. For a monumental religious building like the Great Pyramid we can begin to understand a narrative that the architecture addresses that is rooted in Egyptian religion. The importance for the Egyptians of the Sun-God Rah would make alignments with it and other heavenly phenomena desirable. By observing the cyclical passage of time marked by the sun the architects could incorporate these events into their design. In fact the religious ceremonies of the Egyptians recorded in texts stress the importance of the cyclical nature of the universe. The Egyptians were concerned with expressing and maintaining sacred traditions. In these traditions the power of the immortals, the divine status of the dead pharaoh and the authority of the state all merged into one - a union that the pyramid itself powerfully symbolizes. We also know from ancient texts that the Egyptians visualized the pyramid as a kind of sacred machine, working together with all the forces of nature to transform the soul of the pharaoh. The architects could have designed the pyramids as a representation or marker of the cyclical events of life - the transformation of the pharaoh's soul every morning as the sun rose-- and the world's cyclical events. The Egyptians may have believed that if they did not carry out their religious procedures every day with perfection, the cycle would stop and eternal life for all would end. This perfection is also represented in the fine craftsmanship of the pyramid itself. The near perfection of the Cheops pyramid makes sense in such a society. The Egyptians never pursued precision as an end in itself, as in today's world, but it was interwoven with the magic or the daily moment of rebirth. The Pyramid may be more than just a passport to heaven for the pharaoh. It was probably built to reflect and sustain the entire cosmos (Hadingham 52).

If the monumental Pyramid had such a great symbolic meaning to the Egyptians, why is the capstone missing on the Great Pyramid? This would make the Great Pyramid imperfect and incomplete. Does this have a symbolic significance? As an architect, I would argue, yes, some narrative is being expressed by deliberately leaving missing the peak of the "mountain." The capstone of a pyramid was often gilded to represent the sun, indeed the slopes of the pyramid were often associated with the rays descending from it (Lemesurier 19). There is some evidence in the ancient texts that the eventual addition of the capstone (and the completion of the pyramid to its full design) was seen by the initiates as symbolizing the return of light to the world in the form of the Messianic person or the resurrected Osiris. This narrative would be much in tune with the Egyptian cyclical view of the world and time. But what dark notion does the missing capstone have? Of course, the king would not accept his pyramid to remain incomplete, so a false capstone or mound of inferior limestone was built that would make it appear to the king that the pyramid was completed. But within a few years this disappeared through the processes of erosion. It is known that Khufu, the pharaoh for whom the Great Pyramid was built, was unpopular because he closed the solar temples to the public. After his death, a more benevolent king came to reign and reopened the valley temples. Is this why the capstone was left missing? In one of what seem to be many references to the Great Pyramid, Jesus of Nazareth said "The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner-stone" (Mark 12:10, Matthew 21:42, and Psalm 118:22). Is he speaking of the missing corner-stone or cap-stone of the Great Pyramid (Lemesurier 20)? Is a redemptive or Messianic plan for mankind as appeared to have been outlined by Jesus prophesied by the Great Pyramid? Well maybe not, but there are connections between the cyclical philosophy of life through birth, death, and rebirth and the Christian Messianic philosophy which is the same. The similarity in philosophies may be why the Bible mentions the Great Pyramid. It is as strong symbol as any for the cycle of life. A stronger architectural narrative one could not ask for.

Is there yet another narrative reflected in the design of the Great Pyramid? Is it a narrative not of the exterior but of the interior -- a narrative of the designed passageways in the Pyramid? The Great Pyramid has by far the most complex system of passageways and "vents" that ascend, descend, and run straight as well as a system of chambers. It may be that the narrative is that of the Egyptian Book of the Dead which describes the journey through the underworld towards eternal rebirth. It portrays the soul's passage through the underworld in terms of a system of halls and passageways. Legend has it that the original of the book was written by Thoth, the great founding father of Egypt. The passage system may be a route-map for the soul of recently deceased pharaoh with the sarcophagus located at the highest point. There is no direct evidence that the passage system of the Great Pyramid was specifically so designed. As an architect interested in the application of narrative, I believe that such a connection is very feasible. Otherwise, why would the passages be designed with such angled complexity.

The discussion of the question of reference to context developed so far seems an appropriate one, and it will continue. Since context is so important to architecture, shouldn't theories about the Great Pyramid tie in with the history of the civilization? Of course, there is no definite picture of what Egyptian society was like, but such a widely researched field does have much to suggest. The fact that the Egyptians had writing alone makes them a part of the beginning of "history." The lack of contextual discussion in many of the theories presented has led me to discredit them. Of course, some theories have been shown to deliberately avoid the question of context--such as the space aliens theory.

What possessed the Egyptians to build such work intensive monuments to the cycle of life? Is the religious significance of the pyramids enough to explain their existence? A theory in which I take the greatest interest is explained by Kurt Mendelssohn in his book The Riddle of the Pyramids. This theory speaks lucidly to why large scale pyramids were constructed in the rather short-lived Pyramid Age of Egypt. It takes into account especially the context of the Egyptian society that existed before the Pyramid Age and the state of Egypt that came out of the Pyramid Age. The Pyramid Age began with the invention of the technology necessary to build large scale pyramids that would not collapse. This occurred in the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom in c. 2750 B.C. when King Zoser built at Saqqara an enormous funerary complex that was a residence for afterlife, a replica of the royal palace, and a stage for the enactment of the elaborate rituals and festivals of kingship. This complex including the first pyramid called the Step Pyramid was designed by the first recorded architect in history, Imhotep, later deified by the Egyptians. He was the first to develop a technology for building in megalithic stone rather than the vernacular mud-bricks of the mastaba tombs that had existed since c. 3200 B.C. The use of stone was critical because it could bear the immense weight of the Pyramid without crumbling and it also was much more resistant to weathering. Imhotep developed a system of vertical, narrow piles abutting each other in ascending steps toward the massive core around which they were erected - thus the stepped appearance. This system of structure was conservative and therefore very reliable and indeed long-lasting. It has been carefully estimated by Mendelssohn that the pyramids were built by a team of 70,000-100,000 men - the number varying with the stage of the project. These men were not slaves as once commonly believed but farmers from the tribes along the River Nile which was the backbone of Egypt. The farmers depended on the yearly cycle of flooding of the Nile to enrich or rejuvenate their fields and for a water supply. During the four months that their fields were inundated they employed themselves with pyramid and temple building. Why would an Egyptian farmer give his time and labor to pyramid construction? Well, there are the religious reasons. He would be doing a service to the pharaoh by insuring his resurrection by a suitable burial. The resurrection of the pharaoh was thought to be essential for the afterlife of the common man (Mendelssohn 147). This may be hard for us to understand. Since the Renaissance there has been an individualizing trend - service became for the advancement of oneself. But today we still offer our service in patriotic wars. Even greater than the sense of fulfilling a religious duty was the need for security of the common Egyptian. The Nile's fluctuations made some years leaner than other. A building project as large as King Zoser's complex and the concentration of workers it created would require an institution of large-scale food-storage. This institution would be large enough to protect against the fluctuating supply of nature. Once such a system was started, it was sure to have perpetuated because of the security it created (Mendelssohn 148).

Pyramid building also may have been beneficial to the farmer because of the sense of pride and community it created. Tally marks on pyramid casing stones delivered from quarries give the titles of work teams. Such descriptions such as "Vigorous Gang," "Enduring Gang," and "Sound Gang" indicate a sense of pride in their workmanship and a sense of comradeship between workers. When the men returned home they would be the heroes of the community (Mendelssohn 148). This comradeship which resulted from working together on a monumental project united tribes that once fought each other. They were united by the task.

So, yes, the pyramid does become a machine for social progress. It unified the peoples of the Nile and created a society known as Egypt. The building of pyramids created a support mechanism for the state. It was the driving force of Egypt or at least the force that got the engine of the state turning. "These heaps of stone mark the place when man invented the state" (Mendelssohn 170). It is unknown if Imhotep realized the results of creating such a large building program. The implications of the size of this program help to explain other facts about the Pyramid Age that didn't make sense with the previous beliefs about the building of pyramids.

We will once again question the function of the Pyramid as a tomb since the answer solves many riddles. The funerary functions of the pyramids cannot be doubted, however it is rather more difficult to prove that the pharaohs were ever buried inside them. Although it is known that the pyramids were all entered and robbed in the First Intermediate Period this leaves a disturbing number of unexplained features. In particular, there are too many empty sarcophagi and, worse, too many empty tomb chambers, to make the idea of actual burials unchallengable (Mendelssohn 74). If a king was not buried in his pyramid the technical function of the pyramid becomes that of a cenotaph or memorial.

The empty tombs resulted simply because of the economic implications of the pyramid building system. Pyramids were not built in intervals but were overlapping in their construction times (Mendelssohn 141). Therefore, when a pyramid neared construction, less workers were needed. These workers were employed at the construction of another pyramid. This was done because the building of a pyramid took a relatively predictable amount of time whereas the time of death of a pharaoh was unknown. Therefore pyramids had to be built continuously in order to insure a tomb at the time of death. Evidently, more pyramid tombs were constructed than necessary and many remained empty.

Great evidence for this overlapping theory exists in the dating of the pyramids and a construction catastrophe that occurred with the Pyramid at Medum c. 2704-2656 B.C. The conditions resulting in a sudden structural collapse were that the pyramid's stones weren't precisely cut, half the amount of steps required were used, and the outer step wasn't attached to the base foundation of the pyramid, as well as the angle being too ambitiously steep. At the same time the pyramid of Dashur was being built, albeit in an earlier stage. The collapse of the Medum pyramid gave the builders enough reason to change the slope of the pyramid in the middle of its construction therefore resulting in a pyramid with two slopes - now known as the Bent Pyramid. This action and reaction are great evidence for simultaneous pyramid construction.

The public works project theory of the why of the pyramids gives a new pragmatic meaning to the pyramids but downplays the symbolic religious importance and their function. The new view of the pyramids is stated well by Mendelssohn: "What mattered was not the pyramid - it was the construction of the pyramid" (Mendelssohn 196). As in all good theories, his opens up only more questions about the riddles of the pyramids.

One of these questions is why wasn't another project selected in which to put so much energy, a project which was more useful to society? Irrigation projects are not an obvious answer since they existed long before the pyramids and were constrained to being local efforts with the technology at hand. Why was the pyramid shape chosen? This was already discussed, but again, the form is spectacular. It makes a mark on the landscape. It is a manmade mountain that contrasts beautifully with the intense horizontality of the Ghiza plain. Children make sand-castles on the beach - mounds of sand - the primitive urge is still with us. This urge is partly why I have chosen to become an architect. I want to make my lasting mark that will transcend my life - into the afterlife.

Another question is: Why was pyramid construction discontinued on a large scale? There are many reasons, the most applicable being that once a formal centralized state was created, there would be little point in continuing this activity. The energy required to build a large scale pyramid was also quite prohibitive. The height of pyramid construction came with the largest and most masterfully constructed and complicated of pyramids - the Great Pyramid of Khufu c. 2570 B.C. during the fourth dynasty in the Old Kingdom. After that the pyramids were scaled downward and eventually replaced by a more vertical marker - the obelisk. The pyramid's function as a tomb was also abandoned because of the ease with which they were broken into. There was also apparently a change in religion from worship of the sun God Rah (whose symbol was the pyramid) to the God Ptah, protector of Horus, the king. The position of pharaoh also changed from god into son of god (Mendelssohn 130).

A final question to pose is: will pyramid construction ever occur again? Mendelssohn quite poetically argues yes. He does not literally mean pyramid building - but the construction of something useless, as in essence the pyramids are. The only thing left to do is create a new pattern of life which takes in all members of the species Homo Sapiens (Mendelssohn 199). The project must be completely useless so that it cannot cause more problems than it solves. A way to achieve the next great change in society - a nation-less unified world - would be perhaps the exploration of space. We would in essence be building a mountain into outer space.

Works Cited

Davidovits, Joseph and Margie Morris. The Pyramids. New York : Hippocrene Books , 1988.
De Jager, Cornelius. "Adventures in Science and Cyclosophy." Skeptical Inquirer Winter 1992.
Hadingham, Evan. "Pyramid Schemes . " The Atlantic November 1992 .
Hamblin, Dora Jane. "A Unique Approach to Unraveling the Secrets of the Great Pyramids . " Smithsonian April 1986 .
Lemesurier, Peter. The Great Pyramid Decoded. Longmead: Element Books Ltd.: 1989.
Mendelssohn, Kurt. The Riddle of the Pyramids. New York: Praeger Publishers: 1974.
Stiebing, William H. Jr.. Ancient Astronauts, Cosmic Collisions, and other Popular Theories about Man's Past. Buffalo: Prometheus Books: 1984.
Tompkins, Peter. Secrets of the Great Pyramid. New York : Harper & Row: 1971.

Works Consulted

Trachtenberg, Marvin. Architecture From Prehistory to Post-Modern New York: Hary N. Abrams, Inc.: 1986.