They are perhaps the greatest structures ever built.
The Pyramids of Giza rise from a plateau outside Cairo, literal manmade mountains forged from
Even today, in a world of skyscrapers nearly a kilometer high, they remain impressive.
To the ancients, they must’ve looked like the Gods themselves had decided to build upon
The Great Pyramid alone weighs nearly six million tons, and stood as the tallest building
on Earth for nearly 4,000 years.
The only surviving wonders of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, they are as remarkable
today as in antiquity.
Buildings crafted with such skill that they’ve possibly never been equalled.
But what did it take to make such monumental structures a reality?
What kind of civilization could create a tomb that transformed the very landscape?
Arising circa 2575 BC, the Old Kingdom’s 4th Dynasty was one of the most impressive
regimes in history.
They centralized governance, pioneered new concepts of engineering that would stand the
test of time.
And they did it all with nary an alien in sight.
In today’s video, Geographics is delving deep into the history of the Pyramids of Giza,
the last remaining wonders of the ancient world.
The Dawn of the Ancient World To understand the story of the Pyramids, we
have to travel back through time.
Back, far beyond the American Revolution; beyond the Norman Conquest of Britain; beyond
the Roman Empire, Socrates, Homer, and the Fall of Troy.
All the way back to 3100 BC.
It was around this date - we can’t be sure of the specifics for reasons we’ll get into
in a moment - that a king called Narmer unified the warring kingdoms centered around the fertile
wetlands of the Nile.
From the newly-conjoined states arose a mighty civilization.
One so advanced it would continue to fascinate people five millennia later.
The civilization we today call Ancient Egypt.
At least, that’s one version of the tale.
The reality of making a video about Ancient Egypt is that you’re always gonna have to
fill your narrative with caveats to make clear how much is still uncertain.
For instance, it may not have been Narmer who united Egypt.
He’s just our best guess.
There are other candidates, like a dude called King Scorpion, who we like to imagine looking
like a really terrible CGI version of Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson.
The reason for this uncertainty is that it all happened so damn long ago.
Narmer’s reign occurred at a time so impossibly remote, it’s tricky to even comprehend.
When Julius Caesar visited Egypt, for example, Narmer was ancient history to him.
To put a twist on one of our favorite, oft-repeated facts: Cleopatra was closer in time to YouTube
than she was to any of Narmer’s direct descendants.
So, yeah, it can be tricky to be precise about all this stuff.
Just remember that whenever this video gives a date, we mean “around that time.”
And whenever we narrate an event, just imagine we’ve opened with a phrase “this is probably
Anyway, what probably did happen is that Narmer died and, 500 years later - a distance of
time greater than that separating you from Oliver Cromwell - a guy called Djoser finally
got around to building the first pyramid.
Djoser was the founder of Old Kingdom’s 3rd Dynasty.
Before he came along, Egyptian kings got interred in things called mastabas - sort of proto-pyramids
that look more like stacked up rectangles.
Initially, mastabas are exactly what Djoser was keen on building too.
But something changed.
At Saqqara around 2630 BC, the guys building Djoser’s mastaba seem to have realized that
they could just keep building up.
And so they did.
The first pyramid in Egyptian history.
Looking at the Pyramid of Djoser today, it’s clearly a prototype.
Topping out at 62m, it’s less than half the height of the Great Pyramid.
It’s also stepped; meaning the sides rise in visible levels, or steps, rather than smoothly.
Still, Djoser’s pyramid kicked off a craze for tombs shaped like deformed Toblerone,
and it would only be a matter of time before someone perfected what he’d started.
That someone arrived a mere half century or so later.
The short-lived 3rd Dynasty gave way to the 4th Dynasty, led by Snefru, circa 2575 BC.
Now Snefru is a big deal, despite being somewhat anonymous.
We don’t know a whole bunch about him, except that he came from Middle Egypt and was super
into highly centralized government.
Yet his name would become a byword for a golden age in Ancient Egypt.
For most of the less-ancient Ancient World, like the Greeks and Romans, he was seen as
a model king.
He was also an absolute master at building pyramids.
At first, Snefru cut his teeth building step pyramids like old Djoser.
But at some point in his reign, he decided the time had come to go one step further.
At Dahshūr, the Pharaoh commissioned a pyramid without the steps.
A smooth-sided colossus unlike anything ever engineered before.
Known today as the Blunted Pyramid, it would become the model for all of Ancient Egypt’s
Now, the blunted pyramid wasn’t perfect.
If you look at pictures, it clearly bulges weirdly at the bottom, which may have been
a screw up, or may have been meant to symbolize something.
But weird bulge or no weird bulge, it didn’t really matter.
The Egyptians finally had the basic techniques down for building a smooth pyramid.
The next step?
Build the biggest, smoothest pyramids the world had ever seen.
The Pyramid Builders The rest of Snefru’s reign passed in an
orgy of construction, which is less fun than a regular orgy, but leaves behind more than
just sticky patches on the sofa and a vague feeling of regret.
His Red Pyramid, for example, was so perfect, and had a footprint so large, that it remains
the third largest in Egypt, after the first two at Giza.
Fun fact: we’re still not totally sure how he went about building it.
One theory is that Snefru drafted thousands of agricultural workers after the harvest,
to work during the Deluge season when the Nile floods and nothing can be grown.
Although these builders didn’t have a lot of choice, they were probably paid and free
to return to their labor afterwards.
So, to shoot down a persistent myth, not slaves by any reasonable stretch of the imagination.
Still, even if that’s how the pyramids were built in Snefru’s time, it’s not how the
Pyramids at Giza were built.
We’ll come to that in a few minutes.
Snefru’s reign lasted around 24 years.
When he passed away in 2550 BC, his son Khufu took the throne.
If you’ve heard of Khufu, that’s because this is the guy.
The big Daddy-O of pyramid builders, the one who’ll turn Giza from “flat place with
some sand” to “wonder of the ancient world.”
Khufu’s full name was Khnum-Khufwy, which means “the God Khnum protect me,” but
which looks like something HP Lovecraft might come up with when he needed to hit a deadline.
We actually know even less about Cthulhu R'lyeh than we do about his dad, but we do know how
the ancient Greeks felt about him, and that was “not good at all.”
In the traditions of the ancient world, Snefru was the wise and good king, while Khufu and
his son Khafre were tyrannical despots who ruled Egypt with iron fists.
Herodotus even claimed Khufu sold his own daughter into prostitution to fund his pyramid!
But since Herodotus is infamous for just making stuff up, you should probably take that particular
legend with an industrial sized pinch of salt.
In fact, the Westcar Papyrus actually depicts Khufu as a good and just king.
But, really, when a guy is this ancient, it almost doesn’t matter what kind of man he
What matters is what he did.
And what Khufu did was build the greatest pyramid of them all.
Construction on the Great Pyramid started almost the moment Khufu arrived on the throne.
The choice to build at Giza was a very deliberate one.
It set the new king apart from his dad, who’d done his building some 30km away.
It was also on a plateau, meaning everyone could see it from far away.
The nearest complex was that of the sun god Ra, implicitly tying Khufu to divinity.
The man chosen to actually oversee construction was Khufu’s nephew, Hemiunu.
Hemiunu’s an interesting guy.
We’ve found statues of him depicting an overweight dude with a nice pair of moobs,
which isn’t what you expect to see in your ancient monument builders.
But he’s also interesting because he’s the one who marshalled Khufu’s resources
to create the Great Pyramid.
Before work even began, Hemiunu tasked a bunch of civil servants with working out exactly
how many blocks his creation would need, a mean feat of calculation.
That done, he prepared the site for what would surely be the biggest engineering project
yet undertaken by humanity.
But Hemiunu wouldn’t be using Snefru’s method of conscripting agricultural workers,
His vision for a workforce will upend everything you thought you knew about pyramid building.
Construction So, we might as well get this one out of
Did slaves build the Pyramids at Giza?
The simple answer is “no, they didn’t.”
The more complex answer is “no, they didn’t, but the story of who really built the pyramids
is all kinds of interesting.”
Over recent decades, we’ve uncovered evidence of who built the two lesser pyramids at Giza,
meaning we can work backwards from this to hypothesize who built the Great Pyramid.
The picture is very different from the Biblical slave narrative.
Rather than being chained up, the builders had their own special villages, capable of
accommodating around 20,000.
That’s a lot of people, and when you have that many people shifting around giant blocks
of stone, there are gonna be accidents.
Hence all the bodies we’ve uncovered with broken bones.
But here’s the thing.
Rather than simply being left to suffer, injured pyramid builders were given the best treatment
the ancient world could buy.
Archeologists have found skeletons with expertly-set fractures, and even amputations done so cleanly
that the patient lived for decades after.
Here at Geographics, we’ve done videos on projects like the Panama Canal, and encountered
dreadful tales of bosses exploiting workers and letting them suffer with horrendous injuries.
Yet here we are, discussing a building project from over 4,000 years ago, and the workers
were getting treated humanely.
It ain’t always a straight line, kids.
Another aspect where the workers were cared for was in their diet.
They ate a lot of protein, consumed a lot of beef, and were generally in excellent nutritional
Clearly, these guys were valued far more than slaves would’ve been.
But what about the construction itself?
How did these well-fed workers haul all those multi-ton blocks into place?
Well, moving them really wasn’t that difficult.
The main blocks were cut from a quarry just 800m from the Great Pyramid itself.
They were then dragged, likely by oxen, to the building site.
In fact, they may have been dragged by humans.
Experiments conducted in the 1930s showed a mere six men could’ve moved a block, provided
a wet clay track to drag it along.
Once they’d reached the pyramid, the blocks were likely hauled up earthen ramps to get
them into position.
Since this would’ve been an arduous task, some think the builders had machines to help
Herodotus wrote of “great machines” used in pyramid construction.
If you’re used to watching the History Channel, you’re probably expecting us to now declare
“we’re not saying it was aliens, but it was definitely aliens.”
But no, we’re really not saying it was aliens.
Herodotus’s description of the machines makes it clear they would’ve been part of
a primitive wooden lever system.
That’s if they even existed.
Rule number one for ancient history: Herodotus talks a lot of crap.
The final part of the Great Pyramid was the limestone casing.
Today, the pyramid appears brown, but in Khufu’s time, it would’ve been brilliant white.
Huge blocks of limestone were cut from quarries in Tura, nearly 13km away, and brought up
the Nile using boats to be placed on the outside of the pyramid.
It’s possible the Egyptians even temporarily diverted the Nile to let the boats come closer.
While most of this limestone was stripped away and stolen in the following millennia,
the very top of the smaller Khafre Pyramid still has its original casing.
Y’know, just to give you some idea of what you’re missing out on.
Around 2527 BC, after 23 long years had passed, the Great Pyramid was at last finished.
By now, 2.5 million blocks had been laid, creating a 147m tall structure weighing almost
six million tons.
It was the biggest, tallest building the world had ever seen.
A building so big, it’s height wouldn’t be surpassed until Lincoln Cathedral got its
spire in 1311 AD.
But although we now know it as the Great Pyramid, it wasn’t the only pyramid built worthy
of that name.
With Khufu’s tomb finished, the Egyptians were about to embark on a pyramid-building
By the time they finished, the face of their kingdom would’ve been completely transformed.
The Age of Pyramids If your mental image of the pyramids comes
from old adventure movies, you may be vaguely imagining the completed Great Pyramid as a
rabbit warren of traps and curses waiting to lure the unlucky traveler in.
Sadly, real life is much more prosaic, and the actual internal structure of the pyramid
is fairly basic.
Rather than being hollow, it’s almost entirely solid, with one main passage leading down,
and another passage leading upwards.
Take the upwards passage, and you’ll find the Grand Gallery and King’s Chamber, with
the Queen’s chamber off a side passage.
Head downwards, and you’ll go underground, down into the unfinished subterranean chamber.
And, aside from a couple of ventilation shafts, that’s about it.
Oh, and there are no precious treasures in there, because looters took them all way,
way back in the ancient past.
Yet even this is grandiose compared to the interior of the second pyramid built at Giza,
But while Khafre’s pyramid might have little going on inside, its exterior was almost as
impressive as its predecessor.
A mere five years after his Great Pyramid was finished, Khufu died and finally got to
make some use of his gigantic mega-tomb.
He was succeeded on the throne by his son Redjedef, but Redjedef apparently sucked at
being a king, because he lasted a mere 8 years before being replaced by his brother Khafre.
Significantly, the pyramid Redjedef had started building was torn down and destroyed, suggesting
Khafre made him hand over the throne by force.
The upshot of all this dynastic squabbling is that Khafre found himself in charge of
a 4th Dynasty at the height of its engineering prowess.
And what’s a megalomaniac ancient king to do with such an opportunity?
Why, build a bloody great big pyramid, of course!
Khafre’s Pyramid is the second biggest of the three at Giza, standing only slightly
smaller than his father’s.
And we mean slightly.
There’s a two meter difference in height.
Almost like Khafre was saying “I mean, I respect you too much to overshadow you, dad.
I could totally build a bigger pyramid if I wanted.”
But if Khafre held back where size was concerned, he still went to great pains to demonstrate
The Great Sphinx is thought today to have been built by Khafre, and may even have his
If that’s true, then the whole world knows roughly how he would’ve looked without a
nose, which is both weird and weirdly impressive.
The Sphinx is a monumental work in and of itself, standing 20m high, and stretching
out over 70m.
It’s attached to an entire complex far more intricate than anything Khufu ever built.
Interestingly, we don’t actually know what the Ancient Egyptians called it.
“Sphinx” is a Greek word that cropped up some 2,000 years later.
One guess is that maybe the word “Harmakhet” was used, as this was the name it was given
during the New Kingdom roughly a millennia later.
Then again, it’s equally possible they called it “Simon, Lord of YouTube.”
I guess we’ll just never know.
At any rate, when Khafre finally died, it must’ve seemed like the only way was up.
That, from now on, pharaohs would be constructing bigger and better pyramids, until the entire
nation was covered in pointy bits.
But that’s not what happened.
Little would anyone alive at the time have known it, but Khafre’s Pyramid would be
the last truly great pyramid Egypt ever constructed.
From here on out, things would be all downhill.
The Decline The final pyramid at Giza is Menkaure’s
Pyramid, built by a pharaoh who was likely Khafre’s son.
But compared to the other two structures at Giza, it’s something of a disappointment.
Like listening to a glorious symphony that ends in wet fart.
Only a tenth of the mass of the Great Pyramid, Menkaure’s tomb tops out at 61m, not even
close to half the height of its brothers.
It’s tempting to assume that Menkaure was just a modest kind of guy, someone who didn’t
need to show off like his ancestors.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case.
As the 4th Dynasty gave way to the 5th Dynasty, pyramid building continued, but on a much
No longer were the pyramids such grand edifices.
No longer was the construction of such good quality.
By the time the 6th Dynasty appeared, such great structures seem to have fallen entirely
out of fashion.
We know this, because the last great pyramid builder was Pepi II, who reigned some 300
years after Khufu’s crazed building spree.
“Great” here is a relative term.
Pepi’s pyramid barely rose above 50m.
In the centuries after he died, it apparently came across as so unimpressive that locals
used it as a quarry.
And this probably isn’t a coincidence, but after Pepi II died around 2150 BC - some sources
say after a 94-year reign, but that’s probably an exaggeration - the entire central government
Ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom just sort of fell apart.
Oh, sure, a 7th and 8th Dynasty followed, but they were short-lived and ineffectual,
and likely held no real power.
Within twenty years of Pepi II’s passing, Egypt was wracked by instability, central
governance was but a memory, and political violence and famine had gripped the region.
In such an environment, who had time for building pyramids?
It wasn’t until nearly 300 years had passed that a plausibly unified state reappeared,
with the advent of the Middle Kingdom.
Although the Middle Kingdom would build pyramids, they would never again reach the heights or
complexity of those of the Old Kingdom.
And, once the Middle Kingdom finally collapsed, around 1630 BC, that was it.
The end point.
After that last attempt to reclaim the 4th Dynasty’s greatness, no more pyramids were
ever constructed in Egypt.
What’s remarkable is that this near-millennia of pyramid building all took place in the
impossibly ancient past.
Even when the Middle Kingdom collapsed, it was still in an era so far back it practically
counts as prehistory.
The Trojan War, as described in Homer’s Iliad, wouldn’t happen for another four
or five hundred years.
The Iliad itself wouldn’t be written until 8 centuries after the last pyramid went up.
That’s more than the distance between you and the birth of the Aztec Empire.
More than the distance between you and the Black Death.
It’s almost as much as the distance separating you from Ghengis Khan.
Of course, this is the sort of thing you could do all day, finding funky historical events
closer to the present than Ancient Egypt.
Yet there is a point to it all.
If we just tell you the Pyramids have been standing 5,000 years, it sounds impressive,
but beyond comprehension.
Hopefully, by giving you at least a few reference points, we can make clear just how long these
ancient megastructures lasted.
Today, it’s thought that there are somewhere between 118 and 138 pyramids in Egypt.
Of course, most of them are nowhere near as magnificent as the Great Pyramid or Khafre’s
Pyramid or even the pyramids of Snefru or Menkaure.
Yet, even so, they remain.
All of them reminders of the first, and perhaps the greatest, civilization of the Ancient
And the ancients themselves seem to have recognized this.
When Philo of Byzantium came to write his list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World,
in 225 BC, he made sure to include the Pyramids at Giza.
Made sure to include the monuments that, to him, were already over 2,000 years old.
And that longevity continues to this day.
After all the other Ancient Wonders vanished beneath the surface of time’s river, the
pyramids remained, still defiantly standing, as they likely will for another 4,000 years.
In telling the story of the pyramids, you also tell the story of the passage of time.
Of how the world changes and civilizations rise and fall.
It’s comforting to think that, no matter what happens, no matter where the future takes
us, these great monuments will still be sat on the Giza plateau, a single constant in
an ever changing world.
They may have been intended as the tombs of ancient kings, but today the pyramids are
An important reminder of just how far the human race has come.