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Building the Pyramids

Marcia Ehinger, MD, a native Californian, is a retired pediatrician and genetic specialist. She is the California Writers Club Sacramento Branch newsletter content editor.

My family traveled to Egypt in November 2023. Our guides were Egyptologists, who introduced us to new discoveries about the past.

Many Americans have conflated Bible stories about Hebrews being held captive in Egypt with the building of the pyramids. Others, not believing that ancient people could construct such vast structures in the middle of a desert, have turned to tales of outer space aliens using advanced technology to build them. The reality is that earlier people used their ingenuity and social structure to access resources and change the world around them.

The pharaohs of the Old Kingdom considered themselves deities who aided their sun god Ra in his journey to the dark underworld every night. They fought for his return, and each morning the sun would rise in the east, bringing new life to the world. The ruler's subjects were taught to honor and protect him in the hereafter, so that he could return to ensure their good fortune. Because a king's tomb was the starting point for his future resurrection, a great deal of care went into completing it prior to his earthly death.

Pyramid building began with trial and error. Imhotep, an architect, astronomer, high priest and physician, designed a step pyramid for Djoser, who ruled from 2630 to 2611 BCE. This six-tiered limestone monument rose to 200 feet and was built to contain his tomb. It was the first stone pyramid in the Middle East and has been a tourist destination since that time, judging by the graffiti found there.

In the Fourth Dynasty, Sneferu improved the technology and oversaw the building of three pyramids we call Meidum, bent and red. They were smooth sided rather than stepped. The bent pyramid got its nickname from an attempt to correct the steep slope at the top.

The Great Pyramid of Khufu, Sneferu's son, is the oldest and only surviving wonder of the ancient world. Bedrock was cleared and leveled to support a perfectly square foundation, each side as long as seven city blocks. The corners aligned to the points of the compass. Six million tons of stone were used: local limestone for the building blocks quarried 500 yards to the south, fine white limestone for the outside from Turah ten miles away, and long-lasting granite for the king's chamber, from Aswan 500 miles away.



How did all of that stone get there and how was the pyramid assembled? Metal tools were needed to cut the rock. Copper from Sinai was used but it's a soft metal and wears down, so must be replaced often. What about the other materials and supplies needed, food for the workers, the workers themselves? The Nile River was the answer.

Forty-six hundred years ago, the Giza area was not a vast desert. A branch of the Nile flowed near the pyramid site. During the rainy season, the Nile would rise and flood the land. Flowing from south (Aswan) to north (Cairo), stone blocks could be cut and loaded onto boats and floated down the river. Canals were cut in the construction area to direct stones and supplies to where they were needed.

During the floods, farmers couldn't cultivate their fields. They would come and live in barracks at a laborers' complex near the pyramids and work for meals and pay. This city had housing for more than 2000 people, bakeries, medical facilities, and pottery and tool workshops. The seasonal laborers left behind team names and slogans, showing the competition and pride associated with their work.

To construct a pyramid 480 feet tall, they piled and packed stone rubble into ramps. Building blocks were dragged to each level by teams of men using ropes attached to sledges. Meanwhile, their food and supplies were moving along the river. Detailed papyrus spreadsheets of cargo deliveries have been discovered. Pieces of six boats were found buried next to the pyramid.

One boat was reconstructed and solved the puzzle of moving goods over both land and water. The ship was made of wooden planks which fit together snugly and were fastened by ropes. It could be taken apart and hauled by donkey caravan to and from the water.

Building the Great Pyramid was a huge public works project — the economic engine of its era. For the workers, the massive monument gave purpose to their lives. They had built a house of eternity for the king to ensure the prosperity of their land.

~ Marcia Ehinger





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