Things We Are Not Taller Than: Giza, Egypt

This post is part of a series. You can read about the origins of our travel tradition here.

You get sort of used to being disappointed by things in real life. The Mona Lisa? Much smaller than expected. Notré Dame, smaller. The Statue of Liberty, smaller. So when I read in advance of our Egypt trip that the Pyramids were smaller in real life, I prepared to be unpleasantly surprised.

Well, I don’t know what that writer was comparing the pyramids to for scale, because when we got to the complex, all I could think was, Jesus, these things are fucking huge.

A little bit of scale

The three largest pyramids in the Giza complex are appropriately known as the Great Pyramids. They were built to honor the great kings of Egypt’s Old Kingdom era: Khufu, his son Khafre, and Menkaure. Though the Pyramid of Khafre looks taller (it was built on higher land), the Pyramid of Khufu is actually the largest at roughly 470-feet tall. Both of these were built circa 2550 B.C. Menkaure, smaller and further than the other two, was added roughly 100 years later. Each of these Pyramids anchors a necropolis complex, consisting of temples, solar boat pits (more about these later), and Queen’s Pyramids. The mysterious Sphinx is also part of one of these complexes—it was built by Khafre, perhaps as a guardian. 

Each of the pyramids was originally coated in a white limestone casing, the same casing that can still be seen on the top of the pyramid of Khafre. Other adornments would have included striping in bright pink and black. 

Looking at the exterior of these massive structures, you’d think the interiors would be a trove of rooms and space. In reality, there are only three chambers linked by a claustrophobically small passageway. As we waited our turn to enter, we noticed everyone exiting was soaked in sweat. At first we assumed the walk was arduous—and to be fair, it was a steep, tight shuffle. But the reality was that the pyramids were not designed for living people, and the interiors are nearly completely airless. We were drenched by the time we got into the burial chamber, a dark, granite-lined room that was surprisingly unadorned. Still, it was cool to see the empty sarcophagus and to imagine the amount of foresight building such a space required.

Historically, the pyramids were thought to have been built by slave labor. But the recent discovery of worker villages shows that that’s unlikely. Archaeologists now find it more probable that villages throughout the Egyptian kingdom contributed resources and labor in the agricultural downtime, sending workers and food to represent their communities. Ancient Egyptians loved their pharaohs with a religious-like zeal—after all, pharaohs were seen as gods on earth—and the construction techniques and engineering necessary to execute such an architectural wonder took skill and craft.

What I found astonishing is that archaeologists estimate the pyramids took only around 20-30 years to build—especially since even modern construction often takes more than a year to complete (or longer, if you’re working on the new Berlin airport…). And it’s lasted…well…longer than any other human construction on earth.