The ancient Egyptians lived nearly 5000 years ago. They built incredible structures, called pyramids, which were so well-built that they remain in the desert of Egypt today. In this article, we will explore some interesting facts about these wondrous pyramids including why they were built, who built them and what we can learn about them.
1. The pyramids helped the dead into the afterlife
The ancient Egyptians built the pyramids as tombs for their kings, who were called pharaohs. They were designed and built to protect the dead pharaoh and help him on his journey to the afterlife. The pharaoh’s family would often be buried alongside the king.
The ancient Egyptians were very religious and believed in up to 2000 gods and goddesses. They thought of death as a transition into a better world, and that only after death could people fulfill their potential. Pharaohs were thought to become gods in the next world. It was believed that each individual had three souls: the ka, the ba and the akh. To allow these souls to travel to the afterlife successfully, care of the body after death was very important. It is this strong belief system that inspired the ancient Egyptians to build such elaborate tombs for the highest in their society.
2. The pharaohs were mummified
Part of the very important process that the ancient Egyptians followed after death was mummification, which was performed by people who were professional embalmers. The idea was to preserve the body and prevent it from decomposing.
It would begin with the body being respectfully washed with palm wine and water from the river Nile. This was done in a tent made especially for the occasion, called an ibu.
A cut would then be made in the side of the body and the internal organs would be taken out. These were removed because they are the first part of the body that starts to rot. A long hook was then inserted up the nose and would latch onto the brain, which was then pulled out through the nostrils. The heart was kept inside because it was seen as essential to the essence of the person. The other organs were washed and dried.
The body was filled with a salt, called natron, which dries it out; the body was covered in the same salt. The body was then left for forty days, after which it was washed again with water from the river Nile and covered in oil.
The organs which had been dried out were wrapped in material and put back into the body. Other items such as sawdust, leaves and linen were also added to the body to give it more of a life-like appearance. In the early days of embalming, the organs were put in special containers (called canopic jars) and buried alongside the body. Later on, after the Egyptians started to put the organs back in the body, the jars were still used in the tombs a symbol of protection for the organs.
The body would be finally wrapped with thin strips of linen, starting at the head and working down the body. Amulets (small charms) were added into the linen to protect the body from evil spells.
Last, a mask was put on the body’s head and the mummy was put into a coffin.
It was now ready to be placed in the tomb.
3. The Ancient Egyptians were not the first to build pyramids
Humans have been making structures in the pyramid shape for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians are the most well-known pyramid builders, though, maybe because so many survived. They built four-sided pyramids (an alternative is the three-sided pyramid), and to build them the Egyptians had to measure a perfect square as a base.
The ancient Egyptians built their pyramids out of limestone. It was a good stone to use as it was abundant in Egypt — the country had so much that it was sometimes referred to as the “state of stone”. Most of the stone used to make the main parts of the pyramid was easy to quarry, rough and low grade. The inside walls, however, were covered in a fine white limestone, which was more rare and required more work and expertise to quarry and prepare. Other materials used sparingly included pink granite, basalt and alabaster. These would be sourced farther away and brought in on the Nile.
4. The pyramid location was well-planned
Most of the pyramids can be found at Giza, which is just outside Cairo, the capital of Egypt, although the earliest pyramids have been found at Saqqara, twelve miles (nineteen kilometers) south of Cairo.
There are several factors in choosing the location. First, for practical reasons it was important that they were close to the river Nile to allow materials to be brought in easily on boats. They are all found on the west of the Nile, which was no coincidence as, in ancient Egyptian mythology, the west (the land of the setting sun) was the land of the dead.
The pyramids were built on the edge of the dry desert — this is also significant because the dry conditions helped to preserve the pyramids and their contents.
5. The Sphinx guards the pyramids
The sphinx is part of ancient Egyptian mythology. It has a head of a human, but the body of a lion. Sometimes the image of the face that was used in depictions was a god or pharaoh. Many sphinx figures were built in areas where the ancient Egyptians wanted to be protected from evil spirits and spells, including temples and tombs. The famous one that we all know today, called the Great Sphinx, was built to guard the pyramids of Giza and their precious contents. It is the world’s biggest and oldest surviving statue. It is thought to have been made around the year 2500 BC. The human head is thought to have been modeled on Pharaoh Khafra. The Great Sphinx is 241 feet (seventy-three meters) long, sixty-six feet (twenty meters) high and twenty feet (six meters) wide. The eyes alone are six feet (two meters) tall, and the ears are three feet (one meter)! The nose has eroded over the years, but it is believed to have been five feet (one and a half meters) long. The Great Sphinx used to be painted in bright colors, but as with the nose, the weather has taken its toll and it looks different today than it did in the time of the ancient Egyptians.
6. The pyramids were NOT built by slaves
For many years it was believed that slaves built the pyramids, but more recently historians have concluded that the workers were in fact skilled artisans who were well-fed and well-paid. The Egyptians wanted to contribute to these great architectural wonders and saw their importance in national pride and religion. It would have taken 10,000 workers approximately ten years to build each individual pyramid.
It was hard work and many did die while on the construction site. As a tribute to these people, their bodies were buried close to the pharaoh’s final resting place.
Some of the evidence to support this theory is the bones of many people found which are believed to belong to the laborers on the Giza site. The bodies were placed in specific positions, with their heads facing the west and their feet facing east, which is in keeping with ancient Egyptian religious burial customs. This type of burial would not have been awarded to mere slaves. From these graves, scientists have worked out that the workers ate meat regularly and worked extremely hard.
7. The curse of the pharaohs protects the pyramids
The curse of the pharaohs is a legend that is meant to protect to the pharaohs and their tombs from potential robbers. The curse is supposed to be cast upon anyone who disturbs the mummy of a pharaoh. Superstitions have grown over the years as archaeologists, who have been working on the tombs to discover more about the ancient Egyptians, have been struck with bad luck and sometimes even death, which has been attributed by some as part of the curse.
Some experts have argued that the reason many of the first people to enter the tombs became ill was not due to a supernatural curse, but instead bacteria or radiation. This theory is unproven though.
8. Tutankhamun’s tomb remained intact
Tutankhamun was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh who ruled between 1332 and 1323 BC. He was also known as King Tut. His tomb was discovered by Howard Carter and George Herbert in 1922, in almost perfect condition. Unlike many other pyramids, Tutankhamun’s had not been found and raided by robbers, which meant that the artifacts found inside were exactly as they had been left by the ancient Egyptians. One of the most famous and iconic images of the discovery was Tutankhamun’s burial mask, which is now on exhibition at the Cairo museum. It has become the symbol that modern culture associates with the mummified pharaohs.
9. Pyramids help us learn about life in ancient Egypt
The ancient Egyptians carefully preserved their pharaohs, along with their belongings and their families, within the pyramids. Their reasons were purely religious but now, some 5000 years later, their efforts enable historians to learn about their culture, lifestyle, technology, values and religion. The artwork found in the tombs is particularly insightful. They show a variety of aspects of life, including farmers looking after their animals and land, fishermen, priests, religious ceremonies and funerals. These ancient burial grounds give us an understanding of their life as well as their death.
10. 130 pyramids have been found in Egypt
It is believed that the first significant pyramid was the Pyramid of Djoser, which was built in Saqqara in 2640 BC — over 4600 years ago. This early pyramid had large steps instead of a smooth surface. The steps were meant to help the pharaoh walk up to the next world.
The first of the pyramids the ancient Egyptians built in Giza is now known as the Great Pyramid of Giza. It is one of three called the Giza Necropoli (Cities of the Dead), and is the biggest of all of these three. It is the pyramid of Pharaoh Khufu and is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and has stood the test of time well, remaining almost completely intact. It was such an amazing structure when it was built — it was the largest structure that people had yet built, and remained so or over 3800 years. The weather has contributed to thirty-three feet (ten meters) being lost, yet it is still 480 feet (146 meters) tall.
Other notable and important sites where pyramids have been found include Meidum Dashur, Abusir and Lisht.
To learn more about the Ancient Egyptians, see:
25 Fascinating Facts About Egyptian Pyramids You May Not Know