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published on 02 September 2009
sphinx and khephren pyramid ()

Giza is a plateau southwest of modern Cairo which served as the necropolis for the royalty of the Old Kingdom of Egypt. Most famous for the pyramids of Khufu (completed in 2550 BCE) Khafre (2520 BCE) and Menkaure (2490 BCE) and the Great Sphinx (built 2500 BCE), recent excavations on the plateau have revealed numerous private tomb complexes and workers' quarters.


The Great Pyramid of Khufu (also known as the pyramid of Cheops, the pharaoh's Greek name) is the last remaining of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World and rises to a height of 481 feet (147 metres). The pyramid of Khafre is 471 feet tall(144 metres) and that of Menkaure rises to 213 feet (65 metres). The Great Sphinx sits on the eastern side of the plateau apart from the pyramids but it is thought it once was an important part of the pyramid complex which covered the area. The head of the Sphinx is believed by Egyptologists to be that of the Pharaoh Khafre though others contend that represents Khufu. Further on, the great solar barge of Khufu, which is the oldest intact ship extant, was found buried in a pit near the Great Pyramid in 1954 CE. Dating from 2500 BCE, the ship is 143 feet (43 metres) long and 19 feet (5.9 metres) wide. Near the Pyramid complex there are a number of smaller structures known as the Queens Pyramids. It is uncertain who was buried beneath these pyramids but evidence suggests they were the tombs of Hetepheres I (Khufu's mother), Meretites (Khufu's wife) and a later queen named Henutsen.

The pyramids were once encased in polished limestone which reflected the light of the sun brilliantly.

The pyramids were once encased in polished limestone which, according to ancient writers, reflected the light of the sun brilliantly. The limestone was stripped away over the years for use in other building projects, most notably the mosques of Cairo. Of the three major pyramids, however, only Menkaure's is seen today without any of its original limestone casing; Khafre's Pyramid retains its casing stones at its apex while Khufu's has a smaller remainder at its base. The sides of all three of the Giza pyramids were oriented astronomically to be precisely north-south and east-west within a small fraction of a degree.


The original layout of the necropolis at Giza seems to have been very precise and well-ordered but, after the end of the Old Kingdom, other tombs were dug without regard for the original pattern. Sometimes they were dug above existing tombs, making present-day Giza a wealth of archaeological material. Recent excavations have uncovered tombs of high officials, magistrates, and supervisors of building projects, as well as monuments honoring the Egyptian workers who labored on the pyramids and others who were employed and lived in the immediate vicinity.

The Pyramids of Giza

Largely due to engravings and etchings from the 19th century and early 20th centuries CE (and postcards and calendars of modern times) many people think of the Giza plateau and the pyramids as resting in a remote, wind-swept desert locale, when in reality it sits at the very edge of urban sprawl of Cairo today. In its time it would have also been a center of daily activity with many buildings, colonnades, terraces and even shops.

The Pyramids' Builders

No evidence of Hebrew slave-laborers has been discovered at Giza nor anywhere else in the entirety of Egypt, contrary to popular opinion and film-versions of Egyptian history based on the biblical Book of Exodus. In fact, it is well documented that Egyptians were compelled to perform community service for the pharaoh through the construction of monuments, public parks, and tombs. The evolution of the Shabti doll (figurines in the likeness of an individual which were buried with the dead) grew out of this policy of requiring Egyptians to give up a part of their year to work on public building projects.

The only way one could evade this service was by having another take one's place. It was thought, since the afterlife was a mirror image of Egypt, that the great god Osiris would require the same service from the souls in the afterlife. The Shabti doll, blessed with incantations and funerary rites, would come to life in the next world and labor for Osiris in place of the soul of the deceased. Graves and tombs throughout Egypt are easily recognized as belonging to richer or poorer citizens based on the number of Shabti dolls found in them; the more dolls, the richer the person, and the more leisurely their afterlife was supposed to be. The tradition of Hebrew slaves laboring in bondage in Egypt is not not supported by any ancient document other than the Book of Exodus while the practice of skilled Egyptian workers building the pyramids of Giza, and the other monuments throughout the land, is well documented from ancient records and archaeological evidence.

About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
A freelance writer and part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and traveled through Egypt. He teaches ancient history, writing, literature, and philosophy.

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