The pyramids of ancient Egypt are among the most impressive structures erected in antiquity. The Great Pyramid at Giza is numbered among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Thanks to careful archaeological research, historians have learned much about the components of these monuments, how they were built and the purpose they served for the ancient builders.

Purpose

Pyramids were royal tombs for Egyptian kings.
Pyramids were royal tombs for Egyptian kings.

The pyramids served as tombs for the Egyptian kings over an estimated 2,700-year period. The monuments were meant to preserve the royal remains for the ruler's eventual transition to the afterlife, while standing as a testament to the king's rule of Egypt. According to Tour Egypt, temples formed from mounds of earth represented new life in the earliest Egyptian beliefs, and the eventual pyramids continued to reflect that symbolic shape as building methods grew more sophisticated.

Inner Chambers

Burial chambers comprised only a small portion of a pyramid's mass.
Burial chambers comprised only a small portion of a pyramid's mass.

The placement of burial chambers varied between pyramids. In some designs the inner vaults are built at or below ground level; the Great Pyramid of Giza, however, is one of only 35 tombs built between 2630 and 1750 B.C. with vaults above ground level. Noted egyptologist Mark Lehner theorizes that the design for the Great Pyramid at Giza was entirely pre-planned, and not built in stages during a king's reign, as other historians have speculated. Planning the orientation of a new pyramid was a rigorous process, given the monument's religious importance and precise geometric shape.

Construction Materials

Limestone is the main type of rock used for the pyramids.
Limestone is the main type of rock used for the pyramids.

Stone is the major building material of the ancient Egyptian pyramids, as many types are available within the country, particularly limestone. Pyramid cores were composed of low-quality, rough limestone, while alabaster and basalt were often used for interior floors. The outer casing of the pyramids was typically composed of fine white limestone. Limestone quarries existed near the sites of Saqqara, Giza and Dahshur. Alabaster, basalt and pink granite were typically used less, as they were brought from another locations in southern Egypt by river barge on the Nile.

Assembling the Stone

The pyramids are impressive feats of engineering.
The pyramids are impressive feats of engineering.

Several theories persist on how the ancient Egyptians assembled the components of their pyramids. The sheer volume of rock that was cut, transported and assembled has generated hypotheses including forced labor from hundreds of thousands of slaves, as well as the more farfetched explanation of space alien intervention. Many historians suggest a series of earthen ramps or wooden scaffolding to lift the massive stone blocks to each consecutive layer. Materials scientist Joseph Davidovits speculates that some stone blocks used to build the pyramids were molded on site, a theory that substantially decreases the labor needed to construct the pyramids.