The Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx

Of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only one still exists -- the pyramids of Giza. (Lists of the Seven Wonders vary, with some including all the pyramids and others only the Great Pyramid.) The Great Pyramid, Egypt's largest, is an astonishing structure completed more than 4,500 years ago.

The pyramids were not built by slaves, but by ordinary Egyptians working to pay off their taxes.
The pyramids were built by ordinary Egyptians, not slaves, working to pay
off their taxes during idle time after the harvest was brought in.

How did the ancient Egyptians, who built this pyramid around the 26th century B.C., manage to quarry, transport, and raise into position some 2.3 million limestone blocks, each weighing at least 5,500 pounds? Archaeologists believe that perhaps 100,000 laborers used wooden sleds, papyrus ropes, and levers to drag the stones up ramps and into place. Then they fitted the blocks together without mortar.

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Originally, the Great Pyramid had an outer casing of lustrous white limestone, long since stripped off and carted away as building material for ­the nearby city of Cairo. The smooth blocks were dressed so perfectly that even a knife blade couldn't be inserted between them. Upon completion, the pyramid rose to a height of more than 480 feet (now shorter by about 30 feet, since the top casing is gone).

Built as a tomb for Khufu (known to the Greeks as Cheops), the Great Pyramid stands near two others of descending size built by Khufu's son, Khafre (Chephren), and grandson, Menkure (Mykerinos). Khafre's pyramid, in the middle, actually appears to be the tallest, but this is an illusion created because it was built on higher ground -- probably a deliberate move on Khafre's part in order to outdo his father.

All three pyramids date to the fourth Dynasty, and each was built as a tomb designed to protect the king's body and keep grave robbers from plundering the supplies the king would need in the next world. The pointed structure of each pyramid was also thought to serve as the departure point for the king's soul to ascend into the sky and join the sun god, Ra.

Of course, unknown grave robbers have come through the ages. A ninth-century caliph in search of treasure even blasted an opening on the Great Pyramid's north side, which has become the modern entrance. Today, visitors entering the structure follow a passage leading to the Great Gallery, a spacious corridor 28 feet high, and continue to the King's Chamber, whose walls are lined in solid red granite. The only thing tomb robbers left behind in the chamber was the king's broken sarcophagus -- and that's only because it wouldn't fit through the entrance passage. Apparently it was put in position while the pyramid was still under construction.

What most archaeologists have considered ventilation shafts are now thought by a few to be "star shafts." One aims from the King's Chamber, for example, directly through the mass of the pyramid to frame the constellation of Orion's Belt (or rather, the spot where the constellation would have been located in the ancient sky). Not only were Orion's stars linked with the god Osiris, but their appearance in the sky occurred at the same time as the Nile's annual life-giving flood, so Orion was of great significance.

The complex of the slightly smaller Khafre pyramid is the most complete of all, with a causeway leading from the Valley Temple, where the king's body was mummified. Priests brought the body up the 440-yard-long causeway to its burial place in the pyramid. The pyramid still retains some of its original limestone casing at the top, offering a hint of its once radiant glory. In contrast, the smaller Pyramid of Menkure has courses of red granite blocks around its base, a casing that was never completed.

How The Great Sphinx Works

The three magnificent pyramids of Giza seem timeless, as if they dwell in a parallel world, solitary, abiding in their own mystery. But they have come down through the millennia with a companion -- that enigmatic creature of stone, the Great Sphinx. This figure in repose is a lion with a man's face, probably that of Khafre. Carved entirely from a single outcrop of limestone bedrock, the Sphinx faces the rising sun.

The Great Sphinx has fascinated travelers for centuries.
The Great Sphinx has fascinated travelers for centuries.

Over the centuries the statue's stone has suffered damage from groundwater, eroding wind, and modern air pollution. It has also suffered indignity, such as having its nose shot off by 16th-century Turks who used the Sphinx for target practice.

More respectful, King Thutmose IV believed the Sphinx spoke to him when he fell asleep in its shade. He dreamed that the figure asked him to clear away the encroaching desert sands that stifled it, and in reward Thutmose IV was promised the throne of Egypt. When these events came to pass, to memorialize them, the king erected a stone marker between the Sphinx's paws. Like the pyramids, the Sphinx presents the world with a mystery to confound the ages.

Here are links to dozens of other world-famous landmarks:

Abu Simbel, EgyptEiffel Tower, FranceThe Leaning Tower of Pisa, ItalyRoman and Georgian Bath, England
The Alhambra, SpainEllora Caves, IndiaMachu Picchu, PeruSt. Mark’s Basilica, Italy
Angkor Wat, CambodiaThe Forbidden City, ChinaMont-St.-Michel, FranceSt. Paul’s Cathedral, England
Arc de Triomphe, FranceThe Golden Pavilion, JapanNeuschwanstein Castle, GermanySt. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, Italy
Borobudur, IndonesiaThe Great Buddha, JapanPalace of Versailles, FranceShwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar
Chartres Cathedral, FranceThe Great Wall of China, ChinaThe Pantheon, ItalyStonehenge, England
Christ the Redeemer Statue, BrazilGuggenheim Museum, Bilbao, SpainThe Parthenon and the Acropolis, GreeceSydney Opera House, Australia
CN Tower, CanadaHagia Sophia, TurkeyPetra, JordanThe Taj Mahal, India
The Colosseum, ItalyHouses of Parliament, EnglandPompeii, ItalyThe Temple at Karnak, Egypt
The Dome of the Rock, IsraelThe Kaaba and Al-Haram Mosque, Saudi ArabiaPotala Palace, ChinaThe Terra-cotta Army, China
Easter Island Statues, ChileKrak des Chevaliers, SyriaThe Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx, Egypt
Edinburgh Castle, ScotlandThe Kremlin and Red Square, RussiaPyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacán, Mexico

To learn more about other landmarks and vacation destinations, see:


Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.