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How did the pyramids in Egypt get built?

Sometimes I feel like academics live in one world and everyone else lives in a totally different one. Virtually all professional academic Egyptologists agree that the ancient Egyptian pyramids were built as tombs for the pharaohs and their relatives. On the other hand, most members of the general public seem to believe that the pyramids were built for just about any purpose other than as tombs for the pharaohs.

A quick run-though of what most people believe about the pyramids

One can gather a general impression of what most members of the general public believe about the pyramids by looking at the wide array of fantastical answers to the question “What was the purpose of the Egyptian pyramids?” on Quora. The vast majority of answers to this question come straight out of science fiction. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • This answer claims the pyramids were built as “a sort of particle accelerator for energy”
  • This answer claims that there were definitely “either aliens or super technically [sic] human ancestors involved” in the construction of the pyramids and that they were built as devices to “measure a planet’s core.”
  • This answer claims that the pyramids were built as “a mechanical device to slow time in order to increase the Pharaoh’s life span.”
  • This answer claims that the pyramids were built as “the first computers” to showcase the Egyptians’ “mathematical and universal knowledge” and that they could only have been built either by means of alien technology, by means of “sound waves” that “repealed the gravity” [sic] and levitated the stones into place, or with concrete.
  • This answer claims that the Great Pyramid is “the grand summing up of thousands of years of Humanities [sic] experiences and gained knowledge” and “the Egyptian’s [sic] Bible In Stone.”
  • This answer claims that the pyramids are “giant combustion cannons” that were built “to initiate flight.”
  • This answer claims that we cannot possibly know why the pyramids were built, but that they “may have been a way to generate power.”
  • This answer claims that the pyramids were most likely “built as energy containers.”
  • This answer claims that the pyramids were “a [sic] electromagnetic, quantum, solar, hydroelectric power plant, planetarium, astronomical observatory” built by aliens “to pay homages to their home stars which they came to earth from.”
  • This answer claims that the pyramids were built as “a spaceport.”

The list goes on. None of these answers I have listed are correct.

There are a few correct answers to this question, such as this one, this one, and this one, but these are utterly swamped by the dozens of absolutely insane answers claiming the pyramids were alien space ports, power generators, particle accelerators, etc. I would really like to believe that these answers are jokes, but none of them bear any signs of sarcasm or jokiness and I have encountered similar claims made with absolute sincerity elsewhere, so I am pretty sure they are all meant seriously.

I won’t have time to debunk all of these ideas, but I do have time to debunk a few of them. I will attempt to tackle the ones that seem to be the most popular. Once I am done with those, I will present some of the evidence for how we know that the pyramids were built as tombs. Finally, I will wrap up by talking about how the pyramids were built.

The pyramids as generators for electric energy?

Judging from the other answers to this question, the most popular idea among members of the general public of what the pyramids were seems to be that they were some kind of energy generators. This is an idea that has been promoted by this segment from season twelve, episode seven of the History Channel series Ancient Aliens. Most scholars view Ancient Aliens as a joke, but is it wildly popular with members of the general public. It has been continuously on air since April 2010, currently has 179 episodes, and is about to enter its fifteenth season this coming January.

No one seems to entirely agree on exactly how the pyramids were supposed to act as energy generators, but many people are convinced that this is what they were used for. Ancient Aliens claims that the unfinished subterranean chamber of the Great Pyramid was meant to be filled with water and that this water would cause a valve to slam shut, sending sound waves through the pyramid to the King’s Chamber.

According to Ancient Aliens, these sound waves would cause the granite walls of the King’s Chamber to emit electrons, thereby creating electromagnetic energy. Ancient Aliens claims that the Great Pyramid would then project “microwave signals” to a satellite waiting in outer space to transmit the message throughout the universe for aliens to receive. They claim that this was basically the ancient Egyptian equivalent of the SETI program.

ABOVE: Diagram from Wikimedia Commons showing the interior structure of the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza

Basically everything Ancient Aliens says about the pyramids is pure fantasy with no basis in reality. First of all, we have no evidence that the subterranean chamber of the Great Pyramid was even meant to be filled with water. Second of all, we have no evidence for the existence of this valve that Ancient Aliens claims was supposed to be triggered by the water that we also have no evidence of.

Third of all, there is no evidence that a valve banging underneath the pyramid would trigger the granite walls of the King’s Chamber to emit electromagnetic energy. There is something known as the piezoelectric effect, which is when a certain material being compressed can produce an extremely minute electric charge. Granite is one of a number of materials that can sometimes produce extremely tiny amounts of piezoelectricity.

There are several problems here, though. One is that there is no evidence that a valve banging underneath the pyramid would be able to reverberate through the roughly seventy-five meters of mostly solid stone separating the subterranean chamber from the King’s Chamber. Another problem is that there is no evidence that this banging would trigger the piezoelectric effect. Another problem is that, even if it did trigger the piezoelectric effect, the amount of electric charge produced would be extremely minute—probably not even enough for someone to shock themselves.

Furthermore, Ancient Aliens gives absolutely no explanation for how the production of an electric charge in the King’s Chamber would translate to the pyramid shooting microwaves into outer space. Most likely, if someone did manage to somehow produce some kind of electric charge in the King’s Chamber, it would simply dissipate without going anywhere at all—let alone shooting into outer space.

The main materials that make up the Great Pyramid are three kinds of stone: limestone, granite, and dolomite. All three of these kinds of rock are actually extremely good insulators. According to this article, the resistivity of granite with 0% water content is 10^10 Ωm. The resistivity of dolomite with 0.96% water content is 8×10^3 Ωm. The resistivity of organic limestone with 11% water content is 0.6×10^3 Ωm.

The resistivity of copper, by contrast, is 1.72×10^-8 Ωm. Trying to conduct electric current through granite, limestone, or dolomite would basically be like trying to conduct electric current through wood. No sane electrical engineer would try to do it. Stone just isn’t good for conducting electricity.

ABOVE: Statistics from this article on the resistivity of various kinds of rock, including granite and dolomite. Granite and dolomite are actually both extremely good insulators.

There are apparently some natural underground water channels beneath the Giza Plateau that existed in ancient times, but, contrary to what some internet theorists have claimed, there is no evidence that they were ever used to transport or generate electric current.

Furthermore, even water is actually an extremely inefficient and unreliable conductor. Pure water is actually an insulator and the only reason why water conducts electricity at all is because the water that you find in nature almost always has all kinds of minerals dissolved in it. One of these minerals is usually iron, which is a conductor. Anytime water seemingly conducts electricity, it is actually the iron particles dissolved in the water that are doing the conducting.

Because water itself is not a conductor, conducting electricity through water is actually an extremely inefficient and unreliable way of conducting electricity. That’s the main reason why we don’t use water as our primary means of transferring electric power today. If water were an efficient means of transferring electric power, then we’d all be using it, since water is a lot cheaper than copper wires. The ancient Egyptians actually had copper. If the ancient Egyptians were trying to conduct electricity, they wouldn’t have tried to use water or granite; they would have used copper wires.

Probably the only part of the Great Pyramid that would be any good for conducting electricity would be the capstone, which is now missing, but which was probably a gold-plated block of limestone. Although Ancient Aliens does not specifically mention the gold-plated capstone of the pyramid, many hypotheses about the Great Pyramid seem to fixate on it. Unlike water, granite, limestone, and dolomite, which are all extremely poor conductors, gold is an extremely good conductor. Nonetheless, there are a number of serious problems with the idea that the capstone of the Great Pyramid was used to conduct electricity.

For one thing, contrary to what many people on the internet think, the original capstone of the Great Pyramid was almost certainly not made of solid gold; instead, it was probably actually a block of gold-plated limestone and, as I just explained, limestone can’t conduct electricity. For another thing, there would be absolutely nowhere for the electricity allegedly being conducted through the capstone to go or come from. There would be no circuit. Maybe if the capstone were struck by lightning then you’d have some electricity, but it wouldn’t have anywhere to go.

ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of the pyramidion from the Pyramid of Amenemhet III at Dahshur, on display in the Egyptian Museum

The segment from Ancient Aliens about the Great Pyramid being used to project messages into outer space includes a computer animation depicting the Great Pyramid projecting a beam of glowing energy straight up into the sky. This is absurd. For one thing, it’s not clear what this beam is even supposed to represent, since the “microwave signals” the segment claims the Great Pyramid was projecting are invisible to the naked eye.

In any case, even if we ignore the bizarre and confusing animations, we have absolutely no evidence whatsoever for the existence of the ancient Egyptian satellite that Ancient Aliens claims would have been waiting in space to receive the signals from the Great Pyramid. They’ve just totally made the whole thing up. History is supposed to deal with evidence, not with imaginative speculations. Once you start positing the existence of things that we have no evidence of, you are no longer writing history; instead, you have entered the realm of fantasy.

Another problem that Ancient Aliens and other theorists overlook is that, if the ancient Egyptians had built the Great Pyramid as a machine to generate electricity to send messages into outer space or what have you, we would surely find some written evidence of this. While we do not have as many Egyptian records from the time of the pyramids as we would like, we do have some and none of them mention anything about beaming microwave signals into outer space to contact aliens.

Finally, there is the massive problem that, even if this whole wild hypothesis about piezoelectricity, microwave signals, satellites, and extraterrestrial beings worked for the Great Pyramid, the hypothesis itself relies heavily on the specific structure of the Great Pyramid, but there are dozens of other ancient pyramids in Egypt and none of them have the same features present in the Great Pyramid that Ancient Aliens claims were used to produce electricity.

Thus, even if this hypothesis were correct (which it certainly isn’t), it would only be true for the Great Pyramid and not any of the other pyramids in Egypt. I think even Ancient Aliens noticed this rather gaping flaw in their hypothesis, since, in their animation of the Great Pyramid shooting beams into outer space, all the other pyramids are shown totally dark.

ABOVE: Computer-generated image used on Ancient Aliens depicting the Great Pyramid of Giza covering in magical glowing designs projecting a glowing beam of energy into outer space while the pyramids around it are strangely dark

The pyramids as particle accelerators?

Another popular hypothesis among members of the general public seems to be that the pyramids were some kind of particle accelerators. This is highly unlikely, though. For one thing, the pyramids don’t even look remotely like the modern buildings that are used as particle accelerators. Modern buildings containing particle accelerators are fairly low-to-the ground buildings that are either in circular or linear formation and extremely long.

Leaving that small matter aside, no one has ever found any evidence that would lead us to believe the pyramids were used as particle accelerators. Modern particle accelerators use all kinds of high tech equipment and no one has ever found any such equipment in an Egyptian pyramid.

Indeed, not only is there no evidence that the pyramids were used as particle accelerators, there is no evidence that the ancient Egyptians knew about charged particles. Although surviving records from ancient Egypt are perhaps not as plentiful as we would like, they do exist and, if the Egyptians were building particle accelerators, we would expect to find mention of such particle accelerators in Egyptian texts. Instead, we do not.

ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of the Tevatron, a particle accelerator at the Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois. This doesn’t look much like a pyramid.

ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California. This doesn’t look much like a pyramid.

The pyramids as containing coded messages?

Another popular hypothesis among members of the general public seems to be that the pyramids were originally constructed as vessels to convey secret, coded messages about science and the universe to future generations. This seems to be what several of the answers I listed above were trying to get at, such as the one that claimed the pyramids were built to showcase “mathematical and universal knowledge” and the one that claimed the pyramids were “the grand summing up of thousands of years of Humanities [sic] experiences and gained knowledge.”

The problem with the whole idea of a “pyramid code” is that there is no evidence to support it. We have no evidence that the Egyptians meant for the pyramids to be interpreted as containing coded messages. Although some people have claimed to be able to find coded meanings in the structure of the Great Pyramid, especially in its measurements, these messages invariably rely on subjective hunches and interpretations.

In short, the “pyramid code” is just like the “Bible code”; no one has ever managed to demonstrate a consistent code that does not rely on subjective hunches and, furthermore, no one can actually provide any evidence that there is even supposed to be a code at all. People hunting for hidden messages in the structures of the pyramids are just looking around in a dark room for a black cat that isn’t there.

ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of the Grand Gallery of the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza. The exact measurements of the Grand Gallery probably aren’t concealing a coded message about the nature of the universe.

Pyramids and slowing down decay?

One claim that is often trotted out is the claim that the shape of a pyramid can mystically slow down rates of decay. This claim was first made by the French author Antoine Bovis in the 1930s. Bovis claimed that putting food under a model pyramid could cause the food not to decay.

There is no scientific evidence to support the idea of pyramids slowing down rates of decay, however. There is no known physical mechanism by which the mere shape of a pyramid could reduce decay and, frankly, this idea goes against most of our current understanding of how the universe works. Additionally, scientific experiments conducted using model pyramids have repeatedly failed to confirm Bovis’s claims.

For instance, in 2005, the Discovery Channel television series MythBusters tested claims about pyramids’ allegedly miraculous powers of preservation in season three, episode thirty-two. They placed food, plants, and razor blades under model pyramids and found that, with all other factors held constant, the food decayed, the plants died, and the razor blades went dull at the same rates as food, plants, and razor blades that were not kept under model pyramids.

MythBusters is certainly not be the be-all, end-all of scientific research and their experiments are not always the most scientifically rigorous. Nonetheless, their conclusion that “pyramid power” is “busted” is probably sound. If you don’t think their conclusions are correct, this is one experiment that I’m pretty sure is safe enough for you to try at home. Just make sure to include a control group, use a large sample size for the control and experimental groups, and hold all other factors constant between the experimental group and the control.

ABOVE: Shot from MythBusters season three, episode thirty-two, in which they tested the claim that putting an object under a model pyramid can prevent food from decaying, plants from dying, and razors from going dull

How do we know the pyramids were tombs?

Now that I have refuted a few of the most popular “alternative theories” regarding the purpose of the pyramids, I want to present just a little evidence to support the position of all mainstream Egyptologists and ancient historians, which is that the pyramids were originally built as tombs. Once I am done, I think most of you will agree with me that the evidence for the pyramids as tombs is quite overwhelming.

First of all, contrary to what the people on the internet keep insisting, Egyptologists actually have found mummified corpses inside pyramids. For instance, the astonishingly well-preserved mummy of a man was found lying near the royal sarcophagus in the burial chamber of the Pyramid of Merenre Nemtyemsaf I (ruled c. 2287 – c. 2278 BC) at South Saqqara.

This very mummy is currently on display in the Imhotep Museum at Saqqara. You can go visit it there whenever you like. It is unclear whether the mummy that was found in the burial chamber of Merenre Nemtyemsaf I’s pyramid is actually that of the king himself, since it is possible that the mummy may be a later interment. Nonetheless, many Egyptologists have cited it as the mummy of the pharaoh.

ABOVE: Photograph of the mummy that was found in the burial chamber of the Pyramid of Merenre Nemtyemsaf I on display in the Imhotep Museum

Additionally, an undisturbed pink granite canopic jar containing mummified organs tightly wrapped in linen was discovered in the burial chamber of the Pyramid of Pepi I Meryre (ruled c. 2332 – c. 2287 BC) at South Saqqara. The mummified organs from the canopic jar are almost certainly those of Pepi I himself.

Archaeologists are still discovering new pyramids with bodies in them. As recently as 2008, Egyptologists discovered a topless pyramid at Saqqara that is believed to have belonged to Sesheshet, the mother of Pharaoh Teti, the founder of the Egyptian Sixth Dynasty. When they opened the burial chamber, they found the intact mummy of a woman—probably the queen herself—wrapped in linen cloth and sealed inside the sarcophagus.

Now, tell me, if the pyramids were not built as tombs, why do Egyptologists keep finding mummified bodies in them? It is hard to imagine any greater proof that the pyramids were tombs than actually finding an intact mummy still sealed in a sarcophagus in the burial chamber of a pyramid. The only way anyone can continue to deny that at least some Egyptian pyramids were tombs is by resorting to crazy conspiracy theories.

ABOVE: Photograph of the mummy presumed to belong to Queen Sesheshet that was found in the sarcophagus in the burial chamber of a topless pyramid believed to be that of Queen Sesheshet

Funerary equipment in Egyptian pyramids

Mind you, Egyptologists have not found any bodies in the vast majority of surviving pyramids, but this is not because there were no bodies to begin with but rather because the bodies were stolen. You have to remember that all of the Egyptian pyramids are thousands of years old and they have all been robbed repeatedly. That is the reason why so few pyramids have been found with burials intact.

Even the pyramids that have been found without intact burials, however, still contain funerary equipment. For instance, no bodies have ever been found inside the Great Pyramid of Giza. Nonetheless, the so-called “King’s Chamber” of the Great Pyramid does still contain an empty sarcophagus.

Egyptologists have also uncovered the remains of two deconstructed ships sealed in a pit right next to the Great Pyramid. Now, if we assume that the Great Pyramid of Giza was indeed built as a tomb for the pharaoh, it makes perfect sense why a boat would be buried next to it; clearly, the boat was intended for the pharaoh to use in the afterlife. If we assume that the pyramids were generators for electric power or space ships, though, then the boat makes very little sense.

ABOVE: Photograph of the empty sarcophagus from the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid at Giza, which once housed Pharaoh Khufu’s mummy. The mummy was stolen long ago, but the sarcophagus remains.

ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of the boat of Khufu, which was found in a pit next to the Great Pyramid of Giza, on display in the Giza Solar Boat Museum

Funerary inscriptions in Egyptian pyramids

In addition to the fact that a few pyramids have been found with actual mummies in them, it is also worth noting that many pyramids actually contain extensive funerary inscriptions. The walls of the burial chamber of the Pyramid of Unas, last pharaoh of the Egyptian Fifth Dynasty, who ruled c. 2353 – c. 2323 BC, are completely covered in funerary inscriptions.

Likewise, the interior walls of the pyramids built by the pharaohs of the Sixth Dynasty are virtually all covered in funerary texts. The walls of the burial chamber of the pyramid of Pharaoh Teti, the founder the Egyptian Sixth Dynasty, who ruled c. 2345 – c. 2333 BC are completely covered in funerary inscriptions. So are the walls of the burial chamber of Pharaoh Pepi I Meryre and so on. These funerary texts that were inscribed on the walls of Egyptian pyramids are known to Egyptologists as the “Pyramid Texts.”

If we accept the popular theories that the pyramids were built as generators or spaceships or what have you, then we are forced to reckon with a serious problem: why on Earth do so many pyramids contain explicit funerary inscriptions? Why on Earth would the Egyptians include funerary texts to help the pharaoh in the afterlife on the walls of a particle accelerator?

The funerary inscriptions in the pyramids only make sense if we accept the view of all mainstream academics, which is that the Egyptian pyramids were originally built as tombs for the pharaohs and their relatives. This may not be a fun interpretation or an exciting one, but it is the one that makes the most sense with the evidence.

ABOVE: Photograph of the interior of the burial chamber of the Pyramid of Unas, the last pharaoh of the Egyptian Fifth Dynasty, who ruled c. 2353 – c. 2323 BC. The walls of the burial chamber are completely covered in funerary inscriptions.

ABOVE: Not only are the walls in the burial chamber of the Pyramid of Unas completely covered in funerary inscriptions, so are the walls of the room before

ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of a wall completely covered in funerary inscriptions from the pyramid at Saqqara built by Teti, the first pharaoh of the Egyptian Sixth Dynasty, who ruled c. 2345 – c. 2333 BC.

ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of a funerary inscription from the Pyramid of Pepi I Meryre

Ancient texts that explicitly describe the pyramids as tombs

Alright, maybe you still aren’t convinced that the pyramids were tombs. Maybe you are thinking, “Ok, well, some pyramids have been found with bodies in them and some pyramids have funerary inscriptions, but maybe those were, I don’t know, accidents. I won’t believe the pyramids were tombs unless you can present me with an ancient Egyptian text that explicitly calls them tombs.”

If you’re one of the people thinking this, congratulations! You’re in luck, because we actually do have ancient Egyptian texts that explicitly describe the pyramids as tombs! The “Harper’s Song of Antef,” which was probably originally composed in around the First Intermediate Period (lasted c. c. 2181 – c. 2055 BC) or the Middle Kingdom (lasted c. 2055 – c. 1650 BC), contains the following lines:

These lines read as follows, as translated by Egyptologist Garry Shaw: “the gods who existed before, who rest in their pyramids (mrw)/and the blessed nobles, likewise buried in their pyramids (mrw).” There is very little ambiguity in this passage. The clearest and most intuitive meaning here is that the pyramids were built as tombs.

Later histories written by various ancient Greek authors agree that the pyramids were originally built as tombs. For instance, the Greek historian Herodotos of Halikarnassos (lived c. 484 – c. 425 BC) states in his Histories 2.124–136 that the three large pyramids at Giza were built as tombs for the Egyptian kings Cheops (i.e. Khufu in Egyptian), Kephren (i.e. Khafre in Egyptian), and Mykerinos (i.e. Menkaure in Egyptian). Herodotos gets a lot of his information about the pyramids wrong. Nevertheless, he was right about why they were built and who built them.

The later Greek historian Diodoros Sikeliotes (lived c. 90 – c. 30 BC) also states in Book One of his Universal History that the Egyptian pyramids were built as tombs for the pharaohs. Diodoros Sikeliotes does, however, go on to claim in his Universal History 1.64.4–6 that Khufu and Khafre were not buried in their pyramids, but rather at secret locations elsewhere, because the people so hated them for their inhumane cruelty that they feared that their corpses would be defiled if they were left in the pyramids. Diodoros writes, as translated by C. H. Oldfather:

“And though the two kings built the pyramids to serve as their tombs, in the event neither of them was buried in them; for the multitudes, because of the hardships which they had endured in the building of them and the many cruel and violent acts of these kings, were filled with anger against those who had caused their sufferings and openly threatened to tear their bodies asunder and cast them in despite out of the tombs. Consequently each ruler when dying enjoined upon his kinsmen to bury his body secretly in an unmarked place.”

This is probably a false inference drawn either by Diodoros himself or by one of his sources based on the fact that the mummies of the pharaohs were long gone by the time Diodoros was alive. It is likely that the bodies of Khufu and Khafre were, in fact, interred in the pyramids, even if they were stolen soon after.

ABOVE: Second-century AD Roman marble copy of a fourth-century BC Greek bust of the Greek historian Herodotos, identified as him by the Greek inscription “ΗΡΟΔΟΤΟϹ.” Herodotos is among the many ancient writers who states that the pyramids were built as tombs.

How do we know Khufu built the Great Pyramid?

I have frequently encountered the claim that we don’t know who really built the Great Pyramid. People constantly claim that there are no inscriptions anywhere on the Great Pyramid. This claim is just as ubiquitous as the claim that no mummy has ever been found in a pyramid. For instance, here is an answer to the question “Who really built the Great Pyramid of Giza and other ancient Egyptian pyramids?” on Quora that claims the pyramids cannot be dated because there is no writing anywhere on them:

“The only problem with this widely accepted theory, and I insist on the word theory, is that there is no real proof for that. You simply cannot date stones, and the pyramids a [sic] are bare of any hieroglyphs or writing,…you simply cannot date them.”

This claim, despite being constantly repeated, is completely false. As I have already shown, many pyramids actually have extensive inscriptions in hieroglyphic writing on their insides. In fact, the insides of the pyramids of the Sixth Dynasty pharaohs are all pretty much absolutely covered in writing. Furthermore, the texts inscribed on the walls of these pyramids in almost all cases explicitly name the people the pyramids were built for. In most cases, it is from these inscriptions that Egyptologists know who built the pyramids.

Now, it is true that the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza—the one particular pyramid that conspiracy theorists are the most obsessed with—does not have very much writing on it. Even the Great Pyramid, though, does have some writing on the inside. In fact, we can be very certain that the Great Pyramid of Giza was built by Khufu because three of the inscriptions on the inside of the Great Pyramid contain forms of Khufu’s name.

First, we need to do a little backstory. There are five small chambers known as “relieving chambers” over the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid. The lowest relieving chamber has always been accessible through the Grand Gallery, but the other four were completely inaccessible until the 1830s. Between 1837 and 1838, the British Colonel Richard William Howard Vyse (lived 1784 – 1853) and the Egyptologist John Shae Perring (lived 1813–1869) blasted through the ceiling of the Grand Gallery inside the Great Pyramid using gunpowder to discover these four previously-inaccessible relieving chambers, in addition to the one that was already accessible.

These relieving chambers contained roughly 4,500-year-old graffiti left by the workmen who built the pyramid. Among this graffiti, one inscription stands out above all the rest: an inscription on the south ceiling near the west end of Campbell’s Chamber, the highest and least accessible of all the relieving chambers. Here is a photograph of the inscription:

It reads, in Egyptian hieroglyphs, Ḫwfw śmrw ˤpr (“Friends of Khufu”). This appears to have been the name of one of the workers’ gangs who originally constructed the pyramid. Although this is the only inscription inside the pyramid with the exact name Khufu, there are two other inscriptions from the relieving chambers that refer to Khufu by his full royal name and by his Horus name. These three inscriptions confirm the accounts of ancient historians that the Great Pyramid was indeed built by Khufu.

Now, the people who don’t want to believe that the pyramids were built by the Egyptians keep insisting that the inscription with Khufu’s name must be a hoax, but there is no good evidence to indicate this. Furthermore, given the inscription’s extremely hard-to-reach location within the pyramid, it is highly unlikely that anyone would have even had an opportunity to leave the inscription as a hoax to begin with.

How were the pyramids built?

Ok, I think I have probably convinced nearly everyone at this point that the pyramids were originally built as tombs for the pharaohs. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that many of you probably still think it is a great mystery how the pyramids were built.

Really, though, it shouldn’t be seen as such a big mystery. The pyramids may be extremely large, but they are nonetheless fundamentally simple structures. Really, all you need to build a pyramid is a large, able-bodied labor force, a large quarry of stone, a bunch of simple hand tools, a lot of time, and a lot of sweat and hard work.

As I happens, we know that the ancient Egyptians had all of these things. Egyptologists have excavated the actual camps the workers who built the pyramids lived in. They have also excavated the tombs of some of the workers, which were built close to the pyramids because the workers believed that being buried close to the pharaoh would benefit them in the afterlife. These camps and tombs reveal that the pyramids were built by ordinary, free Egyptian workmen who were well-compensated for their labor.

Archaeologists have also found examples of tools that were used to build the pyramids as well as the quarries that were used to quarry the stone used to build the pyramids. In other words, the Egyptians actually had all the things they needed to build the pyramids.

ABOVE: A selection of ancient Egyptian tools. These are the kinds of tools you need to build a pyramid.

ABOVE: Photograph of an ancient stone quarry that was used as a source for stones that were used in the construction of the pyramids at Giza

Historical sources for how the pyramids were constructed

There is also information about how the pyramids were built in the ancient historical sources. In 2013, Egyptologists discovered a papyrus logbook known as the “Diary of Merer,” which was written in the twenty-sixth year of the reign of Pharaoh Khufu by a mid-ranking official named Merer.

The “Diary of Merer” describes the process of how blocks of limestone were transported from the Tura limestone quarry, which is located in what is now the Cairo Governorate roughly halfway between the modern cities of Cairo and Helwan, to the Giza Plateau. Modern Egyptologists believe that the blocks of limestone whose transportation Merer describes were used for the casing of the Great Pyramid.

Herodotos also provides a fairly detailed description of how he was told the pyramids had been built in his Histories 2.125. Herodotos’s account of the construction of the pyramids has some obvious errors. For instance, he describes the pyramids as being built by a force of brutally impressed laborers; whereas the archaeological evidence does not seem to support this portrayal. Therefore, it is advisable to take anything Herodotos says about the pyramids with a grain of salt. In any case, Herodotos writes:

“ἐποιήθη δὲ ὧδε αὕτη ἡ πυραμίς· ἀναβαθμῶν τρόπον, τὰς μετεξέτεροι κρόσσας οἳ δὲ βωμίδας ὀνομάζουσι, τοιαύτην τὸ πρῶτον ἐπείτε ἐποίησαν αὐτήν, ἤειρον τοὺς ἐπιλοίπους λίθους μηχανῇσι ξύλων βραχέων πεποιημένῃσι, χαμᾶθεν μὲν ἐπὶ τὸν πρῶτον στοῖχον τῶν ἀναβαθμῶν ἀείροντες· ὅκως δὲ ἀνίοι ὁ λίθος ἐπ᾽ αὐτόν, ἐς ἑτέρην μηχανὴν ἐτίθετο ἑστεῶσαν ἐπὶ τοῦ πρώτου στοίχου, ἀπὸ τούτου δὲ ἐπὶ τὸν δεύτερον εἵλκετο στοῖχον ἐπ᾽ ἄλλης μηχανῆς· ὅσοι γὰρ δὴ στοῖχοι ἦσαν τῶν ἀναβαθμῶν, τοσαῦται καὶ μηχαναὶ ἦσαν, εἴτε καὶ τὴν αὐτὴν μηχανὴν ἐοῦσαν μίαν τε καὶ εὐβάστακτον μετεφόρεον ἐπὶ στοῖχον ἕκαστον, ὅκως τὸν λίθον ἐξέλοιεν· λελέχθω γὰρ ἡμῖν ἐπ᾽ ἀμφότερα, κατά περ λέγεται. ἐξεποιήθη δ᾽ ὦν τὰ ἀνώτατα αὐτῆς πρῶτα, μετὰ δὲ τὰ ἐχόμενα τούτων ἐξεποίευν, τελευταῖα δὲ αὐτῆς τὰ ἐπίγαια καὶ τὰ κατωτάτω ἐξεποίησαν.”

This means, as translated by A. D. Godley:

“This pyramid was made like stairs, which some call steps and others, tiers. When this, its first form, was completed, the workmen used short wooden logs as levers to raise the rest of the stones; they heaved up the blocks from the ground onto the first tier of steps; when the stone had been raised, it was set on another lever that stood on the first tier, and the lever again used to lift it from this tier to the next. It may be that there was a new lever on each tier of steps, or perhaps there was only one lever, quite portable, which they carried up to each tier in turn; I leave this uncertain, as both possibilities were mentioned. But this is certain, that the upper part of the pyramid was finished off first, then the next below it, and last of all the base and the lowest part.”

The word Herodotos uses that Godley has translated here as “lever” is the Greek word μηχανή (mēchanḗ). Some other translators have chosen to translate this word as “machine,” but this is misleading. While the Greek word μηχανή is indeed where we get our English word machine from, but it actually means something a bit more vague, like “contrivance,” “mechanism,” or simply “means.” In this context, my guess is that the μηχανή Herodotos is referring to is most likely some kind of wooden ramp. Godley’s translation of “lever” is probably not too far off.

While Herodotos’s description of how the pyramids were built probably isn’t 100% accurate in all the precise details, if the μηχανή he keeps referencing is indeed supposed to be some kind of ramp, he is probably more-or-less along the right track. Most Egyptologists today still think that the Egyptians probably used ramps to lift the heavy stone blocks. There is debate about exactly what kind of ramp the Egyptians used, but the general agreement is that they used some kind of ramp.

There is absolutely no aspect of the pyramids’ construction that the ancient Egyptians could not have accomplished using the level of technology that they are known to have possessed. Pyramids are challenging to built in the sense that they require a lot of labor, but they are easy to built in the sense that they do not require a lot of advanced technology. There is absolutely no reason to posit that the Egyptians had extremely advanced technology like the kind we have today or that they had any kind of help from extraterrestrial beings.

ABOVE: Diagram from Wikimedia Commons showing various hypothetical ramp configurations the Egyptians might have used to construct the pyramids

Is it really true we could never build the pyramids today?

No. We could certainly build the pyramids today if we wanted to. We have built things with our modern technology that the ancient Egyptians could not have even begun to imagine. The tallest building in the world right now is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which is 2,722 feet tall. The Great Pyramid at Giza, by contrast, was only around 481 feet tall when it was first completed in around 2,560 BC. That was truly an astounding height at the time for a wholly manmade structure, but it is hardly that much compared to modern skyscrapers, which regularly soar thousands of feet higher.

The Burj Khalifa is also made of modern materials, including steel, aluminum and glass, none of which could have been acquired in large enough quantities to have been used to build any form of monumental structure in ancient Egyptian times. A better question, though, would be “Why would we want to build pyramids like the ancient Egyptians in the twenty-first century?”

The reason why the ancient Egyptians built these massive structures, which were outlandishly expensive to build, took many years to complete, and required the labor of thousands of Egyptian workers who could have been doing other things instead, was because the pharaohs of the Egyptian Old Kingdom (lasted c. 2686 – c. 2181 BC) believed that they were necessary in order for them to rule in the afterlife. The workers who helped build the pyramids believed that, if they helped the pharaoh in this life, they would be on his good side in the afterlife and would receive all kinds of blessings.

No one today that I know of still believes any of those things. In fact, the later pharaohs of ancient Egypt did not believe them either, because they did not build pyramids. The pharaohs of the Egyptian New Kingdom (lasted c. 1550 – c. 1077 BC), for instance, were buried in inconspicuous underground tombs in the Valley of the Kings, across the Nile River from the modern-day city of Luxor.

Quite simply, these later pharaohs had different ideas about the afterlife from their Old Kingdom forbearers. Meanwhile, today, many people do not believe in any afterlife at all and those people today who do still believe in an afterlife do not believe that getting into that afterlife has anything to do with building massive stone monuments.

ABOVE: Photograph of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world today

Conclusion

The truth is, the pyramids aren’t nearly as mysterious as popular culture and New Age conspiracy theories make them out to be. We know exactly who built them, why they were built, and when they were built. We also have some idea of how they were built. Since I know I’ve covered a lot of material here, here is a brief summary of what I have said:

  • None of the “alternative theories” of what the pyramids were built for hold up to any scrutiny.
  • Contrary to what has been repeatedly claimed on the internet, some pyramids actually have been found with mummies and mummified body parts in them, proving that people really were buried in them.
  • Even the pyramids that no longer had any bodies in them when they were explored still had funerary equipment in them (e.g. empty sarcophagi, remnants of grave goods).
  • Many pyramids also have extensive funerary inscriptions that only make sense if the pyramids were tombs.
  • Ancient Egyptian sources, such as the “Harper’s Song of Antef” explicitly describe the pyramids as tombs.
  • Later ancient Greek sources, such as Herodotos’s Histories, describe the pyramids as tombs as well.
  • Contrary to what many have repeatedly claimed on the internet, the Great Pyramid of Giza actually has three different inscriptions inside it with various names of Khufu. These inscriptions are also in places where it is highly unlikely that any would-be forger would have been able to reach them.
  • While scholars don’t know all the exact details of how the pyramids were built, they actually have a pretty good idea of the general process.
  • There is no aspect of how the pyramids were constructed that is incompatible with the level of technology the ancient Egyptians are known to have possessed and there is no reason to suppose they had help from aliens.

Next time you see someone claim that the pyramids weren’t tombs, that no mummy has ever been found in a pyramid, or that there are no inscriptions in the Great Pyramid mentioning Khufu, just give them a link to this article.

While we’re at it, it’s worth mentioning that, contrary to what you may have read on the internet, the ancient Egyptians did not have electric lighting, the ancient Greeks did not have computers in the modern sense, and Atlantis is fictional.

Now I am going to go weep for humanity.

(NOTE: I have also published a version of this article on my website titled “This Is How We Know the Egyptian Pyramids Were Built as Tombs.” Here is a link to the version of the article on my website.)