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PyramidsKhufu's son, Khafre, who was next in the royal line, commissioned the building of his own pyramid complex which includes the Sphinx. Menkaure, who is believed to be Khafre's son, built the third and smallest of the three pyramids at Giza. Giza, however, is more than just three pyramids and the Sphinx. Each pyramid has a mortuary temple and a valley temple linked by long causeways that were roofed and walled. Alongside Khufu and Khafre's pyramids were large boat-shaped pits and buried boats that were presumably meant to aid the pharaoh's journey to the afterlife. As yet, no vessels have been found beside Menkaure's tomb. In addition, cemeteries of royal attendants and relatives surround the three pyramids. The entire plateau is dotted with these tombs, called mastabas, which were built in rectangular bench-like shapes above deep burial shafts.

Painting of Giza Plateau at time of building of Great Pyramid, with ramps around pyramidThe Nile was used to transport supplies and building materials to the pyramids. During the annual flooding of the Nile, a natural harbor was created by the high waters that came conveniently close to the plateau. These harbors may have stayed water-filled year round. Some of the limestone came from Tura, across the river, granite from Aswan, copper from Sinai, and cedar for the boats from Lebanon. The foundations of the pyramids were laid with limestone blocks mined by masons using copper chisels. Contrary to popular belief, the Egyptians built the Giza pyramids up from the bedrock of the plateau, not over a flat sandy base. Khufu, in fact, was built around a small rock knoll. Building stones were predominantly limestone and granite, while mudbrick was used earlier for mastabas. Mudbrick was also used to build later Middle Kingdom Pyramids. A brilliant white limestone provided the final outer layer for the Giza pyramids, creating what must have been an awesome if not blinding sight to those who gazed upon these massive structures. Limestone was used for all but the lowest course of outer casing on Khafre and the lower 16 courses of Menkaure. These lower casings were made of granite.

The outer casing stones have disappeared from all three pyramids except the very top of Khafre. This is thought to be due to Casing stonesnatural erosion and human intervention; the precious white limestone was torn away from the faces of the pyramids and used in the construction of buildings in Cairo. There is good evidence that Khafre's bottom course of granite casing was being stripped as early as ancient Egypt's 19th Dynasty, and as early as the 12th century A.D., limestone was quarried from the Giza Pyramids for the construction of buildings in Cairo.

Giza's pyramids are oriented to face the four cardinal directions: true north, south, east, and west. Their entrances are all on the north side, and the temples of the pyramids are on the east side. Today, through the work of archaeologist Mark Lehner and his colleagues, a topographical and archaeological survey of the Giza plateau is being produced by the Giza Plateau Mapping Project.

Photos: Aaron Strong; Artwork: Mark Lehner

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