Responses to Your Questions
(posted February 7, 1997)
How did the pyramid lose 9.5 m off the top?
Mark Lehner, Egyptologist: Well, this is the Great Pyramid of Khufu. The
top-most part was lost because, over time, the pyramid outer casing was
stripped for stone to use it in building elsewhere. What we see of the pyramids
today is the stepped core
stone which is a coarser limestone than that which was used for the outer
casing. On the upper fourth or fifth of Khafre's Pyramid the casing is still
preserved. We have evidence that the stripping of the pyramids' fine outer
casing began as early as the New Kingdom in ancient Egypt - the era of
Tutankhamen, when the pyramids were already 1,200 years old, or more! The
removal of the casing of the Giza Pyramids, therefore, went on from the 12th
century B.C. to the 12th Century A.D. when the Arab historian, Abd al-Latif
al-Baghdadi, visited Egypt (about 1196 A.D.) and reported that Karakoush,
working for the Egyptian ruler, began to quarry the smaller pyramids at Giza
for building stone. The fact that the casing still hangs on the upper part of
Khafre's Pyramid indicates that those who stripped the fine limestone off the
pyramid casings started from bottom and progressed to top. We are not sure
exactly when the stripping of the casing of the Khufu Pyramid reached the
top, but in the process the upper courses were completely removed, probably
because they were almost entirely composed of the finer limestone from across
the Nile Valley at Turah as opposed to the cruder limestone from nearby
quarries at Giza, which makes up the bulk of the core stone. As they got to
the top, the builders needed that finer limestone for greater control in
bringing the sharp diagonals to the point of the apex.
Dear E., When you first entered the pyramid (mostly the lower and king's
chambers) were you totally freaked-out or just thinking to yourself too cool?
Write back soon, Jessica.
Jessica McNealy, Mobile, AL.
Mark Lehner, Egyptologist: When I first entered the Subterranean Chamber, at
the end of a narrow passage over 100 meters long and about 30 meters below the
outside ground level, I thought, "what on earth did they have in mind
here!!!!?!" The chamber is unfinished, and so it presents a "frozen moment" in
how the ancient quarrymen hollowed out and squared off a chamber carved in
bedrock (we can talk more about that later). But in the lower northeast corner
of this chamber, there
is a passage carved in the solid rock that runs for many meters to the east.
It is only big enough for one man to have driven it forward, with pick
hammer and chisel, lying on his belly. Where were they going with this? With
what did they want to link up?
We today with our technology could not possibly build these pyramids. We
cannot even lift one of those stones more than a story. The big pyramid is
aligned more accurately to the cardinal points than the Greenwich Observatory.
How did a primitive people with copper tools just out of the stone age do it?
How did they so exquisitely cut the granite and marble (not just the limestone)
with hand tools? Why are you so afraid to even consider the idea that the
culture (Egyptian or not) was an advanced one and then disintegrated?
Mark Lehner, Egyptologist: Well, personally, I am not afraid to consider that
idea at all. After twenty years working in Egyptian archaeology I am convinced
that the ancient Egyptian culture was far from primitive. The society of Khufu,
Khafre, and Menkaure was 500 years after what is commonly considered the
pharaonic culture or ancient Egyptian civilization. That is more than double
the time separating this Internet transmission from George Washington's day
(cultures can go through periods of accelerated change). In fact, right now
we are excavating the disintegrated remains of an advanced culture, the
culture of Old Kingdom Egypt, dating around 2,500 B.C. We see no evidence
there was another culture responsible for the wonderful achievements of the
Sphinx and Pyramids. What exactly do YOU mean by 'advanced culture?'
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