(ORDO NEWS) — The world’s fascination with ancient Egypt has a long history. Greek rulers often portrayed themselves as pharaohs, and the Romans brought obelisks from Egypt to decorate their cities, including Istanbul and Rome.
After Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, Egyptomania gripped Europe, and amateur archaeologists began to flock to the country, discovering massive temples and statues and unearthing innumerable tombs, including the famous tomb of Tutankhamen discovered by Howard Carter in 1915.
But of all the impressive sites and artifacts found, the pyramids of ancient Egypt are unmatched in grandeur.
The pyramids were built as tombs for pharaohs and high officials from 2600 to 1550 BC. These massive monuments displayed a person’s power and wealth and served as a place of ascension to the afterlife. More than 100 pyramids have been found in Egypt, mostly in clusters along the west bank of the Nile.
Pyramids come in many shapes and sizes, from the early Step Pyramid of Djoser to the uniquely shaped Curved Pyramid, where the angle of the pyramid was changed midway through construction, to the three iconic pyramids at Giza that have dominated Cairo’s skyline since 2550 BC.
Pyramid research has been carried out since the beginning of the 19th century, when the first archaeologists cleared the complexes of sand and explored the interior (sometimes, unfortunately, with the help of dynamite), and later archaeologists scanned and restored the monuments.
However, despite all the centuries of excavation and research, many mysteries of the pyramids remain mysteries.
Riddle 1: How the Egyptian pyramids were built
The Pyramid of Khufu (sometimes called the Pyramid of Cheops), the largest Egyptian pyramid, consists of 2.3 million stone blocks, each weighing between 2.5 and 16 tons.
Some blocks, especially those used in the interior, have been found at Aswan, 500 miles from Giza, where the pyramid stands.
But how did the ancient Egyptians build such massive pyramids without using simple machines like the wheel, which, although used by the Egyptians to make pottery, was not used for wagons or chariots until 1500 BC, probably because the wheels were useless in the thick sand that covered the country?
This is an ancient mystery that continues to be a mystery to ancient monumental complexes around the world. Although there are many theories, there is a lack of reliable archaeological evidence to fully support any of them.
One theory for how the blocks were moved involves the use of sleds and wet sand. A painting in Jehutihotep’s tomb shows men dragging a colossal statue on a sleigh. In front of them, a man pours water on the sand.
Although originally thought to be a ceremonial gesture, physicist Daniel Bonn recently discovered that the right amount of water, about two to five percent of the sand’s volume, increases the stiffness of the sand and reduces friction between the dragged object and the ground, making it much easier to move the object.
It is possible that the same technique was used to drag blocks of stone to the sites where the pyramids were built.
However, once the blocks were on the pyramid construction site, how were they lifted into place without taking advantage of mechanical advantages? A slope found in a quarry related to the construction of Khufu’s pyramid indicates that the ancient Egyptians were able to pull stone blocks out of the quarry up a steep ascending slope.
It is possible that similar ramps were used to lift the stones up the sides of the pyramid for placement. However, the exact system is unknown. The ramps could be outside the pyramid, spiraling up like a mountain road, or straight and long, or laid inside the pyramid.
How the 16-ton block could have been moved up the ramp is also unknown. Theories range from skids to wooden rollers to wooden poles tied to each side of the block, changing from square to polygonal and allowing it to be rolled like a keg of beer.
Riddle 2: What is in the cavities inside Khufu’s pyramid?
In 2017, scientists from the ScanPyramids project made a massive discovery inside Khufu’s pyramid. Using muon tomography, a non-invasive scanning technique that uses cosmic rays to produce 3D images of spaces and can penetrate much deeper than X-rays, researchers have discovered two previously unknown voids inside the pyramid, the first new spaces discovered inside a pyramid since the 19th century.
A small void about 15 feet long was discovered on the north side of the pyramid. Horizontal and slanted upwards, it could be a passage.
More importantly, a 100-foot-long void was discovered above the Grand Gallery, which in itself is an excellent passageway providing access to the burial chambers to the center of the pyramid.
Little is known about this large chamber. It can be horizontal or slanted and can actually be made up of several small rooms. Although this is hardly a burial chamber. It could be the second Grand Gallery, or more intriguingly, it could hold some of the secrets of pyramid design and construction.
The curved pyramid built by Sneferu, Khufu’s father, has a similar chamber above the main burial chamber. The space is believed to help reduce the weight of the masonry pressing down from above.
ScanPyramids plans to scan other pyramids, including the Pyramid of Khafre, the second largest in Egypt. What other secrets can muon tomography reveal about the monuments of Ancient Egypt? Time will tell.
Riddle 3: Why did the Egyptians stop building pyramids?
The last pyramid of the pharaoh was built around 1500 BC. Subsequently, while wealthy people were sometimes buried in or near the pyramids, pharaohs were buried in the Valley of the Kings, near Thebes (modern Luxor), the new capital of Ancient Egypt.
What exactly caused the rulers of Egypt to abandon the practice of burials in the pyramids is not known, although there are many theories.
One theory is that religious changes around 1500 B.C. began to emphasize the construction of tombs underground, in the rock, and not the burial of bodies in buildings.
Thebes, unlike the previous capital of Egypt, Memphis, had much less open space, and what little there was was rocky, which is hardly the ideal landscape for the construction of massive monuments.
The looting of tombs was also a problem, and there was much less chance that burials would be looted unless they were placed in pyramids. The Valley of the Kings is a rocky, complex landscape in which it was easy to hide royal burials and rock-cut tombs.
Thutmose, the first pharaoh to be buried in the Valley of the Kings, hired a man named Ineni to oversee the excavation of his tomb.
In his autobiography, Thutmose wrote: “I examined the excavations of the rock-cut tomb of His Majesty alone, no one saw, no one heard.” The entrances were kept secret, and the guards of the necropolis patrolled the area for looters.
A more recent theory as to why pyramid building stopped comes from Peter James, an engineer tasked with examining the outer shell of the Bent Pyramid built in 2600 BC. Although better preserved than the other pyramids, which have all lost their outer shells of limestone and marble, the body of the Bent Pyramid also fell apart.
Peter James discovered that the extreme temperature fluctuations of the Egyptian desert caused the limestone to expand and contract, moving stone blocks to the edges of the pyramid and causing them to separate or break, taking the outer shell with them.
Ironically, the unusual design of the Bent Pyramid has made it the best-preserved pyramid; the gaps between the stone blocks allowed them to shift with thermal expansion without destroying the hull. On the other hand, the more perfectly aligned and placed Giza pyramid blocks had no gaps between them.
Any displacement of the blocks forced them to put pressure on each other, as a result of which the hull quickly collapsed. This collapse probably took place while the building of the pyramids was still going on.
Having spent so much time, money and energy creating perfect monuments, this visible and rapid deterioration of their perfection may have been one of the reasons the pharaohs abandoned them as funerary monuments.
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