There it stands, iconic and supreme among the giants that grace the Giza Plateau near Cairo, Egypt. From a distance it is perhaps the most visually striking marker to any visitor approaching the Plateau. But up close, at this, the Great Pyramid of Khufu’s foundation, is where the wonder begins. One stands peering upward and dwarfed by single rectangular blocks of stone, most weighing on average about 1.5 tons. After the initial awe, the overriding question always follows: How did they do it?
To lift and set the massive stones that define the pyramid’s foundation, and perhaps even those that comprise its first few courses, might paint a fathomable picture. But what about those massive stones much higher up, including the gigantic 60-ton granite beams, the heaviest stones of all, that form the ceiling of the pyramid’s internal King’s Chamber high above the pyramid’s base? Today’s technology provides a quick and easy answer. The technology of nearly 5,000 years ago, however, is another question.
Archaeologists and Egyptologists have for decades researched and hypothesized about the mystery of how the great pyramids were built, not the least of which was the Great Pyramid of Khufu ( Egypt’s early Old Kingdom pharaoh of the 26th century B.C). But the literature on the question actually goes back centuries—as long ago as the ancient Greeks. The first historical account was penned by Herodotus in the 5th century B.C. According to Herodotus:
“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.”*
In the 1st century B.C, Diodorus Siculus wrote:
“And ’tis said the stone was transported a great distance from Arabia, and that the edifices were raised by means of earthen ramps, since machines for lifting had not yet been invented in those days; and most surprising it is, that although such large structures were raised in an area surrounded by sand, no trace remains of either ramps or the dressing of the stones, so that it seems not the result of the patient labor of men, but rather as if the whole complex were set down entire upon the surrounding sand by some god. Now Egyptians try to make a marvel of these things, alleging that the ramps were made of salt and natron and that, when the river was turned against them, it melted them clean away and obliterated their every trace without the use of human labor. But in truth, it most certainly was not done this way! Rather, the same multitude of workmen who raised the mounds returned the entire mass again to its original place; for they say that three hundred and sixty thousand men were constantly employed in the prosecution of their work, yet the entire edifice was hardly finished at the end of twenty years.”**
Although historical accounts of Herodotus and Siculus are not necessarily considered by many historians to be the “go to” sources for historical accuracy, these particular accounts nevertheless show that the question of how the pyramid was constructed was a topic of consideration very early on, albeit many centuries after the fact, the truth having been obscured into oblivion by time and succeeding events and elements over the ensuing centuries. If nothing else, they do serve to point to at least two traditional concepts that have often been advanced to explain the elusive “how” related to construction: The step-and-leverage technique and the ramp technique.
Ramps and Levers
Great earthen ramps have often been cited as the means used by the ancients to hoist large objects to the upper reaches of a natural or man-made construction. The massive earthen ramp built by the Romans to transport a large battering ram to the exterior face of the fortress atop Masada near the Dead Sea, wherein the besieged Jewish rebels of the 1st century First Jewish Revolt awaited their fate, is a classic example. The ramp remains are still clearly visible, abutting the side of the sheer face of the famous isolated Masada rock plateau. Remains of the Roman encampments that housed the soldiers who built it are also still visible near the foot of the plateau. The evidence for a great ramp at the Great Pyramid is, however, scarce and subject to interpretation.
But though the archaeological evidence is highly debatable, the ramp method has been a traditionally popular concept among scholars to describe the methodology used by the ancients to build the Great Pyramid. The first, albeit somewhat discredited, method involved use of a large straight ramp (diagrammed at right), much like the one depicted at Masada. Moving the large blocks up the ramp may have employed sleds lubricated by water or milk. Supplementing this could have been wooden levers, constructed like the traditional and anciently used shadoof, which was commonly used to leverage and pull large, heavy buckets of water from rivers or lakes for irrigation purposes. In this case, of course, the method would be adapted to lifting large stone blocks. Other ramp method proposals have included zigzagging ramps, and spiraling ramps using either the pyramid superstructure itself or as an additional ramp accretion constructed against the superstructure and then removed later.
One recently published proposal has caught the attention of many scholars as perhaps the most viable model within the ‘ramp school’. Conceptualized in 1999 by well-known French architect Jean Pierre Houdin, it centered on the construction of an internally spiraling ramp within the pyramid, beginning at about 30% of the pyramid height (the lower 30% of the pyramid having been built by a regular external ramp). With the help of a team of engineers using computer-aided design technology, he refined a proposed ancient construction strategy that featured the construction of succeeding internal ramps, each connected to the one before with a 10-meter-square space or ‘notch’ created to house a cranelike levering device for hoisting each block in place, situating it to be dragged by eight workers up by sled to the next internal ramp. Some archaeological or architectural evidence has been cited to support his proposal, including a ‘notch’-like feature located where Houdin’s model would predict such a notch.
View of the pyramid complex at Giza, including the Great Pyramid of Khufu in front, as seen from Cairo. Essam E.A. Mohamed, Wikimedia Commons
Plan map of the Giza pyramid complex. Messer Woland, Wikimedia Commons
The Great Pyramid of Khufu. Nina, Wikimedia Commons
Average core blocks of the Great Pyramid weigh about 1.5 tons each, and the granite blocks used to roof the burial chambers are estimated to weigh up to 80 tons each. Mgiganteus, Wikimedia Commons
From left to right: Zig-zagging ramp (Holscher), ramp utilizing the incomplete part of the superstructure (Dieter Arnold), and a spiraling ramp supported by the superstructure (Mark Lehner). Althiphica, Wikimedia Commons
The remains of the Roman siege ramp at Masada. Oren Rozen, Wikimedia Commons
Entrance to the interior spaces of the Great Pyramid. Olaf Tausch, Wikimedia Commons
The Power of Water
Most recently, Robert Carson has advanced a proposal that, like Houdin’s theory described previously, envisions the Great Pyramid as having been built ‘from the inside out’, as opposed to the externally-oriented construction concept depicted by most traditional models. Carson is not an Egyptologist or archaeologist. He is an engineer. But given that the Great Pyramid was primarily a feat of engineering ingenuity, he applied an engineer’s mind to the mystery of its construction, with some interesting albeit likely contestable results.
“Since I was a boy back in the fifties I have been fascinated and intrigued by ancient structures, none more so than the pyramids at Giza,” he said. “I am curious by nature and have had a fascination for all things mechanical since I was a boy. This is why I was drawn to engineering when I left school and went on to college.”
Although he did not pursue a professional career in Egyptology or archaeology, his interest in things ancient and, in particular, the pyramids of Egypt, remained with him for decades until, in the late 1990’s, his personal reading and research led him to seriously consider a very different scenario than those proposed by most Egyptologists and archaeologists.
“By 2010-11, I had discovered almost all of the pieces of this puzzle,” he wrote in a recent essay about his theory. “….in order to understand how the Great Pyramid had been constructed one must first understand its inner spaces, as they are the key to everything.”
Using inner spaces built within the Great Pyramid, says Carson, the ancient Egyptians actually constructed the pyramid from within. “The ancient pyramid builders could not install the polished outer casing blocks on the structure from the outside, therefore these blocks had to be taken into the structure from the beginning and installed first on each level, before the rectangular core blocks could be installed behind them,” he maintains, “for it was this outer casing that had to be surveyed at every stage of the construction to ensure that the true pyramid shape was being maintained on every level. When the lower courses were under construction the masonry was taken into the structure through a gap in the outer casing on each level prior to these gaps being closed. Eventually, however, this practice could be extended no further, so a doorway and an entrance tunnel were created around the seventeenth or eighteenth level and all of the masonry was then transported into the structure through the new entrance tunnel.”
At least some of the inner spaces Carson refers to still exist. They are most often interpreted by mainstream scholars as burial chambers, galleries, passageways and shafts or as inner spaces used for associated purposes. But according to Carson, two main rectangular chambers within the structure, for example, were not (at least initially) burial chambers. They were meant instead as central distribution hubs, into which the stone blocks were transported through the entrance tunnel and then moved up ramps on either side of the chambers to construct the perimeter levels in advance of the structure’s core. “This was done in two stages,” he says, “one from the distribution hub in a partially constructed lower (best known today as the Queen’s) chamber; and again from the upper chamber after the inner area had been completed up to the level of the upper (King’s) chamber floor (50th course).” The internal ramps were then subsequently “swallowed up” by the pyramid structure as it was completed.
To successfully move the stones through these inner spaces would still require enormous amounts of energy—by human-power (perhaps aided by lubricated sleds and levers), as is most often proposed by all pyramid-building theories. It is an excruciatingly slow and miserably onerous way of building any monumental edifice. But Carson suggests an alternate, and more efficient, engineering method that few, if anyone, have seriously considered or advanced.
Says Carson: “There is only one force on the planet that can explain how these huge monoliths were transported up to, and then installed in, this free-standing granite edifice—and that is hydraulic power.”
Hydraulic power is a system of interconnected pipes or water tunnels carrying pressurized water, a means to create a force that far exceeds human power from a source, like a pump, to targeted devices or objects like lifts or motors. (In the case of Carson’s proposal, to a series of water locks).
For constructing ancient monumental structures nearly 5,000 years ago, it is a concept that most mainstream scholars might vociferously debate, though it may not necessarily have been beyond Third Millennium BC technical capabilities. For Carson the engineer, the evidence lies clearly within and under the Great Pyramid herself—the system of tunnels and chambers that have already been known to exist by Egyptologists and archaeologists for many years—the answer that has been, according to Carson, ‘hiding in plain sight’ the whole time. Using a huge water source bestowed to the Egyptians by the mighty Nile (still to be identified—either a natural or a man-made reservoir somewhere west or south west of the pyramids), “the ancient pyramid builders utilized hydraulic (water) power for their transportation system and also as a means to lift massive tonnages up to almost unbelievable elevations,” says Carson. “It was the water lock and [water pressure] – plus an efficient pump [3rd Millennium BC Egyptian style] – that made it possible to construct pyramids such as those at Giza and Dashur using such large blocks of stone, for these structures simply would not exist in their present form if the ancient pyramid builders had not realized the potential of such a power source to transform pyramid construction.”
Above and below, diagramatic representation of the Great Pyramid’s main inner spaces. Top image R.F. Morgan, Wikimedia Commons; Bottom image Jeff Dahl, Wikimedia Commons
Carson’s proposal regarding the successive stages of the Great Pyramid’s construction. Courtesy Robert Carson
Carson proposed a system of locks as part of the hydraulic system the ancient Egyptians used to manage the water power used to build the pyramid. Courtesy Robert Carson
According to Carson, the inner spaces were actually conceived (at least initially) as part of the hydraulic/construction system used to build the pyramid. Courtesy Robert Carson
Carson proposes the ancient Egyptians used (what was for them) a (non-electric manpowered) ‘superpump’ to direct and force the water used to move the stone blocks in the internal construction process of the pyramid. Courtesy Robert Carson
A Theory in Waiting?
Carson knows his thinking still languishes on the fringe of known theories about the Great Pyramid’s construction. But he is also remarkably confident and hopeful that it will emerge as an accepted theory among mainstream academics.
“The evidence is there for all to see, and when you put all the pieces of the puzzle together it simply cannot be interpreted any other way,” says Carson.“I have absolutely no doubt that the vast majority of my findings will eventually be accepted as fact by academics…… we can now choose to recognize the astonishing abilities and ingenuity of these amazing pyramid builders and move forward, or reject this hard evidence and allow the dogma that has plagued this area of Egyptology (pyramidology) to remain. If we choose the latter, this branch of Egyptology will make as little progress in the next fifty years as it has made in the last fifty or sixty years.”
For interested readers: Robert Carson’s recently published book entitled The Great Pyramid: The Inside Story, documents his theory in detail, replete with illustrations.
* Godley, A. D. ed. (1920) Herodotus, The Histories. Harvard University Press. Book 2 Chapter 125.
** Murphy, Edwin. (1990) The Antiquities of Egypt: A Translation with Notes of Book I of the Library of History of Diodorus Siculus. Transaction Publishers.