How Pyramids Work

The Great Pyramid of Khufu

The Giza pyramid complex, on the west bank of the Nile, is the most famous group of pyramids in the world. As we discussed earlier, the grandest pyramid was built for Sneferu's son, Khufu, in 2540 B.C. The two smaller pyramids nearby were for Khufu's son, Khafre, and his grandson, Menkaure. After this dynasty, great pyramid building stopped, probably because of the time and expense of these massive state projects.

The Great Pyramid of Khufu on the Giza plateau in Egypt is the largest and most elaborately constructed pyramid in existence, representing the most advanced aspects of pyramid construction. Khufu's pyramid has the following features:


  • The primary burial chamber, or king's chamber, contains the sarcophagus (tomb) that held Khufu's body, and the walls are adorned with hieroglyphs (writing) depicting various aspects of ancient Egyptian history and religion.
  • The smaller queen's chamber (actually a misnomer -- it was not intended for the queen) lies within the pyramid, while another unfinished secondary burial chamber lies underneath the pyramid.
  • Weight-relieving chambers above the king's chamber distribute the weight of the overlying rock and prevent the king's chamber from collapsing.
  • The gallery is a large passageway with a vaulted, corbelled ceiling (the walls are layered upward, and each vertical layer sticks out further than the one below to form a primitive arch).
  • Descending and ascending passageways connect various chambers to each other and to the outside.
  • Air shafts connect the king's chamber to the outside. They may have been designed as a way for Khufu's spirit to exit the pyramid and rise to the heavens.
  • The entrance was sealed after the pharaoh's body was placed inside.
  • White limestone rocks line the pyramid's exterior, giving it a smooth face. These rocks have eroded away over time, but we know they existed because the Pyramid of Khafre still has some on its peak.

On the next page, we'll learn about the construction of the pyramids at Giza.