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Volume 17, Number 2March/April 1966

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They Built For Eternity

In Ancient Egypt

Written by William A. Ward
Illustrated by Brian Smith

Twenty-five centuries ago, when the Greek traveler Herodotus visited the already ancient monuments of Egypt, he found that the tourists had gotten there first. Their names were scratched on the crumbling ruins in hundreds of ancient languages.

Tourists are still coming to Egypt and are probably still inscribing their names on the old stones. They are probably sharing another experience too—standing in silent and involuntary admiration before the great structures and silently posing those inevitable questions: Why? How?

The why is easy: religious beliefs that sought perpetuation in masses of stone so ponderous they must be measured in tons and acres and that demanded that these material manifestations of faith be not only huge but permanent. In the words of Ramses II, who dedicated the magnificent temple of Medinet Habu in the 13th century B.C., this was to be "a palace of the Lord of the Gods, forever." The Egyptians built for eternity.

The real wonder, however, is that the monuments were even contemplated. The ancient Egyptians possessed only the simplest hand tools and lacked what today would be considered the most elementary machinery. They didn't use the wheel until the Great Pyramid had stood a thousand years and never used the pulley at all. Yet the monuments they left stagger the imagination. The Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara, built nearly 4,800 years ago, is enclosed by a dressed stone wall one mile in circumference. At Karnak visitors can walk for hours through forests of columns and gateways without seeing the whole temple. How were they constructed?

In ancient Egypt the quarrying, transport and erection of obelisks—symbolic stone shafts representing the sun— were common problems. And in their solution can be found answers to many questions on how ancient Egyptians achieved what appear to be miracles of construction. From records left by the Egyptians it appears that the huge obelisks—single shafts of granite up to 100 feet high and weighing 500 tons—were usually quarried at Aswan. When an obelisk was needed, stone cutters at Aswan would search the quarry for a mass of rock free of faults and large enough to permit a segment of stone the size of an obelisk to be cut out in one piece. They would mark off the general outline of the obelisk on the smoothed flat surface and undertake to separate the monolith from the parent mass, sometimes cutting it free with ball-hammers of a hard stone such as dolerite, other times employing a more complex method. In a shallow slit chiseled into the rock and outlining the shape the stonecutters bored holes at regular intervals, drove in wooden wedges and soaked them. As the water seeped into them the wedges expanded slowly, splitting the rock along the chiseled lines until the whole monolith came free. After rough shaping and dressing it was transported to the building site.

Moving a block of stone this size was an exercise in brute strength. From Aswan—where an unfinished obelisk of enormous proportions lies to this day—they were usually floated along the Nile. But that meant that first the volume—and hence the weight—of the stone had to be calculated. This was done, according to data found on mathematical papyri, with exactly the same formula used today to calculate the volume of a truncated pyramid, a figure of the same geometric type as an obelisk.

Having established the weight of the obelisk the engineers could go ahead with the rest of the planning: estimating the number of laborers who would be needed, making arrangements for the laborers to be found and brought to the quarry, calculating the size of the log raft needed to float the obelisk, finding timber and transporting it to the quarry and getting construction started. It was a complicated task and even after the raft had been built and the obelisk rolled over onto it there was still considerable work ahead. A canal had to be dug in which at the time of the annual Nile flood, when the river waters spread out over the whole valley, the raft could be floated to the river proper with little difficulty. Such canals were dug by hand, first from a point near the quarry to the river, and then from the river to the building site. After the stonecutters had polished the obelisk to a smooth finish and cut inscriptions into its surface, the engineers launched the final operation: raising the great shaft to a standing position, one of the most fascinating feats achieved in the ancient world.

Prior to the arrival of the obelisk an incline of earth or sand, held in place by brick retaining walls, was built at the point where the obelisk was to stand. The incline covered the obelisk base. After the obelisk was unloaded from its raft at the site, teams of men dragged it up the incline with ropes, the lower end first. More laborers then went to work excavating the sand beneath the lower end so that gradually the end of the obelisk began to tilt downward into a near vertical position. Eventually one edge could be guided into a groove in the base. At that point hundreds of laborers in teams—hauling on guide lines— pulled it into an upright position. The rest of the incline and the retaining walls were then removed and the obelisk was left standing free and firm, and able, as has proven true, to stand for thousands of years.

That, anyway, is the theory and although the supporting evidence is sound, there are still a few points which remain hypothetical and other points which are still being disputed. For example, according to the records obelisks were transported on log rafts. But there is pictorial evidence from Queen Hatsheput's mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri that obelisks were carried down the Nile in boats. A large relief shows two obelisks on the deck of a barge in the traditional shape of a sailing-boat hull being towed by 30 rowing boats. In one of the inscriptions from this temple, the word for "boat" is carved in hieroglyphs using a picture of such a barge carrying an obelisk. On the other hand, from what is known of Egyptian ship construction, a heavy load like that would have capsized any ship built along normal lines. There are some who tend to believe that the Egyptians possessed adequate knowledge to build boats capable of hauling obelisks in this fashion, but real boats found in excavations certainly do not bear this out. The theories are still theories.

The single most ambitious enterprise undertaken in ancient Egypt was of course the largest—and today the best known—of the pyramids of Gizeh. This monument covers 13 acres at the base and in its original condition stood 481 feet high and was constructed of about 2,300,000 blocks of stone, each weighing about 2½ tons. Yet although it is the most famous and the most familiar, the question "How did they do it?" still can't be answered fully. It is known that it was built without the use of either wheels or pulleys, but conjecture still plays and always has played a large part in the answers. Herodotus, for example, recording stories he heard from Egyptian priests, describes wooden machines which, he says, were used to lift the heavy stones from one level to another. Through the years the idea developed and spread that the Egyptians had discovered and hidden away secret methods and machinery. Actually the pyramid, even in the time of Herodotus, was already 2,000 years old and the truth had long since been swallowed up in legend and superstition.

But even though hypothetical, even the most reasonable theories explaining the pyramids are no less interesting than the fantastic theories produced by imaginative amateurs. Each of the 2,300,000 blocks, for example, had to be measured, cut, dressed, polished, moved, floated, moved again and put in place in almost precisely the same way that the obelisks were. To put it another way, the problems involved in constructing the pyramid were exactly the same as those of erecting obelisks but multiplied two million times!

As in any building project, the first problem that confronted those ancient engineers was how to obtain raw materials. It was a problem of unprecedented magnitude. They needed granite slabs for the inner chambers. They needed huge blocks of yellow limestone for the main courses. They needed white limestone for facing, tons of copper to make the tens of thousands of tools, enormous supplies of palm, flax and papyrus fibers with which to make rope to haul and pull and lift, and great quantities of wood to build rafts, sledges, levers and rollers. To meet these needs expeditions set forth in all directions. For granite they went to Aswan. For yellow limestone they went into the local hills. For white limestone they went to Turah, a few miles from Gizeh. They went to Sinai, too, for copper, and to the mountains of Lebanon for timber. In short, they ranged throughout the Middle East, simultaneously setting in motion mining, quarrying, lumbering and transportation projects of a scope that would be impressive even today.

The personnel problems were of similar proportions. Although, as inscriptions indicate, laborers made up the bulk of these expeditions, there were hosts of specialists too: masons, transport crews, military contingents, interpreters, a small army of scribes and—a typically Egyptian detail—scorpion charmers to deal with these vicious creatures. Physicians were also included since, contrary to the myths about cruel Egyptian taskmasters, workmen were much too valuable to be either whipped to death or left to die under the desert sun.

At the building site itself another army of workmen was required—laborers, masons, overseers, architects and thousands of service personnel. The total number involved in building the Great Pyramid was estimated in Herodotus' day as 100,000 men and a more recent estimate, made by a qualified archeologist, puts the figure at 250,000. In either case, the problems of organization, of housing and feeding them—for a period of 20 years—would have been staggering since these workers (again contrary to popular notions) were not slaves, but the free population of Egypt, most of whom worked for and were paid by the state. This was during the months when there was no farming. In the growing seasons they returned to the fields, leaving a skeleton crew of artisans behind to quarry stone, manufacture tools, dress the building blocks and make other preparations for the next season of construction.

The core of the pyramid was built in horizontal courses, rising like steps, each level a bit smaller than the step below. Since several courses make a truncated pyramid, the mathematical formula noted earlier in reference to obelisks played a vital role. With it the Chief Architect could calculate the total volume of several courses of stone, determine well in advance the materials, workmen and tools which would be needed for the coming season's construction and order the requisite amounts from the far-flung sources of supply.

As the courses of the pyramid rose higher, inclines of sand and rubble were constructed along each side. These slopes were fitted crossways with logs to facilitate the movement of wooden sledges on which the building-stones were dragged up to the ever rising surface. Once the core of the pyramid was finished, the outer casing of triangular stones—which, in effect, filled in the steps—was laid on. Since the inclines rose all the way to the top, the casing stones were added beginning at the peak. As the work on the casing proceeded downward, the inclines were gradually removed until the lowest course was finished and the monument stood free as a true pyramid, with its smooth sides sloping down in an unbroken white surface from peak to base. Unhappily, over the centuries these limestone casing blocks have been removed for other buildings, except for a few at the base. As a result, only the stepped core of the pyramid remains today.

The pyramid itself is little more than a tombstone marking a royal burial. In most pyramids the burial chamber is at or below ground level, reached through a passageway leading from a hidden entrance on the north side. In the Great Pyramid, changes in plan during construction created two chambers in the pyramid itself and one below ground level, all with the appropriate passageways. (A change in plan while building was in progress was frequent in Egyptian architecture.) The chambers in the Great Pyramid proper are mostly of granite and show certain unique characteristics. The Grand Gallery, part of the passage ascending to the burial chamber, is 153 feet long and 28 feet high. The upper three-fourths of the walls form a huge corbel vault the entire length of the gallery. The burial chamber at the upper end of the gallery is of granite and is topped by five low chambers and a peaked roof, also of granite slabs which average 50 tons each. This construction prevented the ponderous weight of the pyramid from crushing the burial chamber and is found in simpler form in several other pyramids.

The pyramid proper was only part of the total burial monument. A temple was built on the east side and a long stone causeway led from this temple down to the riverbank where a second temple stood. Each pyramid complex originally contained all these elements, though much has been destroyed. The causeway foundation was one of the first parts to be constructed, as this afforded a convenient path for dragging the building-stones up from the rafts at the river's edge.

The construction of rock-cut tombs demanded many of the same techniques as those used in the stone quarries. Excavating a rock-cut tomb simply meant quarrying passages and chambers out of living rock. Depending on the kind of stone, ball-hammers or metal hand tools were used to cut into the face of the cliff. Softer stone was chipped out in small pieces, harder stone was removed in blocks to be used later in other structures. Natural pillars were left in the larger galleries to support the mass above. The entire surface of such a man-made cave was then smoothed and covered with sculptured reliefs and inscriptions. If the stone was of poor quality, the walls were either painted or covered with a thick plaster surface in which the reliefs and inscriptions were cut.

This kind of structure presented less of a problem than a monument constructed of stone blocks. There was no massive transport of building materials involved and the labor force was certainly less. The total bulk of stone moved was, of course, proportionately smaller. The rock-cut tomb of King Merneptah (1223-1211 B.C.), for example, has a volume of approximately 6,000 cubic yards, almost negligible when compared to about 2,500,000 cubic yards for the Great Pyramid. Still, it is difficult to descend into one of the rock-cut tombs, particularly those of the Valley of the Kings, without admiring the often spectacular results. No less than the pyramids, the rock-cut tombs were engineering feats of considerable skill, considering that they were carved out of solid mountains entirely by hand.

By contrast, the construction of great temples, which would seemingly have presented great engineering difficulties, was relatively easy. Even a large temple hall with rows of tall columns, high walls and a massive stone roof required only adaptations of the same methods as those employed for obelisks, such as filling the entire area of a hall or temple or palace with earth and rubble as columns were put up. The columns were built of separate drums placed one upon another much as walls were built of separate layers of blocks. Thus the walls, gateways and columns all rose at the same rate and height, and the level, packed sand rose with each course of stone. By the time the stone roofing was laid on the building was completely filled with sand with huge inclines sloping off to ground level. After the building was completed, the earth filling and inclines were patiently removed in. small reed baskets carried on the hips and shoulders of the workers—exactly as it is done today on many construction projects in the Middle East. At last, sometimes decades later, the temple would emerge, a testament to the skill and resourcefulness of builders and craftsmen who will forever remain unknown.

It should be added, perhaps, that the hypotheses concerning such construction are based largely on what the Egyptians themselves have said, in the form of completed and unfinished monuments as well as many types of inscriptions. Scenes on the walls of tomb chapels show that teams of men or oxen were used to drag stones weighing several tons. Names of individual work crews appear on blocks of stone they moved. Texts record the construction of either boats or barges for the transport of stones. There is even a written record of the erection of a huge royal statue which describes an earthen incline up which the statue was dragged, base first, to. be lowered into position in the manner used to erect an obelisk. Another papyrus preserves the specifications for a brick-enclosed incline more than 1,200 feet long and 100 feet high at the upper end and the actual remains of such inclines have been discovered at many sites in association with several types of structures.

There is also ample evidence that hand tools were the basic means of cutting even the largest blocks and excavating tombs. Egyptian reliefs show workmen using them; many of these tools have been discovered in the course of modern excavations; and the markings left by chisels, adzes—small axes with arched blades—and ball-hammers are visible everywhere in tombs and quarries. (Even today in the Middle East workmen can be seen using identical tools, squatting in identical positions patiently chipping away at blocks of stone intended for the most modern buildings.)

The slits, cut in stone to receive wooden wedges for splitting large blocks from the parent mass, can be seen by the thousands in the Aswan quarries. There is debris in the quarries, suggesting that rough dressing and shaping were carried on in the quarry. And, finally, there are architectural drawings so accurate that the actual monuments they represent can sometimes be identified. The architect's plan for the tomb of Ramses IV includes measurements for the various corridors and galleries. One plan for a private estate even shows the trees in the garden, and on a fragment of pottery of the 21st century B.C. a landscape architect plotted the grove of trees that once stood before the earlier temple at Deir el-Bahri.

For all that, it is still difficult to accept the fact that some of the most astounding engineering of the world was accomplished with tools no more complex than chisels, stakes, ropes, water and sand, possibly because in the modern world simple solutions are so rare. Yet the pyramids are there and no mysterious mechanical devices, no hidden secrets, no lost knowledge have ever been unearthed to explain their presence. And it is doubtful, to say the least, that they ever will. The Egyptians excelled in building great monuments with elementary techniques because they were blessed with practical minds and limitless time. This, and an inherent belief in their own grandeur, enabled them to build for eternity.

William A. Ward, an Egyptologist and archeologist, holds a Ph.D. in Semitic languages and teaches ancient history at the American University of Beirut. He has published one book and a score of articles in professional journals in the United States, Europe and the Middle East.

This article appeared on pages 26-33 of the March/April 1966 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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