Pyramids exert a peculiar hold on the human imagination. Hilltops were among the first sacred locations in the landscape that early man believed had been given to him by the gods, and the earliest pyramids—aspirations in stone—may have been attempts to rise above the earthly plane and touch the heavens. The pyramids of Egypt are the tetrahedron templates for structures that can be found in almost every culture. The pyramids of the Maya in Central America share similar geome-tries with those of the ancient Egyptians, a point that continues to intrigue scientists. Man is everywhere a monument builder, and pyramids were a safe starting point for people beginning to learn mathematics and engineering. As early civilizations mastered technology, rounded mounds of the earth became angular piles of stone. It is difficult to build a pyramid that is structurally unsound, which explains why so many of them have survived thousands of years. The pyramids of Egypt, which were built over a span extending roughly from 275o to 1525 B.C., remain founts of mystery. Archaeologists still can’t explain how the Egyptians were able to create an almost perfectly level base for the Great Pyramid of Cheops, right center, or align it to within a fraction of a degree of true north. The tools that ancient engineers used to cut hard stone, like granite, have never been found. The methods they used to raise giant stone blocks hundreds of feet in the air are also lost to history. Scientists assume that a gigantic system of temporary ramps was built around the pyramid as it was being erected, but no trace of such a structure has been detected. Nor do we know why the two air shafts that emerge from the building’s north and south walls were aligned to point to particular stars. Indeed, even 4,500 years after it was built, we don’t know much about the interior of the Great Pyramid itself. In 2003, a robotic camera was
inserted through a small hole drilled in a newly discovered door. On the other side, scientists were hoping to find one of several chambers that Egyptian texts hint at, although they have never been found. Instead, they found another door. Our knowledge of the pyramids continues to evolve. For centuries, scholars took the word of Greek historian Herodotus that the pyramids at Giza were built by an army of loo.000 slaves, laboring for more than a century. But recently uncovered archaeological evidence suggests that the project took only about zo years to complete and was the work of some 20,000 laborers — most of whom were volunteers contributing a prestigious form of national service for a few months at a time, primarily during the Nile’s flood season, when there was little work for farmers. Nature abhors a vacuum: where facts are few, fables flourish. Although the pyramids were clearly erected as royal tombs and temples, their origin and function have inspired fanciful hypotheses from the moment Egypt’s classical civilization declined. Among the wilder notions: the pyramids were constructed under the guidance of extraterrestrials or by an ancient civilization of superhuman beings. Yet the down-to-earth mysteries of pyramids are so tantalizing, they don’t require alien intervention to intrigue us. For example, the mathematical ratio between the height of the Great Pyramid of Cheops and its base suggests that the ancient Egyptians had a rough idea of the value of pi. If true, this finding would rewrite our knowledge of the history of science. Alas, there is no irrefutable evidence that the ratio’s occurrence is anything more than a coincidence. The pyramids are marvelous indeed. But if you visit Egypt bearing theories that aliens designed and built them, rather than the forebears of modern-day Egyptians, don’t be surprised if English-speaking locals describe you with the term they have coined for overly credulous tourists: pyramidiots.
SURVIVOR The Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza, center, is believed to date from 2500 B.C. It was damaged by an earthquake in AD. 1301, dislodging its smooth casing stones. Its current height is 455 ft.