The Great Pyramid at Giza recently reopened after a year of restoration, allowing visitors to Egypt to once again see where King Khufu was entombed more than 4,500 years ago.

The Great Pyramid is an astonishing human achievement, on a scale that impresses even now, in the age of Superdomes and skyscrapers. Originally 145.5 metres high, it was the world’s tallest structure for more than four millennia–right up until the turn of this century. Even today, at 137 metres, it’s more than twice as tall as the leaning tower of Pisa and half again as tall as the Statue of Liberty or Big Ben. (Egypt plans to replace the missing 8.5 metres with a golden cap this New Year’s.)

The base of the pyramid is 230 metres on a side, covering an area equivalent to seven New York City blocks. And speaking of blocks, the Great Pyramid is made up of more than 2.3 million, some limestone, some granite. The largest weigh more than 50 tonnes; on average, they weigh 2.3 tonnes each. That means the Great Pyramid weighs well over five million tonnes.

The sides of the Pyramid, aligned north, south, east and west, rise at an angle of 51.5 degrees. Their outer casing is so finely cut you can’t even insert a knife blade between the blocks.

Some people declare there was no way an ancient human civilization could have built such a thing; therefore, they would have you believe, it must have been done by extraterrestrials. That’s really an insult to the ancient Egyptians, who may have lived a long time ago, but were no more stupid or less resourceful than we are.

We know the Egyptians built the Great Pyramid because they left their marks all over it. Inside, in places no one was ever expected to see, workmen left graffiti, proclaiming with pride their role in its construction.

You can forget the Hollywood images of slaves laboring under the whip of stern taskmasters. It seems likely the pyramids were built more in the fashion of a giant barn-raising, with people from across the country providing labor, skills and resources. The graffiti indicates that workmen were divided into various gangs, with names like “Friends of Khufu” and “Drunks of Menkaura.” Each gang was divided into five phyles (a Greek word for tribe) and each phyle was subdivided into divisions, each identified with a single hieroglyph, such as “endurance” or “perfection.”

How many workmen did it take? Herodotus, writing about 500 B.C., claimed it took 100,000 men 30 years. However, the Great Pyramid was already 2,700 years old in Herodotus’s time, so he didn’t really have any more idea than we do.

Archaeologist Mark Lehner, as documented in the NOVA episode “This Old Pyramid,” set out to build a small pyramid in Giza, using the kind of basic technology the Egyptians would have had. He discovered that 12 men could quarry 186 stones in just 21 days. Using that as his starting point, he estimates 5,000 men could build the pyramid in 20 years. One of the U.S.’s largest construction firms, DMJM, recently calculated the necessary manpower just as they would calculate it for a modern-day project, and came up with the same figure.

The Egyptians only had simple technology, but that was all they needed. Lehner discovered that 12 men can pull a 1.5-tonne block over a slick surface quite easily. The stones of the Great Pyramid were probably dragged by hand up a ramp, which grew longer as the pyramid grew taller. Simple cranes and winches could be used to position the stones as necessary.

The Egyptians built well; the Great Pyramid remains intact. But it has suffered recently from a plague the Egyptians never imagined: tourists, as many as 5,000 a day. Their breathing and perspiration raised the humidity level inside the pyramid, causing salt to leach out of the stone and encrust the walls and more than 300 cracks to appear. They also added their own graffiti.

During the past year, the Egyptian government has mended cracks, removed graffiti and installed modern ventilation and lighting and a new staircase leading to the main burial chamber. Aircraft have been banned from flying over the monument, and visitors will be kept to 300 a day.

Today’s Egyptians hope the restorations will ensure that the Great Pyramid continues to enthrall, awe and humble us in the new millennium–though from the pyramid’s point of view, if you’ve seen one millennium, you’ve seen them all.

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