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What did the egyptian pyramids originally look like?

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The pyramids of Egypt are some of the most iconic and impressive ancient monuments in the world. For thousands of years, they have inspired awe and wonder about the ancient Egyptian civilization that constructed them. The pyramids were built as tombs and monuments for the pharaohs, who were considered gods in ancient Egypt. The most famous Egyptian pyramids are the pyramids at Giza, consisting of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the slightly smaller Pyramid of Khafre, and the relatively modest-sized Pyramid of Menkaure.

When we look at the pyramids today, they have a very rough, step-like appearance. However, this was not how they originally looked when they were first constructed thousands of years ago during ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom period. Over time, the smooth, outer casing stones that originally covered the pyramids have been stripped away or destroyed, radically altering the pyramids’ original appearance. So what did the pyramids actually look like when they were first built? Let’s take a closer look at the original appearance of the Egyptian pyramids.

Original Exterior Casing Stones

When the pyramids were first built, they were covered in smooth, highly polished and precisely fitted casing stones made of limestone and granite. These casing stones formed an outer surface that made the pyramids look like gleaming, smooth-sided structures when they reflected the sunlight. The casing stones were cut so precisely that it would have been difficult to fit a piece of paper between them.

The casing stones gave the pyramids a bright, white, and probably slightly gleaming appearance, unlike the rough, step-like pyramids we see today. In fact, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who visited Egypt around 450 BCE, described the pyramids as looking like great mountains of white with highly polished tips that reflected the sun’s rays. Other ancient accounts also describe the dazzling, reflective white appearance of the original casing stones.

Casing Stones Stripped Over Time

So why have the smooth, outer casing stones been removed over time? Unfortunately, many of the casing stones were stripped from the pyramids over the centuries and used for other building projects in Cairo and Medieval Egypt.

For example, some of the casing stones from the Great Pyramid are believed to have been removed and used in the construction of mosques and fortresses in Cairo during the Middle Ages. Many casing stones were also removed simply for use as a convenient source of quality building stone. Earthquakes and other natural events also loosened and dislodged casing stones over the millennia.

Today, only a few original casing stones remain at the very tops of the pyramids and around the tops of the entrance tunnels. Seeing the few intact casing stones gives us a glimpse of just how sleek, polished, and angular the pyramids’ outer surface would have looked with all its original casing stones intact.

Interior Chambers and Passages

In addition to the original exterior casing, the interior chambers and passages of the pyramids give clues about their original appearance and construction. The interiors were intricately planned and built with precise proportions and orientations.

The Great Pyramid’s interior contains a descending passageway, several horizontal passageways, the grand King’s Chamber, the smaller Queen’s Chamber, ventilation shafts, and other corridors and chambers. The core masonry includes massive granite blocks for roofing the chambers, while the other interior stones consist of fine white limestone.

The internal passages and chambers were roofed with gabled limestone ceilings or massive granite slabs. The pyramid builders also left intriguing clues like mason’s marks within the pyramids, giving us insight into their construction methods. The pyramid interiors were not meant to be seen once the pharaoh was entombed, but the hidden internal details reveal the careful planning and construction that went into the original pyramids.

White Limestone and Granite Facing

The Giza pyramids were originally faced with fine white limestone casing stones, likely quarried from across the Nile River. This gleaming white limestone would have formed a smooth surface from the base to the tip of the pyramids.

The very tops of the pyramids were often capped with a small pyramid-shaped piece made of black granite, another hard stone that contrasted nicely with the white limestone. For example, archaeologists have found remnants of a fine granite capstone at the top of the Great Pyramid. Fitted granite slabs were also sometimes used for roofing interior chambers and passageways.

Thus, the original pyramids dazzled with fine white limestone on the exterior surface, combined with dark granite for symbolic tops and interior spaces. Over the centuries, sadly much of this fine stone facing has been lost or destroyed over time.

Original Heights

In their original form, the pyramids would have stood at their full heights, without any reduction from lost casing stones or capstones. The Great Pyramid of Khufu originally stood at around 481 feet tall, while Khafre’s pyramid was slightly shorter at 471 feet. Even today, the pyramids are immense, towering over the plains of Giza outside modern Cairo.

But without the reduction in height caused by centuries of damage and stone stripping, the original heights of the pyramids would have been even more impressive. As intended, they would have risen to magnificent heights that dazzled and awed viewers on the ground. The pyramid heights also aligned with astronomical and religious principles. For example, they may have been designed to align with certain star patterns for symbolic reasons. Their astronomical alignment and impressive heights reinforced their role as monuments to gods and the cosmos.

Cult Pyramids and Queens’ Pyramids

The pyramids were part of larger ceremonial complex, which also included smaller “cult” pyramids and queens’ pyramids flanking the massive central pyramid. The cult pyramids were dedicated to Egyptian gods and often contained internal chapels decorated with fine religious imagery and offerings. The queens’ pyramids were smaller tombs built for the pharaoh’s wives and mothers nearby.

For example, the Great Pyramid complex originally included three small cult pyramids to the east dedicated to the goddess Isis and other deities. There was also a pyramid attributed to Khufu’s wife Queen Hetepheres, along with other smaller queen pyramids. Khafre’s pyramid complex similarly included multiple queen’s pyramids and cult pyramids as part of the original design.

These smaller pyramids and chapels formed part of the original ceremonial layout and religious symbolism around the huge central pyramid housing the pharaoh’s tomb. They demonstrated the Egyptian practice of providing smaller ceremonial pyramids to honor gods, queens, and members of the royal family.

Sphinxes, Temples, and other Structures

In their undamaged original form, each pyramid area would have been surrounded by extensive temple complexes, statute lined processional ways, and other ceremonial structures.

The famous Great Sphinx of Giza dates to around the same time as the pyramids and would have formed part of this ceremonial landscape. Excavations around the Sphinx have revealed an ancient temple complex that would have been lavishly decorated with statues, obelisks, ritual sites, and other monuments. Extensive tombs and structures for priests and officials also surround the pyramids.

The pyramid temple complexes included cult shrines, burial pits for boats, granaries, bakeries, shops, storage magazines, workshops, and priests’ housing. Contemporaneous written accounts like the “Inventory Stela” describe some of these extensive structures built around the Khufu’s Great Pyramid on the Giza Plateau.

This gives us a picture of the pyramids as the centerpieces of vast temple and burial complexes teeming with statues, outbuildings, nearby tombs, and other monuments and structures. The pyramids were truly part of royal memorial temple cities honoring the god-like pharaohs.

Sightlines and Solar Alignments

The pyramids were strategically positioned in relationship to each other and the stars. Their original locations would have incorporated intentional sightlines, celestial alignments, and symmetrical layouts as part of their cosmological symbolism.

For example, the three main Giza pyramids are laid out in an almost perfect diagonal line from northwest to southeast, with each pyramid slightly further south than the preceding one. From a distance, the pyramids align neatly, showcasing their perfect geometry.

The pyramids were laid out using a unit the Egyptians called the “royal cubit.” Precise calculations went into orienting the pyramids and positioning them in relation to each other according to celestial patterns. For example, some pyramid airshafts point toward certain star constellations, serving a ceremonial purpose. The pyramid builders carefully aligned the monuments with the heavens.

The original angled causeways approaching the pyramids were also laid out precisely. These processional pathways were meant to transport the pharaoh’s funerary boats and direct the path of ritual processions. The pyramids, causeways, and temple complexes were integrated into an intricate symbolic landscape.

Pyramid Original Height Date Constructed
Great Pyramid of Khufu 481 feet c. 2560 BCE
Pyramid of Khafre 471 feet c. 2530 BCE
Pyramid of Menkaure 215 feet c. 2490 BCE

Construction Techniques and Workforce

Given their massive, carefully engineered size, the pyramids were incredible achievements of ancient construction. Architectural plans and scale models guided pyramid construction.

Thousands of laborers were organized to quarry, transport, and precisely set millions of heavy stone blocks. Blocks were set into place using ramps, levers, sledges, and ingenious lifting devices. The workforce may have been swollen by farmers during the Nile’s annual flood when farm labor was not required. Overseers and skilled masons directed the construction.

The pyramid builders used materials from across Egypt and Nubia. For example, the white limestone often came from Tura just across the Nile River, while granite was quarried far up the Nile in Aswan. The pyramid builders organized large-scale transport of stone on barges down the Nile River to the pyramid sites.

The smooth-faced exterior stones were carefully measured, cut, transported and fitted together using advanced techniques still not completely understood today. The pyramid builders left us an enduring testament to the skill, innovation, and vast resources that went into their original construction.


While stripped of most of their original external stone casing and damaged over the millennia, the majesty and scale of Egypt’s pyramids still invokes wonder today. By examining the few intact casing stones, interior details, and other remaining traces, we can piece together an image of the pyramids’ original appearance.

They would have dazzled approaching visitors with vast temples and precise stone facades climbing hundreds of feet to the sky. Their construction involved the complex mobilization of massive resources and workforce for a lasting monument to immortalize the god-like pharaohs. The original pyramids represented one of the great architectural achievements of humanity’s early civilizations, left to us across thousands of years. Their splendor truly testified to the mighty kingdom that constructed them.