8 Things You Probably Got Wrong About The Great Pyramids In Egypt

Along with the Taj Mahal in India and the Eiffel Tower in France, the Great Pyramids in Egypt are probably one of the world’s most iconic and famous tourist attractions. Of those, the Egypt’s pyramids in Giza are by far the most ancient, having accumulated centuries worth of myths, mesofacts, and some intriguing conspiracy theories along the way.

3 pyramids of giza Egypt

Having formally studied anthropology I can attest to the fact that the archeological record tells us a lot about the these famous pyramids, most of which the public has gotten wrong over the years. These are some of the most prevalent misconceptions about the pyramids, several of which you might have yourself, and a few I learned about during my time in Egypt.

1. The Pyramids Were Built By Slaves

This is by far the most widely held belief people have about the pyramids that isn’t true. This rumor likely got started by Greek historian Herodotus (~484-425 B.C.) who visited the site of the Great Pyramid in 450BC. All current evidence now shows the Pyramids were built by skilled laborers, working on a national project, well fed, exempt from taxes, and often buried honorably in tombs around the construction site.

lego pharaoh

2. The Labor Force Was 100,000 Men Strong

Again it was Herodotus who first waved this figure around (although there is some debate in the translation of his exact words), but current estimates are somewhere around a workforce of 10,000. That’s 2,000 rotating skilled workers, 3,000 manual laborers, and 5,000 more men and women to support the infrastructure needed to feed, house, and maintain such a huge workforce.

tea in egypt

3. There Are 3 Great Pyramids

Although it’s become colloquial to refer to the Pyramids in Giza as “The Great Pyramids” there is in fact, only one Great Pyramid. The “Great Pyramid Of Giza” (also known as the Pyramid of Khufu or Cheops) is the largest pyramid of the 3 within the Giza Necropolis.

great pyramid giza

4. The Pyramids Are In Cairo

Many people confuse what “Giza” actually is, often thinking it is a proper name relating to Ancient Egypt. Giza is Egypt’s third largest city and where the Pyramids, Sphinx, and 2.8 million people are located. A close metro or cab ride from Cairo and part of the Greater Cairo metropolis, Giza is a separate city where the Pyramids now stand.

Egyptian museum cairo

5. The Pyramids Are In The Middle Of The Desert

Most of the photos taken of the pyramids in Giza are from a certain angle or from fairly close up, making them seem like they’re in the middle of the Egyptian desert. In reality however, they’re really on the edge of the sands and practically in a few people’s backyards. The pyramids are in fact, nearly two-thirds surrounded by city, and the Sphinx is facing a TGIFriday’s.

pyramids in giza

6. There Are Only 3 Pyramids And The Sphinx In The Giza Necropolis

While the 3 major pyramids and Sphinx are there as well, the Giza Necropolis consists of several other structures over a 2.25 square kilometer area. That area includes a permanent worker’s settlement, a number of cemeteries, and 6 smaller “Pyramid of Queens”. The entire area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

great Sphinx giza egypt

7. The Pyramids Are One Of The 7 Ancient Wonders Of The World

Sort of, but technically it’s only the Great Pyramid of Giza that’s on the list that was created mostly by the ancient Greeks. The Great Pyramid shares a spot as one of the 7 ancient wonders with Colossus of Rhodes but has the distinction of being the only one that has survived until today. In 2007 the Swiss company New7Wonders Foundation had a public poll to name the 7 new wonders. After a bit of controversy the Great Pyramid was added as the 8th (honorary) member, though since then they’ve quietly removed it the official list (but is considered a permanent member so far as anyone can tell).

colossus of rhodes

8. Humans Needed Alien Help To Build The Pyramids

I, like most sci-fi nerds, love a good alien conspiracy theory. One that keeps floating around is that human beings alone, without modern machinery, could not have built the pyramids. Aside from the obvious proof that the pyramids are there and we have no evidence of alien contact with human beings ever, it’s easy to discern how the pyramids were built because many of the same construction methods are still used today. Both in Egypt and other parts of the world – not to mention by teams of scientists performing the labor themselves to determine the construction details.

grey aliens

Though I have to admit, I’m rooting for aliens on this one. Aliens building pyramids – how cool could that possibly be if it were true? More interesting than teams of 20-60 men moving granite and limestone using levers and ramps – the currently held theory.

The Gray Areas Are Getting More Concrete

It amazes me how much we still have to learn about human-made structures that have been on Earth for more than 4,000 years, though science is churning away at closing in. These Pyramids of Giza however are just a small percentage of the 138 pyramids that exist in Egypt, including 17 that were recently discovered by infrared images from orbiting space satellites.

The Pyramids of Giza are a huge draw and part of Egypt’s tourism industry but are a quiet place these days. Since the January 25th revolution many potential tourists are wondering if it’s safe to visit Egypt, though the lack of crowds at the Pyramids made it a rare time to visit.

[photo of Lego Pharaoh by Pedro Vezini and photo of aliens by bbaltimore]

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  1. Nahla says:

    Hi. I’m egyptian and i have to thank you for those great information. Thank you for reminding the world of this important part of our human history. You mentioned the surrounding busy city and the little desert around. That’s definitely a bad thing and many egyptians have been trying to fight this urban crawling but it’s really just part of the corruption that was going on in egypt for the past 30 years. We have been watching egypt become destroyed by a tirant regime and unfortunately the area surrounding the pyramids were just a part of it. Wish us luck in trying to re-build a better country following the revolution. If you wanna help us preserve our human history come visit egypt and don’t believe everything the media is saying. Yes, it is a bit unsafer than before, but only a little bit and it is definitely still much safer than New york, London or Paris….i’m sorry i got carried away into a different subject…thanks again for the infos :)

    • Anil P. says:

      Hi Nahia, thanks for the comment. The urban expansion I suspect is difficult considering the nearly 20 million population in the Cairo metropolis. It was a bit shocking yet interesting to see the pyramids so close to the modern world.

      I truly hope that Egyptians make the most of their impressive revolution and wish you all the best.

  2. Shelley says:

    Excellent post. We learned these same facts on our visit last year. No 5 surpised us the most. We could see them every day driving around the city! They were just the size I expected though. I wonder why the difference? Loved Cairo!

    • Anil P. says:

      I remember hopping off the city bus and asking a microbus driver if he were going toward the pyramids – he turned around in the middle of a busy Giza street and pointed – I was shocked to see a huge pyramid right there!

      About their size, I think (personally) all of the talk about them being nearly inhuman to build had me believing they were larger in size.

  3. fascinating!! i am glad to learn all this – and share it with my egyptophile 9yo daughter!

  4. James says:

    …and the Sphinx is facing a TGIFriday’s. Wow… quite interesting. Never having been there I find it quite curious and yet quite ordinary and something to be expected… these days. Also however it is a reminder that the ‘amazing’ is often right there in our backyards. Don’t Surrender Dorothy!!

  5. I’m deeply disappointed that the Sphinx faces a TGI Friday’s.

  6. Natalie says:

    I put my hands up and admit that I got some things wrong! Never heard number eight though and would not believe it if I had done.

    • Anil P. says:

      Aliens conspiracies tend to revolve around a number of ancient sites – either wishful thinking, overactive imaginations, or much more likely that many don’t give enough credit to our ancestors’ ingenuity.

  7. Jeff says:

    How did you get a clean shot of the Sphinx with no tourists??? Jealous of that photo.

    • Anil P. says:

      Really easy to do this past May; the revolution has really put tourists off of Egypt (down 35% at least from last year according to conservative estimates). I walked around for nearly 2 hours without seeing a single other foreigner; I literally had the Sphinx and Pyramids all to myself!

  8. Jeremy says:

    Great post! I definitely loved my time in Egypt and visiting the pyramids. Unfortunately, hearing people next to me go “I thought they’d be bigger” was a bit of a buzz kill. I still thought they were giant considering when they were built!

    • Anil P. says:

      Thanks Jeremy – another fact, the Great Pyramid was the tallest piece of architecture in the world for nearly 4,000 years; finally being deposed by the Lincoln Cathedral in London in 1311. A pretty long record, though in my head I thought they’d be bigger too :/

  9. Priyank says:

    Wow I had 2 of those 8 facts wrong. And I refuse to believe the last point (aliens), its more fun that way. See, I already visited two sites built by aliens – Machu Picchu and Teotihuacan. lol

  10. Fascinating & informative post! I especially would have never guessed the working conditions of the skilled laborers.

    • Anil P. says:

      A few people I read think the perception of terrible conditions was perpetuated primarily by the 10 Commandments movie, whips and all. As it turns out, it was probably quite an enviable position to have back then.

  11. Fabio says:

    Amazing post to share immediately. I was taught that pyramids were built by slaves fed on onions and beer. I dug this post from the first line!

    • Anil P. says:

      Beer and onions sounds pretty good, haha, I’d help some aliens build a pyramid for that payment :) Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for sharing, I appreciate it!

  12. Jaime says:

    This was a very interesting post. I learned a few things about one of the sites I am looking forward to seeing for my self on my RTW trip. I do have to say I am rooting for Alien help on this one too. I so believe in aliens…lol!!!

    • Anil P. says:

      Thanks Jaime! Nothing wrong with believing in aliens – the odds they’re out there are overwhelmingly in our alien-believing favor :) As for the Pyramids…it would be a nice touch 😀