The Great Pyramid of Giza and the Pyramid of the Sun

Some of the most fascinating structures in the world are the ancient pyramids.

When one mentions the word “pyramids,” most people conjure up a visual of the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt due to their familiarity, grandeur and mystery. They are, after all, the only remaining structures cited as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. But pyramid structures are found all over the world left by societies in antiquity.

Separated by 2000 years of history and an ocean, the pyramids of Egypt and Mesoamerica tantalize the imagination. Although not contemporary with the Egyptian pyramids, the structures found in Mesoamerica are as awe inspiring and in some cases, have a considerably darker history than their Egyptian counterparts. Let’s take a look at the statistics of the Great Pyramid, also known as Khufu’s Pyramid. Over 2,300,000 blocks of limestone and granite were used in its construction with the average block weighing two and a half tons and none weighing less than two tons. The large blocks used in the ceiling of the King's Chamber weigh as much as nine tons. The estimated construction date is 2589 B.C.E. and it took between 20 to 40 years for completion. The total weight of the pyramid is 6.5 million tons and it’s height at completion stood in excess of 490 feet (it has been missing its capstone for millennia). It has been argued that it took between 200,000 to 120,000 men to complete the building task. Until the building of the Eiffel Tower in 1889, it was the tallest manmade structure on earth.

In contrast Olmec pyramids resemble early Egyptian mastabas but in function they are closer to the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia. The Egyptian pyramids, starting with the step pyramid- literally a series of mastabas stacked one on top of each other- served as burial chambers. The Mesoamerica pyramids seem to have been used for religious and ceremonial rites and were usually built on top of existing physical structures such as caves.

One of the major differences between the Egyptian and Mesoamerican pyramids is the Egyptians use of quarried stone as both building material and façade decoration, which they quarried from sources hundred of miles to the south along the river Nile. Though the degree to which the stones were polished or finished varies depending upon their proximity to the exterior surface of the pyramid, they were all finished to some degree. This method of using only quarried stone enabled the Egyptians to construct an almost indestructible edifice that would withstand the centuries without deterioration. To them, this was an essential aspect of the design because the pyramid was meant to house the body of the pharaoh, whom they considered a god, for eternity. Few people realize that the exterior of the pyramids were initially covered with a layer of smooth limestone that must have been blinding in the Egyptian sunlight. Again, this was as a testament to the divinity of the pyramid’s inhabitant.

The pyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacán in central Mexico are more mastabas than pyramids, served as religious and ceremonial platforms, and were not built to withstand the ravages of time. Rather, these "step" pyramids rose in tiers, much like a wedding cake, on the top of which a small temple was erected. Constructed of adobe bricks and filled with rubble, the five stepped terraces of the Sun pyramid are estimated to have originally reached a height of about 200 feet. A large staircase ascends the west face of the pyramid and is thought to have served as a processional to the upper terrace and the temple that is believed to have been constructed at its zenith. Additionally, the central core was comprised primarily of large, irregular stones that the builders brought from the general area and stacked high. The exterior retaining wall consisted of cut stone. To give the pyramids a more finished look, their builders added coats of stucco, which were sometimes painted blood red. A structure built in such a manner was clearly not meant to last forever, as the Egyptian pyramids were, and in fact, the Pyramid of the Sun has suffered greatly down through the centuries. In the 20th century, this was especially true due to the destructive excavation techniques used by self-taught archeologist Leopoldo Batres. However, the Mesoamerican people did not intend for their pyramids to last forever because their cosmology was cyclical and demanded that the temples be re-built over time. The pyramids of Egypt were used as tombs for the pharaohs, and they were not meant to be entered once the mummified pharaoh was placed safely inside. On the contrary, to enter the tomb once it had been sealed was considered sacrilege and carried the death penalty. Those of Mexico, although sometimes housed the bodies of kings, were temples of public ceremony and ritual. Not only were they easily accessible via the staircases on their exterior, they were also placed geographically at the center of the cities. This contrasts sharply with the locations of the Great Pyramids, which were isolated on the plains west of the Nile. It is only in the modern era that the city of Cairo has encroached upon the Giza plateau.

Physical Comparison of the Two Pyramids

DimensionsGreat Pyramid Pyramid of the Sun Height481.3949 feet233.5 feet Base: Perimeter3023.16 feet2932.8 feet Side755.79 feet733.2 feet ½ Size377.895 feet366.6 feet Angle of slope51.827 º32.494 º

If we take a closer look at the Pyramid of the Sun as presented in Table 1 we can see how it compares against the pyramid at Giza in terms of its size and design. While the area covered by the Pyramid of the Sun is almost exactly the same as that of the great pyramid of Khufu, its original height is only half that of its Egyptian counterpart.

Therefore, the Pyramid of the Sun has less than half the volume of Khufu’s pyramid and this detail states much about the effort that went into building the great structure at Teotihuacan. While the architects of Khufu’s pyramid had to quarry, transport and align about six and a half million tons of limestone and granite blocks in order to build the tomb for their pharaoh, the ancient people of Teotihuacan had only to provide two and a half million tons of stone and earth that was readily available. From this comparison we are able to see that the building of the Pyramid of the Sun took less effort than the erection of the pyramid in Egypt; however, we must not let this fact cause us to think less of the effort put forth by the people of Teotihuacan. The amount of material these people had to excavate, carry and lift was roughly two and a half million tons, not a measly feat by any means, especially in a culture that had no modern tools or transportation. Most of the rubble that makes up the substructure of the pyramid is excavated subsoil, along with a good amount of stone and adobe brick. They were also building the city of Teotihuacan around their pyramid and a city that by 300 A.D. was the sixth largest city in the world.

Both pyramids are engineering feats and we can marvel at the ingenuity and tenacity of their builders.

---Deborah Goodrich

December 2020

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