Amazing Kids! Magazine

The Secret Designer of the Pyramids

By Ryan Traynor, Assistant Editor


Nefi sat in his assigned place on the floor, being sure to keep his eyes lowered as was custom for his class standing in Egypt in 2700BC. He kept his ears open, however, soaking in as much information as he could, memorizing every detail of the discussions. Just like his father, he was assigned to assist the house of construction as an administrative assistant. At 16, his daily work typically consisted of taking down discussions and carrying requests to various parts of the area for supplies and workers. He appreciated his work, but he wanted to do so much more. As he recorded discussions, his mind was spinning with ideas to add. Measurements and numbers floated through his mind as he calculated load requirements, equipment options, and angle alternatives. However, he could not open his mouth or share his ideas. If he did, he risked putting his whole family at risk of being put in the dungeons.

That night Nefi took out his papyrus and began his analysis. The day’s discussion covered the memorial for the pharaoh to be used as his burial ground. It is important that the burial ground show how important the pharaoh is so it must be large and ornate. It also must come into favor to the Sun God Ra, the father of all pharaohs, so that the pharaoh’s transition to the afterlife will be smooth. Like Ra, who was created out of a pyramid-shaped mound of earth, the pyramid would be symbolic of the sun’s rays and placed on the western side of the Nile so the pharaoh’s soul could join the sun as it set. To prevent grave robbers from stealing the things set aside for the pharaoh to use in the afterlife, there must be installed a false door to the tomb and no entrance should be visible from the outside. Different shapes had been discussed but everyone was leaning towards using the pyramid shape. Nefi shook his head up and down as he wrote in agreement. Triangles formed the strongest structures of all designs. By placing the triangles in a shape like a pyramid, they would create a site that would stand up to the winds and heat for many centuries.

Nefi knew that the tombs of early Egyptian kings were bench-shaped mounds called mastabas. He had heard the stories of King Djoser’s architect, Imhotep, using six mastabas, each smaller than the one beneath, forming a stack to form a pyramid. He had dreams of being Imhotep, designing the latest pyramid with various rooms and passages, including the burial chamber for the pharaoh. Nefi knew that King Snefru had used this design to build a smooth sided pyramid. The step pyramid was built, then filled in with stone, and covered with a limestone casing. Nearby at Bahshur, his father had brought him to see the pyramid known as the Bent Pyramid. They had planned to make it with smooth sides like King Snefru’s pyramid, but the walls became unstable, so halfway up the angle of incline decreases from over 51 degrees to about 43 degrees, and the sides rise less steeply. They still did not figure out a way to stabilize the walls for the Dahsur pyramid, where the sides rise at an angle of over 43 degrees which made the pyramid look squat.

Nefi scribbled down calculations over and over. He wanted a large pyramid for the pharaoh, without the angle adjustments. Snefru had died 20 years earlier and Snefru’s son, Khufu, which he knew as Cheops, was now ruler. It was Khufu who led the discussions about his burial chamber. They had decided on over 13 acres in Giza as the location. The area would also include temples, chapels, tombs of his trusted advisors, and walls to provide protection and to confuse enemies.

Nefi pulled out another papyrus sheet. He made numerous calculations and wrote out a drawing of a commanding pyramid. Its sides rose at an angle of 51 degrees 52 minutes and were over 755 feet long. His calculations showed that the base would have to be this wide to support a structure of over 481 feet high. Nefi did not let his cramping fingers deter him from continuing on. To ensure that the foundation would be level, he devised a method of using water-filled trenches that could be used to level the perimeter. This would make sure the pyramid did not lean to one side. After some mixture calculations, he scribbled out the weight of each stone block to be two tons, although some weighed as much as fifteen tons each. The pharaoh’s body could be brought up the Nile by a funeral boat and mummified in the temple before being placed in the pyramid for burial.

Nefi fell asleep with his writing instrument in his hand. He awoke to a shake by his father, letting him know that a new day had begun. His father gave him a mixed look of pride and warning when he saw his notes. Nefi quickly rolled up the papyrus and slid them into his sleeve. Walking up the dusty roads to the chambers, he went over several scenarios in his mind. He felt he could contribute to the ruler by letting him know his findings. But, by doing so, he would not be rewarded, but punished with his whole family. And yet, he felt compelled to share his findings. He went over the ways to share the information but nothing seemed to be safe.

Throughout the day he was sent on errands – to the stone cutting pit, to the servant’s headmaster, and others. Finally, he was returned to the construction room chambers. The group was gathered around a luncheon banquet of smoked meat and fruit and was distracted by the musicians summoned by the pharaoh’s snap of his fingers. Nefi slinked over to the discussion area and slid his papyrus next to the materials set aside for Khufu’s overseer of construction, Shravir.

The meetings began once again and he saw Shravir locate the papyrus and unroll them. Nefi sat invisible against the wall. He dared not make a move as he held his breath in anticipation. Instead of an alarm bell, Nefi began hearing his ideas being voiced by Shravir. Each time an idea that he had noted on the papyrus was brought up, Nefi resisted the urge to glance at Shravir for fear of discovery. His ideas were debated and gradually accepted. The pyramid would be over 481 feet high with a smooth exterior. It would be built primarily with 2 ton blocks. Nefi felt a sense of pride welling inside of him. As he heard their discussions about how to make the development possible, more ideas streamed into his mind.

The main problem was lifting the heavy stones. A shadoof, a long pole weighted at one end, was used as a fulcrum to lift heavy objects. Nefi knew it could not be used to lift these heavy stones because the counterbalance weight would need to be too heavy. He decided to create a better way.

Each night for the next week Nefi drew up different alternatives. The laborers required to lift and place the stones using this method would be over 100,000. He needed to find a way to speed up the building while maintaining the sturdiness of the structure.

Finally Nefi found a combination that might work. They first could move the stones as close to the site as possible by using barges down the Nile. Next, they could use a windlass (a wheel and axle machine) to lift the stones off the barge. The windlass used the turning wheel to create a mechanical advantage, allowing much fewer men to lift the stones. By putting the stones on skids, or rolling platforms, and watering the sand in front of the rolling logs, the sand would be more compact and allow the stones to travel faster. At the pyramid, the stones would be lifted by fulcrums filled with a counterbalance of sand to lift the stones to the level needed. A swivel device at the top of the fulcrum would allow them to put the stone in place and then the sand would be emptied to lower the fulcrum and begin again. Scaffolding on the outside of the pyramid made from timber and lashings would allow them to adjust the level of work and the laborers could use the ramps to deliver the sand in large baskets on wheels to the fulcrum’s counterbalance to lift the next stone.

As Nefi passed these additions to Shravir and they were proposed, Shravir was gaining respect within the group. Little debate was given for his new ideas. They all wanted to rush to try out the proposals. Arguments occasionally arose as the plans were finalized. Nefi added to his notes that they should begin in the center of the pyramid and make the positions of the rooms be the steps to lead the workers up to the top. He diagramed the scaffolding needed to be placed on the outside to set the outer casing of limestone and showed them how they could dismantle the outer scaffolding as each layer was completed. During the next year, Nefi included more instructions for Shravir. He included specific dimensions, requirements for laborers, and transportation requirements. He covered the copper tools such as chisels, drills, and saws needed to cut the relatively soft stone. He determined that the best method to cut the hard granite used for the burial chamber walls and some of the exterior casing would be an abrasive powder made of sand to use with drills and saws. The stone would be brought in from the Giza plateau and the limestone casing would be brought across the Nile from Tura. His knowledge of astronomy helped them orient the pyramid to the cardinal points.

As construction began, Nefi saw his ideas becoming reality. Even the quarry workers were proud of their work and began carving their work gang names into the stone blocks. He brought in ideas for the skilled laborers, including the suggestion to bring in part-time crews of laborers to supplement the year-round masons. These laborers were well-paid and taken care of during their work. They had temporary housing, clothing, and decent food and water to make them productive due to Nefi’s recommendations.

Near the end of the construction of the first phase (building the foundation of the pyramid), Shravir summoned Nefi. Nefi’s knees shook uncontrollably as he stood in front of the overseer of construction.

Shravir began, “I understand I am in your debt, Nefi. Shortly after I began receiving my ‘inspirations’ for this pyramid, I began noticing the dark marks on your hands. The papyrus had the brown dust from the village on it and it had been rolled as if hidden in garments. I’m sorry I haven’t noticed you before, Nefi. Your ideas have let us plan something original. I would like to invite you to be my chief architect on this project. Your father and the rest of your family can also be involved.”

Nefi did not know what to say. The architect position was a big jump in class for his family and virtually unheard of, even in ancient writings. He raised his eyes to look at Shravir and he saw a smile. Shravir had his arm outstretched, inviting him to enter the circle of the committee room. From that moment on, Nefi did not have to be silent any longer. He could work hand-in-hand with Shravir to make the best pyramid possible, instead of hiding his ideas in fear. His family was elevated to better housing and security.

For many years Nefi advised Shravir in his plans. Nefi brought in specialized stone masons to cut a smooth finish of casing limestone on the sides of the pyramid. To further hide the entrance to discourage looters, fake entrance points were constructed. Over 20,000 men were employed for 23 years, rather than the 100,000 estimated to be needed under the other construction methods. The shining pyramid top stood in testament to their achievement.

When Khufu’s son, King Khafre (Chephren), and a successor of Khafre, Menkaure (Mycerinus) were in power, Nefi and his sons led them through their construction. Nefi’s final mark was designing the Sphinx, a massive statue of a lion with a human head, near the pyramids. He knew that his ideas would never again be forced to be hidden. He, and his descendants, would be able to offer their ideas in the open for all to see.

One comment

  1. Madeline mayo /

    That is the best.story.ever.