What the Great Pyramid of Giza Would’ve Looked Like When First Built: It Was Gleaming, Reflective White

The Great Pyra­mid at Giza—the old­est and most intact of the sev­en ancient won­ders of the ancient world—became a potent sym­bol of the sub­lime in the 19th cen­tu­ry, a sym­bol of pow­er so absolute as to eclipse human under­stand­ing. After Napoleon’s first expe­di­tion to Giza, “Egy­to­ma­nia… swept through Euro­pean cul­ture and influ­enced the plas­tic arts, fash­ion, and design,” writes Miroslav Vern­er in The Pyra­mids: The Mys­tery, Cul­ture, and Sci­ence of Egypt’s Great Mon­u­ments.

At the end of the cen­tu­ry, Her­man Melville sat­i­rized the trend that would even­tu­al­ly give rise to Ancient Aliens, ask­ing in an 1891 poem, “Your masonry—and is it man’s? More like some Cos­mic artisan’s.” Egyp­to­ma­ni­acs saw oth­er­world­ly mag­ic in the pyra­mid. For Melville, it “usurped” nature’s great­ness, stand­ing as “evi­dence of humankind’s mon­u­men­tal will to pow­er,” as Daw­id W. de Vil­liers writes.

The ancient Greeks believed the pyra­mids were built with a mas­sive slave labor force, a the­o­ry that has per­sist­ed. As Vern­er exhaus­tive­ly argues in his book, how­ev­er, they were not only built by humans—instead of aliens or gods—but they were con­struct­ed by trades­men and arti­sans whose skills were in high demand and who were paid wages and orga­nized under a com­plex bureau­cra­cy.

And as you can see recon­struct­ed in the Smith­son­ian video at the top, one of those arti­sanal tasks was to pol­ish the monument’s out­er lime­stone to a gleam­ing white fin­ish that reflect­ed “the pow­er­ful Egypt­ian sun with a daz­zling glare.” Once the pyra­mid was com­plet­ed, “it must have tru­ly added to the impres­sion of Giza as a mag­i­cal port city, bathed in sun­light,” says archae­ol­o­gist Mark Lehn­er in the clip.

In addi­tion to its glow­ing, pol­ished lime­stone sides, “the struc­ture would have like­ly been topped with a pyra­mid­ion, a cap­stone made of sol­id gran­ite and cov­ered in a pre­cious met­al like gold,” writes Kot­tke. “No won­der they thought their rulers were gods.” Or did ancient Egyp­tians see the Great Pyra­mid as a mas­ter­piece of human engi­neer­ing, built with the skill and sweat of thou­sands of their com­pa­tri­ots?

Who can say. But it’s like­ly that 19th-cen­tu­ry Euro­pean explor­ers and artists might have char­ac­ter­ized things dif­fer­ent­ly had the Great Pyra­mid still scat­tered the sun over the desert like an ancient bea­con of light instead of sit­ting “dumb,” as Melville wrote, stripped of its facade, wait­ing to have all sorts of mys­te­ri­ous mean­ings wrapped around it.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the Egypt­ian Pyra­mids Were Built: A New The­o­ry in 3D Ani­ma­tion

Human All Too Human: A Roman Woman Vis­its the Great Pyra­mid in 120 AD, and Carves a Poem in Mem­o­ry of Her Deceased Broth­er

The Grate­ful Dead Play at the Egypt­ian Pyra­mids, in the Shad­ow of the Sphinx (1978)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (17)
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  • Mark Meal says:

    They pic Chep­hrens Pyra­mid with cap, that is next to the Great Pyra­mid, first one, with small flat top with rod and cable to show it,s orig­i­nal height when had its cas­ing stones.

  • Steven Zore says:

    See the water­line at the top? Flood?

  • James Martin says:

    Thanks for the Pho­to­shop, I’ve wait­ed for years for some­body to show me a white clad, gold­en topped pyra­mid. Glo­ri­ous!

  • HakatRe says:

    Amaz­ing dig­i­tal recon­struc­tion! Imag­ine how the entire Giza plateau must have looked once the site was com­plet­ed. Mag­nif­i­cent!

  • Lourens Engelbrecht says:

    Good think­ing. And it has the pat­tern for prime num­bers hid­den in the struc­ture.

  • Don says:

    No, sim­ple degra­da­tion from thou­sands of years of it being open to the ele­ments. Ancient civ­i­liza­tion the­o­rists believe the water flow of the Nile has since migrat­ed fur­ther east, where it stands today. But in ancient times the Nile was right in the pyra­mids back yard.

  • Orlando Doyle says:

    I love it BUT the suround­ing grounds would have been heav­i­ly laden with lush gar­dens, path­ways and sev­er­al less­er build­ings.
    All this in Stark Con­trast to the bare dessert sand shown here … plus of course the Nile flow­ing near by with boats etc.
    All sim­ple addi­tions for even a novice com­put­er-graph­ics tech­ni­cian. Try it. The results will be Stu­pen­dous!


    Pret­ty sod­dy using Kephren pyra­mid as Khu­fu’s Great Pyra­mid.

  • Pyramids Land Tours says:

    The Great Pyra­mid will always remain a mir­a­cle of archi­tec­ture!

  • Bobby Jones says:

    I like tur­tles

  • Justin Colborne says:

    I nev­er knew the Pyra­mids were white back then.

  • Hoseyn Vosouq says:

    Good to acquaint you
    See you many more times

  • Carle says:

    La vidéo mon­tre com­ment les ouvri­ers étaient sen­sés polir les pier­res. On essaie tou­jours de nous faire avaler ça, alors regardez bien la machine que l’un d’en­tre eux à dans ses mains et vous com­pren­drez tout le reste. On veut à tout prix éviter les bonnes ques­tions.

  • Yashka says:

    That is not the Great Pyra­mid of Giza, but the Pyra­mid of Kafre. It takes all of your cred­i­bil­i­ty away when you mess up so basic facts.

  • Austin says:

    I see this all the time on the inter­net. Since I learned which is which, it dri­ves me crazy to see.

  • Bob says:

    Why are you post­ing a pic­ture of what the pyra­mids sup­pos­ed­ly looked like made by a bud­get insur­ance com­pa­ny? What exact qual­i­fi­ca­tions do they have to accu­rate­ly do that? Prob­a­bly none.

  • Bob says:

    Also, the fact that it’s made by a bud­get insur­ance com­pa­ny in Aus­tralia or some­thing. Zoom in on the bot­tom right cor­ner.

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