An A-Z of the World – E. H. Gombrich on: Pyramids

As an aid to students, teachers and parents, we have constructed an A–Z of the World taken from E. H. Gombrich’s, A Little History of the World. We’ve shared bite size introductions to historical figures, events and periods – using Gombrich’s magical words – along with links to free resources, so that readers of all ages can discover more. P is for Pyramids.



E. H. Gombrich: One king ruled over all the Egyptians, and the first to do so was King Menes. Do you remember – perhaps from Bible stories – what those kings of Egypt were called? They were called pharaohs. A pharaoh was immensely powerful. He lived in a great stone palace with massive pillars and many courtyards, and his word was law. All the people of Egypt had to toil for him if he so decreed. And sometimes he did.

One such pharaoh was King Cheops, who lived in about 2500 BC. He summoned all his subjects to help construct his tomb. He wanted a building like a mountain, and he got it. You can still see it today. It’s the Great Pyramid of Cheops. You may have seen pictures of it, but you still won’t be able to imagine how big it is. A cathedral would fit comfortably inside. Clambering up its huge stone blocks is like scaling a mountain peak. And yet it was human beings who piled those gigantic stones on top of each other. They had no machines in those days – rollers and pulleys at most. They had to pull and shove every single block by hand. Just think of it, in the heat of Africa! In this way, it seems, for thirty years, some hundred thousand people toiled for the pharaoh, whenever they weren’t working in the fields. And when they grew tired, the king’s overseer was sure to drive them on with his hippopotamus-skin whip, as they dragged and heaved those immense loads, all for their king’s tomb.

Perhaps you’re wondering why the pharaoh should want to build such a gigantic tomb? It was all part of his religion. The Egyptians believed in many gods. Some had ruled over them as kings long ago – or at least, that’s what they thought – and among these were Osiris and his consort, Isis. The sun god, Amon, was a special god. The Kingdom of the Dead had its own god, Anubis, and he had a jackal’s head. Each pharaoh, they believed, was a son of the sun god, which explains why they feared him so much and obeyed all his commands. In honour of their gods they chiselled majestic stone statues, as tall as a five-storey house, and built temples as big as towns. In front of the temples they set tall pointed stones, cut from a single block of granite.

The most important part of the Egyptians’ strange religion was their belief that, although a man’s soul left his body when he died, for some reason the soul went on needing that body, and would suffer if it crumbled into dust. So they invented a very ingenious way of preserving the bodies of the dead. They rubbed them with ointments and the juices of certain plants, and bandaged them with long strips of cloth, so that they wouldn’t decay. A body preserved in this manner is called a mummy. And today, after thousands of years, these mummies are still intact. A mummy was placed in a coffin made of wood, the wooden coffin in one of stone, and the stone one buried, not in the earth, but in a tomb that was chiselled out of the rock. If you were rich and powerful like King Cheops, ‘Son of the Sun’, a whole stone mountain would be made for your tomb. Deep inside, the mummy would be safe – or so they thought! But the mighty king’s efforts were in vain: his pyramid is empty.

But the mummies of other kings and those of many ancient Egyptians have been found undisturbed in their tombs. A tomb was intended to be a dwelling for the soul when it returned to visit its body. For this reason they put in food and furniture and clothes, and there are lots of paintings on the walls showing scenes from the life of the departed. His portrait was there too, to make sure that when his soul came on a visit it wouldn’t go to the wrong tomb. Thanks to the great stone statues, and the wonderfully bright and vivid wall paintings, we have a very good idea of what life in ancient Egypt was like.

Discover more A-Z blogposts here.

Free Resources to Learn More about Pyramids

BBC Bitesize (KS2)

Ancient Egypt

BBC History

Pyramid Challenge (game)

Development of Pyramids Gallery – Dr Joyce Tyldesley

Egyptian Top Ten Gallery – Michael Wood

A Short History of Pyramidology – Kevin Jackson

Building the Great Pyramid – Dr Ian Shaw

The Great Pyramid: Gateway to Eternity – Dr Aidan Dodson

BBC In Our Time

Ancient Egypt (multiple episodes)

BBC History Extra

5 facts about the Great Pyramid of Giza

BBC The Forum

Secrets of the Great Pyramid – Rajan Datar

Beyond the Pyramids: The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

How long did it take to build the Great Pyramid?

Egypt’s Oldest Papyri Detail Great Pyramid Construction

The School Run

Egyptian Life and Culture

Khan Academy

The Great Pyramids of Giza

Children’s University of Manchester

Ancient Egypt – Professor Rosalie David

This page provides access to a list of free online resources. It is not intended to endorse any particular resource.

A Little History of the World

All the descriptions in this A-Z are taken from E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World.

Philip Pullman described the book as, “A brilliant piece of narrative, splendidly organised, told with an energy and confidence that are enormously attractive, and suffused with all the humanity and generosity of spirit that Gombrich’s thousands of admirers came to cherish during his long and richly productive life. It’s a wonderful surprise: irresistible, in fact.”

Discover More

Following in the footsteps of E. H. Gombrich’s worldwide bestseller A Little History of the World, the books in our Little Histories series explore the history of the world’s most remarkable people, events and ideas. With engaging personal insights, our authors will take you on a whistle-stop journey from ancient times to the present – exploring all of life’s big subjects from archaeology to science. Other Little Histories available include, Philosophy, Economics, Science, Literature, Language, Religion and Poetry. More details about the whole series can be found on the Little Histories website.

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