Thursday, January 6, 2011

Pyramids and mathematics

Egypt's magnificent stone buildings - her pyramids and temples - have inspired innumerable artists, writers, poets and architects from the Roman period to the present day. The pyramid form, in particular, still pays an important role in modern architecture, and can be seen rising above cemeteries and innumerable shopping centres, and at the new entrance to the Louvre Museum, Paris.

The original pyramids serve as a testament to the mathematical skill of the Egyptians, a skill that stimulated Greek mathematicians, including Pythagoras, to perfect their work. The Great Pyramid, built by Khufu (Cheops) in 2550 BC, for example, stands an impressive 46m (150ft) high, with a slope of 51degrees. Its sides, with an average length of 230m (754ft), vary by less than 5cm (2in). Higher than St Paul's Cathedral, the pyramid was aligned with amazing accuracy almost exactly to true north.

But the pyramids are more than mathematical puzzles. They hold the key to understanding the structure of Egyptian society. The pyramids were built, not by the gangs of slaves often portrayed by Hollywood film moguls, but by a workforce of up to 5,000 permanent employees, supplemented by as many as 20,000 temporary workers, who would work for three or four months on the pyramid site, before returning home.

The bureaucracy that we know lay behind this operation is staggering. Not only did the workforce have to be summoned, housed and fed, but administrators also had to coordinate the supplies of stone, rope, fuel and wood that were needed to support the building work. Pyramid studies confirm that a pre-mechanical society can, given adequate resources and the will to succeed, achieve great things. Pyramid building would have been impossible without strong government backed up by an efficient civil service. No wonder many archaeologists believe that, while the Egyptians undeniably built the pyramids, the pyramids also built Egypt.

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