This is an extract from the Reading Materials in English that are available in the English and Education section of the website of the Liberal Party of  Sri Lanka,    

The entire text of Historical Buildings by Goolbai Gunasekara, covering twelve famous constructions, is now available on that website.   

Ancient Egypt


Everyone has seen pictures of the Pyramids. Earlier, historians thought that these large structures, so many of which can still be seen in Egypt, were only used as tombs for great kings. We have now found that pyramids had a much greater function, which will be discussed later. In fact pyramids probably had many functions.    

The ancient Greek Historian Herodotus called Egypt the ‘Gift of the Nile’. Even today, the Nile river is very important to Egyptians. Although there is little rain in Egypt, the flooding of the river every year makes the Nile Valley a fertile ground. This made it attractive to settlers, and so began the Egyptian Nation. Ancient Egypt was ruled by the Pharaohs.    

The Rosetta Stone


Little was known about ancient Egypt, largely because no one could understand their hieroglyphics, or picture writing. Then in 1799, when Napoleon invaded Egypt, a group of soldiers discovered, among some ruins, a stone with writing on it that they soon realized was very special. That stone is known as the Rosetta Stone, and on it were Greek letters and Egyptian hieroglyphics. A French Scholar, Jean Champollion, used this to unlock the mystery of Egyptian writing and so opened the way for the study of Egyptian History.    

The first pyramid was built by Zoser and his clever Minister Imhotep. It is called the ‘Step Pyramid’. In 2613 BC Pharaohs began to build pyramids in earnest. The biggest pyramid is called the Great Pyramid and stands in Giza. The King who built it was Khufu, or Cheops. His name means ‘Smasher of Foreheads’. He was a very strict ruler as his name shows.    

Khufu's Great Pyramid - Giza


Herodotus made a guess and said that the Great Pyramid must have taken 20,000 men and 20 years to build. His guess is not accurate. It is hard to say how the pyramids were built. It would be almost impossible to build them even with modern technology. How did ancient Egyptians build them? They are the biggest buildings in the world today. Some people even say that aliens built them.    

Some of the stone blocks weigh 5,000 pounds and were brought from very far away. Some were brought by boat and weighed 30 tons. Each block used to build the Great Pyramid was perfectly cut. They fitted so beautifully together that even today a blade cannot be slipped between the stones. In the days of the Pharaohs the pyramids had a smooth outside of white marble. There was a band of pink at the bottom and the top block was of gold.    

This art of building pyramids is still a mystery to us. The pyramid has a lot of other mysteries. Here is one of them. The structure of the pyramid has healing powers. If you are sick and you lie in a small pyramid-like building, you will get well. Another mystery is that nothing seems to decay in a pyramid. Bodies of dead animals found in the passages of pyramids become dry but they do not rot.    

A Czechoslovakian manufacturer found that if you put used blades into a tiny pyramid the blade could be used for double the time. It became sharp again when placed inside the pyramid. So we must believe that the pyramid structure has almost magical qualities.    

The bases of the pyramids are said to be aligned with the solar system. Pyramids may have been used to find the dates of the Equinoxes. Astronomers find the pyramids very interesting. The more they study the pyramids, the more there is to learn about them.    

Sarcophagus of Tutankhamun


Bodies of many ancient Pharaohs were found inside the tombs. The Egyptians believed that after death the spirit lived on in the body. So they tried to preserve the body and keep all the royal treasure with it. The builders of the pyramids made lots of secret passages so that thieves could not steal the gold and silver buried inside. Sometimes the architect of the pyramid was put to death so that he could not tell anyone where the Pharaoh was buried.    

Unfortunately the treasure was often found and stolen though the bodies were left. However most of the treasures of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s (1361-1351 BC) remained intact, until they were discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter, an English Archaeologist. These can be seen at the Cairo Museum.    

At the time Tutankhamen’s treasures were discovered, it was said that they had remained untouched because there was a curse on anyone who disturbed them. Many of those involved in Carter’s expedition died within a few years of the discovery. Some people still refer now to Tutankhamen’s Curse as the cause of these deaths.    

El Castillo in the Mexican state of Yucatán.

It is interesting to know that pyramids do not belong to Egypt alone. Pyramids have been found in South America, in a completely different continent. How did such similar structures arise in two places so far away from each other? Was there contact between the two continents of Africa and South America? Were there boats sailing these oceans so long ago? Were the legends of Atlantis the Lost Continent true? These are some of history’s mysteries.   

A few people have wondered if the Egyptians knew the art of levitation, which is the method of lifting objects using only the mind. It seems a very silly thing to believe, and yet there is no better explanation for these amazing architectural miracles.    


Grammar and Vocabulary    

  1. Give in your own words the meaning of the words or phrases that are highlighted.
  2. To what do the pronouns in italics refer?
  3. Divide the proper nouns in this passage into those that name people, those that name places, and those that describe a special type of place or person. Which proper nouns are used as adjectives? Are there any proper nouns that name things?
  4. Identify three adjectival clauses and three adverbial clauses in the first five paragraphs.
  5. Identify five noun clauses in the last five paragraphs.

Comprehension and Further Activities    

  1. Name three functions of the pyramids.
  2. In what other river valleys did ancient civilizations begin? Mark these, together with Egypt, on a map of the world.
  3. Write down briefly in your own words the main point of each of the paragraphs in this passage. Which paragraphs deal mainly with the building of the pyramids, and which with their functions?
  4. What are the Equinoxes? What is the name given to the other significant days of the year that mark particular stages in the circling of the earth round the sun?
  5. Discuss in your groups what makes people think of aliens and curses and spirit life in talking about the pyramids. Can you give examples of similar tales of supernatural phenomena from areas within your own experience?
  6. Working in pairs, write down in point form the instructions given by Zoser to Imhotep, and the concept paper prepared by Imhotep for Zoser, regarding the building of the Step Pyramid.
  7. Discuss why people want grand tombs and why treasures were buried in them.