According to legend, the future Emperor of France emerged pale and shaken from Egypt's Great Pyramid after spending hours alone in the King's Chamber. He never said what had upset him, but the incident is said to have changed his life. Whether or not the story is true, it attests to the Great Pyramid's ability to pique the imagination of a great leader, as well as our own: What could Napoleon have seen to elicit such an outburst? What's inside the Great Pyramid, exactly? The straightforward answer is, well, not much.
The Great Pyramid, also known as the Pyramid of Khufu, is the oldest and tallest of the three Giza pyramids. It was built around 2551–2528 BCE and stood at a height of 481.4 feet (147 meters), or about 45 stories. The Great Pyramid, like its neighbors the Pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure, is mostly made up of solid masses of stone—2.3 million cut limestone blocks to be precise, which is the approximate number of blocks that make up the Great Pyramid. The outer casing of all three pyramids would have been lighter limestone, as seen on the cap of Khafre's pyramid. We can only imagine how the pyramids would have been even more spectacular if they had been made of gleaming white limestone.
The Pyramids of Giza, like the Egyptian pyramids that came before and after them, were royal tombs, where their pharaohs, or kings, were laid to rest. They were frequently part of a larger funerary complex that included queens' graves and mortuary temples where daily offerings were made. The Pharaoh's final resting place was usually beneath the pyramid, in a subterranean burial chamber. Although the Great Pyramid has subterranean chambers, they were never finished, and Khufu's sarcophagus is housed in the King's Chamber, which is also where Napoleon is said to have stayed.
The Great Pyramid, like its neighbors, has very little open space within its massive structure. Napoleon would have entered the King's Chamber via a narrow ascending passageway, past the Queen's Chamber (a misnomer), and then through the Grand Gallery, a taller compelled passageway. Napoleon would have noticed that the King's Chamber was small and lined with thick granite blocks, as were the chambers of other kings. Egyptians only began decorating burial chambers with hieroglyphic texts in later pyramids, so space would have been sparse. Furthermore, the pyramids would have been looted long before Napoleon's Egyptian Campaign at the end of the 18th century. He would not have discovered any rumored treasures in the chamber, only the massive granite sarcophagus, which once held the king's mummy and is now firmly embedded in the floor.
With little to see inside the Great Pyramid or any of the other pyramids near Giza, we can only speculate as to what might have alarmed Napoleon—just as we can only speculate as to the pyramids' other mysteries: the royal treasures they once held, the magnificent sight they must have been when first completed, and the disciplined effort it took to build them.