One of the first things that visitors to the Pyramids will notice is their unexpected proximity to Cairo. The second is the onslaught of hustlers that bombard the awe-struck onlooker. Despite the increased police presence that tries in earnest to subdue the camel and horse hustlers, water and soda hawkers and papyrus and postcard vendors, they still get through. Be firm with your 'no' and they'll get the point, eventually. To get the best out of the experience, it's definitely recommended to be first through the gate or the last person in before the gates close, and strike off into the desert around to view their majesty from afar.
Of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world only the
are left standing. Those at Giza are by no means the only ones in Egypt but they are the largest, most imposing and best preserved. When Herodotus, chronicler of the Ancient Greeks, visited them in 450 BC they were already more ancient to him than the time of Christ is to us today. That the huge blocks were quarried, transported and put into place demonstrates how highly developed and ordered the Old Kingdom was at its peak. Herodotus claimed that it would have taken 100,000 slaves 30 years to have constructed the great
, but it is more likely that the pyramid was built by peasants, paid in food, who were unable to work the land while the Nile flooded between July and November. Happily, the high waters also made it possible to transport the casing stone from Aswan and Tura virtually to the base of the pyramids. The enormous Pyramid of
Cheops, built between 2589-2566 BC out of over 2,300,000 blocks of stone with an average weight of two and a half tonnes and a total weight of 6,000,000 tonnes to a height of almost 140 m, is the oldest and largest of the pyramids at Giza. Maybe not surprisingly, it can be seen from the moon. The
date from 2570-30 BC. There is a theory that the odd plan of the three Pyramids of Giza, progressively smaller and with the third slightly offset to the left, correlates to the layout of the three stars of Orion's Belt. Highly controversial, it suggests that the Ancient Egyptians chose to reproduce, on land and over a great distance, a kind of map of the stars.
A breakdown in the structure of society, and the reduction of wealth, have been proposed as reasons why other pyramids were not constructed on the same scale later in the Old Kingdom. The first thefts from tombs occurred relatively soon after the Pyramids' construction, which was undoubtedly an important factor in the preference for hidden tombs, such as in The Valley of the Kings, by the time of the New Kingdom.
The Great Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu)
Very little is known of Cheops. His tomb, which could have provided some answers, was looted long before any archaeologists arrived. He is believed to have been the absolute ruler of a highly stratified society and his reign must have been one of great wealth in order to afford so stupendous a burial site. Although he was buried alone, his wives and relations may have merited smaller
Originally the 230 x 230 m pyramid would have stood at 140 m high but 3 m has been lost in all dimensions since the encasing limestone was eroded or removed by later rulers who used the cemeteries like a quarry to construct the Islamic city. The entrance, which was at the centre of the north face, has been changed in modern times and access is now 15 m lower via an opening created by the plundering Khalifa Ma'mun in AD 820.
Inside the Great Pyramid
Going up the 36-m long ascending corridor, which is 1.6 m high and has a steep 1:2 gradient, you arrive at the start of the larger 47-m long Great Gallery, which continues upward at the same incline - the sensation of being under six million tonnes of stone becomes overpowering at this point, it's definitely not for claustrophobics or those who dislike being hustled into moving too quickly by lines of other visitors. The gallery, whose magnificent stonework is so well cut that it is impossible to insert a blade into the joints, narrows at the top end to a corbelled roof and finishes at the King's Chamber, 95 m beneath the pyramid's apex.
The walls of
are lined with polished red granite. The room measures 5.2 x 10.8 x 5.8 m high and contains the huge lidless Aswan red granite sarcophagus, which was all that remained of the treasures when archaeologists first explored the site. It was saved because it was too large to move along the entrance passage and, therefore, must have been placed in the chamber during the pyramid's construction. Above this upper chamber there is a series of five relieving chambers that are structurally essential to support the massed weight of the stones above and distribute the weight away from the burial chamber. A visit to the collapsed pyramid at Maidoum will illustrate why this was necessary. You may want to wait around a while in the King's Chamber, if you can stand the heat, to let the crowds thin out and you'll start to get a sense of the mystique of the place that prompts some visitors to start chanting.
One of the great mysteries of the massive Pyramid of Cheops is the four tiny meticulously crafted 20-cm sq shafts, which travel, two from the King's Chamber and another two from the Queen's Chamber, at precisely maintained angles through the body of the pyramid to the outer walls. Obviously serving a significant function, they were originally thought to be ventilation shafts. However, Egyptologists are now more inclined to believe that they are of religious significance and relate to the Ancient Egyptians' belief that the stars are a heavenly counterpart to their land, inhabited by gods and souls of the departed.
The main feature of the ancient night sky was the Milky Way, the bright band of stars that was believed to be the celestial Nile. The most conspicuous of the stars were those of Orion's Belt, whose reappearance coincided with the yearly miracle of the Nile flood and was associated with Osiris, the protector god. The brightest star in the sky (Sirius) was his consort, the goddess Isis, because it was glitteringly beautiful and followed Osiris across the sky. Linked to the creation myth, the texts on the great pyramid's walls repeatedly tell of the dead Pharaoh, seen as the latest incarnation of Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris, travelling in a boat between various star constellations. At an angle of exactly 45°, the southern shaft of the King's Chamber points directly at where Orion's Belt would have been in the sky in ancient times. Meanwhile, the southern shaft of the Queen's Chamber points to Sirius, his consort Isis. The northern shaft of the King's Chamber is directed at the circumpolar stars, important to the Ancient Egyptians as the celestial pole because these stars never disappear or die in the sky. The 'star shafts' thus appear to be directed so that the spirit of the dead Pharaoh could use the shafts to reach the important stars with pinpoint accuracy.
Around the Great Pyramid of Cheops
In accordance with the pharaonic custom, Cheops married his sister Merites whose smaller ruined pyramid stands to the east of his, together with the pyramids of two other queens, both of which are attached to a similarly ruined smaller sanctuary. Little remains of
, which stood to the east of the pyramid. It was connected by a causeway, which collapsed only in the last 150 years, to the Valley Temple that stands near the modern village of
. The temples and causeway were built and decorated before Cheops' Pyramid was completed.
West of the Cheops Pyramid is an extensive
in which 15
have been opened to the public after having been closed for over 100 years. A 4600-year-old female mummy, with a unique internal plaster encasement unlike that seen anywhere else, was discovered at the site.
Pyramid of Chephren
is at the base of the south face of the Cheops Pyramid where five boat pits were discovered in 1982. The boat on display, painstakingly reassembled over 14 years and an amazing 43 m long, is held together with sycamore pegs and rope. The exact purpose of these buried boats is unclear but they may have been a means of travelling to the afterlife, as can be seen in the 17th to 19th Dynasty tombs at Thebes, or possibly a way of accompanying the Sun God on his diurnal journey. It may not sound like much and is yet another expense in an already expensive day, but the scale and antiquity of the vessel is impressive and makes real the engravings of boats you so often see on temple walls around Egypt.
The Pyramid of Cephren, or Khafre as he is sometimes known, was built for the son of Cheops and Hensuten and stands to the southwest of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Although, at 136.5 m high and an estimated weight of 4,880,000 tonnes, it is actually a few metres smaller than the Cheops Pyramid and its construction on a raised limestone plateau was a deliberate attempt to make it appear larger than that of his father. The top of the pyramid still retains some of the casing of polished limestone from Tura that once covered the entire surface, providing an idea of the original finish and how the pyramid would have appeared to the earliest travellers - gleaming and white as they approached from the desert. The entrance to the tomb was lost for centuries until 1818 when Belzoni located it and blasted open the sealed portal on the north side. Although he believed that it would still be intact, he found that it had been looted many centuries
earlier. As with the Pyramid of Cheops there is an unfinished and presumed unused chamber below the bedrock. The entrance passageway now used heads downwards before levelling out to a granite-lined passageway that leads to the burial chamber. To the west of the chamber is the red granite sarcophagus, built into the floor, with the lid lying nearby.
Mortuary Temple of Khafre
lies to the east of the pyramid and is more elaborate and better preserved than that of his father. Although the statues and riches have been stolen, the limestone walls were cased with granite, which is still present in places. There are still the remains a large pillared hall, a small sanctuary, outhouses and a courtyard.
A 500-m causeway linked the Mortuary Temple to the
, which is better preserved than any other because it lay hidden in the sands until Mariette rediscovered it in 1852. It is lined with red granite at roof height that protects the limestone. Two entrances to the temple face east and lead to a T-shaped hall supported by enormous pillars. In front of these stood 23 diorite statues of Khafre. The only one that has remained intact can be found in the Egyptian Museum.
The Sphinx is next to Khafre's Valley Temple to the northeast. We are extremely lucky that it still exists because it was built of soft sandstone and would have disappeared centuries ago had the sand not covered it for so much of its history. Yet it is equally surprising that it was ever carved because its sculptor must have known that such soft stone would quickly decay. The Arabs call it the Awesome, or Terrible One (
). Nobody can be certain who it represents but it is possibly Khafre himself and, if this is the case, would be the oldest known large-scale royal portrait. Some say that it was hewn from the remaining stone after the completion of the pyramid and that, almost as an afterthought, Khafre set it, as a sort of monumental scarecrow, to guard his tomb. Others claim that the face is that of his guardian deity rather than Khafre's own. The Sphinx was first uncovered by Tuthmosis IV (1425-1417 BC) thereby fulfilling a prophecy that by uncovering the great man-lion he would gain the throne. Recent efforts to conserve the Sphinx are now complete but the rising water table threatens to accelerate its decay. Earlier attempts to restore it caused more harm than good when the porous sandstone was filled, totally inappropriately, with concrete. The Sphinx suffered at the hands at Mamluke and Napoleonic troops who used him for target practice, and the missing 'beard' is exhibited in the British Museum.
The name 'sphinx', which means 'strangler', was given first by the Greeks to a fabulous creature that had the head and bust of a woman, the body of a lion and the wings of a bird. The sphinx appears to have originated in Egypt in the form of a sun god with whom the pharaoh was associated. The Egyptian sphinx is usually a lion with the head of a king wearing the characteristic wig-cover. There are, however, ram-headed sphinxes associated with the god Amun.
Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus)
This is the smallest of the three Giza Pyramids and marks the beginning of a steep decline in the standards of workmanship and attention to detail in the art of pyramid-building. At the time of Menkaure's death (who was Chephren's successor and later known by the Greek name of Mycerinus) the pyramid was unfinished and the granite encasement intended to cover the poor quality local limestone was never put in place by his son Shepseskaf. The base is 102 x 104 m (the original measurements much reduced by removal of stones) and rises at 51 degrees to 66.5 m high, considerably lower than the earlier pyramids. It also differs from those of Khufu and Khafre in that the lower chamber was used as the burial tomb. The walls are lined with granite hewn into the rock below the level of the Pyramid's foundations. A fine basalt sarcophagus was discovered in the recessed floor but unfortunately lost at sea en route to Britain.
East of the Pyramid of Menkaure lies the
, which is relatively well preserved. The walls were not encased with granite or marble but with red mud bricks and then lined with a thin layer of smoother limestone. It is connected to the Valley Temple via a 660-m mud-brick causeway that now lies beneath the sand.
South of the Pyramid of Menkaure are three smaller incomplete pyramids. The largest, to the east, was most likely intended for Menkaure's principal wife. The granite sarcophagus of the central tomb was recovered and was found to contain the bones of a young woman.
, who was an obscure but intriguing and important figure, is to the south of the main Giza pyramids. Although she appears to have been married to Shepseskaf, who was the last Fourth Dynasty pharaoh, she subsequently married a high priest of the sun god Re at a time when the male dynastic line was particularly weak. By going on to bear a number of later kings who are buried in Saqqara and Abu Sir, she acted as the link between the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties. Her tomb is an enormous sarcophagus and is linked to a Mortuary Temple cut out of the limestone.
Zawiyat Al-Aryan Pyramids
are roughly halfway between Giza and North Saqqara and one has to ride through the desert to see them. A visit would probably only be rewarding to the devoted Egyptologist. There are two pyramids of which the southernmost one is probably a Third Dynasty (2686-2613 BC) step pyramid. The granite of the more northerly suggests that it is Fourth Dynasty (2613-2494 BC) but it would appear to have been abandoned after the foundations had been laid.
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