As mentioned in week one, it has been a dream of mine to visit Egypt nearly all my life. As the Eiffel Tower is to France, the Taj Mahal to India and Lady Liberty to the USA, perhaps the greatest of all the Egyptian treasures remains the genius of the pyramids. The ancient monuments evoke memories of the pharaohs, of biblical tales spanning the major world religions and mysteries in its purpose and engineering. While Egypt has its fair weight in golden, gems and artistic treasures, it is perhaps the secrets within the gigantic limestones themselves that remains the biggest unsolved cultural treasure of the Egyptian people – ancient and contemporary.
About 5 000 years ago the Egyptians invented something astonishing. While they are not the only culture to build these megalithic structures, as they have been uncovered in South America, China, Europe and the North Atlantic islands, the Egyptians have certainly captured the imagination of generations in the pyramids of Cairo. The most famous of all these would be the three pyramids on the Giza necropolis. A necropolis is in essence a large burial ground – often associated with significant figures and containing structures and monuments celebrating their life and influence. The three pyramids in Giza and the imposing structure of the Sphinx have become the symbol of Egypt. However, these three are by no means the oldest of the pyramids. Egyptian kings in many ways were seen as Gods, and as such they required monumental structures to ensure their passing to the afterlife was secured and that they could continue their reign after death. Thus the pyramids represent a means to ensure this passage from this world to the next, and enforced their power and status in prehistoric Egyptian society.
My journey then takes me 30 km south of Cairo – to where it all began – in a little stretch of desert known as Saqqara. In the year 2 650 BC, before the Christian era (5 000 years ago) the Egyptian ruler Djoser decided to build the first pyramid. Prior to this, the elite were buried in rectangular mounds called Mustaba’s. Djoser and his architect Imhotep decided to stack a number of these Mustaba’s on top of each other, creating the very first pyramid in Egypt. This pyramid does not look like the iconic structures today, but instead had stepped sides, thus the contemporary name – The Step Pyramid. Aesthetically and technically the builders of the pyramids wanted to smoothen out the sides and have a more geometrically pleasing structure. About 100 years later a king called Sneferu took on this challenge to try and build a smooth sided pyramid. The project encountered a number of challenges and about half way through, they realised that the angle of construction would cause the entire structure to collapse, and the building work had to be adjusted. This change in building resulted in the pyramid sides having two angles, and thus taking on a bent appearance – therefore the name The Bent pyramid.
History as recorded by western anthologies would have us believe that the pyramids were built by slave labour, however contemporary research indicates that the engineering expertise and artisanal skill required in these efforts far exceeded what was possible by forced labour. Research by Dr Zahi Hawass shows that the talented pool of skilled labourers were in fact resident to the area and lived in organised and well compensated communities – some having tombs of their own. The relocation of pyramid building from Saqqara to the famous site of Giza was largely driven by the availability of raw materials. While Egypt is rich in limestone – easy to cut, shape and move, Saqqara had a very different kind of stone. The larger ambitions of succeeding rulers demanded larger pyramids and as such Giza was selected to build the structures that remained the largest buildings on earth for more than 4 000 years.
The pharaohs of the 3rd and 4th dynasty of Egypt began the largest building project in early history, arguably in all of recorded history. The largest of these, called the Great Pyramid belonged to a ruler called Khufu. This was the largest of the three ancient structures and took almost 20 years to build. The structure os enormous, 230 long and 150 high. Each stone weighing almost 200 ton, with the structure containing almost 2 million of them. A mammoth logistical and engineering project. The second of the three pyramids belonged to Khufu’s son, Khafre and the third was a tomb for the king Menkaure. Each of these pyramids were smaller than the previous and technically improved on the design of the earlier. Their structures were simple – containing burial chambers and ensuring the passage to the afterlife for the rulers – often buried with wealth, food and at times servants to take care of them in the afterlife. South of the pyramids lies the immense structure of the Sphinx – carved out of limestone the half lion half-human structure. The construction is believed to have taken about three years to complete, and like the pyramids was covered in white limestone and painted to reflect the desert light, giving visitors insight into the grandeur and power of the Egyptian kingdoms.
The major artistic, cultural, religious, academic and poetic contributions of these structures is reflected not only in the museums and touristic attractions on the Giza Plateau, but also in the hearts and minds of modern day Egyptians within the city. My journey through politics, history, engineering, social structures and artistry of this 3 000 lost period in human history has reminded me yet again of the weight of the pen that records history. Often by the victor and more likely inaccurate to objective realities. The story of the Egyptian pyramids is a story of all human life. We live, we grow, we build and we want to be remembered. The pyramids then is a reminder to us, not of immortality, but of our own mortality. Of the purpose and reason we are here and the thousands of years of history and evolution in society and technology that we stand upon when using our smartphones to read this article from the other end of the continent. Visiting these sights, engaging with the folklore, mythology and urban legends has further provided insight into the contemporary space these magnificent physical manifestations of human creativity still hold in the common understanding. The popular Arab saying in the region then rings true, All men fear time, BUT even time fears the pyramids.
Scientist, Adventurer, Rock Climber, Author, Eternal student
Cape Town, Republic of South Africa
Facebook: Saahier Parker