About 450 years before Christ, a restless Greek traveller sailed from his home at Halicarnarssus on the Anatolian coast. He was off to see the civilised lands he had heard so much about throughout his boyhood.
This inquisitive traveller, Herodotus, reached Egypt and was impelled to stay in the country until he could see the fascinating treasures that were a daily feast for his eyes. Like the ancient Egyptians, Herodotus made this journey both on land and on the lifeblood of Egypt, the River Nile.
Egypt’s wealth bedazzled the world. Truly a land of plenty, her vast resources during her glorious years as the kingdom of the Pharaohs gave humanity a permanent record of the greatness of her people. The remnants that are seen today show a population that delighted in life and wanted to take that joy into the unknown netherworld.
The philosophy of life of the ancient Egyptian was derived from the two physical elements that controlled his life, the sun and the Nile. Both elements represent infinity. The sun rises and sets every day and then rises again. The Nile creates the rich fertile lands that supported the people. Within this framework, the ancient Egyptians evolved a civilisation that brought forth humanity’s highest demonstrations of art, technology, medicine, literature, and social development of any peoples up to modern times today.
No survey of the world of ancient Egypt can begin without first stopping to visit the Great Pyramids. These monuments continue to mystify. It is not common knowledge, but there are more than 93 pyramids of varying sizes that still exist in Egypt, built during Pharaonic reigns that covered more than 1,500 years.
However, the Pyramids that are most thought of today are those on the Giza Plateau just 10 miles outside of downtown Cairo. The first of the group was built about 2650 BCE by Cheops, with later additions to the Plateau by his son Chephren and his grandson Mycerinus. In fact, some people ascribe phenomenal powers to being inside these particular Pyramids. Psychic experiences are attributed to them. Nonetheless, Egyptologists have quietly and rationally identified the building of the Pyramids to a community of workers that lived and worked at the site.
The Pyramids on the plateau are just the most prominent monuments for the deceased, as on the western and eastern sides of the Great Pyramid of Cheops are other burial sites for the members of the king’s family, important relatives, and administrative and priestly officials. It is interesting to walk down the streets of these areas. Originally, they were laid out in straight lines. But over time space became a premium, and burials were planted in the middle of the streets.
Today, we often talk about maximising resources to take care of the ever-increasing populations of the world. In Giza, the villagers practiced that philosophy. Over on the eastern side of the plateau in what is now the village of Nazlet Al-Samman is an ancient dock or “quay”. This was necessary because the ancient Egyptians had run a canal off the Nile in order to make the transportation of heavy pyramid casing stones and materials easier. Foodstuffs to supply the population could also be brought in through this route.
On the northern side, you can still see the remains of the quarry that supplied the local stones for the Cheops Pyramid. The bedrock from which these stones were cut now drops off sharply where originally there was a slope in this area. There are a number of quarries on the Plateau. As one was exhausted, the ancient workers would move on to another.
In fact, the Sphinx is a prime example of what can be done with leftovers, as it was carved from the quarry that provided the stone for Chephren’s Pyramid. The stone-cutters carved out the blocks around a mass and eventually cut that mass into the Sphinx. It is still a mystery as to why this was done and why it was left in this particular location.
It is a shame that the Old Kingdom Pharaohs that directed this fantastic building programme did not accomplish their main goal. This was the preservation of their remains to ensure eternal existence. Even the intimidation that the Pyramids instilled in the Pharaohs’ subjects was not sufficient to stop the grave-robbers who took the grave goods from the tombs and destroyed the bodies.
There is evidence that a cult to worship the deceased continued long after the original burials. In the Sphinx enclosure there is a temple built by Amenophis, a Pharaoh who ruled the population more than 1,000 years after Cheops and his son and grandson were laid to rest.
Egyptologists continue to try to draw connections between that span of time, but so much more remains to be uncovered in Giza that the main focus must be in filling in the details of the civilisation over which Cheops and his immediate successors presided. We will thus travel south from Giza and visit other important sites left by this great civilisation.
TO MEMPHIS: A 10-mile car ride down from Giza takes us to Memphis. This was the first major capital of ancient Egypt, and it is thought that the king who united northern and southern Egypt, Menes, established this city in about 3100 BCE.
The city contains the remains of the foundations of the Temple of Ptah, whose distinctive features can be seen in a beautiful statue. Ptah had a wife and son, a standard element in Egyptian religion of the trinity that later became a feature of Christianity.
The little that remains of the city indicates that it must have been a place of beauty as it survived from one Pharaoh’s reign to another’s. The colossal statue of Ramses II in the city was carved in the New Kingdom, 2,000 years after the reign of Menes. An alabaster table served as the sacrificial alter of the cult of the Apis Bull 500 years after Ramses II, and it is evidence of the historical continuity of this site. The rest of the old city lies under cultivation, and fertile fields in the area today hide the remains of ancient Memphis.
It is unlikely that the farmers of today can be persuaded to let archaeologists disturb their crops by digging under them, which means that people today have to look elsewhere for information. This can be done by taking a two-mile walk further south from Memphis along the razor’s edge that separates the cultivated ground from the desert.
Our best sources of information come from the burial grounds of the Pharaohs. These were usually placed in the desert so as to save the land where crops could be grown, particularly since only four per cent of the land of Egypt can be used to produce food for its population. Since the king was the provider, with the help of the gods and the Nile, he would not endanger his standing in public by taking away valuable land for his monuments to eternity. Rather, he built them in this type of setting.
The ancient king Djoser had his architect, Imhotep, create what is the earliest-known construction that approximates to the Pyramids at Giza. This so-called Step Pyramid was built 200 years before Cheops’ masterpiece, and it breaks with a previous tomb design called a mastaba. These tombs built in the first and second dynasties after Menes were like benches built on the surface of the ground. Beneath each was an underground chamber where the body and grave goods were placed.
Djoser, a Pharaoh in Egypt’s Third Dynasty in about 2780 BCE, put mastaba on top of mastaba and tapered each until he had a pyramid effect of six inclined levels. Clearly, this looks like what we know to be a pyramid today. Beautiful blue faience tiles lined Djoser’s tomb that were made in the region and were used in his funerary chambers and disappeared with him. They produced a clever architectural detail that blossomed like a flower and died just as quickly. Our only picture of Djoser is in his south tomb, and a reconstruction shows how he used wonderful tiles to adorn his monument.
The wonderful start on pyramid-building at Djoser’s enclosure cane be compared with the grand statements at Giza. The latter were built when the control of stone and men was such that the result was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. No better examples of Pyramids can be found than at Giza. However, at nearby Sakkara not only was the tradition begun with Djoser, it was also carried forward beyond Giza by Unas, a Fifth-Dynasty Pharaoh who reigned about 100 years after Cheops.
Unas included a new innovation in his pyramid. Prior to Unas, there was no decoration inside the pyramids, but he was the first to put in what are called Pyramid Texts, collections of spells put together to ensure that the king would have a bountiful life in the next world.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly