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Giza Pyramids

Giza Pyramids

TRIVIA BUFFS, BUT PERHAPS NO ONE ELSE, KNOW THAT the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were the Pyramids of Egypt, the statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Pharos of Alexandria, and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. But only the Pyramids are still with us. And modern visitors continue to find the Pyramids no less wondrous and mysterious than the ancients did.

There are two fundamental characteristics of the Pyramids: They are big and they are old. But despite these being fairly straightforward concepts, exactly how big, and how old, is something that is still quite hard to grasp. Until as recently as the 19th century, the Great Pyramid of Khufu, built 4,400 years earlier, was the tallest building in the world. Napoleon, having conquered Egypt in 1798, calculated that it contained enough stone to build a wall 3 feet (1 m) high around the whole of France. The dashing young general also spent a night alone inside the Great Pyramid from which he reputedly emerged shaken, never to discuss the experience. As for their age, the Pyramids were already ancient at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ, year zero for much of the Western world. In fact, Christ’s birth is closer in time to us than it is to the building of the Pyramids. As the world celebrated the arrival of the new millennium in 2000, the Pyramids were entering their fifth set of one thousand years. An ancient Arabic saying sums it up best: “Man fears time, but time fears the Pyramids.

The Great Pyramid Of Khufu

The Great Pyramid of Khufu is the first one to appear if you approach from Pyramids Road, as most visitors do. Khufu (who is also known by his Greek name of Cheops) is thought to have ruled about 2589 to 2566 B.C., although these dates are far from undisputed. His pyramid is the oldest and the largest of the trio. It is estimated to contain about 2.3 million limestone blocks, each thought to weigh on average 2.5 tons (2.3 tonnes), although some of the stones at the base may weigh as much as 16.5 tons (15 tonnes). Originally 482 feet (147 m) high, it is now a little lower because of the removal of its outer limestone casing and capstone. Visitors can climb a few feet of staircase purposely cut into the exterior face of the Great Pyramid and make their way inside through an opening, which was forced by the Egyptian ruler Caliph a1Mamun in AD. 820. From the entrance a low, narrow corridor descends into an unfinished room, from which a second corridor ascends to another unfinished room, known as the Queen’s Chamber. Visitors then go through the magnificent high Grand Gallery to the main burial chamber, right at the very center of the pyramid. In this chamber is an empty pink granite sarcophagus, all that was ever found. As the sarcophagus is too big to get through the door, Egyptologists deduce that the room and pyramid must have been built around the sarcophagus. Whether it ever actually contained the body of Khufu, nobody can say for sure. Negotiating the steep slopes and confined spaces is arduous and not recommended for serious claustrophobia or for those with heart problems, but everything is clean and well lit, and there are handrails and wooden ramps.

In its original form, the pyramid was the focal point of a small complex. It was surrounded by a high wall enclosing a limestone court. Entrance to the court was via a mortuary temple, itself reached by a long, sloping causeway. When the Greek historian Herodotus visited, somewhere between 449 and 430 B.C., Khufu’s causeway was still intact with “polished stone blocks decorated with carvings of animals,” and he described it as a work “of hardly less magnitude than the pyramid itself.” At the bottom of the causeway was a second small “valley” temple below. This lay beside a lake, which was fed by the Nile once a year during the annual flood. Both temples are gone, but the stone flagging 0f the causeway survives.

Either side of the causeway are large rectangular pits. In 1954, when covering slabs were lifted off one of these for the first time since antiquity, the dismantled planking of a boat was revealed. Its 1,224 separate cedarwood parts were painstakingly reassembled like a giant 3D jigsaw, and the reconstructed boat is now displayed in its own specially built Solar Boat Museum on the south side of Khufu’s pyramid. A second pit was explored in 1985 by a combined team from the National Geographic Society and the Egyptian Antiquities Authority, and that too was found to contain a disassembled boat. It has been left untouched beneath the sand.

The Pyramid of Khafre (or Chephren, as he is also known)

is slightly smaller than that of Khufu, his father. It appears taller because it is built on higher ground. It is distinguished by a cap of smooth white stone-this is all that remains of a hard, polished outer limestone casing that once sheathed all three pyramids. It would have given them the appearance of pure, gleaming geometric prisms, but it was stripped away to build the palaces and mosques of Cairo.

Inside, the burial chamber lies just below ground level, incised into the bedrock. It is reached by a single descending passage, and the effort involved in a visit is much less than that required in the Great Pyramid.

The Pyramid of Menkaura (Mycerinus)

The smallest of the group. It has a base area of less than a quarter of that of the pyramids built by Khufu and Khafre. Archaeologists speculate that perhaps the Egyptians were running out of room. It may also be that the power of the pharaoh was waning, and it was no longer possible to raise the large workforce necessary for another truly gigantic monument. The great vertical gash in the north face is from a 12th-century attempt made to dismantle the pyramid by Othman ibn Yousef, son of Saladin (see p. 37). But in eight months all his laborers had achieved was merely the creation of this large slot, and so the sultan gave up the attempt.

From the entrance, also on the north side, a passage descends to an unfinished chamber with a series of panels carved with a stylized false door motif. A further passage leads down to the burial chamber, in which was found a beautiful basalt sarcophagus, subsequently lost when the ship carrying it to England sank at sea. The pyramid is flanked by three small queens’ pyramids, two of which are unfinished, left stepped like Zoser’s pyramid at Saqqara

THE SPHINX-THE FATHER OF TERROR

From the foot of Khafre’s pyramid, another causeway descends to the east to the king’s partially reconstructed valley temple. A striking diorite statue of Khafre that was found here is now exhibited in Room 42 of the Egyptian Museum (see pp. 70-7 9). The temple now serves as a viewing platform for audiences entranced by the Sphinx,

The mysterious creature with a lion’s body and a human face, known to the early Arabs as Abu al-Hol, or the Father of Terror. Although subject to much dispute-with one claim that it predates ancient Egypt and is an artifact of some older, vanished civilization-most archaeologists now agree that the Sphinx was carved during Khafre’s reign (2558-2532 B.C.). It is thought that it is a representation of the King, the lion being an archtype of royalty, and the King’s head, framed by a flared nemes (the headdress worn by pharaohs), symbolizing power.

It was carved from a single outcrop of bedrock, with blocks used to build up the legs and paws, and it represents the earliest truly colossal piece of ancient Egyptian sculpture. Parts of the creature are gleaming white as a result of renovations undertaken in the 19903, but repairs have been ongoing since at least as far back as the 18th dynasty, when a small temple was added between the fore-paws along with a

stela describing how the pharaoh Tuthmose IV (R.1400-1390 B.C.) rescued the Sphinx from the sands that covered it. More recently, it was an Italian, Caviglia, who re-xcavated the Sphinx in the 19th century, discovering as he did SO the ashes of

.5 the last sacriflcial the burned there, probably in late Roman times. He also found Tuthmose’s stela and fragments of the Sphinx’s royal beard, part of which went to the British Museum in London in the 19th century.

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