By Howard Axelrod, 26-time traveler and 11-time Vacation Ambassador from Ashland, MA
Hey Phineas Taylor Barnum. May I call you P.T.? P.T., I have seen your show and it is absolutely "great”, but NOT in my opinion “The Greatest Show on Earth.” I have just returned from the real greatest show on earth. It is the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Now don’t get me wrong P.T., I very much enjoyed your “Greatest Show.” But I strongly refute your claim. I have traversed six continents and 85 countries over the past 40 years in search of unique “off the charts” experiences. I have seen the unimaginable, the unbelievable, the indescribable, and the unexplainable, and now what in my well-traveled opinion is most definitely the “Greatest Show on Earth.” Entire volumes have been written about the Great Pyramid of Giza, and many mysteries about it remain, but I only wish to inform you of my own experience and what I have learned and witnessed. I challenge you to visit Egypt and see for yourself. When you return, I’ll take us both to lunch. We can discuss your experiences then and depart as friends no matter what. Fair P.T.? So, pack your bag (trunk?) and get ready to spend some time 6,500 miles from home.
Now I know your show was “big”, but the Great Pyramid is REALLY BIG—455 feet high to be exact. It once stood 25 feet higher, but 4,500 years of erosion and possibly its missing dome (known as the Pyramidion or capstone) have trimmed it a bit. Scholars beliefs run the range from those who believe that the pyramid never had a capstone to those who believe it did and that it was made of solid gold. How long did it take to set up your greatest show, P.T.? The Great Pyramid is the only remaining structure of the seven wonders of the ancient world and required 100,000 workers designing, hand cutting, transporting, and building over a span of twenty years. The real greatest show on earth was constructed from 2.5 million stone blocks weighing from two to fifty tons each, some of which were ferried from quarries over 500 miles away by boat (no motors back then). They had no animal power or mechanized machinery either. With each pyramid base side being 756 feet in length and the current height being 455 feet, it is the “Greatest Show on Earth.” For 4,000 years, the Great Pyramid of Giza was the tallest building in the world.
Aside from being an archeological wonder, the Great Pyramid is also an engineering and scientific marvel, and a definitive lesson in astronomy, mathematics, physics, and solid geometry. All this was done 4,500 years before your show was a show! Its placement is clearly no accident. The ancient Egyptians used two bright stars in the Big Dipper and Little Dipper constellations to align this pyramid in a north-south direction and it is calibrated to these compass points with an accuracy of up to 0.05 degrees. How their architects positioned the corners of this massive structure along the earth’s cardinal points so perfectly remains a mystery. Additionally, the accuracy of the pyramid's workmanship is such that the four 756-foot base sides have an average error of only a very tiny fraction of one percent in length, with the height of each sloping vertical edge being of similar precision. Without question the ancient Egyptian builders possessed advanced technical knowledge, and it is generally believed that they understood the true dimensions of the earth to extreme precision. Quite possibly they may have possessed exceptionally sophisticated technical instrumentation as well. This was 4,500 years ago!
Built as a tomb for fourth dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu, the interior is an elaborate maze of shafts, tunnels, chambers, and secret doors and rooms (some subterranean), and houses the great ruler’s final resting place deep inside and well hidden. What keeps this massive structure from collapsing? The ancient builders constructed a five-tiered “load-relieving” chamber from granite beams six feet thick and weighing fifty tons each, precisely positioned within the pyramid to absorb the massive pressure and redirect it into the surrounding structure. This is yet another testimonial to their comprehensive understanding of civil engineering and structural dynamics.
I almost forgot P.T., the Great Pyramid is surrounded by five smaller but still impressive pyramids—"little tops”, surrounding the big top so to speak., just like your show in many ways. In your greatest show they were referred to as sideshow tents. And P.T., did I mention the greeter? I remember that your greatest show had a wonderful greeter. The Great Pyramid has a greeter as well, but it is not a clown like yours. It is called the Sphinx; a mythological creature with the body of a lion and the head of a human. I’m sure you have seen the photos. Carved from solid rock, It measures 240 feet long, 66 feet high and 62 feet wide, and appears to be a poised as a sentry to the Great Pyramid. Unto itself it is one of the greatest shows on earth!
Yes, I hear what you are saying. The Great Pyramid is amazing, but its exterior looks rough and weathered. Well, due to erosion P.T., it in no true sense represents how it once appeared. Yes, it is weathered. What would your show look like after 4,500 years in the heat and sun? Now here’s a fact that may surprise you. Originally, the Great Pyramid and smaller surrounding pyramids were encased in slabs of well-polished white limestone. When the sun shone upon them they lit up and shimmered. As I already mentioned, some researchers believe that the pyramid’s capstone was plated in gold. In that there has been so much plundering of Egypt’s antiquities, no one can prove nor disprove this.
And yes, I do remember the impressive lights your greatest show had, but the Great Pyramid was built before the discovery of electricity, so some latitude is needed here. But think about this. Khufu’s burial chamber lies almost in the exact center of the pyramid. On the East and West faces the builders dug shafts from the exterior walls to the burial chamber so the soul of the King would join the journey of the sun every day. The angle is so exact that the sun will shine directly on the King from the entire sunrise to sunset. Considering that this took place over four and a half millennia before the invention of electricity I would say that it was a pretty impressive light show.
Now please, don’t try to sell me on that nonsense that your workers were paid while the Great Pyramid was built by slaves. This myth has been completely refuted by the entire Egyptology and archeology communities based upon indisputable written archives. There are volumes of incontrovertible evidence including papyrus ledgers that clearly indicate worker’s hours and pay scales. The Egyptians were meticulous record keepers. The slavery angle makes for a compelling story for Hollywood but is not factual. Additionally, the workers were buried in the nearby area and mummified in accordance with strict Egyptian law and custom. Being near the King was considered an honor, and mummification is a sign of reverence and respect. Measures of this degree and expense would not have been taken for slaves.
OK, so I initially promised to tell you of my experience at the Great Pyramid. Prior to going to Egypt and knowing that I would be seeing the last remaining wonder of the ancient world, I read numerous books and watched many documentaries on this enduring monument to this great civilization. All the statistics and factoids I have mentioned above were the result of my studies. I am an engineer by education and have a comprehensive understanding of math and physics and am able to grasp complex projects and systems. I arrived in Egypt prepared to fit what I would see into the data set that my research had placed in my brain.
Well P.T., I certainly expected BIG, but what I saw was unimaginable. The scale of the Great Pyramid of Giza challenges the mind; even the mind of a well-traveled person and trained and experienced engineer! To gaze upon this amazing accomplishment is a lesson in humility which defies words. Standing in front of this structure and looking up, I had never felt so insignificant in my life. Considering that it required the efforts of 100,000 workers and 20 years of effort to build this engineering masterpiece, the lifespan of a human being on this planet seems microscopic.
Listen Phineas, please don’t take this personally. After all, it is only my opinion, and I did truly enjoy the great show that you gave us, but the “Greatest show on Earth?” I think not my friend. Of course, as the saying goes—your mileage may vary. I do however encourage you to take that trip to Giza to see for yourself. Call me when you get back and we can discuss your experience and as promised, lunch is on me.
Witness the “Greatest Show on Earth” for yourself when you visit the Great Pyramid of Giza during Egypt & the Eternal Nile by Private, Classic River-Yacht.