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The Pyramids: An In-Depth Look

Posted on 4/16/2019 12:00:00 AM in Traveler Insights

Stephen captured this shot of Khafre in the foreground and Menkaura in the background.

By Stephen C., 14-time traveler and 2-time Vacation Ambassador from Pinole, CA

We left downtown Cairo for Giza under a leaden and threatening sky. On Friday morning most of the city was apparently home recuperating from the previous evening’s festivities, because they were not on the roads. At least not in their usual masses. Cairo is typically a traffic nightmare, but this Friday our bus moved speedily west out of the Cairo downtown, through the small city of Giza until reaching the ticket office and security checkpoint for the Giza Necropolis high on the plateau west of the city. Looming above us over a small rise was the massive Cheops Pyramid, still half a mile away.

Outside the shelter of our coach, we were buffeted with strong wind gusts blowing sand, and cold air. Not that we needed reminding, the day’s weather forecast was for a storm with rain to arrive around 1:00 pm. As we waited for our guide, Caroline Fayez, to secure tickets to the Giza Plateau monuments, we snugged down our hats against being blown away, our jackets gathered tightly about our necks. Whatever else we’d heard about dressing for the Sahara Desert, in February we were chilly. 

The Sphinx, the guardian of the Giza necropolis. 

Security around the Pyramids was tight, or at least it seemed so given the number of police personnel guarding the entrance. But it was strange how we got into the premises. Our sixteen explorers with Overseas Adventure Travel were required to pass through a checkpoint and metal scanning machine while our bus, presumably with our belongings aboard, were inspected at a separate checkpoint. Caroline was also baffled by the logic here, though one in our group, Brian, spoke aloud that he could have hidden his gun in the bus, thereby having it smuggled passed security. Suddenly further conversation in that vein ended abruptly when another trip member, perhaps his wife Jean, suggested that, like joking with TSA at a U.S. airport about guns and similar things, we might refrain here with any further mention of weapons and other taboo subjects. 

Burying the Dead

It is widely known among those with even a passing interest in Egyptian antiquities that preparing for the afterlife was something actively pursued by at least the ancient royalty, specifically the pharaohs, or kings of Egypt. Embalming was a highly developed practice, the goal to preserve the deceased body so that it could venture into the afterlife in the same glory and comfort that the deceased had enjoyed in his or her corporeal existence on earth. 

The ancient Egyptians did not have our modern formaldehydes or other chemicals to preserve the dead body, so they used a process that involved thoroughly desiccating, or drying the body after removing the organs such as the kidneys, liver, intestines, lungs, brain and, most importantly, the heart. After drying and wrapping these organs, they were either placed back inside the body cavity, or were stored in special jars to be buried along with the body. The dried and preserved heart, however, was always returned to the body, since it was considered to be the seat of the thought and soul of the deceased. 

In the meantime, while the organs were being treated and preserved, the body itself was being similarly desiccated, then preserved by being bathed in oils, spices, and a powder called natron. Finally it was wrapped in linen to become what we call a “mummy.” The degree of material preservation is remarkable, even after five thousand years. We learned at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo that, indeed, the practice of mummification originated well before the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt. It was an African practice handed down from Neolithic times. As performed in ancient Egypt, preparing a dead body for burial took seventy days.   

The ancient Egyptians believed in proper embalming and preservation of the pharaoh in order to preserve his physical likeness. When the pharaoh’s spirit, or Ka, left the body upon death, it was important that the Ka would recognize his facial features and thereby reunite with his preserved body, giving him his afterlife. This concept of transferring the physical manifestation of life on earth into the afterlife was also the reason why the pharaoh was buried with his valuables and useful items he could employ in the hereafter. 

The Period of the Pyramids

Around 2.3 million blocks weighing 1.5 to 80 tons each. As described by fellow traveler Ray, this has to be a great source of pride for Egyptians. Though an ancient accomplishment, as a project involving tremendous complexity and public purpose, this was their “moon shot.” 

We tend to see through modern eyes that ancient Egyptian funerary practices for most of its history involved the building of elaborate fortified tombs such as pyramids. True, there are some 138 identified pyramids from the Old and Middle periods of Egypt. But prior to that, such elaborate monuments were not used. And by the end of the Middle period of ancient Egypt, the pyramid building had stopped. 

So what prompted the ancient Egyptians to start commemorating their dead pharaoh with the construction of massive pyramidal burial structures? Was it because they had developed sufficient wealth that the pharaohs found a method to signify their grandeur in this way? The author Yuval Noah Harari (in Sapiens) postulated as much, that the building of the great pyramids was the way wealthy and powerful people in that time spent their money. And who were more powerful than the pharaohs?

But that is perhaps too secular a view. Herodotus, the Greek historian, proffered another view, one of the exercises of raw political power. He had come to Egypt in the third century BC, over two thousand years after the last great pyramid had been completed. And like a good historian of course, Herodotus hired a guide to show him around and explain the how’s and why’s of the great pyramids. 

Herodotus had correctly observed that the largest of the Giza pyramids, although sitting on a platform a bit lower than another large pyramid, was the most perfect specimen of all the pyramids. Its dimensions were symmetrical, its alignment to the solar solstices was exact, hence the corners pointed to the four directions of the compass, and the entire structure was perfectly level. In short, whatever else could be said about the Great Pyramid, it was as close to being geometrically and astronomically perfect as the Ancient Greeks could measure. Modern survey work has determined the Great Pyramid to have been 482’ tall and for 3,800 years was the tallest human-built structure on earth. Its base is 756’ long in each side. Its slope is 51.08 degrees, so it looks steep to the eye. 

When Herodotus asked whose pyramid this was, he was told it was the burial monument to the Pharaoh Khufu. Perhaps there was something lost in translation, some transposition of syllables, confusion in pronunciation of some sort, but Herodotus ended up naming this great pyramid Cheops. And the Greeks and others have clung to that name. The Egyptian name is Khufu, for the pharaoh who built it. The other two large pyramids on the Giza Plateau are Khafre and Menkaure, both smaller than Khufu. 

Ancient Building Secrets

As a good historian/tourist traveling to Egypt, Herodotus listened to his Egyptian guide. After all, if you spend hard-earned money investing in the services of a guide, you don’t really want to admit to having wasted your money on getting bad advice. That’s true today, by the way. So Herodotus passed on the guide’s view, expressed in 330 BC that Khufu got his great pyramid built by slave labor working under the lash of cruel overseers. 

The Khufu Pyramid west of the city of Giza, the downtown towers of Cairo in the haze beyond. 

Modern archaeology has turned that theory on its head. Of course, Khufu may have indeed been a hard taskmaster, even cruel, at least occasionally difficult to get along with, particularly after an argument with one of his wives, or even the queen. But there is no evidence at all about those traits in the archaeological record. No writings on papyrus or walls about Khufu’s style of leadership, his personal theories of how to treat his subordinates, nothing involving any private conversations with his vizier, or his head priest, nor any notes of a therapeutic nature. Social media didn’t exist then. The actual work record for the building of Khufu’s pyramid suggests something in the ancient Egyptian imperial infrastructure was so well-organized and well-engineered that slavery as a labor model wouldn’t work. Apparently, the modern papyrus findings point to a workforce of free men who labored for a wage, indeed many of them being fine craftsmen. The writings also point to a workforce that believed in what they were doing. And that is the most interesting part. 

As we all were told in high school world history class, the Nile River floods annually. The Aswan High Dam has changed that flooding cycle, but back in the day the river at flood would wash over the land and deposit silt. This silt came from erosion in places at the Nile’s southern headwaters, places now called Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Sudan. This silt deposition was needed to renew the land for growing crops along the river. But while the Nile was flooding, the farmland was underwater and the farmers were idle. Khufu decided to use this idle labor pool to help build his pyramid. The flood time was used to transport the heavy blocks from the quarries to the pyramid site. After the flood waters receded, the farmers were needed to return to their fields and grow the food necessary to feed the empire. Others carried on the project’s work. 

But that is just a small part of the economics of the situation. This vast public works project also required a supply chain for the three types of rock used on the pyramid, a supply of copper tools used on the project, the presence of well-maintained shipping fleets that carried the supplies to the construction site, new channels dug in the Nile to allow the supply barges to approach the Giza Plateau, a supply chain of food and its preparation for the tens of thousands of project workers, a workers’ city to house and feed them, and finally an industrial area where stones could be shaped by craftsmen in preparation for laying them onto the growing pyramid. The pharaoh, his vizier or prime minister also must have assembled the best and brightest of his empire to design, engineer and administer the project, everything from supervising the work progress to accounting for the vast expenditures of public money. 

The original pyramid was built with an outer case layer of white limestone, making the pyramid smooth on its exterior. 4,500 years of erosion and earthquakes have destroyed that outer case layer. This shows a remnant of the white limestone. It is also present at the top of the nearby Khafre Pyramid, named after Khufu’s son. 

Archaeologists puzzle over how the ancient Egyptians in the Old Kingdom Fourth Dynasty were able to proportion the pyramid so exactly, determining a geometric design ratio of 22/7, but never actually knowing the mathematically transcendental number of pi. And while we’re at it, they didn’t use the wheel, pulleys, a compass, or optically magnified sighting instruments, but were able to level all four corners of the pyramid base to within 0.6 inches. One British surveyor in the 1890’s remarked that the surface casing stone of white limestone, now largely missing from the Khufu pyramid, was fitted by Egyptian masons to within opticians’ tolerances, only on a scale of acres.   

And still we ask, why build a pyramid? Why engage the entire Egyptian empire in the construction of a funerary monument that, after the pharaoh is dead, won’t serve the continued economic vitality of the nation? Why build a fancy pile of rocks and invest so much wealth in doing so? Was all this for the glory of a soon-to-be-dead pharaoh? Weren’t there better things to do with this sort of twenty-year effort? 

The Cosmology

The Pharaoh Khufu wasn’t just going to be buried in his monumental pyramid. The ancient hieroglyphics tell a much deeper story about Egypt’s role in the cosmos and pharaoh’s role in leading Egypt after he entered eternity. 

We tend to think the ancient Egyptians went to all this effort to build the pyramid because they thought of Khufu as a god, or at least as divine. In that sense, working on the pyramid was a form of worship. All that is true. But it was also clear to them that Khufu had a specific role to play after he died, a role to help the most high god, Rah, combat the forces of evil in the cosmos. The story is that the deceased Khufu every night at the setting of the sun would leave his tomb upward through ventilation shafts in the upper pyramid to join in the supernatural fight against evil forces who would destroy Egypt. 

The workers on the pyramid building project knew this cosmic story and, more than just worship, they knew they were helping in some small but significant way to preserve their kingdom. In the much later vernacular of Christian thought, the Egyptians building the pyramid were toiling in the fields of the lord. Not as slaves, not even just as free men, but as true believers. 

The Khufu Pyramid is the only surviving ancient wonder of the world. Perhaps its sheer mass makes that so. Truthfully, it remains a wonder in our time as well, a kind of a small mountain rising above the sands of the eastern Sahara Desert. Its symmetry is striking. So is the steepness of its sides and the massive quality of its construction. Along with the other pyramids on the Giza Plateau, there is nothing quite like it in all the world. 

Witness these architectural wonders in person when you join O.A.T. for Egypt & the Eternal Nile by Private, Classic River-Yacht.

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