We recently enjoyed a tour of Egypt. We visited Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel and more. Our tour included a week-long cruise on a Nile River boat.
You’re already very familiar with the Pyramids, King Tut, and all sorts of ancient Egyptian Pharaohs and hieroglyphs (and maybe Stargate?!). We won’t even try to play Egyptologist here; you, like us, have the internet at your fingertips for any historical rabbit hole that entices you. Our blog post approach is to share some stories from our journey through Egypt, along with photos that we particularly liked. We’ll throw in a little history where it caught our interest. And a few links to sources for your own exploration.
Mostly, we just want to share some of the pleasure that we found in visiting these amazing places. Yalla! (which our tour guide taught us means, “Let’s go!”)
THE GREAT PYRAMIDS
What do you think of when you think of Egypt? The Pyramids and the Sphinx, of course. So that’s our first stop. Then a few more tombs while we’re in the funerary mood.
The site of the Pyramids is on the Giza plateau, which is rocky desert at the edge of Greater Cairo. From the parking lot, when you look into the desert, you get the famous triangular silhouettes. Which are thrilling. Turn around and you see hotels, guesthouses and restaurants, and then the endless expanse of urban Cairo.
So we turned our backs on all that complicated modernity, and hung out with the gargantuan pyramids of limestone blocks.
The presence of the Pyramids is awesome, in the literal meaning of the word. The scale of the structures, even the scale of individual limestone blocks, doesn’t quite compute. You just walk around in wonder.
At the same time, the giant piles of stone are mute, indifferent to us. OK, so these are a lot of stone blocks. I mean, a lot! But there aren’t carvings; there isn’t art to tell us a story. You have to use your imagination and some research, and then the place lights up. Think about the fact of the Pyramids’ being constructed almost 5000 years ago. This was when Europeans were in the early stages of the Bronze age. There aren’t archeological records from this time period in China. Inhabitants of the Americas were mostly hunters and gatherers at this time, although corn had started to be domesticated. The Egyptians, however, constructed tomb monuments that were the tallest structures on the planet, unrivaled for another 3500 years!
The Great Pyramid of Giza: Constructed between 2589 and 2504 BC, although estimated dates vary somewhat, the Great Pyramid of Giza is believed to have been designed as a tomb for the Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu, also known as Cheops. Its designer is thought to have been his vizier Hemon; a vizier was the highest official in the land and would have been responsible for ensuring proper construction of the monument….
Khufu (aka Cheops) ruled during the Old Kingdom and was the second pharaoh of the fourth dynasty of kings. He succeeded his father, Pharaoh Snefru, and ruled from 2589 BC to 2566 BC, although this is a general estimation as far too little is known about this famous pharaoh. (source)
Next to the Great Pyramid of Khufu is the equally imposing Pyramid of Khafre, who was the son of Khufu. What’s interesting about this pyramid is that some of the original smooth stone revetment remains at the apex. Originally, the Pyramids were smooth and precise.
Originally, the Great Pyramid of Giza was covered with 144,000 casing stones that were highly reflective as well as protective. Made of polished white Tura limestone, they reflected the sun’s light; … thus the Egyptians’ name for it, “Ikhet”, or glorious light. The casing stones were laid in an interlocking pattern and held together with bond stones. The construction is so tight on the casing stones that a knife blade would not fit between them. In order to assure the longevity of appearance, the bond stones were laid with the same precision…. A massive earthquake in 1303 AD loosened the casing stones and many were subsequently dislodged and stolen to be used for mosques and temples. The result has been that the Great Pyramid now has a rough exterior that has been eroded by the elements rather than the sleek and shimmering appearance it once had. (source)
At the very top of each Pyramid was a capstone, called, appropriately enough, the pyramidion. The following image is of the pyramidion of Amenemhat III, from about 70 years after the Pyramids of Khufu and Khafre. This pyramidion was carved from basalt. The inscriptions tell us that pharaoh Amenemhat III hangs out with the sun god Ra. These pyramids, and by implication their sponsors and perhaps residents, touch the realm of the gods. (source)
We can’t forget the Sphinx:
Most scholars date the Great Sphinx to the 4th dynasty and affix ownership to Khafre. However, some believe that it was built by Khafre’s older brother Redjedef (Djedefre) to commemoratetheir father, Khufu, whose pyramid at Giza is known as the Great Pyramid. These theorists claim that the face of the Great Sphinx bears more resemblance to Khufu than Khafre, and that observation also led to speculation that Khufu himself built the statue. (source)
You can compare for yourself the faces of the Sphinx and Khufu:
About 32 km / 20 mi from the famous Great Pyramids, at Saqqara, you find the step Pyramid of Djoser.
Pharaoh Djoser commissioned this structure, the first real Pyramid that we know about, about 200 years before Khufu and his Pyramid. Its architect was Imhotep, chancellor of the pharaoh and high priest of the god Ra. Already for hundreds of years, Saqqara had been the burial site for local nobility. Before Imhotep started stacking stone layers, the form of tombs was a flat rectangular “cap” constructed of mud bricks or stone blocks, called masabas. For reasons that are not known, Imhotep chose to stack ever smaller mastabas one atop the last. One historian’s speculation is that the goal was for the tomb of Djoser to be visible from the royal capital of Memphis, about 3 km away. Whatever the reasoning, the result was the first immense funerary pyramid in the world. And precedent for Khufu and Khafre. (source)
These giant Pyramids were among the oldest ever constructed. Pyramids that followed — over a hundred of which are known in what is today Egypt and Sudan — grew smaller as the centuries passed. We’d have expected that ancient Egyptians would have started small, tested their techniques, and over time, perhaps with rivalry from later generations, grown larger and larger. However, the history is the reverse. It seems that that Great Pyramids of Giza were built at a time when the power and divinity of the pharaohs were at their zenith, when the structure of society was relatively focused and uncomplicated, and the spirit of connection to the gods was very strong. As generations passed, prosperity dwindled; a military needed to be supported to protect the country; and political power grew complicated and fractured, with rival challengers from the community of priests and merchants. The first burst of religious enthusiasm — and ego — quickly gave way to the complex realities of earthly life.
Next stop, the Valley of the Kings…