Wondering Egypt

Pyramids
By Ethan Gelber & the BikeAbout team
  |  Gorp.com
Sun setting behind the pyramid of Khufu. (BikeAbout.)

In one sense, the pyramids represented a high water mark for the Egyptians. Only a civilization skilled at mathematics, engineering and architecture could have designed such buildings. Only an enormously wealthy and powerful government that was capable of commanding and organizing a huge labor force could have carried out the construction. Simply building the causeway by which the huge stone blocks were dragged up the ridge to Giza, took tens of thousands of laborers many years to complete.

Although the Egyptians' engineering skill remained, the political and economic might of the Pharaohs gradually ebbed in the following centuries. The Pharaohs no longer had the resources or the political might to build such expensive tombs. Indeed, Old Kingdom Egypt's decline can be gauged by the decreasing size of the subsequent pyramids. By 2200 BC, Egypt fell into anarchy.

Deciding that it would be better not to try our luck in the crazy Cairo traffic on bicycles, we hopped on a minibus to take us the four kilometers out to the southeastern suburb of Giza. Actually, Cairo is so big that we never seemed to leave the urban center throughout the entire ride. We only realized that we had arrived in Giza because we could see the pyramids between the high rise buildings lining the road.

As we walked from the minibus station, the height of the modern buildings shrank and the pyramids seemed to loom higher. It was not until we rounded the corner and began our trek up the ridge towards Cheops' pyramid that the real size of these structures began to sink in.

Which brings us to why these monuments were built in the first place. The pyramids were essentially giant tombs built to house the corpse of a Pharaoh. Placed in the dead center of the pyramid, the chamber is accessible only by a narrow passageway that slopes up steeply from the entrance on the eastern side.

The Egyptians were very religious and believed strongly in a life after death. They thought that after you died you simply passed into a new stage of life. For this reason the tombs of the Pharaohs contained all the things that they would need — food, drink, clothing, weapons, and of course, most of their worldly possessions. In the case of the Pharaohs, this included lots and lots of treasure. But to ensure that the Pharaohs' spirit would survive in the afterlife, his body had to be preserved as well. Hence mummies, and a long line of bad horror films.

Pharaohs also tried to build tombs large enough and secure enough to ensure that their bodies, their spirits, and their possessions would not be disturbed. Hence mastabas, and then later, pyramids. Unfortunately, it would seem that most of the Pharaohs were not able to enjoy a peaceful afterlife. Even before archaeologists and tourists began tramping through the burial chambers, thieves looted every (known) royal tomb in Egypt with the exception of King Tut's.

But the pyramids were more than just big tombs to protect (or fail to protect) the corpses of the Pharaohs. A pyramid comprised only part of a much larger complex, which contained burial sites for members of the Pharaohs' family and staff and places of worship for the Pharaoh's subjects. In Ancient Egyptian civilization, the Pharaoh was considered the son of a god, and worshiped as such. Finally, the sheer size and majesty of the pyramids served as hard-to-miss reminders of the power of the gods, and in particular of these gods on earth.

We had all this in mind when after walking around the pyramid we decided to venture inside to visit the burial chamber of the Pharaoh Khufu. Long ago emptied of its treasures the chamber is completely empty (and more than a little stuffy). Still, it was nice to have a look at the engineering of the pyramids from the inside. We marveled at how precisely the huge stone blocks fit together — the fine craftsmanship reassured us somewhat considering how many millions of pounds of stones lie balanced over our heads.

Once back outside we maneuvered around the huge blocks of limestone lying around and headed over to examine the second great pyramid, that of Khafre, Khufu's son. Khafre was too respectful a son to make his pyramid as large as that of his father's, but he did have it built on slightly higher ground, making it seem at least as high. Since the original limestone casing is still clinging to the top of this second pyramid you get a better idea of how the pyramids must once have looked.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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