The Pyramids

The mighty pyramids of stone
That wedge-like cleave the desert airs,
When nearer seen, and better known,
Are but gigantic flights of stairs.
- Longfellow

pyramid1.jpg (14614 bytes)The next morning, Ahmed picked us up at nine o’ clock to take us to see the ancient city of Memphis and the pyramids at Sakkara and Giza. As we moved out of the city, the men, women, and even children we saw were dressed in the traditional ‘galabiya’. Their livelihood was farming. Closer to Memphis, we passed several carpet-making schools. Carpet making is a traditional Egyptian craft.

Memphis, was founded around 3000 BC by Narmer (Menes) the pharaoh who united Upper and Lower Egypt for the first time. It is believed that it was previously called Menufer, but later called Memphis by the Greeks. The city became the capital around 2850 BC, and remained so for about seven hundred years. Nothing remains of the ancient city but an enormous statue of Rameses II that lies in an enclosure and some sphinxes and statues that stand in the open.

From Memphis, we went to Sakkara. Sakkara is the necropolis of Memphis. From the time of Zoser, until the end of the Graeco Roman times, the royalty and the nobility continued to be buried in Sakkara. As such, tombs of all periods of the history of Egypt can be found in this necropolis that stretches along eight kilometres of the desert. The best known and the most visited monument in Sakkara is the Step Pyramid of Zoser. It is also the largest structure in Sakkara. The pyramid designed by Imhotep the great architect, is the oldest of all the pyramids. Until then, the tombs had been underground or mastabas made of mud bricks. A mastaba looks like a mound of mud bricks with a flattened top. The Step Pyramid appears like six mastabas of gradually decreasing size, placed on top of one another. Unlike the mastabas, the pyramid is built of stone. Imhotep, was the first to use large blocks of stone in building and the Step Pyramid is considered the beginning of the architectural wonders of ancient Egypt.

pyramid2.jpg (13214 bytes)Of the many mastabas in Sakkara, we were taken to see those of Ptah Hotep, Mereruka and Ti. Mastabas were built even after the building of pyramids had begun, as burial monuments of the nobility and important court officials. Just as the chambers inside the pyramids represent the lifestyle of the royalty, those inside the mastabas show us how the nobles lived. Ptah Hotep, Mereruka, and Ti had been court officials between 2500 and 2200 BC. The walls of these tombs are covered in beautiful reliefs of everyday life during the fifth and sixth dynasties. The reliefs in Ptah Hotep’s tomb include a boating scene, scenes of children playing, people hunting and making offerings to gods. In Mereruka’s tomb, there is an interesting fishing scene. Fish, turtles hippopotamuses and crocodiles that live in the water are shown underneath the boat, while birds and reptiles that live near the water are shown perched on papyrus reeds. There are beautiful offering scenes in Ti’s tomb.

With that, we concluded our visit to Sakkara, although at least a day is required to see the necropolis properly. On our way from Sakkara to Giza, we were taken to a school for carpet making. There, we saw girls from the area as young as eight years learning the craft brought down to them through generations. They were paid an allowance for the work they did as part of their training. We were told that while they learnt to make carpets in the morning, they attended regular school in the afternoon.

We were amazed at the skill and speed with which some of the students did their work. Some of them worked on traditional designs. Others created their own patterns or pictures. When we asked how the young weavers knew when to change thread in order to obtain the right colours, we were told that they carried the designs in their heads. We were very impressed. The young man who showed us around persuaded Venya and Shayari to sit with some of the students and try their hands carpet making.

Having seen the students at work, we were taken up to a gallery ‘just to look at’ some ofthe finished products. One section displayed beautiful pure silk carpets, which are also the most expensive. The least costly are those woven solely with camel hair. Many of the products are out of a combination of camel hair and silk. No doubt, both Ahmed and our escort must have been disappointed that we did not make any purchases.

Our next destination was Giza. Giza, now a large and modem city, was a large necropolis four thousand years ago. It is in Giza, that the only surviving one of the seven wonders of the ancient world still exists. The three Great Pyramids. The pyramids loomed ahead of us like three huge mountains, dwarfing everything within sight. Near them sat the sphinx Abu al-Hol or the ‘terrible one’. It was smaller than one expected but still large at a height of twenty one metres and a length of about fifty metres.

I am not sure what I really expected to feel on seeing the pyramids. Yet, I was acutely aware of not having the entirely satisfied feeling that I should have had on seeing something so famous and so written about. Something, that had attracted travellers for many millennia and I had always dreamed of seeing. Certainly, I was filled with wonder and awe. How could I not be? It is not possible to fathom how these enormous monuments were built four thousand five hundred years ago.

No, the pyramids do not lack mystery. A myriad theories have been put forward, as to why they were built the way they were built and how such a feat was accomplished. The ideas presented by the Greek historian Herodotus- around 450 BC still hold good in the eyes of some scholars.

What I failed to capture was the magic I had expected to feel. It was a pity indeed that our visit to the Great Pyramids had to be at noon in the blazing hot sun and at the end of a morning’s sight-seeing. Just as our felucca ride been. How nice it would have been, if we could have seen the pyramids early in the morning while a thin veil of mist still hung in the air, or in the evening at sun set. It is not that one does not expect bright sunshine in the desert but some things can be better enjoyed at certain times of the day.

The Great pyramids were built as funerary monuments for the fourth dynasty pharaohs Cheops (Khufu), Chephren (Khafre) and Mycerinus (Menekaure). Each pyramid is a part of a funerary complex. Each complex consists of the pyramid with the burial chamber carved into the rock beneath it and one or more small subsidiary pyramids. There is also a mortuary temple at the base of the pyramid, a sacred enclosure surrounding the pyramids and the temple, a valley temple at the bank of the nearby canal and a causeway connecting the two temples.

On the death of a pharaoh, the rites of embalming began at his dwelling. Then, the body was taken by a procession of royal barks to the valley temple. There, the purification ceremony was carried out and the preparation of the mummy was completed. From the valley temple, the mummified body was taken to the mortuary temple where the consecration of the mummy took place. The number of people accompanying the mummy lessened as it progressed towards the tomb. Only the pharaoh’s heir and the priests of the highest rank went into the innermost chambers. The final ceremony was carried out by the heir, in which he initiated the communication between the deceased and the after world. Then the sarcophagus was placed among the dearest possessions of the pharaoh and the burial chamber sealed.

The first, smooth pyramid was built by Snefru, the founder of the fourth dynasty. The geometric pyramid as it is called, is built around a central solid core with a series of sloping smooth walls around it. Thus, within the facing it appears like gigantic flights of stairs leading up to the apex. The ancient texts of Egypt tell us of a staircase that leads up to the sky and into eternity in the presence of Ra.

The largest of the Great Pyramids, the pyramid of Cheops, (successor to Snefru) was originally 146 metres high. However, now the apex is missing and the height is reduced to 137 metres. The pyramid of Chephren is on a plateau, and at a height of 136.5 metres had appeared as tall as the former. The pyramid of Mycerinus is only 66 metres high. The pyramid of Cheops was constructed using about three million blocks of rock, each weighing about two tons. It is believed that the rocks had been quarried near Aswan and transported to Giza along the Nile using the current of the river.

The sphinx was so called by the Greeks because it resembled a mythical creature by the name with a woman’s head and a lion’s body. Some believe that the head represents that of Chephren who built the second Great Pyramid. The monument, famous the world over just as much as the pyramids and shrouded in equal mystery, is carved out of a single block of limestone. It has been repeatedly buried under the sand and recovered.

Legend has it that, Thutmosis IV who ruled Egypt around 1400 BC became the king as a result of dream in which he was promised the crown of Egypt by a god, if he restored the buried sphinx. The rulers of Egypt, after the pharaonic and Ptolemaic periods, treated the sphinx with scant respect allowing it to be used for artillery practice.