Monday, 29 July 2013

Preview: The Pyramids of Giza

Come the end of days, when the last remnants of mankind have to stand before a panel of gods or galactic aliens or futuristic dolphin overlords, and we are asked, "Justify your existence", these are what we will point to: three large pyramids at the edge of Cairo. They've stood for 4500 years and no doubt come the day of judgement, be it 100 or 100,000 years away, they'll still be standing. Three huge enigmatic statements to the mad glory of mankind, built with supreme effort in a world without the wheel, the concept of zero, or even perspective in art, a world just seeing the first blooms of civilisation. Without precedence, something deep inside the human psyche decided to just go for it, to build something preposterously massive, and ended up overachieving on a colossal scale. Sure, as the panel of judges bears down upon us, we might remind them of all the great cures we discovered or the global level of communication and cooperation we aspired to, but are these the true reflection of the human state? I don't think so. We have to be honest with ourselves, we've got a pretty chequered history. Mankind is mixed and muddled, with its priorities all wrong and harnessing the energies of a society to construct an unimaginably huge tomb for a single king is a truly ridiculous thing to do. But by god, your honours, it looks good. The case for the defence rests.

The pyramids are so famous that they almost defy an introduction; but at the same time, they've acquired so many myths over the last 45 centuries that a quick recap is sometimes handy. At present, they sit somewhat awkwardly at the edge of Cairo, in the suburb of Giza, one half in the desert and the other half in what can only be described as slums. Just as a beanbag does not suit the bearing of a king, neither do these ignoble surroundings suit the pyramids. But that's not the pyramids' fault, it's simply a consequence of the modern world and being near a rapidly expanding urban population in a metropolitan area of around 18 million people. Back in the ancient world when the pyramids were constructed, the total population of Egypt was only around 1.6 million. The pyramids were supposed to be at the edge of a desert, not the edge of a suburb.

The three pyramids were built in three generations for three kings of Egypt: grandfather, father, and son. This was in around 2500 BC, but Egyptologists find it more convenient to date ancient Egypt by kingdom and dynasty. That's how the Egyptians dated things and so it's a more distinct way for us to divide eras. For example, seeing the dates 2575BC to 2134BC doesn't really say all that much to us, but in Egyptian terms that's the dates of the Old Kingdom from the 4th to 8th dynasties - the progression is much clearer. There were three Kingdoms in all - Old, Middle, and New - and a few intermediate periods, with a total of 30 Egyptian-ruled dynasties, but the period we're interested in is the Old Kingdom and the 4th Dynasty. Most of the other famous Egyptian stuff - the Valley of the Kings, Tutankhamen, the grand temples of Karnak, the many statues by Ramesses II - dates from the New Kingdom, 1550BC to 1070BC, a full 600 years distant from the Old Kingdom. The pyramids were as old to them as as the Alhambra is to modern Spain.

So we're right back near the start of ancient Egypt as a civilisation. The 4th Dynasty was the beginning of the Old Kingdom (sometimes the 3rd Dynasty is regarded as the beginning, it's all a little blurred), with Egypt unified and powerful under one rule, and the first king was a guy called Sneferu. We'll get to him in a bit, but it's his son, Khufu we're interested in, also known as Cheops from the Greek. Let's stick to Khufu as it's his real name, as known from hieroglyphics. Rather helpfully, hieroglyphics are partly phonetic. Khufu is the king behind the Great Pyramid, the biggest and the most famous pyramid of all. Originally 146.5 metres high (now 139 metres), each side is 230 metres - it would take an Olympic champion over 20 seconds to run the distance. The immensity of it can not be understated. The Great Pyramid was the tallest building on earth for an astonishing 3800 years, it wasn't until Lincoln Cathedral's spire beat it in 1311 (later to collapse in 1549) that mankind managed to top it. It was considered the big daddy of the original Wonders of the World list. Despite these gigantic proportions, it is also astonishingly precise - the four sides vary by no more than 4.4cm in distance. The base is virtually flat, to within a couple of centimetres, evidently levelled off by the builders, and it faces almost exactly true north. Why so precise? Cosmological significance? I reckon Khufu just wasn't doing things by half - he was a supreme perfectionist and didn't want any chance of it going wrong.

Like all other pyramids, it was built as a tomb, and surrounding it was an extensive complex of small satellite pyramids, pyramids for his queens, and a mortuary temple. Most of this was surrounded by an 8-metre-high wall, and a 700-metre-long causeway led to a valley temple which gave access to the complex via the river Nile; this was how the body of the king would ceremonially arrive. The pyramid and complex would then be maintained by the priesthood long after his death - the king was also a god, after all.

What we see today are the ancient ruins of all this - the complex is virtually gone, and the pyramid is a stripped down version of the original. The massive sandstone blocks now on display were originally out of sight, covering the Great Pyramid was smooth white limestone, possibly with a gold or gold-plated capstone at the top. The pyramid of Khafre next to it still has the remains of the limestone casing at its peak. It must have been an incredible sight in this ancient world - an inconceivably vast pyramid, blinding white in the sun, surrounded by a walled complex forbidden to all but the elite priesthood.

The curious thing about the Great Pyramid is that, with perhaps some selective hindsight, it almost seems as though it was the culmination of a deliberate strategy by several generations of Egyptians to build the perfect pyramid, that once achieved was never again attempted. Because also in the region there are a few other pyramids that seem very much like test runs. In the 3rd Dynasty, the king called Djoser kicked off the mania for pyramids with an impressive early attempt, the 62-metre Step Pyramid. Not a true, smooth-sided pyramid, and more a series of platforms, it nonetheless got the ball rolling. It was Sneferu, the king who kickstarted the 4th Dynasty and the Old Kingdom that really got things going though. Because he's not part of the Giza trio, he doesn't get the kudos, but his influence was immense. He built three huge pyramids, each a more refined version of the last. His first, the 65-metre-high pyramid at a site called Meidum, kind of went wrong and collapsed. Try again - this time he got the angles wrong, and his second pyramid, at a site called Dahshur, was built too steep and about midway up it abruplty switches to a shallower angler, hence it's now called the Bent Pyramid. Still, at 101 metres tall, it's impressive. But third time lucky for Sneferu, and by this point, he'd evidently figured out what it took to build a massive stone pyramid. The result, also at Dahshur, is the Red Pyramid. 104 metres high, it's the third biggest of the Egyptian pyramids, and an absolutely immense construction. And throughout history, it's been almost entirely overlooked.

Because just a generation later, Sneferu's son built the Great Pyramid, and nobody in Egypt ever again tried to match it. Khufu's son, Khafre, then built his pyramid next to it, on slightly higher ground which sometimes gives the illusion of being bigger, but it's three metres shorter and five metres less wide. And Menkaure's pyramid is visibly a lot smaller, just under 66 metres. Loads of loads of pyramids were built in successive generations and dynasties, but nobody ever bettered the Great Pyramid. They didn't even try. It really seems like after a few trial runs the Egyptians absolutely nailed it, took a step back, and realised that their job was done. Come judgement day, they'd already taken care of the essential evidence.

I've visited the pyramids twice now, in 2001 while travelling and in 2006 while on a work trip, so have a fairly good idea what to expect - three huge, no-nonsense pyramids of sandstone from the 26th Century BC. The pyramids aren't perfect - the encroachment of Cairo's suburbs do it no favours whatsoever, as well as the tacky commercial development. But look away from the KFC and the Pizza Hut and stare into the desert as the sun sets, and none of that matters. It's out of sight, and all you can see are three massive man-made mountains.

The pyramids of Giza will not be assessed against the other Wonder candidates on my list. I could give all kinds of reasons, but it all boils down the fact that they're already on a list, of the original Seven Wonders. I'm not rewriting that list as it stands forever. My list is a sequel, a World Wonders part 2, done in the ancient spirit of selecting the seven best man-made sights to see. It's a given that anything on the original list remains worth seeing, even if, sadly, the pyramids are all that remains. But naturally, no tour of World Wonders could possibly be without them. They are the granddaddy of Wonders.

I'll be visiting the pyramids either at the very end of this year or the beginning of next, and will give a fuller account of them and their history, as well as my own opinions.

“Ancient Egyptian for Dummies” Charlotte Booth
“The Complete Pyramids” Mark Lehner
NOVA Online
"Egypt" Joyce Tyldesley
"The Pyramids and Sphinx" Desmond Stewart


  1. Fascinating stuff. But I don't understand why you're not assessing them against the others - does it not deserve to be included in your final seven? Is it a shoe-in? Surely if it is a candidate it should stand against the same criteria as the others, even if the result can be easily predicted.

  2. It's because it's already part of a list, the Ancient Wonders one, and I'm putting together the sequel to that list. Also, it's the elder statesmen of Wonders, and has a proven record for thousands of years. All the other candidates on my list have never been World Wonders - they are fighting it out among each other to get into the new list. The pyramids already are a Wonder, and therefore are set apart from this new list.

  3. A bit like Brazil winning the World Cup for the third time in 1970, they got to keep the original trophy for ever (until it got stolen for ever, of course).

    I agree that the pyramids of Giza should not be in the running for a new set of seven wonders, for the reasons Nev 360 said above. Also, when the original list was compiled in Antiquity, impressive structures such as this (and the other six) were few and far between. Nowadays, as this blog shows, the number of possible contenders is much greater.

    Going back to the Brazil analogy above, it would be like saying "Well Brazil, you had a really good side in 1970, what with the likes of Pelé, Rivelino and Jairzeno, let's see if that same team of old timers can win again in 2014".

    Although perhaps analogies aren't my strong point, having said that, as I'm pretty sure the pyramids would still be strong contenders today.


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