The Nile River and our Tosca (riverboat) had been left behind and we started on the last sites of Cairo for our trip. We had seen the Pyramids and Sphinx during the previous night’s light and sound show, but this was the day! We had waited a long time for these sites. But it also meant our wonderful tour was coming to an end. We made some special friendships and would miss the conversations. It was nice to not be a foursome for a few days! I know we will see Bonnie, Stu, and Robin again at some point.
But first…a quick review of Egyptian history with one or two highlights from several of the periods. Note….this is not an inclusive of Ancient Egypt, but to provide some context to the sites in Memphis and Giza.
Two separate kingdoms existed within Egypt and would later be united by King Menses
Early Dynastic Period
King Menes founds City of White Walls (AKA Memphis) in 2925 BC. Menes united upper and lower Egypt into one kingdom.
Old Kingdom: The Age of the Pyramid Builders
Around 2630 BC, King Djoser (third dynasty) asked Imhotep to design a funerary monument for him. The result was the first major stone building (Step-Pyramid at Sakkra). Pyramid building reaches its peak with the Great Pyramid at Giza during the 4th Dynasty and continues until the 6th dynasty.
The Ramesside period (a line of kings named Ramses) occurred in the 19th and 20th Dynasty. During this period, there was strengthening of the empire and large amount of building (including great temples). The New Kingdom rulers (except Akhenaton) were buried in the Valley of Kings in tombs.
Now for the details of our day!
Memphis was one of the capitals of ancient Egypt during the Old Kingdom era. It is about 15 miles south of Cairo. It was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979. However, very little of the past splendor of Memphis has survived but excavation has continued for nearly 200 years. The ancient name of Memphis was Min-Nefer which was turned into Memphis by the Greeks.
There is an open air museum with several artifacts. The highlight was a statue of Ramses II from limestone measuring 33.8 ft tall (even without feet). One side of the statue is extremely well-preserved since it was laying face-down in a swamp area until discovered in 1820. The fallen colossus was found near the south gate of the temple of Ptah. It is protected until a shelter with two levels for viewing. The British Museum lays claim to this artifact; but it can’t be moved due to the size and weight so it remains in Memphis.
There is also a sphinx carved from a single piece of alabaster weighing over 80 tons which stood outside the temple of the God Ptah.
There are also remains of granite statues, Ramses II statue, and granite coffins and commemorative tablets from later periods.
Sakkara (Named for the Memphite god of the Dead)
Sakkara is a huge cemetery for ancient Memphis covering about 7 km and we explored a tiny portion of it. It was an active burial ground for more than 3500 years and is Egypt’s largest archaeological site. It served as the resting place for pharaohs, their families, high officials, and military leaders. Most of Sakkarra (except the Bent Pyramid) was buried until its discovery in the mid-19th century.
King Djoser (the second king of the 3rd dynasty) asked Imhotep to build him a pyramid for his burial. And the Egyptian Pyramids began!
The Step Pyramid was the first important stone building in Egypt; previous buildings had used mud-brick. It is 60 m high and surrounded by a vast funerary complex surrounded by a 1645 m long and 10 m high paneled limestone wall. The entrance leads you to a colonnade that has 40 columns. There are several niches between the columns that originally housed statues of Djoser. Previously, royal tombs were mud-brick mastabas (first and second dynasty) which Imhotep incorporated into the pyramid. He stacked several mastabas together to form the shape of a pyramid.
There are remains of several other unfinished or badly destroyed pyramids dating from the Pharaonic and Greek Periods that are seen around this area.
Funerary Complex of King Unas
The last king of the 5th Dynasty, King Unas, built his pyramid complex at Sakkara. The complex has a main pyramid, a mortuary temple, and a small satellite pyramid. It is remarkable for the Pyramid Text that appear on its walls. It is the first pyramid to have contained inscriptions. The spells/incantations are to help the King survive the afterlife. We had seen a lot of hieroglyphics by this point, but these were some of the best for clarity and color. Very little is left of the complex; it appears as a pile of rubble next to the Step Pyramid.
Sneferus’s Pyramids (we did not tour these pyramids)
Sneferu was a 4th dynasty king and the first to create the pyramid shape; unlike the stacked mastabas. He built three but only one was successful.
Medum Pyramid was started as a step pyramid and then modified into a pyramid but the limestone blocks began to slip and it was abandoned.
The Bent Pyramid was his second attempt. The Bent Pyramid acquired its form since the upper part has a different angle than the lower part. The Bent Pyramid was never used. We were able to see the Bent Pyramid in the distance while at the Step Pyramid. The Bent Pyramid can be seen in the distance in the photo below.
His third attempt was started about a mile away and is known as the Red Pyramid and is the first successful true pyramid. Red limestone blocks were used giving it the name. Khufu (his son) went on to build the Pyramids of Giza.
Pyramids of Giza (Great Pyramid, Khafra Pyramid, Menkaura Pyramid), built between 2589 – 2504 BC.
Great Pyramid (Khufu’s Pyramid)- all the good details are below! The Great Pyramid is not a lone structure but it is the centerpiece of the complex (several small pyramids, boat pits, mortuary temple, causeway, valley temple, and many flat-roofed tombs).
Khafra Pyramid– It is an optical illusion that is taller than the Great Pyramid since it was built on higher ground. Its height was 447.5 feet. Some of the original limestone casing still remains. Khafre also built the Great Sphinx as part of this pyramid complex.
Menkaura Pyramid– Khafre’s son, Menkaura, built the third pyramid at Giza with a height of 228 feet. The lower layers are built from Answan red granite and the upper layers are made from white limestone.
Here are some facts that show the true astonishment of this structure.
1- The Great Pyramid is estimated to have around 2,300,000 stone blocks weighing 2 to 30 tons each; some of the stone came from Answan which is 525 miles upriver.
2- The only way the earth’s surface can endure the massive weight of the pyramid is if there is a solid mountain made solely of rock lies beneath. Beneath the pyramid, is a solid flat mountain of granite.
3- The Great Pyramid sits on top of center of Earth’s geographical center. The east-west axis of the pyramid corresponds to earth’s longest land parallel as it passes through Asia, Africa and America. On the other end, earth’s longest land meridian (passing through Antarctica, Europa, Africa and Asia) runs directly through the pyramid. The Great Pyramid is actually the place where the parallel and meridian intersects each other.
4- The Great Pyramid was originally covered with casing stones (made of highly polished limestone). It has been calculated that the original pyramid with its casing stones would have reflected light so powerful that it would be visible from the moon as a shining star on earth.
5- The red granite coffer in the “King’s Chamber” is too big to fit through the passages and so it must have been put in place during construction.
6- It took approximately 20 years to build the pyramid which has three burial chambers. The original height in 2550 BC was almost 481 feet tall however due to erosion is stands at 455 feet.
7- The Great Pyramid is the oldest of all Seven Wonders of the World and the only work that has survived into modernity.
8- The Great Pyramid once had a swivel door at the entrance weighing about 20 tons. The door could easily be opened from the inside but had a hidden exterior. There are only two other pyramids known to have had swivel doors. One was Khufu’s father’s pyramid and the other was his grandfather’s pyramid.
9- The mortar that was used to build the pyramid cannot be reproduced today. It is stronger than the stone that was used to build the pyramid and is still in place today.
10- The Great Pyramid’s base is a perfect square and each side of the square measuring 756 feet. The base spans over 13 acres of land and is big enough to accommodate nearly 10 football fields.
Great Sphinx of Giza
This massive sculpture is a recumbent lion with the head of a king carved out of limestone. It was likely commissioned by King Khafre. It is believed that as Khafre’s Pyramid complex was built, a large piece of limestone was discovered. The sculpture is one piece of limestone! It measures 240 feet long and 66 feet high. Much of the body has suffered erosion; most notably the nose is missing. The scale of this statue is breathtaking. The statue was buried for thousands of years; attempts to “reveal” the statue starting in 1817. The exact purpose of the sculpture is not known.
Fun photo gallery of the day!
Websites that I found informative (with links) Discovery Egypt, Smithosian, History.com. There are also several apps for tablets/phones that I wish we had discovered before our tour started; I think it would have helped E&S on the sites. Look at these websites: iphoneness; Discover Egypt; Kids Discover; Various apps.
And that’s Egypt!
The pyramids were simply breathtaking. But the amount of harassment at the pyramids nearly ruined the magic of the day. We were accustomed to vendors pushing goods from other sites. We knew that every site had an exit that went though a market or a street with vendors. We were used to vendors following us to the bus and yelling, “Please miss, just one dollar for postcard/scarf/statue; but the vendors at the pyramid were at a different level. They followed you everywhere! Everywhere you looked, someone was trying to sell you a camel picture, a camel ride, a horse ride. Everyone wanted money to take a picture for you, to tell you historical details. If you were polite and said, “No, thank you”, you only encouraged them.
Egypt was a wonderful experience. Cairo was a chaotic city but our time on the Nile was tranquil. We had some great views while on the boat. The sites were each amazing for differing reasons. I have wanted to visit this country for such a long time and I glad we came. However, I don’t see a repeat visit in my future.