Pyramids: sepulchres of the Pharaohs

Table of contents for An Egyptian Diary

  1. Cairo, the city of a thousand minarets

I kicked off my tour of the pyramids with Saqqara, a place 20 kilometres south of Cairo, where the first Egyptian pyramid was built. Saqqara was a necropolis attached to Memphis, the ancient capital, where a number of pharaohs and aristocrats were buried.  Prior to the 27th century, the burial chambers were located in underground crypts over which mastabas (flat, rectangular platforms with sloping sides) were built. The first ever Pyramid built for interring the mortal remains of a Pharaoh was built for Zoser (also spelt Djoser) in ~ 2650 BC.  To put its antiquity in perspective, this Pyramid was over 2,000 years old when the Buddha was born.

Built in the 27th century BC, Zoser's Step Pyramid, built by Imhotep, is the oldest known stone building complex. It is 62 metres (203 feet) high and 125 metres wide at the base


Zoser's funerary complex in Saqqara, where rituals were performed for the dead. The doorway seen above is the only real door through which entry is possible. All other doors are false, meant for disembodied spirits.

A colonnade inside the funerary complex. The columns were fluted to look like bunches of papyrus reeds.

The architect of the Step Pyramid was a remarkable polymath called Imhotep, who was elevated to divine status 2,000 years after he died.  In addition to being the high priest and grand vizier, he was the father of Egyptian medicine and an outstanding architect, probably the first to use columns to support structures.  To construct this pyramid, Imhotep stacked a series of six, progressively smaller mastabas to form the step pyramid. It is the first stone building complex in history. Under the step pyramid is a labyrinth of tunnels  almost 6 km long. In addition to royal tombs, the space is used for storage of goods and ritual offerings.

There is also a huge funerary complex with stone columns which were carved to look like a bunch of papyrus reeds. Other architectural innovations are false arches, stones carved to mimic wooden beams, fluted columns, etc. The entrance to the complex has 15 doors, but all but one of them are false, in the sense that they are carved to look like doors but are actually walls. These false doors were meant for the use of the spirits of the dead royals.

The Ancient capital of Egypt. Memphis, is located nearby. Centuries of plunder and neglect have ensured that little remains today of what was once a magnificent city. Later on, villagers sourced building materials from these ruins. A grand temple to the deity Ptah (Aegyptos in Greek) which gave Egypt its name does not exist any more; the site of this temple is today an open-air museum.

An alabaster Sphinx is one of the few to survive the pillage of centuries.  A number of artifacts excavated here are on display in the open.

The 3,500-year-old Alabaster Sphinx in Memphis. It weighs 90 tons and got severely corroded as it was lying on its side in water for centuries. The face is probably that of Hatshepsut, the only woman ever to become a Pharaoh. In the background, one can see a number of stalls selling souvenirs

Two massive colossi of Ramesses II were unearthed  here. One was kept on display in Cairo at an important square and has since been relocated to Giza for display outside the upcoming Great Egyptian Museum. The lower half of the other statue was found in a damaged state and a museum has been built around it.

A museum was built around this colossus of Rameses II. The lower portion of this statue is damaged hence it was left lying on the ground.

We skipped a planned visit to nearby Dahshur, famous for  its bent pyramid and opted to go to a restaurant. After a quick lunch, we set out for Giza, a limestone plateau located on the west bank of Nile. The ancient Egyptians believed that the region of the setting sun was the realm of the dead and hence, this site was chosen for building their grand sepulchres. The pyramidal shape is thought to be representative of  the primordial mound  from which the ancient Egyptians believed the earth was created.

The 142 metre high Khafre Pyramid (on the left) and the 147 metre high Great Pyramid of Khufu were the tallest man-made structures in the world for over 38 centuries till the 160 metre Lincoln Cathedral in UK was completed in 1311.

 The famous Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which, at about 480 feet, was the tallest building on earth for over 38 centuries, is visible from afar as it dominates the landscape around it.  Beside it  is the equally impressive Khafre (Cephren) Pyramid, built for his son and successor, Khafre. It has steeper sides and was built  at a higher elevation and hence, looks taller but it is actually about 5 metres shorter than the Great Pyramid.

My first camel ride at the base of the Great Pyramid. The smile is misleading, I was absolutely petrified.

A close up of the Great Pyramid. 130,000 limestone blocks were used, each weighing anywhere between 2 to 15 tons

It took 400,00 men twenty years to build the Khufu Pyramid using  5.5 million tons of limestone, 8,000 tons of granite, and 500,000 tons of mortar. The four sides align perfectly with the four cardinal points and the pyramid’s base is spread over 13 acres. Truly mind-boggling figures, even more so, when one considers that these projects were taken up over 4,000 years ago.

The sides of the Pyramids were originally clad with highly polished white limestone slabs and were topped by gold-plated capstones called pyramidions which picked up the first rays of the sun and these rays reflected off the cladding to make the entire pyramid glow with solar luminescence. The shape of the pyramid was considered to be symbolic of the descent of the sun’s rays to the earth.

To the south-west of the Pyramids of Khufu and his son Khafre, there is the much smaller 66 metre high pyramid for Menkaure, the son of Khafre. These three pyramids have been spatially oriented to match the alignment of the three stars that form the Orion constellation.

The pyramids were stripped of their cladding during the middle ages to build mosques and other buildings. There were several attempts to demolish these monuments by iconoclastic rulers as they were seen as symbols of idol worship, but thankfully, all these attempts were unsuccessful. They found that it was as difficult to destroy the Pyramids as it was for the Pharaohs to build them.

The north facing Great Sphinx is the largest monolithic statue in the world

The Great Sphinx of Giza is the largest monolithic statue in the world 240 feet long and 66 feet high. Its origin is disputed but the consensus is that it was probably built by Khafre, whose pyramid is situated behind the Sphinx.  Over the millennia, it has been subjected to severe corrosion by the elements and mindless vandalism by humans. Religious fanatics have destroyed its nose and beard and soldiers are rumoured to have used it for target practice.

Advice for those planning to tour these places:

  • The pyramids are open from 8 AM to 5 PM though in winter, they close half an hour earlier.
  • Climbing the pyramids is illegal. However, one can climb up the stone steps leading to the entrance  of the Khufu Pyramid which is  about 50 feet above the base.
  • The entry fee is EGP 60 but entry fees are levied for visiting other places of interest within the complex; for example, the entry fee for going inside the Great Pyramid is EGP 100. (EGP stands for Egyptian Pounds, also mentioned as LE which is Livre Egyptienne). The Egyptians refer to it as Ginni (Guinea).
  • The best time to visit is in the morning. It can get very hot as the day progresses.
  •  Do not buy anything from vendors here. The same souvenirs are available in Cairo for a much lower price.
  • Ensure that you wear comfortable shoes, a cap or a hat, sunglasses and carry a flask of cold water with you. Also keep a pack of wet wipes handy. It can get awfully hot out there and there aren’t too many shady places to retreat to.

 At the end of the day I was really tired but it  was an absolutely amazing and unforgettable experience. I felt blessed and privileged to have walked on these ancient sands in the shadows of these magnificent monuments, the remnants left behind by of one of mankind’s earliest and most glorious civilisations. It was the high point of my Egyptian tour, a dream come true.

10 Comments

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    Thanks for your kind words, Ashok and Nandan.

    There’s an interesting story behind the camel pic. There was this Arab showing off on his camel and I was trying to frame him against the backdrop of the pyramids when he stopped alongside me and pffered to lend me his camel. I politely demurred saying I prefer shooting to riding camels.

    That guy refused to take no for an answer; he tied his ghatra (head cloth) around my head and said, “For you, 5 Egyptian Pounds”. Reluctantly, I got on top of the camel and this guy said something to his camel and that damned critter started bucking about. It was really scary, mainly because the camel is not only tall but it has a very ungainly gait and the rocking motion is not side to side but front to back. It puts a severe strain on the back.

    After that guy clicked me with the camel (and cutting off its head in the process) he said, “Gimme 5 dollars”. I said 5 EGP and then guy said you said 5 dollars, while ignoring my outstretched hand pleading for the return of my camera. I parted with 5 USD and got my camera back in return. A small ransom to pay for the return of a kidnapped camera, lol. And of course, a pic which proves that not only did I see the Great Pyramid of Cheops but also rode a camel beside it.

  • Nandan says:

    Wonderful account of a place which definitely deserves much more than what it is attracting today.

    And thank you for sharing the pic of camel :-)

  • ashok sharma says:

    good post,very good pics.

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    Thanks Shubham and Naveena

    Egypt indeed is a fascinating place. There are so many places to see and things to do. I have just skimmed the surface.

  • Naveena Israni says:

    I continue to be fascinated by the place with each successive post of yours… am really spell bound by its beauty & marvellous treasures! Waiting for more…

    Regards,
    Naveena

  • Shubham says:

    Dear Sir, A wonderful post with excellent pics.
    Regards,

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    Thanks Silentsoul, Gaurav and Ved.

    SSjee, the sphinx is a monolithic statue carved out of limestone. It is solid and has no spaces carved into it.

    Ved, actors are professionals who are supposed to act. So even if it is 50 degrees celsius out there, they should behave as if they were romancing in the cool climes of Shimla or Ooty. My guess is that it was shot early in the morning when the weather is pleasant and the lighting does not cast harsh shadows. Most importantly, the shooting must end before 8 AM when the pyramids open for tourists. In these days of computer wizardry, however, anything is possible. The actors can act in front of a blue screen and then they can be superimposed on shots taken on location.

  • toddler ved says:

    Nice post and beautiful pics too and thnx for the detailed information on the pyramids… Your this post compelled me on wondering the endurance put forth by Katrina Kaif and Akshay Kumar in braving boisterous hot there and how natural was the result on the screen viz. the song Teri Ore.. teri ore..(singh is king) as if they are at some hill station..

  • Gaurav says:

    WOW !!

    Superb Post !!

  • Silentsoul says:

    B’ful fotos… specially on camel with Pyramid in background! Can we go inside sphinx also or it is a solid rock ?

    thanks for sharing

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