Friday, March 24, 2006

The Pyramids of Egypt

Headed South from Cairo to Saqqara, site of the world's oldest stone monument - the Step Pyramid of Zoser (2650BC). Whilst the finished article is a full 60m tall, the canny architect (the legendary and later deified Imhotep) built it up in stages as a series of mastabas layered on top of one another, building confidence and skill in masonry as he went. Each layer brought the pharaoh one step closer to the sun god (and raised Imhotep one step higher in the pharaoh's esteem). And so evolved the pyramid from the basic (cuboid), single-level mastaba.

Around Zoser's pyramid is a scattering of other temples and pyramids, mainly dating from after the famous pyramids of Giza. In the distance, to the south, you can also see the Bent and Red Pyramids of Sneferu. The Bent Pyramid changes angle halfway up (they found that they started too steep). The Red Pyramid uses this shallower angle for its entire height and is the world's oldest true pyramid and Sneferu's final resting place.

In Giza itself are the pyramids of Sneferu's son, grandson and great grandson - Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. Personally I find these pyramids paradoxically equally impressive and disappointing. Disappointing (visually) because, although massive, they are drab. The interior and exterior is plain, lacking carving or detail to catch the eye and hold interest. The pyramid shape also means that they lean away from you, making them appear much shorter than they really are - I don't really get an overwhelming impression of size when standing at their base, even though they are gigantic.

But they are impressive too. So incredibly impressive. The scale, precision and organisation required to build these is mond boggling - and they are so old. The Great Pyramid of Khufu was 146m high when completed and remained the world's tallest building for more than 4000 years, until Eiffel's Tower was raised in Paris. It is reckoned that it took 100,000 men 20 years to build the Great Pyramid (working only 3 months a year, whilst the Nile was flooded), so it alone represents 500,000 man-years of labour. It is worth re-iterating the current theory that the pyramids were NOT built by slaves. Rather they were one of the world's oldest job creation schemes, designed in part to provide employment for farmers during the annual inundation.

And how did they manipulate the blocks? More than two million of them, weighing an average of 2.5t each. The largest slabs (used in the roof of the burial chamber) weigh FOUR HUNDRED tonnes. And this before even pulleys were invented.

The Step Pyramid of Saqqara. Generally accepted as being the world's first monument built of stone. Nice to see that they started small and worked their way up to bigger things!

Perhaps Tolkien's dwarfs were inspired by a little ancient Egyptian history? In the land of the Pharaohs, dwarfs were the goldsmiths and treasurers - our guide thinks it was because they could not run away very fast on their little legs.

Sunset at the Giza Pyramids. The Great Pyramid is on the far right. The photo was taken about 30 minutes before watching the sound and light show, which has dialogue to die (laughing) for.

For more photos of the pyramids, take a look at my flickr galleries:
Saqqara Step Pyramid and Surrounds
The Pyramids of Giza


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