The pyramids at Giza are just a stone’s throw from the chaos and hustle of the busy metropolis of Cairo and all its craziness. Luckily my room at the Oberoi Mena House Hotel has a verandah where I enjoy cups of tea while gazing in awe at the Great Pyramid which is just a few hundred meters away. This, and five other nearby pyramids stand as testament to amazing human endeavor and the powerful belief in preparing for the afterlife. The Oberoi Mena House hotel was built in the mid-1800s as a pleasure ground for royalty, the rich, and the politically influential. Nowadays, it appears just anybody can get a room here – including me.
The Great Pyramid dominates the skyline at 138 meters and is the tallest of the six pyramids at Giza. It took tens of thousands of men to build over a period of 23 years for the pharaoh Khufu (aka Cheops). They used 2,300,000 building blocks, weighing an average of 2.5 tons each (although some weigh as much as 16 tons). Up to about 600 years ago, beautiful smooth blocks known as “casing stones” covered the entire exterior of the pyramid, encasing the whole structure, before the Arabs began to tear the stones off and recycle them for other uses. The ancient writer, Strabo, said: “It seemed like a building let down from heaven, untouched by human hands.” It has been calculated that the original pyramid with its casing stones would act like gigantic mirrors and reflect a light so powerful, that it would be visible from the moon as a shining star on earth. At present, only a few of these stones are left in position on the apex of the second pyramid.
At Giza, you can also see the wonderful Sphinx crouching on his paws and gazing off to the distance and wondering if the British Museum will eventually return his beard to him. Standing 20 meters high and 72 meters long, the half-man, half-lion colossus of stone was sculpted 4,500 years ago. It was almost lost beneath the desert sands of Egypt as the desert winds piled sand upon him. Many a traveler and explorer paused on their journey to rest in the shadows of the sphinx and did not know what lay underneath its covering of sand. However, today he is fully uncovered and you can walk around him and marvel at his handsome solemn face.
As a precursor to the great pyramids at Giza, in 2611 B.C. the first pyramid was completed, this being the stepped pyramid of Saqqara. It rises in six stepped layers and stood 62 meters high. It was the largest building of its time and a marvel of its day. Up until then, buildings had been constructed out of mud bricks. Imhotep, the architect was also a physician, priest, and founder of a cult of healing and was deified 1,400 years after his lifetime. Not only did he work out how to quarry stone, but he built a magnificent complex that includes several tombs, a remarkable colonnade of columns, and several other smaller pyramids and ceremonial courtyards.
In the tomb of Ptah-Hotep – an important high priest and nobleman of his day, the wall decorations are stupendous. In this tiny room, there are the most wonderful depictions in raised relief on lime plaster of everyday life. It is awe-inspiring that the artist’s skilled carvng brings to life scenes with amazing detail and movement of the figures. There are scenes depicting hunting, fishing, dancing, farming, exercise, personal care (even the ancients had time for a manicure and a pedicure), scenes with birds, fish, animals of all descriptions, flowers, insects, trees and all aspects of fauna and flora of the day. Standing there, I was dumbstruck that these carved reliefs are as crisp and as beautiful, if not a little faded, as when they were created 4,500 years ago.
The first true straight sided pyramids ever built are in Dashur. During the construction of the first pyramid things did not quite go according to plan. As the pyramid grew taller, the architect realized that the base was too small for the height and so had to correct the height by slightly rounding the sides and making it smaller. His second attempt was a triumph! It was the first true straight sided pyramid ever built and has been the inspiration for Pharaohs for many generations after.
What a different city Luxor is compared to Cario; the traffic is manageable, the streets are wide and clean, the standard of housing seems vastly better, there are trees and green grass, and the view across the Nile is to lush fields and plantations. However, the drivers are still addicted to their car horns and so there is a constant cacophony of hooting, honking and general car mania in the streets.
How many times can one express the surprise, pleasure and amazement when in Egypt? Every place I visit I cannot help uttering; Wow!, Oh my God!, Amazing! and other breathy phases of wonder. Luxor Temple is one of these places and is not to be missed.
Built in the 8th Dynasty around 1550 BC, this complex boasts some extraordinary buildings of its day including large dramatic columns, a fantastic obelisk (one that escaped Napoleon’s pillaging) and detailed wall decorations. As the centuries passed successive conquering forces made their impression on this place. There are traces of early Christians who left their imprint of a wall fresco and an alcove with an altar. Then later, Islam arrived and a mosque now sits on top of the Christian artefacts.
Even though the beauty of this temple ranks up there with the best, it is surpassed by the vast and super dramatic Temple of Karnack just down the road. Karnack is not a place for collective worship, but rather a house of the gods; only the temple’s priests and the high nobility were allowed to enter the inner sanctums. This is an astonishingly huge complex of temples, courtyards and a variety of buildings which date back to 3200 BC. It is amazing for the fact alone, that approximately thirty pharaohs contributed to the buildings, enabling the site to reach a size, complexity, and diversity not seen elsewhere. Few of the individual features of Karnak are unique, but the size and number of features is overwhelming. The deities represented range from some of the earliest worshiped to those worshiped much later in the history of the Ancient Egyptian culture.
One famous aspect of Karnak, is the Hypostyle Hall in the Precinct of Amun-Re, a hall area of 50,000 sq ft (5,000 m2) with 134 massive columns arranged in 16 rows. 122 of these columns are 10 meters tall, and the other 12 are 21 meters tall with a diameter of over three meters. These glorious columns are all heavily carved with scenes; of the King of the day paying homage to a variety of gods; scenes of gods giving the king the benefit of their deity such as wisdom, strength, sexual prowess etc. The colums are topped with capitols in the shape of papyrus or lotus flowers. They are abundantly decorated in hieroglyphics telling stories of the King’s ascendancy, conquests and battles, and his importance and wealth.
In some places, which are not exposed to the weather and the sun, you can see the vivid colours that these walls and columns were once painted. Using colours derived from minerals such as: black from charcoal or soot, white from crushed animal bones, red from the crushed bodies of female scale insects (carmine) or red ochre, blue from Lapis lazuli, and green from malachite. With this limited palette the artisans created a wondrous spectacle that only the king and the high priest ever saw.
Adding to the artistic endeavors successive Kings added to the Temple of Karnak by initiating various works and additions to be completed, such as, a small limestone sphinx from Tutenkhamun. The most impressive addition, is an obelisk erected by Queen Hatshepsut (1473 -1458 BC). It is 97 feet tall and weighs approximately 320 tons (some sources say 700 tons). An inscription at its base indicates that the work of cutting the monolith out of the quarry required seven months of labour. Hatshepsut raised four obelisks at Karnak, only one of which still stands. The Egyptian obelisks were always carved from single pieces of stone, usually pink granite from the distant quarries at Aswan, but exactly how they were transported hundreds of miles and then erected without equipment, such as block and tackle, remains a mystery. This was a gigantic engineering feet commissioned by an amazing woman.
More of her story in the next blog – The Queen Who Became a King…..