Febuary 06 2008
Base: Windsor Hotel, Cairo
Site: Giza Pleateu, Giza.
The Pyramids. Everyone has to do them, and I’m no exception. Khufu’s pyramid is very big. Khufu’s pyramid is very old. Khufu’s pyramid was/is NOT:
The Giza plateau is, however, about more than Khufu’s pyramid, undeniably awe inspiring though it, and the others, are. There are a vast number of other things of interest on the plateau, and it was to be the valley temple of Khafra that was the main focus of my attentions.
Somewhat overlooked by most visitors to the site, the Temple of Khafa is hidden in plain sight. In front and to one side of the Great Sphinx, the massive, austere all-granite structure is entirely undecorated, but the huge blocks are beautifully finished, and the whole structure interlocks rather like a giant three dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
Originally, the dark innards of the angular building, with it’s unadorned square granite columns, housed 23 statues of Khafra, some of which are now on display in the Cairo Museum. Finished in greenish white veined Diorite (an incredibly hard stone that polishes beautifully) one of those on display is considered one of the finest examples of Egyptian sculpture. Khafra sits in the traditional pose with Horus as a falcon stretching his wings behind his head. A perfect blend of the human and divine aspects. Combined with the granite of the building itself, it must have been a true sight to behold. Alas, all the statuary has now been removed, and only limited access to the temple is allowed – to the main pillared hall (which would originally have been roofed) and the exit to the pyramid causeway. The building was built with a great emphasis on symbolism, particularly in the colour and choice of stone, the use of indoor and outdoor spaces, and the number of statues (23, including a wide central bay for one of them, implying a relationship with the hours of the day) and columns. However since there are no inscriptions left to us, it’s ultimately a matter of speculation.
Either way, this is the best preserved of all the valley temples, and although it can get unbearably crowded, with tour groups being whisked through in a matter of minutes on their way to the sphinx and Khufu’s pyramid, it still has an atmosphere that leaves no doubt as to what this temple represented.
From the temple you can no longer follow the causeway up to the plateau as the way is barred in an ongoing (and undeniably worthy, if perhaps optimistic) attempt to keep out the insane number of touts that descend on the site. The fence here is part of an elaborate network of tall walls, cameras and fences erected to keep both land encroachment and trespassing at bay. Despite these valiant and commendable attempts by the SCA to impose order, the site is still heavily populated by touts and it can get wearying. This is something all the busier sites suffer from, to varying degrees, and is indicative of the ongoing issues the SCA faces in protecting these sites.
From the Temple of Khafra, therefore, all that can really be seen directly from the accessible section of the causeway is the Great Sphinx. The largest of all the sphinx statues, at various points in history this mindbogglingly ambitious work of sculpture was the subject of it’s own religious following, and two temples to the statue were built, in the Old Kingdom, and a later New Kingdom structure. The remains of both are not extensive, and the temples were, by Egyptian standards, quite modest, and difficult to access, being periodically closed. Exactly who built the Sphinx and quite why, is unknown. The only known inscription on the sphinx itself is the Dream Stela of Thutmose IV, declaring that whilst he slept in the shadow of the Sphinx as a young prince, the divine aspect of the statue spoke to him, announcing that he would be crowned Pharaoh if he freed it from the accumulated sand that surrounded it. He did indeed become Pharaoh and he did indeed clear the sand, for the stela now stands between the paws of said Sphinx.
The stela (not accessible close up) relates how Thutmose was hunting and target shooting in the deserts around Ineb-Hadj (Memphis) and stopped to rest his retinue (for Thutmose, naturally, did not need rest!) and recieved his vision.
“…One of those days, it so happened that prince Thutmose came, passing by at the time of midday and he sat down in the shadow of this Great God. Sleep seized him, a sleep at the time when the sun was at the zenith, and he found the Majesty of this noble god speaking with his own mouth, like the words of a father for his son, saying: “Look at me, see me, my son Thutmose. I am your father, Harmakhis-Khepri-Atum, and I shall give you the kingship on earth, in front of all the living ones. You shall wear the White and the Red Crowns upon the throne of Geb, the hereditary prince. The earth shall be yours in its length and width, (everything) that the Eye of the Lord-of-All illuminates. The food of the Two Lands shall be yours, (as well as) the great tributes of every foreign land, (your) lifetime will be a time, great in years. My face is yours, my heart is yours as you are a protector to me, for my (current) condition is like one that is in need, all my limbs (as if they were) dismembered as the sands of the desert upon which I lie have reached me. So run to me, to have that done which I desire, knowing that you are my son and my protector. Come forth, and I shall be with you, I shall be your leader…”
Translation of part of main panel of Thutmose IV “Dream Stela” at the Great Sphinx, Giza.
Thutmose IV, as it happened, had an elder brother who was in fact heir to the Horus Throne, and it is quite feasible that this stela was erected once Thutmose IV was on the throne in order to bolster the legitimacy of his position, since it is almost certain that much jockeying for position had taken place between the princes. The claim made here of a divine revelation in a dream telling the future ruler directly that he would rule in return for an act such as this, is unusual in Egyptian political history. Most claims to legitimacy in the New Kingdom, where there was reason for doubt (such as in the case of Hatshepsut) were made through the idea of the claimant being the son of Amun. Also his invocation, not of Amun, but of Harmakhis-Khepri-Atum is significant, indicating a shift away from the cult of Amun towards the solar gods. Amunhotep III, his successor, would continue this subtle trend, whilst his son would take the trend to a whole new level of quasi-monothestic fanatacism.
The Sphinx itself, as it exists today, is significantly restored from that found by Napoleon and his expedition, which apparently found the statue buried up to the neck in accumulated sand and damaged by time and the hand of man. Contrary to popular myth, it was not his men who destroyed the nose. Their illustrations show the nose to have already been missing. The beard also is now missing, along with portions of the Nemes head-dress (now partially restored).
The Sphinx has a history of restorations going back to the New Kingdom, with work carried out to restore it’s splendour by Thutmose IV, Ramesses II, the 26th Dynasty Pharaohs in the Archaic Revival period, along with the Romans, who began the practise of performing plays in front of it, whilst several 20th century restoration efforts eventually led to the current appearance, and the return of the plays, in the form of sound and light shows.
From the Sphinx I headed back though Khafra’s valley temple, and up the modern approach road to the plateau itself. As you approach either the pyramids of Khufu or Kharfa it is easy to fail to appreciate the scale of these structures, not only their height but their sheer mass. The nearer one approaches, the more the size of the structures conspire to hide their height. Khufu’s simply towering away in an endless mass of stone in every direction. It is from inside the museum of the solar barque that you really appreciate it most, where standing on the upper level, looking out the glass wall, all one can see is mass of stone in front of you, completely blocking all else. Only then does the scale of the structure really begin to hit home.
No one knows the exact mechanics of how this most awe inspiring of structures was built, though it was with some arrangement of ramps (probabaly straight) using sledges and levers to manoeuvre the blocks. As a quick side note, although it is often said this is because the Egyptians had no knowledge of the wheel, it should also be pointed out that this was not purely a lack of know-how. The pyramids lay beyond the fertile zone, in an area with soft sand. When hauling large and heavy objects across this surface, a sledge has been shown to be the most efficient means of moving them. Like in a snow, wheels under heavy load will simply sink and dig themselves into the sand. A lubricated sledge is more efficient for this kind of work, and was used by the Egyptians for moving heavy loads like colossi and large blocks from their quarries long after they began producing wheeled vehicles for other tasks.
Although not to my own eye the most perfect or beautiful of the pyramids (that honour falls to Khufu’s predecessor, Snefru, and his Red Pyramid) the organisation, scale and ambition of the operation is impossible to deny. Most people are now aware that these structures were not built by slaves, nor purely by ignorant labourers. The engineering and design involved was both sophisticated, methodical and highly accurate. Overall, the pyramid of Khufu is accurate to an error factor of 1 / 1000, whilst individual finished blocks are accurate to 1/50th of an inch. Whilst not demanding of alien space lasers or anything of that ilk, it id demand highly skilled architects and craftsmen to direct organised work groups of stone cutters, surveyors and scribes, as well as general labourers. It was, like the other pyramids before it, but on an even more ambitious scale, a true mega-project, and what we see now in the pyramid itself was merely the centre piece of an entire town, both for the workers who built it (and their support staff – cooks, metalsmiths, barbers, doctors, priests, security, administration and accounting, mining and quarrying, logistics and so on) , and for the permanent priesthood and general workers of the sprawling necropolis as a whole, with it’s valley and pyramid temples, estates, tombs of lesser royals and their chapels, and the mastabas of the nobility. Put simply, there was nothing like it anywhere in the world.
The decent into Khufu’s pyramid is hot, steep, cramped and insanely crowded, not to mention expensive. Although it may be something people wish to do simply to say they have, I did this once in my childhood, so saw no need to disturb the burial chamber again. It is, for those who are unaware, completely bare on the inside, and the connecting passages inside the structure are incredibly low and narrow, and not recommended for anyone with any claustrophobic tendencies. One is forced to wonder what is was like trying to move the sarcophagus – a solid stone piece weighing rather a lot – down these tunnels. Perhaps being the person at the back, rather than the front, was the better job to have.
So I stuck to exploring the less trumpeted delights. This didn’t include a (what for me would be a return) visit to the solar barque of Khufu, found beside his pyramid. This massive wooden boat, almost perfectly preserved, is a perfect example of the sophistication of the Old Kingdom at a time when most empires were far from even being a gleam in a chieftains eye. The delicacy of some of the work in carving (note the details upon the oars), the ambitiousness of the design and dedication involved in building not only a complete, but a grand and beautiful vessel, with an eye on aesthetics as much as function, is truly incredible, and deeply humbling.
The barque is the only one of several surviving vessels to have been removed from it’s pit. It now is on display in the same area where it was found. Others are known to exist on the Giza Plateau, as well at other royal burial sites, including Dashur and Abydos, and have been examined via unobtrusive and non-destructive techniques, including miniature cameras. However none are known to be in as perfect a state of preservation, and none have been removed. Their current location in the sand is believed to be the best possible preservation environment. The barque, and the others like it, served as symbolic model barques of the celestial one in which the Pharaoh travelled across the sky with Ra (the primary state god of the Old Kingdom) and his entourage.
There are many other sites on Giza Plateau worth mentioning, but not all of them are accessible to the public, in particular the lovely mastaba of Meres-Ankh, though this is closed at the time of writing. Other mastabas on the south eastern side (near the satellite pyramids) include two mastabas, that of Qar and Idu, whom were father and son. These are usually open to the public most of the time, though usually kept locked unless a visitors asks specifically to see them. They feature the standard Old Kingdom reliefs and statues, but I found the environment inside decidedly uncomfortable, despite the place being quiet and I being left alone.
Giza Practicalities (Visitors Info)
Location: On the edge of the city of Giza (opposite Cairo on the west bank of the Nile). About 40 mins to an hour from central Cairo by road.
Transport: Good. Although not near a metro station numerous public buses run direct to the Pyramids from central Cairo. Fares vary from 25pt to LE2 (depending on type of bus). Taxis are also widely available in Cairo and Giza. Note bus destinations and times from stops are in Arabic only. “Al Ahram” is the Arabic term for the Pyramids. Taxis also run there and there is no need to have a taxi wait for you. Simply exit the plateau via the Sphinx exit and you will find yourself straight into the town, where plentiful taxis and buses are available. Do not underestimate journey times from central Cairo to the pyramids. It is a very long way, 40min to an hour is common. Pyramids Road is the most direct route, but can get congested.
Costs: LE50 to access the plateau (and public mastabas). LE40 for the Solar Boat Museum. LE80 to enter inside the pyramids. Note tickets for the pyramid interiors are sold are the main ticket office, whilst those for the Solar Boat Museum are sold in the museum itself.
Times: 8am to 6pm, plus S&L in the evening. Note that entry to the pyramids is restricted by numbers and split into morning and afternoon entry periods.
Notes: Be aware that the site is navigable on foot, so unless you specifically desire one, ignore offers of rides of any kind. Also be aware that there are no signs or direction markers on the plateau, and that the necropolis can be hard to navigate if looking for a speicific tomb. If you are looking for something speicfic besides the sphinx and pyramids be sure to get clear directions, preferably a high quality map. Be aware of “no change” tricks at the Solar Boat Museum. Ensure you have the correct money available.