While the discovery of the Valley of the Mummies reminds us of
just how much history still lies beneath the Egyptian sands, any journey into
this country's past must begin with the mother of all archaeological sites
the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx.
On the western bank of the Nile, where the sprawl of greater Cairo ends and
the desert begins, the Pyramids rise out of the sand like three individual
mountains. The largest is 2 1/2 football fields long at its base and some 80
stories high. Of the Seven Wonders of the World, they are the only survivors.
These man-made mountains were built as tombs 5,000 years ago by kings Cheops,
his son Chephren and grandson Mycerinus, all of whom ruled ancient Egypt
during the 4th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom.
The expertise and labor required to construct the Pyramids still boggles the
mind. For the Cheops Pyramid, the largest, it took 10 years just to build the
road and the earthen ramps that were used as a primitive form of scaffolding.
According to Ashraf Mohedin, an archaeologist with the Egyptian Department of
Antiquities and an expert on the Pyramids, it took another 20 years,
with a workforce of more than 300,000, to construct the Pyramid itself.
The limestone came from local quarries and was cut into massive blocks, each
weighing nearly three tons. Mohedin said the ancient Egyptian builders, using
sleds, ropes and sheer muscle, hoisted a total of 2.5 million blocks to
construct the Cheops pyramid. He pointed to a precision design that
distributed weight evenly, utilized airshafts for ventilation and even
aligned the structures with the stars for cosmological significance.
At one time the pyramids were entirely covered with a casing of polished
white limestone, the remnants of which are still visible on all three. But
over the centuries, Mohedin said, successive Arab rulers stripped away the
outer casings and used the stones to build their own palaces. The result
today is a jagged geometry of soft inner stones whose angles have been eaten away
Inside the pyramids are a series of narrow passageways leading to ventilated
burial chambers, whose royal occupants and possessions were long ago looted
by grave robbers. Nearby are the tombs of various queens. In one underground
complex, archaeologists discovered the wooden boat that carried Cheops' body
across the Nile and which, it was believed, would ferry him to the afterlife.
In the shadow of the Great Pyramids, sits the Sphinx, the Greek name given to
the enormous stone statue of a man's head on the body of a lion. According to
Mohammed el Attar, another Egyptian archaeologist, the man depicted on the
Sphinx is none other than King Cheops himself, who ordered the statue carved
from the rock left over from the construction of his pyramid.
There are various legends about what happened to the Sphinx's nose and beard.
One says that during Napoleon's brief occupation of Egypt in 1798, his
soldiers used the Sphinx for target practice and blasted them off. Others
say it was the occupying Ottoman Turks who did the shooting. Egyptian
archaeologist Mohedin believes the most plausible culprit was an Abassid
conqueror who tried to destroy the face because it violated Islam's
injunction against graven images.
Whoever was responsible, British adventurers in the 19th century carried off
a part of the beard to London, where it now sits in the British museum. The
whereabouts of the Sphinx's nose remains unknown.
Perhaps the most stubborn controversy surrounding the Pyramids centers on who
actually performed the back-breaking physical labor to build them. Many still
believe it was the ancient Hebrew slaves, whose bondage in Egypt is recorded
in the Bible.
But Egyptologists dismiss this theory, noting the Pyramids were already more
than 1,000 years old when the Pharaoh Ramses II enslaved the Hebrews.
Moreover, the recent discovery of tombs in the desert near the Sphinx
indicates the workers weren't Egyptian slaves either, but rather a highly
skilled army of surveyors, architects and mathematicians, along with paid
masons and laborers.
"Some people think the Pyramids were built by people from outer space, and
others think they were built by slaves," laughed Mohedin. "Those are good
stories, but neither is true."