Egypt Moblog #1 – Pyramids at Gizah and Saqqara + Memphis

Our tour of Egypt started today after a marathon 48 hour travel to Cairo from Chennai. I’ll write a whole rant about it later.

As we drove from the Cairo airport to our hotel last night, we saw the first tantalizing glimpses of the pyramids of Gizah against the backdrop of the night sky, building lots of expectations for today.

We started at 9am for the Pyramids at Gizah with our Egyptologist guide Ms. Marwah.

Our first stop was at the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) – this is the biggest pyramid in the world. This Pyramid is dated approx 2500 BC. That’s a whopping 4500 years ago. The sun was shining bright and looking at this massive pyramid (200m base and 147m height) gave me the goosebumps. The pyramid has been built out of limestone brought from the nearby mountain on the other side of the Nile. The amazing thing is the precision with which the pyramid has been built – uniformly carved limestone blocks. They were held together using a interlocking pattern with no mortar. The limestone plastering on this pyramid is completely gone. It took 23 years to build this one our guide told us that the only piece of evidence that points us to Khufu is a small inscription one of the workers carved unofficially! All else had been emptied by the tomb robbers.

Next we see the Pyramid of Khafre which is slightly smaller but built on a higher part of the plateau that makes it look bigger than the Khufu pyramid. Khafre is the son of Khufu. The limestone plastering still exists on this one at least in the top part.

We bought a special ticket and went inside this pyramid. We had to go through a narrow and short tunnel to go to the chamber inside. Actually there’s nothing inside. But it was a great feeling to be inside a 4450 year old structure.

Then we saw the smallest of the three Menkaure Pyramid – Menkaure is the son of Khafre. There are also a few more small pyramids for Khafre’s wives and relatives. We saw some tombs for the officials which had Roman Columns at the entrance – our guide told us these were originals (possibly served as inspiration for Roman Columns).

We then moved to the famed Sphinx in the same complex. Many people say that it is smaller than one could imagine from the pictures we see everywhere. Actually when we went close to the Sphinx, we found that to be quite huge – a huge lion with a human head – the head of the pharoah Khafre. Sphinx is actually a Greek term (they have a mythological creature with a human head and lion’s body called Sphinx). The whole complex with the Sphinx upfront and the three great pyramids in the back is awe inspiring.

We then went to a papyrus store and learnt how papyrus paper was made by the ancient egyptians. The whole process is very interesting and another testimony to the inventiveness of the ancient egyptians. We bought a few papyrus souvenirs as well. Ancient Egyptians wrote a lot of stuff on these papyrus papers.

Then we drove to Saqqara – the site of the oldest monument known to mankind – the step pyramid of Zoser – dated 2700 BC (4700 years old). The architect of this pyramid was Imhotep. The Zoser pyramid is part of a sprawling funerary complex with several smaller pyramids and several buildings. The Zoser pyramid is also pretty big around 100m tall and but it is a step pyramid unlike the ones at Gizah. They used some clay bricks mixed with limestone – possibly because they had not figured out how to build entirely with limestone. Zoser was the pioneer of the large monument building practice that almost every culture has since copied and he did this 4700 years ago. Not only does this site gave me the goosebumps – but a few shudders as well to think about how magnificent an endevor this would have been – the first great monument built ever by mankind. Saqqara is a special place just for experiencing this feeling. This is where it all started.

There is a building in the complex with a long hallway lined with long circular pillars with ridges – the shape reminded us of pillars we had seen in Greece – our guide told use that pillars are shaped like a bunch of papyrus reeds. On either side of the hallway there are 20 chambers signifying the 20 provinces of the upper and lower Egypt per our guide.

Then we saw the false tomb Zoser has built outside the pyramid at 27m below the ground, exacty the same depth as that of the real tomb below the pyramid. The Gizah pyramids had a chamber for the tomb inside the pyramid itself and not underground.

In the complex there is a small cellar which has a statue of Zoser which you see through 2 peepholes. The status in the cellar is now a replica with the real one now in the Egyptian museum. I managed to take a picture of the statue through the peephole. Will upload when I return.

Within viewing distance from the Zoser complex, we could see what is known as the Bent Pyramid – the pyramid is mis-shapen because they built it incorrectly. They then built a 2nd one right next to it to the correct specifications.

Then we drove through Memphis – nothing remains of the old city as it is now a full fledged town. We saw some spectacularly huge statues of Rameses II and the Alabaster Sphinx of Memphis at the Memphis museum.

That ended our tour today. It has been a life long dream for me and Priya Raju to see the pyramids and our dream was fulfilled today.

More to come…….

If you want to read more, here are some of the questions we asked our guide and her answers:

1. What is the significance of the Pyramidal shape?
The Sun God known as Ra, Amun Ra and other names is one of the most important God of Ancient Egypt (known as the Pharaonic Egypt). If you can imagine the Sun at the tip of the pyramid and look at the rays coming through, you can see a pyramidal shape being created. Also the papyrus reed is the shape of a pyramid.

2. What is the significance of the pyramid itself?
The ancient egyptians placed a lot of emphasis on after life and whether you would goto heaven or hell (possibly the originator of this concept which is now present in all religions). The tomb inside the pyramid had the mummy, replicas of furniture all covered with gold, the papyrus versions of the book of the dead (something like the bible for them) and various other paraphernalia. Of course, most of these had been robbed. The whole mummification process itself is fantastic and again shows how knowledgeable the ancient egyptians where.

3. How many people were involved in building these?
Contrary to popular opinion, no slaves were used to build these. There are some mentions of prisoners of war being used later by Rameses. There were 3 seasons then – the harvest, the irrigation and the flood season – the Nile flooded every year. During the flood season, when farmers had no work, they would work on the pyramids – one reason why it took 23 years to build one.

4. Did they have any annual rites once they built the pyramid?
It took approximately all of the span of the pharoah’s reign to build the pyramid. Usually the pharaoh died almost coinciding with the completion of the pyramid and he was entombed in it. So no annual rites were done.

5. Why is the Sun God so important and what were the other gods?
The Sun was thought to die every night and resurrect itself in the morning, which added another dimension to the fascination with after life. There were many animal gods – Anubis, the jackal which they worshipped to prevent any attacks by the jackals on the mummies, the Falcon for its vision, the Cow for fertility etc. The Scarab beetle – another one that goes underground during the night and emerges in the morning like the Sun signifying resurrection. We had already read about Cat goddess, Hippo god, Crocodile god. Maybe we will see these later in the tour.

6. How many pyramids are there?

There are around 111 pyramids mostly in the Gizah, Saqqara area. The pharoanic Egypt runs from 3200 BC to 323 BC (arrival of Alexander and the conquest of Egypt by Greece which ended the pharaonic civilization). It has been divided into the old, middle and new kingdoms. Of this only the old kingdom built pyramids, the others did not.

7. Why the Sphinx?
It is the protector of the tombs. Our guide said, we will later see the avenue of the Sphinxes in Luxor. Sphinx is used everywhere as the protector.


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    Great post Sukumar. Had been waiting for it. Your narration made me feel like I was there. I always thought that Pyramids were built by slaves. It is all the more commendable that it was build by farmers during their off season. Even Discovery ran a program to the effect that slave labour was involved.

    I have been facinated about the ancient Egyptian philosophy. Please write about it too, if you find any information. Spinx is very interesting because it so much like our own Narasimha. Sun worship is also so similar to Hinduism.

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    Sukumar (subscribed) said November 20, 2007, 1:06 am:

    Thanks Archana. Just landed in Aswan and i am getting ready to go to the Abu Simbel. Yes, i think there are some similarities with Hinduism at a high level. I will write about the Egyptian religion at the end of my tour.
    – Sukumar

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    Sukumar (subscribed) said November 20, 2007, 1:21 am:

    BTW Archana, Narasimha is a man with a lion’s head isn’t it? Sphinx is the opposite of that – it is a lion with a human head. Also, there are no Lions native to Egypt but it was still worshipped!

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    Thanks Sukumar. You are right. Interesting that they worshipped it although there are no native lions.

    BTW, I had read some very interesting facts about Egypt and why it housed the oldest civilization of the world in Jacob Abbott’ biography of Cleopatra
    Egypt is so situated that the rain forms a lake across the whole length of the desert, ten miles wide, and a thousand miles long every year. Vegetation springs up on this surface as soon as the rain dries up. This vegetation, in its original state must have been of a very peculiar character. It must have consisted of such plants that could survive only under the condition of having the soil in which they grew being wholly under water for a quarter of the year. He says, these circumstance prevented the valley of the Nile from having been, like other fertile tracts of land, mostly comprised of thick forests. So wild beasts could never have haunted it. There were no forests to shelter them and no refuge or retreat for them but the dry and barren desert, during the period of the annual inundations. It is almost like this valley was created by Nature for the special possession of man. And if man were to abandon it for a thousand years, and then return to it once more, he would find it just as he left it, ready for his immediate possession.

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    Bharathi Sankararaman said November 20, 2007, 3:38 pm:

    Wonderful post Sukumar! I felt I was in Egypt with you guys!

    One spectacular thing is we still see the remains of 4000 year old structure withstanding all natural calamities and human invasions! really amazing!!

    Looking forward to read your day 2 at Egypt

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    Wonderful trip report. Keep’em coming. Certainly a place that is in our wish list to visit too.


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    joekorah (subscribed) said November 20, 2007, 11:44 pm:

    Great trip report Sukumar. How is the political situation there ? I have read that the President Mubarak is coming under a lot of pressure & his support in Cairo is weakening in favor of Dr. Ayman Nour. Is there any truth to that ?

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    Enjoy the great trip Sukumar. Also many thanks for your travelogue.

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    Harish Dorai said November 21, 2007, 11:30 am:

    Hello Sukumar:

    Enjoy the trip. Please keep writing!

    One other thought I would like to share about the Egyptian beliefs and its similarities to the outside world. Last week I was reading the book “The Third Eye” by Tuesday Lobsang Rampa and in that he was describing the process of embalming bodies in Tibet. After the death, the body parts are taken away and kept in gold containers. Isn’t it similar to the mummification process? I guess the body parts are taken away before mummies are made. I was hearing about embalming in Tibet for the first time.

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    Sukumar (subscribed) said November 21, 2007, 12:13 pm:

    Thanks Archana. I haven’t read the book you refer to. Agriculture is unique because of the Nile floods. I’ll write about that soon. Maybe the rains cause the flooding of the Nile.

    Thanks Ganesh, Joe, Bharathi, Vamsi, Harish for the encouragement.

    Joe, I’m not following the political situation here. I’ll see what I can find.

    Harish, you’re right. Egyptians removed the 5 important organs – Liver, Heart, Kidney, stomach and intestines and put them in the canopic jars. They threw away everything else including the brain. Then they put back the heart and the kidney. Heart is important I’ll write later on that.

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    senthil (subscribed) said November 23, 2007, 8:39 am:

    Nice description sukumar. The flow of your post is continuous and interesting.

    I feel, slaves are not used during the ancient times (I think we dont find such slave concept in ancient roman and greek mythologies) . Probably, as you said, there might be prisoners of wars, who would have been used for the construction.

    Btw, is there any concrete information available that there is no slaves used there. (because, in my school history books, i remember reading that pyramids were built by slaves)

    I also remember, reading in few magazines, that “Bohar”, a tamil siddhar, who hail from china, travelled as far as Arabia. Siddhars are believed to have mastered art of preserving human body and prolonging life (kayakalpa).

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    Harish Dorai said November 24, 2007, 9:34 am:

    Sukumar – Thanks for the wonderful descriptions so far. Here is another piece of info for you (Source: Dan Brown’s novel Da Vinci Code). Former French president Francois Mitterand was a great fan of Egyptian architecture and culture. He was so inspired that he commissioned the construction of an inverted glass pyramid in the Louvre museum at Paris (the house of more than 65000 art pieces including Mona Lisa, Madonna of the Rocks etc.). The glass pyramid was made with exactly 666 panes of crystal glass (the number 666 is considered Satan’s number ;-)) BTW, Louvre museum is my suggestion to you for your next vacation 🙂 People say that it will take months to fully appreciate all the art pieces in Louvre Museum. Your narration so far about your visit is no less than the glass pyramid built by the French. So please keep writing and we all are enjoying it.

    One thing which I learned about History is that, you should not just absorb historical facts. The interpretation of facts in the history and correlating to the problems in the present day world is more important. I am sure you are doing the same by seeing the artifacts of one of the greatest civilizations in the world.

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    Sukumar (subscribed) said November 24, 2007, 12:03 pm:

    Thanks Harish. Egyptians have accomplished things predating other civilizations by a few thousand years and lay claim to the title – cradle of civilization. Sumeria is one that could rival Egyptian but they don’t have such fantastic monuments.

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