March 6, 2011

The Pyramids of Giza near Cairo

Upon returning to Cairo, it was time to see the most famous sites of Egypt. First of course, would be the obligatory visit to the Great Pyramids of Giza. The first observation about Giza is how incredibly close to Cairo it is. You see these pictures where it appears to be way out in the desert. But, that is only true in one direction. The dense urban setting of Cairo sits right up the edge of Giza.

Giza sits on a arid hill just above the flood plain of the Nile River. Then, just as now, it is likely that there was a dense population living down by the river farming and living their lives. But, leave the river bottom and the area is devoid of vegetation and moisture. Up on this hill, the pyramids were built and would have been visible for miles. It is no accident that they built these limestone monuments up high and away from the humidity of the river bottom. These pyramids were built approximately 2500 BC in the 4th dynasty.

Today, their visibility is not quite as dramatic. The pollution in Cairo is so bad that the haze is too thick to even see a few miles. Another interesting thing is that in the 1800's most of the Giza Plateau was covered in sand dunes, some of which partially buried the pyramids. Today, those sand dunes are gone.

One of the aspects of the pyramids that I found fascinating is that they look like stone steps going all the way to the top. But, that is not how they looked originally. The entire pyramid was then covered in slanted highly polished casing stones made of limestone. This made for a smooth bright white surface that would have gleamed in the sunlight for all to see.

Thousands of years of exposure to the elements caused a deterioration of this covering. But, the biggest damage came in a major earthquake in 1300 AD that dislodged much of the casing surface. It is said that the Sultan of Bahri carted away most of these fallen casing stones in 1356 to build mosques and fortresses. Today, the only significant section that still has its smooth surface is at the very top of the Pyramid of Khafre.

Of course, another site of significance at Giza is the Great Sphinx, which was built around 2580 BC. As you can see in this picture, it is not actually very large. The stories have it that Napoleon or some French officer shot off its nose. However, there are sketches of it pre-dating French involvement in Egypt already showing it without a nose. Another story says it was damaged by vandalism in 1378 AD by a fanatical Sufi cleric after seeing peasants making offerings to it. Whatever the case, the Sphinx has held in there pretty well given it is over 4,500 years old. 

We had the chance to go down the very narrow tunnel into the burial chamber deep under the Pyramid. It was nothing spectacular in there, they did not paint it like so many other tombs we would see elsewhere. But, it certainly was interesting to think they built such a huge structure over such a tiny little room.

No comments: