In the 2nd century BC, Hellenistic poets and historians came up with a list of marvelous sights to be recommended for ancient tourists in the Greek and Roman world. These seven sights of impressive construction and architectural genius became what we now refer to as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Of the seven iconic landmarks, only the Great Pyramid of Giza, the oldest of them all, remains standing today. Known as the Pyramid of Khufu, the Great Pyramid is the largest and oldest of the three pyramids in Giza. Together with the Great Sphinx and surrounding pyramids and tombs, the Great Pyramid and the Necropolis of Giza have been widely recognized as the cultural symbol of Egypt for thousands of years. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Great Pyramid had already been around for over 2,500 years. To them, the pyramid was as ancient as the Parthenon is to us. Not to mention that the Great Pyramid was the world’s tallest man made structure for over 3800 years. No wonder why so many have considered the Great Pyramid as a symbol of human civilization. To say we were overwhelming excited as our car was approaching the Giza Plateau was not an overstatement.
After Saqqara and Dahshur, our visit to the necropolises of ancient Memphis brought us to the Giza Plateau, the world famous site of the Great Pyramid, at the edge of the Western Desert. The site of the Great Pyramid complex is quite large, despite its close proximity to the city of Giza. Unlike promotional images depicting the Great Pyramid in the middle of desert, in reality the Giza pyramids stand awfully close to modern roadways and bounded three sides by low-rise building blocks. The site was crowded with tourists as expected, so as plenty of pushy camel handlers. Completed at around 2560 BC, the 146.5m Pyramid of Khufu, or commonly known as the Great Pyramid of Giza, is the largest Egyptian pyramid in the world. 2.3 million blocks of limestone and granite were used, some of which weighing up to 80 tonnes. The pharaoh’s tomb lies in the heart of the enormous structure. Not far from the Great Pyramid stands the iconic Sphinx. The limestone statue depicts a reclining lion body with a human head, which many believe was the representation of Pharaoh Khafre. As the son of Pharaoh Khufu, Khafre was also a prominent pyramid builder. His pyramid in Giza is the world’s second largest.
Standing furthest at the southwest of the complex is the smallest of the three pyramids in Giza: Pyramid of Menkaure. In the 12th century, the second Ayyubid Kurdish Sultan of Egypt attempted to demolish the pyramids of Giza. His recruited workers started with the Pyramid of Menkaure. The task proved to be too difficult and expensive that the attempt was stopped after eight months of hard labour. Due to the sheer size of the stone and the surrounding sandy environment, the workers only managed to remove one to two stone blocks a day. After eight months, they only managed to create a vertical cut on one side of the small pyramid in Giza. This might explain why the Great Pyramid remains as the sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. After 4,600 years, only the outer layer of stone cladding was gone. The structural integrity of the Great Pyramid appears to remain invincible at our times.
While Pharaoh Khufu stole the limelight for 4,500 years as the king who built the Great Pyramid of Giza, much few people may acknowledge that Khufu’s success was built upon the earlier experiments of his father, Pharaoh Sneferu. At 40km south of Cairo, Dahshur was the experimental ground for Sneferu, who famously built the three predecessors that ultimately led to the success of his son’s Great Pyramid. The three Sneferu’s pyramids in Dahshur reveal the evolution of pyramid construction, from Meidum Pyramid: Egypt’s first smooth-sided pyramid that had partially collapsed since the ancient times, to Bent Pyramid: another smooth-sided pyramid whose change of inclining angle midway had led to a bent effect, and finally to Red Pyramid: Egypt’s first successfully constructed smooth-sided pyramid.
After Saqqara, we intended to go to Abusir, another necropolis of Memphis just like Saqqara. However, we were told that Abusir was not open for some reason, so we turned to Dahshur instead. Dahshur was another well-known necropolis that served the royal members of Memphis in the Old Kingdom. Famous for its three unique pyramids, Dahshur is a must-see site if one is interested in Egyptian pyramids. Our taxi drove us to pass by the Bent and Black Pyramid, and then stopped at the biggest of them all, the Red Pyramid. There were not many tourists around, so we decided to pay the admission to enter the Red Pyramid. Named after the slightly reddish limestone, the Red Pyramid is Egypt’s third largest and also the oldest smooth sided pyramid.
The sloped passage down to the burial chamber at the pyramid’s heart was narrow and dimly lit. With an slope of 27 degrees down, a 1.2m width and 0.91m height, the journey down the 61m passage was no small feat. For the entire way we were forced to hunch down with our backs touching the passage ceiling, and move down carefully one step at a time. We heaved a sigh of relief after reaching the end of the tunnel, but was a little disappointed to find the empty chamber at the end. As expected no artifacts were in display in the chamber. The 15m corbel vaulted ceiling was quite impressive, given the fact that we were almost 100m below the top of the pyramid, under millions of tons of limestone.
Our next stop was Mit Rahina Museum or what commonly known as the Memphis Open Air Museum. Memphis, the ancient Egyptian capital in the Old Kingdom, was once a prosperous trading, manufacturing and religious centre in the region of Nile Delta. For many centuries, the ruins of the abandoned Egyptian capital had been pillaged for constructing other structures in the nearby Arab cities. Not much of the great city survived to the present day, except the artifacts in the open air museum and what might still lie underground. The biggest draw of the museum is an enormous limestone statue of Ramses II lying in the establishment’s feature gallery.