In 2018, Voyages to Antiquity returns to Egypt, and the Pyramids at Giza are one of the many highlights of our October and December sailings. These extraordinary monuments may be instantly recognisable, but how much do you know about them? Read on for our introduction to an icon.
The Giza pyramids, on the outskirts of Cairo, represent the height of pyramid-building ambition and engineering, recognised as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (the oldest of the seven and the only one that still survives). But they did not spring up in isolation. Today, we know of around 80 Egyptian pyramids, with many more in Sudan (ancient Nubia), and some surviving examples present an excellent timeline of the evolution of this monumental craft. Witness, for example, the ‘Step Pyramid’ at Sakkara, which predates the Giza pyramids by a century or two – smaller and less sophisticated, but an essential ‘stepping stone’ in identifying the art of the possible.
Ancient Egyptians were strong believers in the afterlife, and pharaohs expected to become gods in the next world. Ever more elaborate tombs were built in preparation for this ascension – either richly decorated and packed with glittering treasures (long lost to grave-robbers, other than those of Tutankhamen) or vast, skyscraping structures acting both as protection for the pharaoh’s corporeal form and glorification of their life on earth.
So arose the tradition of pyramid-building. The three breathtaking examples that rise sheer from the Giza Plateau date back to around 2,500 BCE. The largest and oldest, the ‘Great Pyramid’, was commissioned by the 4th Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu (also known as Cheops). His son, Khafre, commissioned the second, and Khafre’s son Menkaure the third and smallest pyramid.
Khufu’s pyramid, until the 20th century the largest building in the world, is estimated to have required over 100,000 indentured labourers and slaves – and 20 years of work – to haul the 2,000,000 limestone blocks, weighing as much as 10 tons each, into place. The accuracy of the mathematics and engineering involved is astonishing – the pyramid deviates from its north-south axis by 3/60ths of a degree (making it three times more accurate than the Meridian line in the courtyard at Greenwich).
Surprisingly little is known about Khufu, except that his father was Sneferu, another great pyramid builder. Only one small statue has ever been discovered depicting this historic ruler, and that not even at Giza, but at the Temple of Osiris at Abydos.
Khafre, builder of the second Giza pyramid, is also said to have commissioned the Sphinx. Though this great half-man half-lion statue represents the sun god as he rises in the east at dawn, the features of the face may be those of Khafre himself. It may be compared with a splendid life-size diorite statue (Khafre Enthroned) which now resides in Cairo’s Museum of Egyptian Antiquities.
Menkaure’s pyramid is particularly interesting. Though we cannot be certain exactly how long this pharaoh reigned, it was long enough to have built a pyramid much greater in scale if he had wished. This has led some scholars to infer that he was a more benevolent ruler than his father and grandfather, unwilling to push his subjects to such desperate extremes. Very unusually, Menkaure is also often depicted in statues, such as the Egyptian Museum’s stunning triads, with his wives by his side. Perhaps the vaulting ambition of pyramid-building perished once and for all with the despotism of Menkaure’s ancestors.
Aegean Odyssey will visit Egypt in October 2018 on the ‘The Aegean Experience and Cairo’ and ‘Grand Classical Greece, Egypt and Sicily’ sailings and in December 2018 on ‘Passage to Ancient Egypt and India‘.