The Giza Necropolis and Ancient Egypt

Hello class! It’s been really great to look at your Egyptian hieroglyphs and graffiti and to hear your thoughts on using art as protest. The drawings look really fantastic, well done! It sounds like you guys have been doing some work on the ancient Egyptian civilization, so hopefully this blog post will be useful. Please let me know if I’ve made any mistakes!

I am guessing that the Great Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx are the first things that popped into your mind when you started learning about ancient Egypt. I know it is for me. But as I am sure you have found out this semester, ancient Egypt is so much more than the pyramids. In fact, the pyramids are incredibly far away from the center of ancient Egyptian society which was further south in cities like Thebes (modern day Luxor). Today it is an overnight train ride away.

The Giza Necropolis in 1904. Source: Wikipedia.org

Map of the ancient Egyptian kingdom at its largest. Credit: Wikipedia.org

But it makes sense that the pyramids are so famous. They have been around about as long as most recorded history and are the only item remaining from that famous list, Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, written by the Greek Herodotus. As my guidebook “The Rough Guide to Cairo and the Pyramids” says, the pyramids’ “sheer antiquity is staggering.” When Herodotus visited the pyramids in 450 BC, “as many centuries separated his lifetime from their creation as divide our own time from that of Herodotus, who regarded them as ancient even then.”

The BBC has a nice gallery of the evolution of the Egyptian pyramid.

When I lived next to the Giza Necropolis (the area containing the famous pyramids, the Sphinx, and some tombs and temples), I began to think of the pyramids as friendly giants in the distance. But when I get past their overwhelming beauty, what interests me is realizing that the construction of such huge monuments required a civilization with a powerful and very effective system of government. Whether slaves built the pyramids or not (new research suggests they were not), it required the housing and feeding of thousands of workers and sculptors, the shipping of huge amounts of stone down the Nile (over 2,300,000 limestone blocks in the Great Pyramid alone), and the ability to invest these resources into a such a project while defending the kingdom from both foreign attacks and civil war and having enough workers providing food and other necessities.

Now, a popular theory in the US says the pyramids were built by aliens visiting Earth (perhaps you’ve heard of the show “Ancient Aliens”?). This is a fun idea to think about and there is no way to disprove it, but you need to know that no credible archeologists or historians give any weight to the theory. The other problem with the idea is that it takes away all credit from the regions, cultures, and people that created these amazing monuments. Not knowing exactly how the pyramids were built is not enough reason to begin crediting aliens over people.

The ‘ancient Egyptian’ side of the 100 pound bill (about $15), with the famous face of the Sphinx

Ancient Egypt still has great relevance for Egypt today. It is said rural, farming families in southern Egypt live lives that are incredibly similar to what their life would have been like under the Pharaohs. Essentially all of the currency in Egypt will be a mix of ancient Egyptian symbolism and Islamic symbolism. Linguistically (the study of languages), it is also fascinating to find out there are some phrases used in Egypt today that can be traced back to ancient Egypt (here is a fun book on the subject published by my university). One ancient phrase still in use today is “Egypt is the mother of the world” (Arabic: مصر ام الدنيا transliteration: Masr umm al-Dunya).

The ‘Muslim’ side of a 100 pound bill. The building is a mosque.

On the same day my visiting dad and I went to the pyramids, we also took a train to the coastal city of Alexandria. I don’t want to make this post too long, but Alexandria is another fascinating, ancient site in the Middle East. It is often referred to as “the most important ancient city with the last to show for it.” This is because so much of its history has been lost to the sea or otherwise destroyed. One example is the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which was also included in Herodotus’ famous list of wonders.

An example of underwater archeology in Alexandria and the Mediterranean Sea.

My father and I went to a museum of ancient manuscripts and I was struck by how many cultures have had an impact on this country. It is really staggering. There are the distinct phases in ancient Egypt, the Greek and Roman invasions, the Persian invasion, establishment of Christianity, Jewish communities, the Arab invasion, the Ottoman empire, and French and British colonialism to name just some. It reminded me how culture is always changing, even during the days of ancient Egypt. Here are some photos:

An early scroll of the Jewish Torah. In Hebrew.

A Greek manuscript

An early Qur’an, in Arabic

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