Eleven years ago my family and I went on vacation to Egypt. The Sphinx, the three Pyramids of Giza, and the Step Pyramid of Pharaoh Zoser towered more than two hundred feet above the golden Egyptian sands like mountains. The sight took my breath away, and that of course was one of their purposes. To a three foot tall, six year old the buildings seemed to be as big as the world. I nearly broke my neck when I tried to glance at the top. When the people of Egypt first looked upon these colossal monuments, they probably trembled just as I did. Now that I am older the sight not only amazes, but the craftsmanship that was used to build these wonderful gravestones, fills my mind with sheer perplexity. The pyramids were designed to impress Egyptians with their ruler's godlike strength and to give the ruler eternal life.
The Sphinx is a figure having the body of a lion and the head of a man. The three pyramids of Giza are the work of 4,000 stonemasons and as many as 100,000 laborers working under conditions of forced servitude and given rations consisting in large part of onions and garlic. The pyramid of Pharaoh Zoser that Imhotep erected at Sakkara was the world's first large stone structure, a tomb copied in stonework from earlier brickwork piles (Peck). In its most common form, a pyramid is a massive stone or brick structure with a square base and four sloping triangular sides that meet in a point at the top (Pyramids 810). However, the pyramids are anything but simple. Pyramids have been built by different people at various times in history. Hundreds of thousands of men were used to construct these massive monuments and they took many years. The pyramids were tombs for the pharaohs (Gardner 140).
The pharaohs in Egypt wanted their people to know how powerful they were. Therefore, they ordered people to build these massive tombs for them. When Egyptians first looked upon these giant tombs more than forty-six centuries ago, they were probably filled with astonishment. These colossal monuments first started rising from the golden Egyptian sands around 2630 BC. At the time they were the biggest and finest masterpieces ever built; indeed they were the world's largest buildings (Brommer 14).
The ruins of thirty-five pyramids still stand near the Nile River in Egypt. Each was built to protect the body of an Egyptian king. The Egyptians thought that man's body had to be preserved and protected so his soul could live forever (Millard 41). The Egyptians mummified their dead. To do this they would dry the body out and then wrap it with cloths. They then hid the mummies in the large pyramids or tombs. They buried the king's body inside or beneath a pyramid in a secret chamber that was filled with treasures of gold and precious objects (Roberts 14).
The Egyptians had no complicated machines to help make their jobs easier. They had no cranes or pulleys. All their monuments were erected by using ramps of pebbles and sand. Teams of men dragged the rocks up these. Rollers were placed under the blocks to make them move more easily. Blocks were laid one layer at a time (Millard 41). Stones for building were transported by river. They waited for the Nile to overflow and then moved the giant rocks to where they needed them (Fairservis 85).
Nearby limestone quarries provided the blocks that made up the body of the pyramid. Stone carvers cut these blocks to size. Each was next levered onto a sled pulled by animals or gangs of men over wooded rollers. As the pyramid rose higher a ramp of brick was constructed to give access to the upper levels. In order to provide a gentle slope the ramp had to be lengthened as the height increased. Once the blocks were brought to their positions they were again levered into place. When all was finished, the ramp was dismantled and the final facing of white limestone laid into position. This finishing stone was probably brought by barge from quarries farther up the Nile. Some of them had small blocks of stone and rubble inside, while others had only mud bricks. To build the tomb, the Egyptians marked the plan on the ground. Then they laid in position the column bases and the first layer of blocks for the walls. The spaces between the blocks were filled with sand, giving a flat surface over which to pull the nest layer of stones. An ever-growing ramp was used, which the blocks were dragged to the top. When each layer was in place, more sand was added to give a flat surface again. This went on until the roof was in place. The sand was then removed and decorations could be completed at the same time (Millard 41).
Funeral ceremonies were performed in temples that were attached to the pyramids. Most pyramids had two temples connected by a long stone passageway. One temple stood next to the pyramid and the other stood beside the river. Inside the pyramid, corridors and shafts lead to various subterranean chambers, most of which are unfinished. In almost the exact center is a room called the King's Chamber where there is an empty stone box, called a sarcophagus, which was meant to hold the king's coffin. This room is reached by an ascending corridor in the midst of which is a magnificent gallery 153 feet long and 28 feet high.
The pyramid builders attempted to hide these passageways from thieves and vandals by covering them with stone slabs. The passage to the King's Chamber, for instance, was closed by a granite plug, which made the entrance look just like the surface blocks of the pyramid. So well concealed was the entrance that when 3000 years later, the Caliphs of Cairo tried to get inside, they had to dig tunnels in the rock.
These details emphasize what a colossal task it must have been to construct this great monument. Nevertheless, there is a general agreement on some things. When the architects looked for the right place to situate the pyramid, they decided to use a large rock mass that appeared on the plateau as an inner core for the building. Having done that they leveled the ground all around so as to have a flat base.
The ancient Egyptians sought eternal life above all else. The Egyptians thought that if they could but satisfy the hundreds deities who regulated every event; if they could preserve their bodies as permanent shelters for their souls; then, surely, they would live forever. They would be able to live free from illness and harm, continuing the colorful existence they enjoyed along the fertile banks of the Nile. To Egyptians after life meant that the soul left the body at death, but it was expected to return to it throughout eternity. That is why the Egyptians mummified their dead, to preserve the body from decay. Although they needed to preserve the bodies and tried very hard to hide the tombs, few rich burials survived even a relatively short time.
There have been many tomb robbers. Egypt could not protect the temples and tombs, then or now, against the greed of robbers or the dedication of archeologists. Another large problem came about with trying to preserve the tombs. Travelers from all over came to visit Egypt, including archeologists. Everyone wanted a little souvenir to take home with them. Small trinkets from the ancient tombs, and using parts of mummies and of other artifacts for medicine, became a fad. There was no care taken in retrieving these articles. More was probably destroyed in the process of retrieving artifacts, than was actually found.
One century afterwards, during the 21st dynasty the priests of Thebes and other authorities had to go to the Valley of the Kings and rescue what they could, because tomb robbery was so great. They took the mummies they could save and rewrapped what was left to them. These mummies along with what was left of their funeral possessions were put in a mass burial in an abandoned tomb.
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