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October 5, 2019

Giza's Pyramids: A 'perfect' message to the Heavens

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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If you haven't been fortunate enough to visit Egypt's Giza pyramids, you should certainly add them to your must-see list.

Yes, they seem a very far destination, but fellow Canadians might be surprised to learn that a one-week trip to Giza from Toronto actually costs less than visiting Disneyworld in Florida!

Today, the three giant pyramids of Giza are the sole surviving monuments among the ancient world’s Seven Wonders. And they still stand as awesome and enduring as they did some 4,500 years ago.

Before you plan a trip, however, let me share with you my most recent reading about them – Giza and the Pyramids, an excellent book by two of the world’s top Egyptologists, Dr. Mark Lehner and Dr. Zahi Hawass (Thames & Hudson, 2017).

Of the three pyramids built at Giza by successive generations of Fourth Dynasty (2575-2450 BCE) kings, the Great Pyramid of King Khufu is the oldest and largest, attracting millions of visitors annually.

It is truly an engineering miracle in every respect; design, planning, specifications, mathematical precision, functionality, location and aesthetics.

Khufu’s soaring monument is built from 2.3 million blocks of stone, with an average weight of more than a ton, and at its base covers 13 acres.

Until the completion of the Eiffel Tower in 1889, it reigned for more than 44 centuries as the tallest human-made structure in the world.

What remains a marvel to this day is its breathtaking precision; ancient engineers aligned it to true celestial north within just 1/20th of a degree!

Undoubtedly, this amazing accuracy is thanks to the fact that Egypt produced some of the ancient world’s most accomplished astronomers.

They used the circumpolar stars rotating around the celestial North Pole to extrapolate calculations allowing them to create complex geometry on earth. The circumpolar stars – the only ones that remain permanently visible in the night sky – were the perfect metaphor for their belief in the afterlife; so much so that they were often invoked in prayer. They signified a place in the great cosmic order that would endure forever.

Thus, Khufu's pyramid and its orientation to true north was nothing less than a monumental declaration:

“Earth calling the Heavens – the King is here!”

Little wonder then, that the largest of Giza’s pyramids has attracted perennial speculation about its technical perfection, purpose, meaning, design and construction.

Some of the wildest ideas are that alien visitors from outer space built it, or that refugees from the fabled lost continent of Atlantis were responsible, or even that the massive blocks were somehow levitated into position by sound waves.

Fortunately, Lehner and Hawass bring practical facts to bear.

In their 559-page Giza and the Pyramids they examine both the why and how of these astonishing icons.

They write, “For more than four thousand years, the pyramids of Giza have stood like giant question marks that have intrigued and endlessly fascinated people; who exactly built them, when and why, and how did they create these colossal structures … But the pyramids are not a complete mystery – the stones, the hieroglyphs, the landscape and even the layers of sand and debris hold stories for us to read.”

In his praise for the meticulous research of Lehner and Hawass, Prof. Barry Kempt, Emeritus Professor of Egyptology at Cambridge University writes:

“Egypt's pyramids, especially the Great Pyramid at Giza, have long been the object of fantasy explanations. Here two of the most eminent figures in the archaeology of ancient Egypt combine the experience of years of directing excavations at the site of the Giza pyramids to provide the reader with the solid foundations for a factual understanding of these amazing monuments. Learn from a wealth of beautifully illustrated information what their purpose really was and how they were built … The pyramids remain a marvel, but one that can be rationally understood, as demonstrated in this outstanding book.”

The first motivating reason why ancient Egyptians built these spectacular pyramids was religious. And a close second was to assert national pride.

The Egyptians of four millennia ago firmly believed in an afterlife in which reward or punishment would be meted out according to how one had lived in this world.

To earn rewards in the hereafter, people were taught from childhood to be kind to the environment around them, including other humans, the animals, the earth, and the mighty River Nile.

They also believed that people would be resurrected complete with their original earthly bodies. Therefore, the physical body had to be preserved, which led to developing the science of mummification.

And to help the spirits of the dead rejoin their bodies, one had to be buried in a clearly identifiable tomb.

The ideal tomb included the deceased person’s essential possessions for living, even his or her pets (for example, thousands of mummified cats and dogs have been discovered).

Additionally, the individual’s immediate family – wives, mother, father, and children – had to be laid to rest in separate tombs nearby.

Such arrangements were given to all Egyptians especially for heads of state such as King Khufu and his ruling dynasty, or queens such as Hatshepsut. But their special treatment after death in being carefully mummified and given opulent resting-places was not only because of their high rank, but just as importantly because ordinary Egyptians believed their deceased rulers could intercede with God on their behalf.

This was a core tenet of the nation’s state religion at the time. It was considered the duty of the government in power to provide means for all Egyptians to achieve a good afterlife.

To that end, the planning, design, and construction of Giza’s three great pyramids, and some 1,000 smaller ones, would have been labors of love by all contributors.

This was especially true for the great structure dedicated to Khufu, which required vast numbers of architects, foremen, manual workers and support staff, all of whom needed food, water, shelter, and medical attention 24/7. 

Doctors on location treated the injured, while their trained male and female assistants would mummify and bury those workers who died due to accidents, disease, or from heat-stroke. Some of their mummies in nearby tombs have survived to this day.

Khufu was a brilliant young Egyptian royal, following in the footsteps of his father King Sneferu who erected five pyramids at Dahshur, some 20 Km south of modern Cairo.

He was determined that when he became king, he would motivate the entire nation and build his own pyramid, but on a grander scale than ever before. And that’s exactly what he did.

His first and most critical decision was choosing who to entrust with the responsibility of planning and overseeing such a massive project.

He gave the job to a high-ranking courtier called Hemiunu, whose modern-day position would translate as head of the civil service.

But he was much more than a mere bureaucrat. Among his many talents and qualifications, he was the high priest of Thoth – the god of writing and wisdom – as well as “director of music of the south and the north,” a Renaissance man, millennia before the term was invented.

In consultation with his architects, Hemiunu took great pains to select the optimal construction site. Among other things, that meant studying soil mechanics; the earth must not cave in or subside under the millions of tons it was required to support. They selected the stable and geologically ancient plateau of Giza.

To prepare the construction site, canals were dug to join the Nile so that building materials, especially granite and limestone, could be transported by boat from all over Egypt.

Once the canals were navigable, the site laid out, and the ground cleared and leveled, the greatest construction show on earth began.

Despite its breathtaking scale, Khufu’s pyramid was nevertheless a profoundly human achievement, and well within the capacity of ancient Egyptian technology.

The project’s success lay in maintaining first-class management over some 10,000 workers, laboring for 10 hours a day, every day. On this relentless schedule the project was completed in only about 20 years. That works out to placing one block every two minutes!

In 2013 “insider” knowledge about the Giza pyramids was greatly enlarged when Pierre Tallet, an archaeologist from France’s prestigious Sorbonne University at Paris, found the papyrus logbook of a foreman called Merer, who made notes about the crew of 40 workers under him.

Little did Merer know that his record would also be written for posterity. But he likely wouldn’t have been surprised at all to know that the pyramids of Giza that he and his men helped to build would still be standing, more than four millennia after his lifetime.

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