March 25, 2011

Saqqara and Giza Pyramids

Part I

by Jerry Hilgenberg and Jana Piersall

Jerry and I share something in common.  We both have a great passion for Egypt.  While at the annual Class of 1967 party, Jerry found out that my sisters had given me a trip to Egypt.  He couldn't tell me enough about what I was about to see.  And, I couldn't get enough of hearing about it.    Jerry and I decided to share our experiences of our individual trips with you.  We hope you catch the "fever" as we did.  Perhaps it is a Mummy's curse, we prefer to call it a great blessing, to have seen such an awesome place.  Egypt. 

One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Giza Pyramids stood as the tallest structures on the planet for nearly 4,000 years. For perspective, consider this: On the timeline of history, the Queen Cleopatra lived closer in time to the present day than to the builders of the Giza Pyramids.

The first pyramids were constructed at Saqqara, necropolis for the ancient capital of Memphis. A “necropolis” is a large burial ground. Think of it as an ancient cemetery.

Djoser’s “Step Pyramid” is the earliest discovered pyramid. It consists of a series of mastabas stacked one on top of another. A “mastaba” is a flat-topped tomb. A mastaba is always above ground, but there are usually one or more levels below ground. Often mastabas have many rooms. So the first pyramid was built from the simple idea of stacked mastabas.

Pyramids parking lot (left). There’s a particular spot at Giza where you can capture all three of the pyramids in a single photo, so naturally that’s where the Egyptians choose to place their bazaar to try to entice tourists. You can have your photo taken sitting on a camel for about a $1, or a short camel ride for about $5. Camels are recalcitrant, unpleasant creatures by nature. Folklore has it that whenever an Egyptian tells you “he loves his camel as much as any man can”, it means that he only hates it a little bit.

The largest pyramid at Giza is Khufu’s Pyramid, which was the first constructed. Each side of Khufu’s Pyramid is 756 feet, and the structure’s is square within a few inches on each side. If you remember your history lessons from grade school, you may remember Khufu’s Pyramid as “Cheops Pyramid” – the Greek translation. Only about seventy years of time stands between the Djoser’s Step Pyramid and Khufu’s Pyramid. During that seventy years, there was quite a bit of experimentation in pyramid construction, mainly concerned with discovering the correct angle. Too steep or too shallow, and the structure would collapse on itself. Most of the pyramids at Saqqara appear as mounds of rubble today. 

Originally, the pyramids were covered with a finish of glistening, smooth white limestone, each with a gilded capstone, which must have made a very impressive sight. However, over the centuries, the white limestone was “harvested” for other uses and all that remains today of the original casing is the smooth covering near the top of Khafre’s Pyramid, as you can see in the photo. Otherwise, the pyramid construction that we see today is the exposed underlying structure.
Khafre’s Pyramid was originally 471 feet high and 706 feet square at the base. It sits on higher ground than Khufu’s Pyramid and therefore looks taller. However, merely looking at the photos or reading about these dimensions cannot adequately convey a sense of just how massive these structures are; for that, you must stand next to one.
The interior of the Pyramids consists of several rooms connected by a series of tunnels. It is possible to enter both the Khufu and the Khafre Pyramids, but it is not for the claustrophobic. The tunnels can be quite narrow and steep, and the ceilings very low – particularly on the connecting passages. As the ventilation is also poor, there’s not much reward for entering except to be able to claim that you did it – there is no decoration, hieroglyphs, etc.
All of the limestone for the Great Pyramids at Giza was quarried at the site. The heavy granite pieces used to support interior ceilings were quarried at Aswan, then floated down the Nile during the annual floods. At that time, the Nile would flood for several weeks each year and would rise to within a few hundred feet of the site.

Seeing the Sphinx in person is a lot like meeting a television star: They’re much smaller in real life.
One piece of limestone that was deemed unsuitable for use in the pyramids was instead used to create the “original” Sphinx. The limestone of the Sphinx has weathered significantly over the millennia, as you can see from this photo. Foreign invaders also have contributed to the deterioration; the French destroyed the nose of the monument when Napoleon invaded Egypt in the 19th century.

January 1, I went to see the pyramids at Giza and the Sphinx.  As you can see, finally, the Egyptians are attempting to restore some of their treasures, and save them from total destruction. 


One real danger in Egypt is the pack of wild dogs roaming the country.  Here you can see how easily one might be attacked by this menace. (Just kidding, however, the mothers of these dogs were taking a nap in the sand, close by, and I really wouldn't want to cross them.)  The shopkeepers nearby keep the dog and cat babies fed.  There are hundreds of wild cats and dogs all over this country! 

Here’s another photo of the Sphinx that gives you an idea of how the Giza Pyramids National Park adjoins the modern day city of Giza. (Giza is the western bank of the Nile and Cairo is the eastern side of the Nile.) Many people tend to think of the pyramids as completely surrounded by desert, but that isn’t so. In fact, just across the street from the spot where I’m standing in the earlier picture, you can find one of those combination KFC-Pizza Hut restaurants. Perhaps the most interesting location in the world for them --- imagine sitting munching your fried chicken while gazing on an open view of the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids!

One thing that definitely stood out when I first arrived were the walls.  Everywhere there were walls, and on the walls, there were guard towers.  In the towers there were guards, with guns.  Machine guns and rifles.  At first, this was very upsetting as I was fearful, but I was told they were the police, and here, we are taught that the police are good and they protect us.  Little did I know the real truth.  Luckily, it wasn't until I returned home that I learned the real truth about the Egyptian police!  And the Egyptian people did not commence their revolution until after I had returned home.  Whew!





The notable jamband known as Grateful Dead purportedly were reading over a translation of parts of the Book of the Dead when they came across the phrases, "We now return our souls to the creator, as we stand on the edge of eternal darkness. Let our chant fill the void in order that others may know. In the land of the night the ship of the sun is drawn by the grateful dead." The name stuck.


Wikipedia contributors, "Jam Band," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,

Wikipedia contributors, "Grateful Dead," Wikipedia, The Gree Encyclopedia,