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Decoding the Pyramids

Posted on 14 Nov 2017

What can Giza’s treasures tell us about Ancient Egyptian civilization?

Long-range view of the three pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Mankaure, their associated temples, and the numerous cemeteries and tombs which also throng the Giza plateau [Credit: Mark Lehner]

The Great Pyramid of Giza is not only the oldest monument on the list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but also the only one still standing. While the likes of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the Colossus of Rhodes have long since dissolved into the sands of time, the extraordinary structures created in Egypt some 4,500 years ago still cast a hypnotic shadow not just over Cairo and the Nile valley, but over mankind’s collective imagination. The Great Pyramid was in the headlines again as recently as November 2017, when French and Japanese scientists using a scientific technique called muography discovered a new mystery, in the shape of a hitherto unknown 30-metre-long space inside the structure.

While explorers have been drawn to the pyramids since medieval times, and enthusiasts such as John Greaves, Frederik Norden and Nathaniel Davison made studies of them in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was only in the 19th century that what has become known as Egyptology began to develop in earnest. The catalyst was Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, which, despite its ultimate failure, prompted scholars such as Jean-François Champollion and Ippolito Rossellini to begin a systematic exploration of Egypt’s historic legacy. In the 19th and 20th Centuries, British archaeologists Flinders Petrie and Howard Carter became household names thanks to their archaeological discoveries in Egypt.

But few researchers in the field can match the accumulated experience of Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass, whose thumpingly authoritative new book Giza and the Pyramids is a summation of their collective endeavours over a period of 42 years – ‘longer, probably, than it took to build the Great Pyramid,’ as they point out. Lehner is the director of Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA), and a regular writer and broadcaster on Egyptian archaeology. Hawass was formerly Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities, and has directed excavations at Egypt’s most important locations.

Their cumulative studies have revealed that the Giza site is far more than just the Great Pyramid (begun by Pharaoh Khufu in about 2550 BC), its two neighbouring pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure, and the enigmatic statue of the Great Sphinx. It’s a complex network of subsidiary tombs, living quarters, quarries, temples, workshops, bakeries, harbours, fish-processing facilities and much more. It amounts to a tantalizing, compressed archive of ancient Egyptian civilisation, if only all its clues and relics can be identified and deciphered.

The Great Sphinx, with its lion body and human head, has become a national symbol of Egypt, yet remains one of the most mysterious artefacts from its long-lost era [Credit: Mark Lehner]

It used to be supposed that slave labour was used to build the pyramids, but researchers now believe this was a myth, propagated in part by Hollywood films (the cinematic cliché that Jewish  slaves were employed in this way by the Egyptians is chronologically impossible). The evidence now suggests that the pyramids were an expression of combined national effort, an enormous programme of works willingly undertaken in support of the pharaohs.

To tackle such immense projects, a high degree of organisation would have been necessary. It’s believed that there may have been about 5,000 permanent workers at the Giza site, who would have lived with their families in so-called pyramid towns. When necessary, a much larger force of temporary workers would be brought in to handle such tasks as building tools and ramps or supplying food and clothing. The workers received payment in the form of regular rations of loaves and beer. Pyramid-building became so all-consuming that it engaged virtually every family in Egypt at some level. Hawass has commented that rather than the Egyptians building the pyramids, it could almost be said that the pyramids built Egypt.

Exactly how such an early un-mechanised civilisation was able to erect such remarkable structures as the pyramids remains a perennial question. Definitive answers may remain elusive, but Lehner and Hawass’s analysis of Egyptian tool-making, how stone was cut, quarried and transported, and how huge individual blocks of limestone could have been manoeuvred into place – perhaps using wooden rollers, or by levering them onto one edge and ‘tumbling’ them – is undoubtedly plausible. Fascinating, too, is their examination of how astronomy and star-sightings were probably used to achieve the precise alignment of the pyramids. Yet, as the authors are well aware, even a lifetime of research could never be enough to unravel all Giza’s mysteries.

Adam Sweeting @

Giza and the Pyramids

Mark Lehner, Zahi Hawass