The Giza Plateau is the northern extension of the necropolis of Memphis, situated on the west bank of the Nile and is today part of the suburbs of modern Cairo. When visiting the Giza pyramids for the first time the traveller anticipates the experience of standing before these magnificent structures rising out of the desert sands in a kind of time-warp, but the greatest surprise is when you turn around and feel the skyscrapers of the rapidly growing city closing in, as if they were trying to outshine their ancient neighbours.
Abydos had been the royal cemetery for the rulers of the earliest dynasties, but Dynasty I high officials had chosen to site their tombs at Saqqara which was close to the capital, Memphis. It would seem that even in those times Giza had also been used as a cemetery – the earliest known tomb is Mastaba V, which is thought to date to the reign of Dynasty I king Djet, and is surrounded by graves of fifty-six retainers. The Mastaba’s owner is un-named but the presence of the surrounding graves suggests that he was an important official. A tomb of Dynasty II date has also been found at Giza and contained early dynastic jar sealings naming King Nynetjer.
Saqqara was the main Memphite necropolis which Djoser-Netjerikhet immortalised with the first royal tomb built in steps in the shape of a pyramid. When this city of the dead became overpopulated the kings and high officials began to look for other burial grounds, citing their tombs at Zawyet el-Aryan, Meidum and Dashur. The Dynasty IV king Khufu (Greek, Cheops) was the first to construct his pyramid at Giza – the monument we now call the ‘Great Pyramid’ – the only surviving structure of the seven ancient wonders of the world. Khufu’s pyramid was the tallest building in the world until the early part of the 20th century AD.
The Giza Plateau is famous for three pyramids. Khufu’s son, Khafre (Greek, Chephren) also constructed a pyramid next to his father’s monument. From a distance, Khafre’s pyramid looks higher than Khufu’s, but this illusion is due to the structure being built on rising ground. The third pyramid belongs to Menkaure (Greek, Mycerinus) and is the smallest of the three. When they were built they were encased in thousands of blocks of white limestone from the Tura quarries across the river and must have presented an imposing sight, shining from a great distance in the scorching sunlight of the desert. Now, most of the casing stones have gone, robbed in ancient times, but some can still be seen on the apex of Khafre’s pyramid.
The pyramids of Giza have always fascinated mankind and a great many mysteries have been built around them. Napoleon Bonaparte himself was greatly impressed by the structures when he conquered Egypt in 1798, at the time when they were truly out in the desert. They have been given many names – the ‘Granaries of Joseph’, the ‘Mountains of the Pharaohs’ – and there are numerous theories about their origins, including their construction by long-lost civilisations such as Atlanteans or even extra-terrestrials. There is great speculation on exactly how they were built, using the primitive construction methods of the time and whether their orientation was cosmic or religious.
Each pyramid had its own associated structures which included satellite pyramids, mortuary temple, causeway and valley temple, though not all of these can be seen clearly today. Khufu and Khafre’s pyramids had boat-pits alongside, in which full-sized wooden boats in kit form were buried. Khufu’s ‘solar boat’ was discovered in over 1200 pieces in 1954 and was instantly claimed as the oldest wooden boat in the world. The boat has now been expertly reassembled over a period of many years and is housed in its own museum on the south side of the pyramid.
The pyramid complexes are surrounded by vast cemeteries of mastaba tombs, similar in size and originally laid out in street-like rows, but these have been disrupted by the intrusion of later burials. Mastaba is the name given to a large rectangular superstructure built over a deep burial shaft and comes from the Arabic word for ‘bench’. There are hundreds of mastaba tombs at Giza where the Old Kingdom elite was buried close to their pharaohs. The earliest and most extensive cemeteries are to the east and west of Khufu’s pyramid. There are also many private tombs cut into the rock-faces of quarries surrounding the pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure.
Many of the Old Kingdom tombs at Giza can be visited, but it is difficult to predict exactly which ones are open at any given time. Some of them have spectacular reliefs with beautifully carved hieroglyphs and engaged statues of their owners – the Old Kingdom was possibly the finest period of art in the history of Egypt.
The Giza Plateau’s other claim to fame is for the Great Sphinx, which is situated next to Khafre’s causeway and valley temple. One of the world’s greatest monuments and the first colossal royal statue of ancient Egypt, the Sphinx was known as ‘Abu Hol’ (Father of Terror) to the Arabic people. It is fashioned out of a natural limestone outcrop left over from the quarrying of stone by the builders of the Great Pyramid. We do not know who first shaped the statue, completing it with mudbrick. Some say the original face was that of Khafre, others claim it has the features of Djedefre, Khafre’s predecessor, who may have used the quarry for his pyramid at Abu Roash.
The Sphinx is carved in the shape of a crouching lion with a human head, 73m long and over 20m high. In the New Kingdom, many kings built temples and erected stelae in the vicinity of the Sphinx Temple, including the famous ‘Dream Stela’ set up by Tuthmose IV between the Sphinx’s paws. Many enigmas surround the Sphinx, including the legend of a lost Hall of Records which is supposed to be hidden beneath the statue, although there is no evidence at all for this, and its true purpose remains a mystery.
There were also settlements associated with the pyramids where the builders, priesthood and functionaries lived. It has long been supposed that there must have been large pyramid towns at Giza, but it is only recently that excavators with the benefit of modern scientific methods have slowly begun to uncover the ruins of bakeries, breweries, houses and burial places of the population who sustained the building and maintaining of the pyramids. There must also have been royal palaces nearby, but these have eluded discovery so far. Another interesting feature of the plateau is a huge stone structure known today as the ‘Wall of the Crow’ with its colossal entrance gate which archaeologists think may have been the ancient entrance to the Giza necropolis. The remains of the ‘Wall of the Crow’ can be seen to the east of the site of Menkaure’s valley temple.
The Giza Plateau is an ongoing excavation site. There are new tombs and structures being discovered with amazing regularity and yet there must be so much still to uncover. Today the whole plateau is a vast tourist complex which could take the visitor weeks to see properly. The area is currently being re-developed to provide even more facilities, with many plans afoot to make the area more ‘tourist friendly’. The new Grand Egyptian Museum will also be built close to the pyramids. There is a Sound and Light Show each evening, presented in Arabic, English, French, Japanese and German, which uses the three pyramids as an impressive backdrop.