Magnificence in stone

Kausalya Santhanam goes pyramid hopping and returns amazed at their enduring appeal

ANCIENT WONDER The Giza Pyramids

Faith, it is said, can move mountains. Here, it has made men build mountains of stone inspired by their belief in after-life and the divine origin of their rulers, the pharaohs of Egypt.

We gaze in wonder like millions before us at the magnificent stone triad of monuments located in the plateau of Giza, with modern Cairo almost nibbling at its heels.

The three pyramids built by three powerful pharaohs — the Great Pyramid of Khufu (also called Cheops), the slightly smaller one of Khafre (Chephren) and the much smaller but perfectly proportioned one of Menkaure (Mycerinus) — are perfectly aligned.

The sound and light show bathes the monuments in a magic light. It tries to weave together the many elements that made ancient Egypt such a great civilisation: knowledge of science, engineering, writing and manufacture of cosmetics, jewellery … when people in the rest of the world were plodding on as hunter-gatherers!

We have qualms that the pyramids may not look as impressive in the harsh light of day.

Would the overexposure by endless television programmes diminish the effect? But, the next morning they look even better than we imagined.

Perfectly stacked

As we approach them, we are struck by the enormous size of the stones. They are stacked perfectly, one row upon another, towering to the sky. And all the questions reappear with redoubled force — Was this the work of free men or of slaves driven by the fear of the overseer’s whip? How were these huge blocks transported and assembled so meticulously?

Ibrahim, our well informed guide, points out that the shape of the pyramids with the sides resembling the rays radiating from the peak, is a tribute to the all powerful Sun, whom the ancient Egyptians worshipped as the Sun God, Ra. Encased in smooth white stone, the monuments would have once glittered when they were lit up by the Sun. But now, only on Khafre’s pyramid does a small part of the casing remain. Sadly, the stones were stripped to build many monuments through the ages.

Pyramids were tombs for the pharaohs. The mummified body of the pharaoh encased in highly decorated sarcophagus (coffin) was placed deep within the pyramid to elude grave robbers — often unsuccessfully — and surrounded by expensive artefacts, bread and wine so that he could lead his after life in comfort. Around the Great Pyramid, we see vestiges of the workers’ sites, the necropolis containing tombs of the nobles, mortuary and Valley temples.

There are also small pyramids for the queens, looking like pebbles before the mountains. Emerging from the tomb of Khufu’s mother Queen Hetepherus I, we are greeted by hawkers. Hailed by cheerful cries of recognition “India? Amitabh Bachchan”, we are persuaded to try the Arab muslin headgear.

Striking a bargain

Near the Pyramid of Khafre, shops sell wooden and stone heads of the pharaohs and their queens, and a host of other souvenirs. Warned that bargaining skills are essential in Egypt, we emerge triumphantly with some mementoes.

Bedecked camels, some with unusually cheerful expressions, stand on the sands near the pyramids, their burly owners trying to woo us into a ride. The youngsters in our group ride off jauntily into the desert sporting expressions as if each one of them is a Lawrence of Arabia!

They return and we set off to see the sphinx who guards Khafre’s pyramid at close quarters. He is truly awesome with his massive human head and huge lion body, stone paws outstretched. The gentle face which was once a perfect likeness of Khafre has had its nose lopped off. But this has not robbed him of his calm dignity.

Time and again, through the centuries, the sphinx was freed from the sands that covered him because of the changing desert terrain.

As we leave, we cast backward glances, wondering whether the pharaohs would know that their dream of immortality has been realised — 4,000 years is, after all, a long time to have their names and monuments endure!


The Great Pyramid is the only extant wonder of the ancient world

Egypt has more than 100 pyramids, big and small

The period 2650 to 1650 BC was a time of intense pyramid building

Imhotep was the architect who built the first pyramid, the stepped pyramid of Pharoah Djoser at Saqqara near Cairo

The pyramid attained its form as a smooth structure during the reign of Snefru, Khufu’s father

The Great Pyramid has 3.3 million cubic yards of rock


This article was from TTHE HINDU dated November 17, 2008

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