It’s the northern tip of a vast cemetery that spans the desert from Memphis to Cairo. It’s the home of the Great Sphinx, scores of pyramids, and thousands of tombs. One of its features, the Great Pyramid, is the last remaining Wonder of the Ancient World, and the best minds still can’t agree on how it was constructed.
Welcome to the Giza Plateau, the only place on Earth that is recognizable from outer space because of a few 4,600 year old buildings.
The Liveliest Graveyard in the World
The Giza Plateau is a high desert plain adjacent to the southwestern suburbs of Cairo. Home of the Great Sphinx and the famous Giza Pyramids, the plateau is named after the small nearby town of el-Gizah. This most-famous of archeological sites is often envisioned as a remote and uninhabited stretch in the heart of the Sahara, but nothing could be further from the truth. The largest and busiest city in Africa abuts this ancient city of the dead, and everywhere you look someone is trying to sell you decorated papyrus, good luck scarabs, or bottled water.
The views from the plateau range from ancient desert vistas to the encroachment of of modern Cairo. Look in one direction and you might see a camel corral. Look to the right and there is the causeway leading up to Khufu’s Pyramid, the last Wonder of the Ancient World. Look instead to the left and you are facing the skyline of a metropolis of seventeen million people. But when you are there, nothing, not even the many hucksters, can break the spell of the panorama unfolding around you.
The Giza Plateau is the northernmost part of the Memphis Necropolis, the burial grounds of the ancient capitol of Egypt. The Memphis Necropolis began in the area of Saqqara, which during the time of the First Dynasty was a cemetery for officials and servants of the Royal Court, with the royalty being entombed at Abydos. But by the Second Dynasty, kings were choosing Saqqara as their burial sites as well. Beginnig with the Step Pyramid of Djoser (Netjerikhet), first king of the Second Dynasty, the Memphis Necropolis was the preferred burial site of Egyptian Kings.
The region was ideal for the ancient Egyptians, who took great care in their treatment of the dead. On the one hand, there were plenty of flat, solid surfaces for building pyramids and other royal mortuary structures out of fine limestone that could be quarried elsewhere and imported. On the other hand, the mesas and other local materials and features could be used to construct tombs for privileged non-nobility.
The area around Saqqara eventually began to suffer from a sort of urban sprawl of the dead, with tombs being built further and further north, and kings having to chose increasingly remote locations to have room to build the sort of funerary complexes that really got the attention of the gods. Pyramids as far afield as Dashur and Meidum were constructed, many on a larger scale than those of Saqqara. But the real granddaddy of pyramids would be raised on the Giza highlands.
The Pyramids and the Giza Cemeteries
There is evidence that as early as the First Dynasty Egyptians of means were being buried as far north as Giza, but it isn’t until the Fourth Dynasty that a king’s pyramid makes its appearance, and it was quite a debut indeed. The Great Pyramid of Khufu was built on a scale intended to outdo the Red Pyramid of his father, Snefru, at Dashur. It remains unsurpassed. Khufu’s pyramid would be followed by that of his son, Khafre, and the much smaller Pyramid of Menkaure. These three pyramids, while certainly not the only ones on the plateau, are collectively known as the Giza Pyramids.
The Giza Necropolis would come to be the primary burial grounds throughout most of the Old Kingdom period, with more than 6,000 tombs being located in the area. It can be roughly divided into two sections. The northern section is comprised of the Sphinx, the Giza Pyramids, and their related temples. This is further subdivided into the Eastern Cemetery and the Great Western Cemetery. The second part is the Southern Field, which consists of tombs of lesser nobles and high officials.
The Great Western Cemetery lies to the west of Khufu’s Pyramid and is the resting place of high court officials and grand architects. One such master builder was Senedjemib-inty, whose tomb is pictured below. Senedjemib-inty was a vizier who served under Pharaoh Djedkare of the Fifth Dynasty. One of his titles is “Overseer of All Royal Works,” and many members of his family, also viziers and royal architects, have tombs in the Great Western Cemetery.
The Eastern Cemetery is located to the east of Khufu’s Pyramid, and contains mostly tombs of Khufu’s family and favored servants, although esteemed court officials would continue to be buried there long after Khufu’s reign. Seshemnefer IV, for example, who lived during the Sixth Dynasty and bore the title “Secretary of all the king’s secret orders,” earned a place for himself in the Eastern Cemetery. His mastaba (tomb) is fairly typical of those in the Western and Eastern Cemeteries.
The Giza Necropolis fell into disuse, and outright abuse, during the Middle Kingdom Period, which is when the pyramids and tombs suffered frequent plundering and destruction. The area experienced a revival during the New Kingdom, particularly during the Eighteenth Dynasty, when religious devotion centered on the Sphinx and the pyramids again came into vogue. This persisted even into the Late Period when the newly-popular cults of Osiris and Isis built shrines around the Sphinx. The area again fell to indignity beginning with the Ptolemaic Dynasty and lasting into the modern period, when tombs and pyramids were again subject to being robbed and stripped for materials.
The Solar Boat Museum
One of the more modern structures on the Plateau is the Solar Boat Museum. In 1954 Kamal el-Mallakh, an inspector working for the Department of Antiquities, discovered a complete disassembled cedar boat buried in a pit next to Khufu’s Pyramid. He had found evidence of something buried in the location four years earlier while surveying for a road, and suspected it might be a boat pit similar to those found at lesser pyramids, but wasn’t able to begin a serious excavation at that time.
Besides, the previous boat pits had already been plundered by the time they had been discovered, so Kamal’s discovery was low on the list of priorities.
The boat, which included its original ropes and sails, was meticulously removed and in 1958 reconstruction began. It would not be completed until 1968. It is not certain whether or not the boat was ever in water or if it served a more ceremonial function. The Solar Boat Museum was built overtop the pit where the 4,600 year old boat was discovered, and has housed the boat since 1982.
History, Mystery, and Everything In Between
The Giza Plateau remains one of the most active archeological digs on Earth, and one where tourists, amateur Egyptologist, professional archeologists, royalty, peasants, mystics, and con-men freely intermingle on a daily basis. Everything is literally set in stone, and yet also in a constant state of flux. The very place where you haggled over the price of a bottle of water yesterday may be cordoned off tomorrow as the most important historical discovery in modern history. The proportion of everything is huge and under perpetual scrutiny, and yet everything the eye sees suggests even more lies hidden.
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