They stand still today, more than four and a half millennia after they were built, out there on the Giza Plateau. They are the most monumental tombs ever constructed, the final resting places for some of the most legendary pharaohs of ancient Egypt.
There are three major pyramids there: the Pyramid of Khufu, the oldest and highest of them all; the Pyramid of Khafre, slightly lower but cleverly positioned so as to appear higher; and the Pyramid of Menkaure, markedly smaller than the other two. Around them clusters what used to be a grand ceremonial complex, but is now a ruin requiring a supreme act of imagination to reconstruct; it includes smaller pyramids for the pharaohs’ queens, along with temples, causeways, and other ancillary structures. And presiding over it all from a short distance in front of the central Pyramid of Khafre, gazing inscrutably outward from the edge of the plateau to the Nile Valley below, lies the Sphinx, that strange human/lion hybrid whose enigmatic expression first began beguiling people 4000 years before the Mona Lisa smiled.
Every day, the Sphinx looks on as buses pull into the parking lots down below, disgorging tourists sporting fanny packs and Nikes. Before coming here, most of the tourists have imagined the pyramids as standing in majestic isolation, but they’re quickly disabused of that notion. Rather than the expected sweeping desert vista, the teeming city of Cairo stands behind them. You can’t avoid the smell of this city of 23 million souls, much less the noise, nor the smog that billows up to blanket the plateau.
On either side of the path up from the parking lot crouch the peddlers, selling overpriced water and “authentic Egyptian” memorabilia shipped in from China, while faux-Bedouins on camels and donkeys press the visitors from in front and behind (“Hey! Where you come from?”), offering to give rides and take contrived photos. The tourist economy in Egypt not being what it once was, their relentless pitches carry an unpleasant edge of desperation.
Every night, the pyramids are subjected to a “sound and light show,” a relic of the 1970s — “narrated by the Sphinx!” — which doesn’t even do them the honor of being a particularly good tacky tourist show. It’s not at all in keeping with the respect we ought to give to these oldest of all worldly wonders, built some 2500 years before the time of Jesus Christ. Surely they deserve better.
Then again, maybe they’ve gotten used to it. Throughout their long history, the pyramids haven’t ever gotten much respect. They were plundered of the precious artifacts they once contained within a few hundred years of their construction, then abandoned to the wind and sand for countless lifetimes. Then, whatever dignity of desolation remained to them disappeared when people came along to build a city right next to them. In time, Cairo’s populace stripped the pyramids of their smooth casings of polished limestone, which for almost four millennia had caused them to glisten majestically in the sun in a way we can only imagine today; this injustice was done simply because a growing city needed more stone with which to build. The mottled, pitted tiers of limestone blocks that the desecraters revealed remain the outward faces of the pyramids to this day. They’ve been poked and prodded, dug into and dynamited by the curious, the greedy, and the casually destructive. The fact that they continue to stand at all is perhaps the finest tribute anyone could make to their original builders.
When they haven’t been physically violated, they’ve been insulted, compared unfavorably to the later tombs and temples found at sites like Luxor and Abu Simbel, products of an arguably more mature and undoubtedly more intricate religious aesthetic. The great Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder dismissed the Pyramids of Giza as “idle and frivolous pieces of ostentation.” The great twentieth-century popular historian Will Durant went so far as to call them “a little ridiculous,” “barbarically primitive in [their] brute hunger for size.”
Sure, they’re less refined creations than the architectural splendors of Egypt’s Middle and New Kingdoms. Yet there’s something about their simplicity of form that speaks to us. Humanity’s oldest substantially intact works of architecture, they feel weirdly contemporary; even Durant had to admit that, in addition to looking “barbarically primitive,” they also look “barbarically modern.” Their clean, minimalist form would indeed look as much at home in a modern-art museum as in an antiquities collection — perhaps more so. Unlike the later artifacts of ancient Egypt, which feel like the products of an ancient sensibility that is all but incomprehensible to us today, they seem to exist out of time — or for all time. As we gaze upon them, we can understand the hold they have taken on so many modern imaginations, who have attributed them to everything from aliens to Atlanteans, positing that they represent lost technologies we cannot begin to understand, forms of spiritual enlightenment we can only glimpse, or even portals to other dimensions. For all the abuse we’ve heaped upon them, they have always awakened our sense of wonder.
Because the pyramids have always been such vehicles for our spirits, it strikes me that any purported history of them should encompass more than the people who first built those mounds of stone out there in the desert, however impressive that achievement may be in its own right. This history will therefore take a somewhat roundabout course. It will tell the story of the building of the pyramids in due time, but it will first view them through the eye of the dreamers, antiquarians, and scientists who rediscovered them, along with a major portion of the once-lost civilization that created them so very, very long ago. It will tell the story of the pyramids that have lived inside our psyches just as much as the ones on the Giza Plateau. It will be an adventure story and a detective story — and, most of all, a telling of one of the most fascinating of all stories of intellectual discovery.
I offer only one caveat as we begin. No good detective story would be complete without a fair number of false leads and blind alleys. Thus not all of the “discoveries” I relate underway will conform with what we know or believe we know of the pyramids today. Please trust me that all will turn out correct in the end — or at least as correct as our current level of knowledge can make it — but don’t trust any of the characters in this story any more than they deserve.
Tucked away in a corner of one of the domes inside St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, there’s an unusual mosaic dating from the 12th century AD. It depicts the Biblical character Joseph standing in front of five rather crudely drawn pyramids. As such, it constitutes the first known Western representation of the pyramids in post-classical history.
According to the Book of Genesis, the wise and good Hebrew Joseph was sold into Egyptian slavery by his jealous brothers, only to rise to become the second most powerful man in the land when he interpreted one of the pharaoh’s dreams to be a prophecy stating that Egypt could expect seven years of excellent harvests, followed by seven years of famine. The mosaic would appear to depict Joseph, in his new role of vizier, directing workers as they gather one of the harvests of plenty for storage in the pyramids — their presence here being an embellishment of the Biblical tale — to serve as insurance against the lean times to come.
At the time this mosaic was being assembled by an unknown artist or artists, the pyramids were just reentering the Western consciousness after a long absence. Over the centuries after the fall of Rome, Europe had understood the history of ancient Egypt almost entirely through the lens of the Bible. This land where the Hebrews came to live for a time in the Book of Genesis, then fled under Moses in the Book of Exodus, was otherwise a virtual blank slate.
Now, however, large numbers of Europeans were beginning to reenter the lands of Joseph and Moses, thanks to a series of Crusades that aimed to recapture them for the Christian faith. When the Crusaders returned to their European homelands, they brought with them countless exotic tales. Among the sights they claimed to have seen was a series of immense conical structures perched in the desert just outside of Cairo, a major focus of the fighting during the 1160s and 1170s. For example, Burchard of Strasbourg, a diplomat sent to Cairo in 1175, described “two mountains of square plan, built of very large stones of marble and other materials. They are admirable constructions, an arrow’s distance from each other.” The Europeans, still determined to see Egyptian history as an adjunct to Biblical history, concluded that these must be the granaries that had enabled Joseph to stave off the seven-year famine, precipitating the migration of the rest of the Hebrews from Canaan to Egypt — events which probably happened, assuming they happened at all, in roughly 1850 BC.
For many years after the Crusades, the pyramids remained little more than a rumor, traveler’s tales of doubtful veracity told in smoky bar rooms. Who could possibly believe that structures as huge as those described by the tellers really existed?
The first of the great pyramid popularizers was also the beginning of a long line of frauds, charlatans, dreamers, and benighted would-be mystics who would come to associate themselves with the Giza Plateau over the centuries to come. Indeed, he was such a fraud that he probably never actually lived.
Sir John Mandeville was purportedly an English knight who set off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1322. His journeys, he claimed, wound up filling 34 years, taking him not only across the width and breadth of the Near East but across India and China as well, even to the mythical Asian Christian kingdom of Prester John. His description of Egypt, which he claimed to have visited fairly early in his travels, was accurate enough in the broad strokes:
Egypt is a long country, but it is straight, that is to say narrow, for they may not enlarge it toward the desert for default of water. And the country is set upon the river of Nile, by as much as that river may serve by floods or otherwise, that when it floweth it may spread abroad through the country; so is the country large of length. For there it raineth not but little in that country, and for that cause they have no water, but if it be of that flood of that river. And forasmuch as it ne raineth not in that country, but the air is always pure and clear, therefore in that country be the good astronomers, for they find there no clouds to letten them. Also the city of Cairo is right great and more huge than that of Babylon the less, and it sitteth above toward the desert of Syria, a little above the river above-said.
Mandeville wrote, correctly, that there were three pyramids on the Giza Plateau, and that one of them was much smaller than the other two. Yet he continued to refer to them as Joseph’s “garners” — i.e., granaries — and indulged in considerable flights of fancy therefrom. He rejected as unsustainable the notion that the pyramids could be “sepultures” — sepulchers — of “great lords,” as some of the people of Egypt claimed. More amusingly, he didn’t seem to be aware of their real location, seeming to place them far south of Cairo, close to where the Sahara Desert begins its transformation into the African savanna.
And now also I shall speak of another thing that is beyond Babylon, above the flood of the Nile, toward the desert between Africa and Egypt; that is to say, of the garners of Joseph, that he let make for to keep the grains for the peril of the dear years. And they be made of stone, full well made of masons’ craft; of the which two be marvelously great and high, and the tother not so great. And every garner hath a gate for to enter within, a little high from the earth; for the land is wasted and fallen since the garners were made. And within they all be full of serpents. And above the garners without be many scriptures of diverse languages. And some men say, that they be sepultures of great lords, that were sometime, but that is not true, for all the common rumour and speech is of all garners of Joseph; and so find they in their scriptures, and in their chronicles. On the other part, if they were sepultures, they should not be void within, ne they should have no gates for to enter within; for ye may well know, that tombs and sepultures be not made of such greatness, nor of such highness; wherefore it is not to believe, that they be tombs or sepultures.
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, the first extant manuscript of which dates from 1371, became the closest thing to a bestseller that could possibly exist in the time before the invention of the printing press. It was copied out by hand hundreds of times — more than 300 such manuscripts still exist, more than virtually any non-Biblical text from its era — and translated into almost every European language, igniting passions across the continent for the exotic lands it purported to describe, doing much to fuel the great Age of Discovery that soon began. It convinced Christopher Columbus that it should be possible to reach India by sailing west from Europe; it convinced Sir Martin Frobisher to sail in search of a Northwest Passage. Sir Walter Raleigh, William Shakespeare, John Milton, and John Keats all used it as a source of literary inspiration.
And yet it was all almost certainly a hoax — the first great literary hoax in history. No records exist of any real Sir John Mandeville ever having lived. Our best candidate for the hoax’s perpetrator is one Jean le Long, a Flemish monk who wasn’t much of a traveler himself but was known as a collector of travelogues. The Travels, then, most likely represents a compilation of his received wisdom of the world, as collected in his personal library. As such, it serves as an invaluable summation of the state of European geography, if you will, in the latter half of the 14th century, including European notions about the pyramids.
But those notions were on the cusp of a transformation. In 1397, a Byzantine scholar named Manuel Chrysoloras arrived in Florence. He brought with him knowledge of Greek, along with many ancient manuscripts in Greek and Latin that had been lost to the West in the chaos following the collapse of the Roman Empire. The invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s allowed all of this rediscovered history, philosophy, and literature to be reproduced and disseminated more easily and cheaply than ever before. The Renaissance had arrived.
Among the most widely read of the ancient texts that were soon being devoured by monks and scholars across Europe was The Histories of Herodotus. Written in approximately 440 BC, it was ostensibly an account of the origins and conduct of the Greco-Persian Wars, which had recently concluded in a Greek triumph at the time Herodotus wrote the text. But he was prone to digression, a great lover of scandalous gossip and amusing anecdotes, and much of his work took the form of a travelogue of the ancient world not all that far removed in spirit from that of Sir John Mandeville — with the important exception that it was, as far as we know anyway, all reported from actual lived experience.
Herodotus wrote of Egypt at length, showing his usual fondness for gossipy detail: “The women make water standing up and the men crouching down.” Much of what he wrote was little more than the random stories he was told by the people he met in Egypt; not for nothing was this Father of History also known as The Father of Lies even during ancient times. Nevertheless, he began to reveal, for the first time before European eyes, one of the most long-lived civilizations in human history, with a timeline so long that it could swallow the glory that was Greece or the grandeur that was Rome whole without so much as a gulp. It was at this point, then, that Western scholars began to separate the history of ancient Egypt from Biblical history.
At the time Herodotus visited, Pharaonic Egypt was already well past its prime, but the remnants of its former splendor were everywhere. He wrote that the land “has wonders more in number than any other land, and works too it has as much to show as any land, which are beyond expression great.” Not least among the wonders were the Pyramids of Giza, already incomprehensibly old at the time he visited them. Yet he was able, thanks to the legends he heard from the people of Egypt, to tell their origin story in considerable detail. It turned out that they had nothing to do with grain or the Biblical story of Joseph, but were in fact the selfsame tombs Sir John Mandeville had scoffed at as a foolish notion.
Herodotus wrote of the early pharaoh he called Cheops, whom we would later come to know as Khufu. He was a tyrant, bringing “every kind of evil,” making all the land “work for him.” As a monument to his glory in life and a guarantee of his continuing existence after death, he decided to build a pyramid upon the Giza Plateau, an auspicious promontory perched just above the west bank of the Nile River Valley, close to the point where the river becomes a delta draining into the Mediterranean. To carry out his plans, he forced 100,000 men at a time, working in back-breaking three-month indentures, to quarry stones from the hills to the east of the Nile, float them across the river in boats, and drag them to the base of the Giza Plateau. They spent ten years there building an enclosed stone causeway that was five-eighths of a mile (1 kilometer) in length, 60 feet (18.3 meters) in width, and 50 feet (15.2 meters) in height, stretching from Khufu’s temple in the valley to the plateau about 100 feet (30.5 meters) above. Even as it served the workers’ practical purpose of moving more stones up to the plateau for the construction of the pyramid proper, the causeway was itself a work of art, “made of stone smoothed and with figures carved upon it”; it was, judged Herodotus, “a work not much less than the pyramid.”
Said pyramid took twenty years to make. Its square base was described as measuring 800 feet (244 meters) at a side, its vertical height as exactly the same. The whole was made of stones cut to fit together perfectly, “not one of the stones being less than 30 feet [9 meters] in length.” It was built in a series of stepped “rows” or “bases.” After they had slid into place the stones which formed the foundation, the builders raised the stones to be used for each successive row “with machines made of short pieces of timber, raising them first from the ground to the first stage of the steps, and when the stone got up to this it was placed upon another machine standing on the first stage, and so from this it was drawn to the second upon another machine; for as many as were the courses of the steps, so many machines there were also, or perhaps they transferred one and the same machine, made so as easily to be carried, to each stage successively, in order that they might take up the stones; for let it be told in both ways, according as it is reported.” Finally, the builders applied the outer casing of smooth stone, working from the top down.
Herodotus claimed that the pyramid cost the royal treasury so much that Khufu sold his own daughter into prostitution to help pay for it; he wrote, a little wistfully, that “they didn’t tell me” how much her pimp charged for her services. Undaunted by her predicament, Khufu’s daughter requested of every man who visited her that he donate a single stone alongside the usual payment. These she used to build a smaller pyramid of her own on the Giza Plateau — much smaller even than the one we know as the Pyramid of Menkaure, “each side being 150 feet [46 meters] in length.”
Khufu died, as tyrants too often do, peacefully in his bed after a reign of 50 years. In a couple of rather tossed-off, confusingly worded sentences, Herodotus described an “island” in a water-filled passage underneath the pyramid that was built to serve as Khufu’s sepulchral chambers, “having conducted thither a channel from the Nile.” This raised the tantalizing prospect that the pharaoh’s body may not have been buried within the pyramid itself — a prospect that would continue to intrigue scholars and dreamers for centuries to come.
Khufu’s successor was his brother, known to Herodotus as Chepran, to us as Khafre. He was a ruler cut from the same cloth, who accrued such an evil reputation that the Egyptians of Herodotus’s time “are not very willing to name” him. And he too devoted much of his people’s energy to a pyramid for himself on the Giza Plateau. He, however, had to settle for a final memorial about 40 feet (12 meters) lower than that of Khufu, with no underground island to serve as a possible sepulchral chamber; he instead built his pyramid’s basement out of “Ethiopian stone of divers colors.” Kahfre died after a reign of 56 years.
He was succeeded by the son of Khufu, known to Herodotus as Mykerinos, to us as Menkaure. (Yes, these were apparently long-lived men indeed, much like the Biblical patriarchs.) Menkaure departed radically from the tyranny of his father’s generation; in the beginning at least, he was a just, merciful ruler who gave his people permission “to return to their own business.” In keeping with his sense of forbearance, the pyramid he built on the Giza Plateau was far smaller than those of his predecessors, just 280 feet (85 meters) on a side at its base, albeit built of finer “Ethiopian stone” up to half its height.
Legend had it that Mankaure had a daughter who was very special to him. One version of the tale said that she died of natural causes, whereupon in his grief he had a life-size wooden cow gilt with gold built as a repository for her remains. This, Herodotus claimed, could still be seen in his time in the city of Sais, “placed within the royal palace in a chamber which was greatly adorned; and they offer incense of all kinds before it every day, and each night a lamp burns beside it all through the night. Every year it is carried forth from the chamber, for they say that she asked of her father Mykerinos, when she was dying, that she might look upon the sun once in the year.”
Another, far darker version of the tale had it that Mankaure had been rather too enamored of his daughter — that he “ravished” her after her presence was betrayed to him by his concubines, with whom she had sought refuge from his unwelcome advances. She hanged herself in the aftermath, whereupon a remorse-stricken Mankaure buried her in the gilt cow and her mother the queen cut off the hands of the concubines who had betrayed her. This explained why, in a chamber near that of the cow in Herodotus’s time, there stood many statues of women with the hands lopped off, “still lying at their feet even down to my time.”
Whichever version of the tale one accepted, what happened next was widely agreed-upon. An oracle came to visit Mankaure at his royal residence in Memphis, a short distance south of the Giza Plateau. The pharaoh had, said the oracle, just six years and change left to live. Mankaure was outraged at this injustice. His predecessors had ignored the gods and worked the people to death, and had enjoyed long reigns; he had been pious toward the gods and gentle to the people, and was being rewarded with an early death. The oracle replied that Mankaure had actually angered the gods with his gentleness. They had decreed for their own inscrutable reasons that Egypt was to suffer 150 years of evil; Khufu and Khafre had received the message, but Mankaure, through some spiritual failing or other, had not. Hearing that there could be no reprieve from the gods’ judgment, Mankaure “procured many lamps, and whenever night came on he lighted these and began to drink and take his pleasure, ceasing neither by day nor by night; and he went about to the fen-country and to the woods and wherever he heard there were the most suitable places of enjoyment.” By never sleeping, he reasoned, he could turn six years of riotous pleasure into twelve.
After Mankaure went to his rest, presumably at the gods’ appointed time, his successors ceased to build upon the Giza Plateau for reasons which Herodotus didn’t deign to explain. The subsequent pharaohs instead returned, as archaeologists would later learn, to an older site closer to Memphis known as Saqqara, where they built pyramids on a more modest scale than even that of Mankaure.
The Histories of Herodotus could be a maddening text. The Renaissance scholars who pored over it couldn’t help but be infuriated by its vagueness about so much that was of vital interest to them, such as exactly when the Pyramids of Giza were built. They calculated that, if Herodotus’s claim that 330 pharaohs had reigned for an average of almost 50 years each was correct, Egyptian civilization itself would have to be over 15,000 years old at the time he wrote. This idea struck even them, with their sharply delineated boundaries of knowledge, as unlikely — not least because it conflicted so dramatically with the Biblical chronology of earthly history.
Still, Herodotus’s great work, along with those of such other historians from later antiquity as the Greeks Diodorus and Strabo and the Roman Pliny, opened a window upon the history of a land that had heretofore been shrouded in complete ignorance. Certainly the Pyramids of Giza were made rather more than less fascinating by the knowledge that they were not the granaries of Joseph, that they were royal artifacts of a civilization able to build on a scale which even the Europeans who were now living through the heady days of the Renaissance could barely comprehend. It was time to stop speculating from sketchy ancient texts whose writers regurgitated stories they themselves had picked up second-hand, as it was time to set aside the more recent tall tales of dilettante adventurers, soldiers, and diplomats who claimed to have glimpsed the Giza Plateau. It was time for men of learning — serious men — to travel to Egypt and see for themselves.
(This series's cover art is by KennyOMG, and is utilized under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)