The Pyramids of Giza are the world’s foremost human-made icons of endurance. “Man fears time,” runs an Arab proverb, “but time fears the pyramids.”
Yet the relationship between the pyramids and time is actually more complicated than that proverb suggests. Certainly the pyramids haven’t escaped unscathed the passing of the years, decades, centuries, and millennia. The Giza Plateau became more or less a ruin 1800 years before the time of Socrates and Plato, and more or less a ruin it has remained ever since. By comparison with that huge span of time, the period when the place was splendidly intact, as we met it at the end of the last chapter, is the merest instant. A patina of age and mystery clung to it already long before Greece and Rome rose and fell. Today, the place looks its age — and that, of course, is a big part of its appeal. We can dream about how it looked in its heyday, but would we really wish to trade the tumbledown pyramids we know for the smooth-sided, perfect creations of old? The Romantic poets among us, at the very least, would be devastated.
Already by the time the Pyramid of Menkaure was completed by that pharaoh’s successor Shepseskaf, the last monarch of the Fourth Dynasty, the Old Kingdom of Egypt was passing its peak of wealth and splendor. Although some dignitaries and courtiers did continue to build tombs at Giza during the latter days of the Old Kingdom, no more pharaonic tombs were built there. The pharaohs of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties likely avoided the site in order to avoid providing a tangible illustration, through the necessarily diminished sizes of their own pyramids, of how their reigns failed to compare with the heights reached during the time of Khufu and Khafre.
In fact, we can assume that the place gradually fell into neglect during this period, as the halcyon days of the pharaohs enshrined there faded into the distant past and the nation struggled with mounting internal and external threats to the maat. Among the internal problems were constant intrigues and power struggles, not only within the enormous yet ingrown pharaonic family tree but within an expanding bureaucratic professional class with increasing clout; among the external problems were the people the Egyptians had always referred to disparagingly as the “sand dwellers” of Nubia, who began to raid and plunder the settlements of Upper Egypt as the administrative state broke down.
The last historically memorable pharaoh of the Old Kingdom assumed the throne while still an infant about 200 years after the death of Menkaure. We’ve been historically conditioned to see a long reign as a sign of prosperity and stability, but the six decades or more which Pepi II, the pharaoh in question, spent on the throne were marked by anything but. A weak and ineffectual ruler, he presided over further dissolution and fragmentation in the government, even as his country was rammed by a series of devastating Nile floods — a sure sign to anyone watching that the maat had drifted well out of joint — to which it was hopelessly unequipped to respond. The result was widespread suffering and famine while Pepi II sat upon his throne and fiddled.
Pepi II was also the last pharaoh of the canonical Sixth Dynasty of ancient Egypt. His death was followed by a still more chaotic period that would prove as confusing to Egypt’s own later historians as it is to Egyptologists today. Indeed, it’s believed today that Manetho, otherwise Egypt’s most reliable native historian, imagined an entire Seventh Dynasty that never actually existed.
The Eighth Dynasty, on the other hand, was so underwhelming a proposition that it might almost as well never have existed. Claimants to the throne pressed their cases to the verge of outright civil wars, the backstabbers and poisoners came out in force, and Egypt went through ten pharaohs in a single six-year period, seventeen in twenty years. The longevity record for the Eighth Dynasty would appear to belong to the pharaoh named Ibi, who lasted all of two years, one month, and one day on the throne, and even managed to build himself a pyramid of sorts — a deformed little thing at Saqqara, just 60 feet (18 meters) high, slapped together out of mud-brick rather than limestone or granite. One can learn much about the course of Egyptian history in the centuries immediately after Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure by comparing this slightly pathetic tomb with the ones dedicated to those earlier pharaohs on the Giza Plateau.
Not long after Ibi took up residence in his pyramid, around 2150 BC, the Eighth Dynasty too passed away, and with it the last vestiges of Egypt as a united country with a single government. There would be more dynasties and pharaohs during the so-called “First Intermediate Period” that followed — in fact, there would sometimes be more than one of them in competition with one another at the same time. But these pharaohs of the Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Dynasties were little more than pawns in the hands of regional governors and warlords.
It was probably during this period, if not before it, that the Egyptians switched from merely neglecting the Giza Plateau to violating it. In an impoverished country such as Egypt had become, the gold sparkling atop the pyramids must have been far too tempting to leave alone. Thus we can assume that the pyramids all lost their pyramidions at this time, as intrepid climbers devised ways to scale the sheer walls and remove them, marking the first great act of vandalism which the monuments suffered. And then, with this low-hanging fruit duly claimed, that which lay inside the pyramids must be the next target.
I noted earlier how shockingly well the Pyramids of Giza succeeded at their abstract goal of preserving the names and memories of the rulers they entombed for all history. Yet they managed to fulfill their more practical goal of preserving their pharaohs’ bodies and ceremonial burial accoutrements for only a few hundreds years at the most. The builders had done their best to protect the pyramids’ precious contents with portcullises and weighty granite plug blocks, but their downfall was the sheer size and prominence of the structures themselves, which fairly shouted to the world of the treasures that must exist within. Those relatively few tombs in Egypt which would escape plunder to reach modern times with their contents mostly intact, such as the tomb of Queen Hetepheres I at Giza or the famous New Kingdom tomb of Tutankhamen at Luxor, would do so by hiding from would-be robbers rather than defying their full-frontal assaults. The Pyramids of Giza, by contrast, were the antithesis of that approach to security by obscurity. The so-called “Robbers’ Tunnel” into the Pyramid of Khufu, believed by the Arab scholars of a later era to be evidence of a tale from the Arabian Nights, more likely stems from this much earlier time; ditto the forced entrance into the Pyramid of Khafre which would later cause Giovanni Belzoni such disconcertion and confusion.
Make no mistake: penetrating the pyramids’ internal defenses to arrive at their burial chambers was a challenge — especially in the case of the Pyramid of Khufu, whose defenses were, as we’ve seen, unusually ingenious and extensive. But the riches that must wait within made it worth any amount of time, labor, and risk. Granite being itself a valuable building material, large chunks of that used to block the pyramids’ inner passages probably got carted out and sold after it had been cut away, perhaps serving to finance the robbers’ further plundering efforts. Smaller pieces got tossed aside and left inside the pyramids, for millennia worth of later explorers and would-be plunderers to trip over. (As we learned alongside John Greaves near the beginning of this little odyssey, the debris left behind by the long line of shattered granite blocks that once plugged the ascending passage inside the Pyramid of Khufu was so extensive as eventually to completely block that pyramid’s descending passage down to its unfinished subterranean burial chamber.)
We can only imagine the sight that must have greeted these first robbers when the last of a pyramid’s defenses fell before them and they entered the inner sanctum of the burial chamber. The only thing we can say for sure is that, based on the treasures found in the comparatively modest tomb of a contemporary queen like Hetepheres I and on the Fourth Dynasty’s general reputation for prodigious wealth and power, the sight must have been an extraordinary one indeed. All of these treasures are lost to us now, having probably been melted down to be reworked into new forms after they were removed from the places where they were meant to remain forever.
There was little motivation to preserve the legacy the treasures represented, for, as we learned earlier, the end of the Old Kingdom coincided with an apparent backlash against the cult of the Fourth Dynasty — especially against Khufu, its grandest pharaoh of all. The latter’s temples were despoiled, and depictions of him in sculpture and hieroglyphs were so efficiently eradicated that not a single one survived to speak to us today. It’s easy enough to picture these depredations as the natural pique of a benighted, hardscrabble people forced to live in the shadow of glories that once were. Whether there was another religious and/or philosophical basis to the rejection, however, remains unclear. Still, we can say that, given the tenor of the times, these earliest robbers on the Giza Plateau — the only ones in history to come away with a full measure of the treasure they had dreamed of — were quite likely sanctioned by a reactionary priesthood eager to wipe away all traces of a different, better past.
And yet, while it may indeed have seemed to said priesthood and others that the gods no longer favored Egypt, this First Intermediate Period would actually prove to be just what its name would imply: only the first of several cycles of decline and renewal for the kingdom of the pharaohs. Around 2000 BC, the Eleventh Dynasty pharaoh Mentuhotep II reunited the land under a firm central authority for the first time in generations and reasserted the pharaoh’s divine role as its supreme leader, to be obeyed in all things. With his reign, the Middle Kingdom period of Egyptian history began. Although the country grew prosperous and powerful again, the aesthetic culture of the Middle Kingdom never fully returned to the almost brutalist maximalism of the Old Kingdom. Instead softer arts like literature flowered, and architecture and sculpture too replaced size with intricacy.
It was with the Middle Kingdom that the Pyramids of Giza passed out of the realm of history and into that of myth and legend, a place from which they’ve never quite managed to escape despite the best efforts of our modern Egyptologists. Their aesthetic was almost as alien to the Egyptians of this time as it seems to us today. In fact, the Middle Kingdom responded to it much like we do: with a mixture of repulsion and veneration — repulsion at the degree of ego and absolute power required to get the pyramids made, veneration toward the simple fact of such a colossal achievement.
The Middle Kingdom pharaoh most taken with the Giza Plateau was Amenemhat I, an apparent commoner who in about 1935 BC seized the throne in a coup d’état, thereby inaugurating the Twelfth Dynasty. Eager to bolster his divine/royal bona fides for obvious reasons, he set out to emulate the Fourth Dynasty pharaohs in many ways. He demanded his own pyramid, albeit with a comparatively modest height of 180 feet (55 meters), at a site near Dashur; it became the first pyramid to be built in Egypt since the Old Kingdom. “Kingship has become again what it was in the past!” he boasted. To cement the connection with his symbolic forefathers, he removed some of the stonework from Khufu’s pyramid and temples and incorporated it into his own final memorial. What some might have seen as just the latest act of desecration by Khufu’s bad-mannered descendants was intended by Amenemhat I as a gesture of respect and continuity from one great monarch to another. His successors in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Dynasties followed his example by building more pyramids of their own, including two that topped 245 feet (75 meters) — higher than the Pyramid of Menkaure, and high enough to qualify as the fourth and fifth highest gradated pyramids ever built in Egypt.
But finally the Middle Kingdom too passed away, marking also the permanent end of significant pyramid building in Egypt. The Second Intermediate Period, which began with the Fourteenth Dynasty around 1630 BC, was marked by more internal strife and by more external threats. An Asiatic people known as the Hyksos came to occupy much of the country, including the Giza Plateau, imposing a Fifteenth Dynasty from without even as a Sixteenth and Seventeenth Dynasty of native-born pharaohs struggled to control other parts of the land.
Around 1540 BC, Ahmose, the first pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, expelled the Hyksos and once again united all of Egypt under a strong native hand. The New Kingdom that followed would last almost half a millennium, encompassing the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth Dynasties. It would mark by most reckonings the absolute peak of ancient Egypt’s power, glory, and splendor. The country would become the economic and military superpower of the age throughout the Mediterranean, even as its architects would once again dare to build on a scale rivaling that of the Old Kingdom. Yet they would temper their lust for size with all of the intricacy that had marked the art and architecture of the Middle Kingdom.
Throughout this new age of glory, the Pyramids of Giza, now passing 1000 years old, remained symbols of Egyptian continuity and identity, living embodiments of their circular view of history, that cycle of eternal recurrence which had begotten the Old, the Middle, and now this New Kingdom of the pharaohs. The Eighteenth Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep II, who reigned from approximately 1425 to 1400 BC, had a special connection to the Giza Plateau: as a boy, he had ridden horses and practiced archery there among these relics of the past. He had a particular fascination with the Sphinx, which was then, as it would be so often throughout its history, all but buried in its hollow under the implacable sands that were constantly sweeping the plateau. Amenhotep II restored the Sphinx as a place of worship, building a new temple just to its northeast. He also began the immense labor of clearing away the sand that surrounded it, marking the first of many attempts at restoration on the Giza Plateau — arguably even the first act of archaeology. Many of the acts that would follow, mingled as they would be with a desire to exploit the wonders in question for immediate political ends, would prove a vexing source of confusion for the archaeologists of later epochs.
To wit: Thutmose IV, the son of and successor to Amenhotep II, completed the first unburying of the Sphinx. After doing so, he built a wall around it in an attempt to keep the sand at bay, and restored some of the casing stones that were falling off of the statue itself. To commemorate the work, he placed his famous “Dream Stele” against the Sphinx’s chest, where it remains to this day. As first translated by Karl Richard Lepsius in the nineteenth century, it tells of how the creator god Atum came to the young pharaoh-to-be in a dream, promising him a long and peaceful reign if he would restore the Sphinx to its former glory. Given that his father had already begun the work of restoration, there were some obvious factual discrepancies to this story, but it served the purpose of binding this New Kingdom pharaoh not only to the gods but to the equally rarefied Old Kingdom pharaohs who had first built on the Giza Plateau.
Thus the Sphinx, and perhaps to some extent the rest of the Giza Plateau, were being actively maintained again as places of worship by a revitalized priesthood as the New Kingdom reached ever greater heights. Between 1353 and 1336 BC came and went the strangest period of all ancient Egyptian history: the reign of Amenhotep IV, who renamed himself Akhenaten and attempted to sweep away thousands of years of religious tradition at a stroke, replacing it with a monotheistic cult of sun worship that carries with it today an inescapable whiff of Christianity, despite its point of origin of more than thirteen centuries before that religion was founded. Soon after this bizarre and short-lived deviation from the orthodoxy of the maat came Tutankhamen, the “boy king” who played in his nursery while his viziers did the work of restoring Egypt to the old ways, then died on the brink of adulthood, to be buried inside what would become the only pharaonic tomb ever discovered by modern-day archaeologists with its contents reasonably intact.
In 1279 BC, Ramses II of the Nineteenth Dynasty assumed the throne to begin what might be the longest and is certainly the most remarkable reign in all Egyptian history, eclipsing even the splendor of the Fourth Dynasty pharaohs. Ramses II was as shrewd a diplomat as he was a military leader, and he projected Egyptian power throughout the Mediterranean by means of both approaches. At home, meanwhile, he built monuments to himself on a staggering scale at sites like Abu Simbel. He left his mark upon the Giza Sphinx as well, placing two more steles full of panegyrics to himself alongside the Dream Stele of Thutmose IV and building the elegant little inner temple which Giovanni Caviglia would later discover just in front of the steles. (Unlike the older stele, those dedicated to Ramses II no longer remain in front of the Sphinx today.)
Otherwise, though, Ramses II, already reckoning himself rather than Khufu to be the greatest pharaoh of them all, showed little respect for the Giza Plateau. Although he seems to have left the pyramids themselves alone for the most part, he happily stole limestone and granite from the tombs and temples surrounding them for use in his own building projects; archaeologists of later eras would thus be left to ponder such mysteries as why they found the name of Khafre inscribed on a red-granite block 90 miles (150 kilometers) away at Tanis, a temple site first established 1000 years after the death of that pharaoh. Indeed, Ramses II appears to be the originator of the dubious tradition of using the precious relics of the past on the Giza Plateau as a handy source of practical building materials. With little or nothing left inside the monuments to plunder, only the stuff of the monuments themselves remained. He also quarried much fresh stone from the Giza Plateau, giving the archaeologists of the future yet more to scratch their heads about in the process; the hieroglyphs of the officious quarry superintendent named Muci, later to be puzzled over by the the likes of Samuel Birch for their failure to fit the established chronology of construction efforts on the plateau, date from this period.
Ramses II finally died in 1213 BC, and with him passed the high-water mark of all Egyptian history. No fewer than nine of the pharaohs of the Twentieth Dynasty, which succeeded the Nineteenth soon after Ramses II’s death, took his name in an attempt to cover themselves with some of his glory, but theirs was nevertheless a time of gradual decline. Egypt ebbed toward a Third Intermediate Period, which began in earnest in 1069 BC and was dominated by an elite class of Libyan power brokers who seized most of the reins of government and who provided most of the pharaohs of the 21st through 24th Dynasties.
So, the Giza Plateau fell back into neglect and abandonment; the sands were allowed to cover the Sphinx once again as Thutmose IV’s retaining wall crumbled. It was a suitable metaphor for the submergence of traditional Egyptian culture beneath new, foreign ways.
In 728 BC, a disunited Egypt suffered the ultimate indignity of conquest by the Kushite people of Nubia — the very “sand people” of Egypt’s long-cherished contempt. The dynasty they imposed upon the country for some 75 years would be recorded by Manetho as its 25th. It ended in another invasion, this time by the fearsome Assyrian Empire. Yet, in a remarkable display of political and military wiles, a native Egyptian named Psamtek managed to free his land of both the Kushites and the Assyrians and reestablish an independent, united Egypt in about 650 BC. This Indian summer for native Egyptian culture would go down in history as simply the “Late Period.”
Psamtek I, having established himself as the first pharaoh of the 26th Dynasty, was eager to celebrate his country’s long and oft-glorious past in the midst of a dangerous contemporary world, marked by so many younger powers on the rise all around it. Khufu was elevated to the status of a god on a level with any other, and the priesthood returned to Giza to worship him. And the Sphinx too was revived as an object of worship. It appears that Psamtek I didn’t fully uncover the Sphinx, but he did do some restoration work on those parts of its upper body that were visible, and may have painted its head.
The 26th Dynasty lasted more than a century, but never reached the heights of the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, although it did fend off an attempted Babylonian invasion in rather impressive fashion. In 525 BC, Egypt fell once again to a foreign power: this time to the Persian Empire, the people who first brought to the country its iconic camels. Thus Persian kings rather than Egyptian pharaohs came to constitute the 27th Dynasty. Egypt remained a Persian province for a century and a quarter, despite repeated attempts to throw off the yoke, sometimes with the help of the Greek city-state of Athens, the fledgling democracy whose conflicts with the despotic Persians form some of the most indelible narratives of all ancient history.
In fact, it was a desire to understand the causes and conduct of those conflicts that brought the Athenian writer Herodotus, our constant touchstone through so many of these chapters, to the Giza Plateau around 440 BC. The Father of History and Father of Lies was also the world’s first foreign correspondent, providing the oldest straightforward, presumably factual contemporaneous record of the Giza Plateau that remains to us. His report indicates that the veneration of Khufu that began in the 26th Dynasty was already a thing of the past by the time of his visit; the Egyptians he met, as you’ll doubtless remember, had nothing good to say about Khufu or Khafre. Interestingly, he wrote nothing whatsoever about the Sphinx, seeming not to know of its existence at all. We can assume, then, that that monument as well had fallen out of favor during the Persian occupation, and was once more just a forgotten head sticking forlornly out of the sand, of no interest to anyone. Most of all, the Egypt which Herodotus describes feels old already, a land stooped under the burden of its lengthy history, in some sense even immobilized by it. He is at pains to emphasize how little daily life has changed there since the days of the Fourth Dynasty.
Nevertheless, Egypt still had vigor enough to take advantage of a Persian Empire momentarily distracted by other foreign conflicts; it managed to throw the conquerors out in 404 BC. Yet the 28th, 29th, and 30th Dynasties that followed were even less of a return to glory than the 26th had been. On the contrary: they were shabby affairs one and all, marked by petty squabbles and constant regicide. Sheared of even the pretense of divine favor, Egyptian kingship was revealed to be the brutal exercise in might making right that it had perhaps always been at bottom.
In 343 BC, the Persians walked in again to reconquer the country. The native leader they deposed was named Nakhthorhes. Not only did he thus become the last pharaoh of the 30th Dynasty, he would prove the last ethnically Egyptian supreme ruler of Egypt until the twentieth century of our epoch. The canonical final dynasty of ancient Egypt, the 31st, was made up once again of Persian kings. In this sad fashion, then, the long roll call of the pharaohs comes to an end. The last pharaoh on it is Darius III, also the very last king of the Persian Empire.
Just twenty years after the Persian reconquest, Alexander the Great of Macedonia stormed into Egypt after himself conquering the Persians. The Egyptians had no taste for further conflict, and surrendered without a fight. This latest conqueror spent just four months in Egypt, but that was long enough for him to found the new port of Alexandria, a city that would soon be celebrated as the Mediterranean’s greatest center of learning and commerce. He had a healthy respect for Egypt’s history and traditions, and was largely willing to let the place be as long as it swore its fealty to him. Alas, we don’t know for sure whether Alexander ever visited the Giza Plateau personally, as his disciple Napoleon would later so famously do, but one certainly likes to imagine him there, gazing upon those awe-inspiring monuments that were already incomprehensibly old in his own time.
Following Alexander’s untimely death in 323 BC, his empire was divided up among his generals. Egypt fell to one Ptolemy, who established a new ruling dynasty, the first in the country’s history to go unnumbered. The era of Ptolemaic Egypt is, if nothing else, appropriately named; most of the monarchs to rule the country for the next 281 years took the name of the dynasty’s founder. Especially during the dynasty’s early decades, Ptolemaic Egypt enjoyed renewed international clout and prestige, derived not least from Alexandria, that great multicultural melting pot of scholarship and diplomacy, populated by distinctly non-Egyptian names like Euclid and Archimedes that are still learned by every schoolchild, home to the greatest library of the ancient world as well as the fabled Lighthouse of Alexandria, an engineering wonder to rival the Pyramids of Giza themselves.
Yet Ptolemaic Egypt remained essentially a land under occupation — or, looked at another way, a Greek state rather than an Egyptian one. None of the many monarchs named Ptolemy — there were eleven of them in all — ever even bothered to learn the Egyptian language. The cities of Egypt became cosmopolitan places where Greek was the lingua franca, while the villages and farms still spoke Egyptian and held firm to the old ways. Although the Ptolemaic kings made efforts to dress themselves up in the regalia of the legendary pharaohs, the countryside was having none of it. Rebellions, major and minor, were a constant fact of life.
Ironically, the uneasy coexistence of Greek and Egyptian culture that marked Ptolemaic Egypt would prove a great boon to later scholars seeking to understand the Egypt that had existed before it. With Greek now considered the “higher” language of Egypt, and thus the language of scholarship, many of the native-born elite began to write in that language as well. Their texts would later provide the scholars of Europe’s Early Modern Period, still unable to read hieroglyphs, with some of their first gateways to Egyptian culture and history. Most notably, Manetho, the most complete chronicler of ancient Egypt’s long history, wrote in Greek rather than Egyptian during this period.
Then, too, a country with two national languages demanded plenty of translation between them. This reality was the source of the most famous gift of Ptolemaic Egypt to the Egyptologists of the future. In 196 BC, the Rosetta Stone was engraved with the same royal decree from Ptolemy V in Greek and two forms of Egyptian script. It would provide Jean-François Champollion with the key to deciphering Egyptian writing 2000 years later. (The actual content of the message, on the other hand, being a somewhat nervous-sounding attempt to bolster to the masses Ptolemy V’s legitimacy as ruler, has much in its own right to say about the nature of Ptolemaic Egypt.)
Ptolemaic Egypt’s power and influence faded over time, and it fell more and more under the sway of the Roman Republic, the emerging new superpower of the Mediterranean. The dynasty came to an end with the alluring and tragic figure of Queen Cleopatra, who attempted to thread the needle of a Rome at war with itself by becoming the lover first of Julius Caesar and then of Marc Antony, only to see her machinations blow up in her face. Remembered in legend as the last of the pharaohs — a title that should perhaps more properly be bestowed upon Nakhthorhes, Egypt’s last culturally Egyptian monarch, the last who had the Egyptian language as his mother tongue — her reign ended in the conquest of her land by a newly minted Roman Empire and her own suicide at age 39, fodder for millennia worth of plays, poems, and novels.
Little or no record exists of goings-on on the Giza Plateau during the Ptolemaic era. But the era of Latin Egypt, which began with the downfall of Cleopatra in 30 BC and went on to encompass more than six centuries, is a different story. Particularly during the earlier centuries of that span, when Roman power was at its peak and long-distance travel was easier and safer than it had ever been before, Egypt became a destination of choice for the world’s first leisure class of casual tourists. Like their counterparts of today, they delighted in package cruises up and down the Nile, with the Giza Plateau one of the highlights of the itinerary. Being members of a literate class as well as a wealthy one, some of the visitors wrote about their experiences, whether in letters to family and friends back home or in lengthier travelogues meant for posterity, providing us with the most detailed glimpse we have of the Giza Plateau prior to the last half-millennium or so.
The Roman administrators of Egypt were eager to promote their countrymen’s commerce. In AD 55, they unburied the Sphinx yet again and conducted what modern Egyptologist Zahi Hawass deems “the largest Sphinx restoration in history,” dwarfing even several large-scale efforts made during the twentieth century. But, unlike the archaeologists of today, the Romans didn’t confine their work to restoring the monument to its historical appearance. They envisioned it as their thriving province’s ceremonial and spiritual center, and elaborated upon it accordingly. They painted it in vivid reds, added such adornments as a cobra perched on its crown, and paved the inner temple between its front legs. Presumably not realizing they were building atop an older temple now hidden beneath the sand, they then built the breathtaking processional way before the Sphinx that would later be uncovered by Giovanni Caviglia in the nineteenth century, only to be so rudely cast aside by Emile Baraize in the twentieth. The inscriptions Caviglia found there hint of visits by emperors and other supreme dignitaries, and understandably so — for Egypt was a very wealthy and important province indeed, the breadbasket of the Roman Empire thanks to the annual rhythm of the Nile and its resultant agricultural bounty.
The Romans put on plays before the Sphinx, and conducted religious ceremonies in the inner chapel between its front legs; as time went on and belief in the old religions faded, the latter may have become increasingly tongue-in-cheek, tourist spectacles rather than earnest communions with the gods. It appears that the Romans opened the interior of the Pyramid of Khufu to all and sundry. (The pyramid whose builders tried most diligently to make it impenetrable, it has ironically been the only one to spend a large chunk of its life open to all comers.) They may very well also have cut a staircase out of the side of the same pyramid, to allow visitors to climb easily to the flat platform at its top, where the long-since-stolen pyramidion had once stood, and take in the incredible view. Being now 2500 years old — their point of origin being much farther removed in history from these Roman visitors than said visitors’ own time is from ours — the Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza had become tourist traps with all the trimmings. (In light of this, the modern laser show on the Giza Plateau, “narrated by the Sphinx!” — even the concerts that have been put on there by rock bands like The Grateful Dead — begin to seem less like disrespectful aberrations and more like the heirs to a long tradition of tacky tourism. )
As has been standard practice down through most of the monuments’ existence, the tourists scrawled their names and messages upon them to commemorate their visits. Most of what they wrote on the pyramids themselves has been lost to history along with the pyramids’ smooth outer casings, but one later Arab traveler claimed that there was enough Roman graffiti there at one time to fill a book of 10,000 pages. The few pieces of it that do remain serve to remind us that every one of these tourists had a personal story, just as does every one of the hordes who are disgorged from buses at the Giza Plateau every day in our time. “I have seen the pyramid without you, dearest brother,” writes one woman who lived 2000 years ago. “I have sadly shed my tears — that was all I could do for you — and carve this lament as a memorial to my grief.” Another waxes poetic at — or, rather, on — the feet of the Sphinx, whilst apparently mistaking the creature for a female: “The Sphinx is a wonder, a heavenly vision. Gaze upon her shape, this sacred apparition. Her face is holy, a truly divine rendition. Her body royal and leonine, oh, masterful composition!”
This inscription illustrates that the Roman tourists, again like their counterparts of later times, were often far from clear about the history whose leavings they were viewing. The native Egyptians themselves, who opened a thousand little businesses offering guided tours, chintzy souvenirs, and the obligatory camel rides — on the Giza Plateau, everything old really does become new again if you just give it enough time — were responsible for much of the rampant disinformation. The natives knew that their customers craved outlandish stories and unsolved mysteries, and they delivered in spades. The pyramids were actually symmetrical structures tapering to a point on either end, they said, with their invisible halves buried as far beneath the sand as their visible halves rose above it; Menkaure had been a contemporary of the poet Aesop, and had stolen the latter’s lover and buried her alongside himself in his pyramid; the debris around the pyramids was actually petrified lentils, the sole food of the pyramid builders.
Some visitors to the Giza Plateau, such as the historian Diodorus Sicilus and the geographer Pliny the Elder, did make a more serious effort to understand and contextualize what they were seeing. Yet they couldn’t read the hieroglyphs that surrounded them, and thus had little more than Herodotus, Manetho, the tall tales proffered by the natives in broken Greek and Latin, and the evidence of their own eyes to go upon. Many of the most longstanding myths about the pyramids, some of them still actively believed to this day, stem from these earnest but oft-mistaken scholars of Rome. For example, the idea that the Hebrews built the pyramids, which would go on to make such a profound impact on so many people’s understanding of them through so many centuries and so many shades of variation, can be dated all the way back to approximately AD 75 and the Jewish Roman historian Josephus. The pharaohs “set them [the Hebrews] to build pyramids,” he wrote, “and by this wore them out…”
The first high time of Giza tourism faded in tandem with the empire that had enabled it. And so the Giza Plateau fell once more into neglect, and the relentless sands were once again allowed to cover the Sphinx itself along with all of the Romans’ additions. In AD 642, Latin Egypt, by now ruled from Constantinople rather than Rome, was conquered by an Arab army which brought with it the new religion of Islam, destined to become the heart of a post-Pharaonic identity that Egypt had perhaps been vaguely seeking for the past millennium. These latest conquerors would succeed where their predecessors had failed in truly remolding Egypt in their own image, conquering not just territory but also hearts and minds. Not only the traditional religions but even the language was gradually replaced; the country’s seventh-century mother tongue of Coptic, a direct descendant of the ancient Egyptian language, would fall out of general use by the thirteenth century, although it has remained the liturgical language of a Coptic Christian community in Egypt to this day.
The new Muslim majority wove the pyramids into the alluringly sensual tapestry of magic and myth that would later become known in the West as The One Thousand and One Nights, or just The Arabian Nights. It’s these tales which attribute the Robbers’ Tunnel in the Pyramid of Khufu to a caliph named Al-Maamun, who in approximately AD 820, “attempting to pull down the Pyramids, expended his mint of money, but succeeded only in opening up a small tunnel in one of them, where in it is said he found treasure to the exact amount of the monies he had spent in the works, neither more nor less; whereat he marvelled and taking what he found there, desisted from his determination.”
The early Arab poetry about the pyramids ably expresses the awe felt by so many visitors to the Giza Plateau:
If Kings would see their high empires preserved,
‘Twill be by tongues of monuments they laid:
Seest not the Pyramids? These two endure
Despite what change Time and Change have made.
Look on the Pyramids, and hear the twain
Recount their annals of the long-gone Past:
Could they but speak, high marvels had they told
Of what Time did to man from first to last.
The Sphinx as well found a home within the more mystical, imaginative strain of Islam epitomized by the Arabian Nights. It became known as Abu Hol in Arabic — “Father of Terror” — and was regarded as a potent spiritual totem in its own right.
Other adherents to the new religion, however, were less sympathetic toward these relics of the old. Some deemed them idolatrous blasphemies of the worst stripe, fit only for destruction. It was presumably one of these who mounted a concerted assault on the Sphinx’s face at some point following the Arab conquest, managing to pry away the nose and smash it on the ground and possibly to knock off its beard as well, if it hadn’t fallen off of its own accord by this time. This person’s act of desecration was supposedly rewarded with death at the hands of a lynch mob — another clear sign that Muslim attitudes toward the Giza Plateau were, quite literally, conflicted.
In AD 969, one of the strangest of all aspects of the long, strange life of the Giza Plateau took root when a general named Jawhar al-Siqilli elected to establish a new city just across the Nile from it, to become a new regional capital of the Fatmid Caliphate to which Egypt now belonged. After all those millennia of splendid isolation, the Pyramids of Giza suddenly found themselves perched on the doorstep of a burgeoning metropolis that would become the largest, most vibrant city in the Middle East.
There’s no evidence that Jawhar al-Siqilli selected the site because of all that handy limestone nearby on the Giza Plateau; the same strategic and symbolic advantages that had once attracted Khufu to this junction point between Upper and Lower Egypt must have been equally enticing to the Arab general. But once construction got underway, the builders of Cairo didn’t hesitate to avail themselves. Over the centuries that followed, the pyramids were steadily stripped of their smooth Tora limestone casings. Legend has it that the gash in the side of the Pyramid of Menkaure that still so prominently mars it today was made during this period as well; it seems that the dwellers in the new city attempted to tear down the pyramid completely in order to harvest all of its stone, only to give it up in the end as not worth the effort when more could be so easily quarried nearby. Any reverence the people of Cairo held toward the Giza Plateau seems to have been confined to the Sphinx. But then, being that the Sphinx is in many ways the most fragile of all the monuments, we can feel fortunate that they at least left it alone for the most part.
And then it came to pass in the 1160s of our era, in the midst of all this frantic construction and destruction, that a new generation of Europeans began to arrive in Egypt as holy warriors for another religion. They looked with shock upon the Pyramids of Giza, bruised and more than a little disheveled by the indignities they had been suffering but still basically intact, still standing there so incongruously in the desert, so defiantly neither Muslim nor Christian. Where had they come from? Who had made them? When? The Crusaders carried the stories of what they had seen and the questions it had prompted home with them, and this caused others there to wonder as well…
Where is the man who built the Pyramids?
What was his tribe, what day and where his tomb?
The monuments survive the men who built
Awhile, till overthrown by touch of Doom.
(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.)