Monthly Archives: June 2015

Giza Month Part Three: Menkaure, the Pyramid Cut Short

The smallest and final pyramid to be discussed as part of our investigation of the great pyramids of Giza is the monument constructed by Pharaoh Menkaure (possibly known as Mycerinos to the Greeks).

map giza pyramid complex- courtesy of khan academy

map giza pyramid complex- courtesy of khan academy

Standing at a mere 213 feet tall, Menkaure’s pyramid seems insignificant when compared to its sister structures. However, the pyramid chambers within this smaller monument are much more complex than those found in Khafre’s pyramid and include a chamber of decorative panels, one of six large niches, and a burial chamber lined with massive granite blocks. A black stone sarcophagus, carved with beautiful niched panels, was discovered inside the burial chamber, but was later lost at sea as it was being transported to England.

Pyramid of Menkaure, courtesy of Dr. Amy Calvert

Pyramid of Menkaure, courtesy of Dr. Amy Calvert

 

The Pharaoh Menkaure died unexpectedly during the construction of the pyramid and its complex, and therefore work was abandoned. However, remains of mud brick found on the pyramid reveal that at some point after Menkaure’s death, the complex was completed, though not as Menkaure originally intended. The most plausible theory in regards to the completion of the complex is that Menkaure’s heir, Shepseskaf, returned to the site and completed the work using mud brick.

 

King Menkaure (Mycerinus) and queen, 2490-2472 B.C.E., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)​    *Diad: Piece of Statuary depicting two figures

King Menkaure (Mycerinus) and queen, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Although his pyramid and complex were not fully completed as planned, many statues of the pharaoh were found in Menkaure’s mortuary and valley temples.One example of this statuary (and one of my favorite pieces of statuary in Egyptian history) consists of a beautiful diad* depicting the king and his primary queen Khamerernebty II which now resides at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.This exquisite statue was accompanied by a number of triads depicting the king with various deities which would have originally been set up surrounding the open court of the valley temple.This temple was still an active cult location late into the Old Kingdom, but was entirely reconstructed at the end of the 6th dynasty after it was heavily damaged by a flood.

 

Although Menkaure’s pyramid was not the largest and his complex not the most impressive of the three, when modern man calls to mind an image of the Giza Plateau, we see the points of all three pyramids standing against the blue Egyptian sky. The third pyramid and complex seem to somehow complete the whole.

Perhaps it’s as the wise man said in Schoolhouse Rock:

“Three is a magic number. Yes it is; it’s a magic number. Somewhere in the ancient, mystic trinity, you get three as a magic number.”

 

 

 

Additional resources:
Mark Lehner, The Complete Pyramids (Thames and Hudson, 2008).

David O’Connor, Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris (Thames and Hudson, 2011).

Amy Calvert , Old Kingdom: Pyramid of Khufu, Khan Academy

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Giza Month, Part Two: Khafre, the Pyramid, and the Sphinx

The second largest pyramid on the Giza plateau, and the second largest in the entirety of Egypt, is the monument built by the Pharaoh Khafre (Known to the Greeks as Chephren). While his brother (or possibly his uncle) Djedefre ruled before Khafre and constructed his pyramid at Abu Rawash, Khafre returned to Giza to build his pyramid beside his father’s.

map giza pyramid complex- courtesy of khan academy

map Giza pyramid complex- courtesy of khan academy

Standing around 471 feet tall, Khafre’s pyramid is just shy of reaching the height of Khufu’s monument, but despite this seeming inadequacy, Khafre would not be outdone. In order to make his pyramid appear the larger of the two, Khafre constructed his pyramid 10 m (33 feet) higher on the plateau. Although the capstone of the pyramid is lost, a section of the original outer casing stones still remains near the top of Khafre’s pyramid, giving Egyptologists greater insight as to how the great pyramids at Giza would have looked to the ancient Egyptians.

photo courtesy of Keith payne

photo courtesy of Keith Payne

An examination of the inner layout of the pyramid makes it clear that Khafre’s focus was on the exterior of the pyramid and the surrounding complex.  The interior of the pyramid is much simpler than that of Khufu’s Pyramid, holding only a single burial chamber, a small subsidiary chamber, and two passageways.

layout of Khafre's pyramid

Diagram of the interior of the pyramid of Khafre

There are, however, some mysteries surrounding Khafre and his pyramid. Although a sarcophagus was discovered within the burial chamber, no mummy or other remains have ever been found within the pyramid. In the second burial chamber (according to the above diagram), archaeologists uncovered a pit which may have been the intended resting place for Khafre’s canopic jars (jars containing internal organs extracted during the mummification process), but this is uncertain. It is also thought that perhaps this grand pyramid was meant to serve a ceremonial purpose rather than as a burial site, but this is also a speculation.  The purpose of the second chamber within the pyramid is also unknown.

Pillars in Valley Temple of Khafre. Photo courtesy of Amy Calvert

Pillars in Valley Temple of Khafre. Photo courtesy of Amy Calvert

The complex surrounding Khafre’s pyramid is much more intricate than that of its predecessor. Pharaoh Khafre was known for his self-representative statuary, and he filled his mortuary temple with over 52 life-size or larger images. The valley temple, located at the east end of the causeway, is beautifully preserved. Holding an additional 24 images of the pharaoh, the temple was constructed of megalithic blocks sheathed with granite and floors of polished white calcite.

However impressive the temples may be, nothing comes close to the colossal Great Sphinx. With the body of the lion and the head of Pharaoh Khafre. The sphinx is carved from the bedrock of the Giza plateau, and archaeologists believe that the core blocks that construct the king’s valley temple were quarried from the stone that runs along the upper sides of the sphinx itself! The king’s head is slightly smaller in scale than the lion body, which sculptors attempted to compensate for by elongating the body.

courtesy of Disney Corporation

courtesy of Disney Corporation

The combination of the lion, a royal symbol as well as a symbol of the horizon, and the king’s head, show not only his power as the ruler, but helps to guard him through a successful journey to the afterlife.One highly-debated aspect of the Sphinx’s history involves the missing part of his nose, which is often believed to have been blown off by a shot from one of Napoleon’s soldiers.

(Or maybe it is from Aladdin and Jasmine accidentally knocking it on their magic carpet ride?)

In any case, Pharaoh Khafre’s contribution to the Giza Plateau solidified the site’s importance in the history of the Old Kingdom and the ancient Egyptian civilization, adding to the majesty and mystique that continues to attract and inspire the human race.

courtesy of Keith Payne

courtesy of Keith Payne

Additional resources:
Mark Lehner, The Complete Pyramids (Thames and Hudson, 2008).

David O’Connor, Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris (Thames and Hudson, 2011).

Amy Calvert , Old Kingdom: Pyramid of Khufu, Khan Academy

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Giza Month Part One: Khufu and the Great Pyramid of Giza

Welcome to Giza Month! This month, I’m going to fill you in on the creation of one of the Seven Wonders of the World: the Pyramids at Giza, and their surrounding, but lesser known, treasures. Finally, we’ll end the month with a discussion of the ongoing and heated debate surrounding the construction of the pyramids.

map giza pyramid complex- courtesy of khan academy

map Giza pyramid complex – courtesy of khan academy

It’s evident that Giza Month should begin with the largest and most iconic pyramid in the history of Ancient Egypt: The Great Pyramid constructed during the reign of Pharaoh Khufu (known in some ancient documents by the Greek version of his name, Cheops). Built over an estimated 20-30 year period, Khufu’s pyramid stands around 480 feet tall, with a base length of more than 750 feet per side. Almost more impressive than the pyramid’s imposing dimensions is the fact that the difference in length among the four sides is a mere 4.4 cm, an incredible engineering accomplishment for an ancient society.

Entrance, Pyramid of Khufu (Photo: Olaf Tausch)

Entrance, Pyramid of Khufu (Photo: Olaf Tausch)

The Great Pyramid of Giza incorporates around 2.3 million stone blocks weighing an average of 2.5 to 15 tons each. The stones you see in the image above are the inner, locally quarried core stones. During the original construction, angled outer casing stone made of white Tura limestone was installed on top of these less ornamental blocks to give the pyramid a smooth surface while being bright and reflective. Finally, the pyramid would have possessed a capstone, known as a pyramidion, that may have been gilt, and would have certainly been visible for miles around. Both the pyramidion and casing stones were removed and repurposed long ago in order to construct other monuments.

To enter the pyramid, the visitor has to crawl up an extremely cramped ascending chamber that opens suddenly into the Grand Gallery. From this 26-foot tall corbelled passageway, the visitor can decide to descend to the Queens Chamber or the unfinished subterranean chamber below, or to ascend to the King’s chamber, which is constructed entirely from red granite brought from the southern quarries at Aswan.

Diagram of the interior of the Pyramid of Khufu

Diagram of the interior of the Pyramid of Khufu

Above the King’s Chamber are five stress-relieving chambers of granite blocks that create a roof that helps distribute the weight of the pyramid itself. The king’s sarcophagus was found sitting at the exact central axis of the pyramid in a burial chamber. The chamber was sealed with a collection of large granite blocks and the entrance of the main shaft filled with limestone to obscure the opening to the human eye.

The pyramid was not Khufu’s only successful construction project: The Great Pyramid was the centerpiece of an entire complex, which includes several smaller pyramids, a mortuary temple, a causeway, a valley temple, many small tombs for officials and some members of the royal family, and more than five large boat pits.

Reconstructed funerary boat of Khufu (Photo: Dr. Amy Calvert)

Reconstructed funerary boat of Khufu (Photo: Dr. Amy Calvert)

These boat pits, which have a history of accompanying pharaonic mortuary structures (discovered at the Dynasty 1 pharaonic cemetery at Abydos), were intended to store the boats the pharaoh would need to transport himself across the sky in the afterlife. Although five of these pits contained only boat-shaped models, two pits on the south side of the Great Pyramid contained completed disassembled boats and all the supplies necessary to build them.  Using only ancient instructions and materials (or materials created through use of ancient instructions), one of these boats was removed and reconstructed, now standing in a special museum on the south side of the pyramid. The reconstructed cedar boat is 142 feet in length and contains 1,224 individual pieces! Investigation of the burial site, seems to indicate that these boats were most likely used for the funerary procession of the pharaoh to his resting places, and were then dismantled and buried.

Khufu’s Great Pyramid and the accompanying treasures not only helped to insure the safe passage of the king into the afterlife, but have contributed to humankind’s continuing fascination with Ancient Egypt. People from all over the world continue to flock to Giza to see these monuments. Even in an age dominated by technology and somewhat jaded human sensibilities, the pyramids represent something grand and immovable, they exert a mysterious power, drawing our attention and stirring our imagination.

“Man fears time, but Time fears the pyramids.”

Photo by Astronaut Terry W. Virts

Photo by Astronaut Terry W. Virts

Additional resources:
Mark Lehner, The Complete Pyramids (Thames and Hudson, 2008).

David O’Connor, Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris (Thames and Hudson, 2011).

Amy Calvert , Old Kingdom: Pyramid of Khufu, Khan Academy

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