Overview of Giza Plateau in Egypt
In the massive site known as The Giza Valley Plateau, there are 11 Pyramids, 4 Valley Temples, 3 Mortuary Temples, 3 Procession ways, a Sphinx, and several boat pits.
Giza is located only a few kilometers south of Cairo, several hundred meters from the last houses in the southernmost part of the city proper, where a limestone cliff rises abruptly from the other side of a sandy desert plateau. The ancient Egyptians called this place imentet, "The West" or kher neter, "the necropolis".
When Khufu, perhaps better known by his Greek name, Cheops, became king of Egypt after the death of Sneferu, there was no convenient space remaining at Dahshur, where Sneferu was buried, for Khufu's own pyramid complex. Therefore, he moved his court and residence farther north, where his prospectors had located a commanding rock cliff, overlooking present day Giza, appropriate for a towering pyramid. This rock cliff was in the northernmost part of the first Lower Egyptian nome ("the white fortress").
The older pyramids of the third and early fourth dynasty were built on thick layers of marl and slate. These marl layers were easier to dig than limestone, so excavation of the large shafts that extended as much as 30 meters beneath the step pyramids was accomplished in a reasonable time. However, there was also a serious disadvantage, because the marl layers could not support their weight.
The underlayer gave way, and the construction became unstable. This in fact happened with the South Pyramid at Dahshur, where cracks and serious damage appeared in the corridor system and in the chambers so that the pyramid had to be abandoned.
Hence, when Khufu planned his own ambitious pyramid, he was looking for a solid rock base, nearby quarries and a dominating position overlooking the Nile Valley, which he of course found at Giza.
Giza can be subdivided into two groupings of monuments, clearly defined and separated by a wadi. The larger grouping consists of the three "Great" pyramids of Khufu, Khephren (Khafre), and Menkaure, the Sphinx, attendant temples and outbuildings, and the private mastabas of the nobility.
The second grouping, located on the ridge to the southeast, contains a number of private tombs of citizens of various classes. While the majority of the monuments of the larger grouping are made from limestone that was quarried and transported to the site, the tombs of the smaller grouping are simply carved out of the native living rock.
Though the three Great Pyramids are the most famous and prominent monuments at Giza, the site has actually been a Necropolis almost since the beginning of Pharaonic Egypt. A tomb just on the outskirts of the Giza site dates from the reign of the First Dynasty Pharaoh Wadj (Djet), and jar sealings discovered in a tomb in the southern part of Giza mention the Second Dynasty Pharaoh Ninetjer.
But it was the Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops) who placed Giza forever at the heart of funerary devotion, a city of the dead that dwarfed the cities of the living nearby. In order to build his complex, he had to clear away many of the old tombs, filling in their shafts or even totally destroying them. His pyramid, the largest of all the pyramids in Egypt (though it should be noted that it surpasses the Red Pyramid at Dahshur built by his father Snefru by only ten meters), dominates the sandy plain.
On its southwest diagonal is the pyramid of his son, Khephren (Chephren, Khafre). Although it is smaller, a steeper angle results in the illusion that they are the same size. In fact, Kephren's pyramid appears taller since it is on higher ground. The notion that this was done on purpose to out-do his father is without question. As it occupies the central point, has the illusion of greater size, and still has some of its casing stones intact, it is frequently mistaken to as the Great Pyramid, something that would no doubt please Khephren were he alive today.
Further along the southwest diagonal is the smallest of the three great pyramids, that of Khephren's son, Menkaure. It is also the most unusual. First of all, it is not entirely limestone. The uppermost portions are brick, much like the several Pyramids at Dahshur, though separated from them by several centuries. One theory is that Menkaure died before his pyramid could be completed, and the remaining construction was hastily done to finish it in time for the burial. It is also not along the diagonal line that runs through the Great Pyramid and the Second Pyramid, but instead is nearly a hundred meters to the southeast. This error, if error it is, is of a magnitude not in keeping with the mathematical skill known to have been possessed by the ancient Egyptians. However, an idea has emerged in the last few years that the three large pyramids of Giza are actually meant to be in an alignment resembling that of the three "belt" stars in the constellation Orion: Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. This theory is largely discounted by the majority of Egyptologists, but some do believe it is a point to ponder. Actually, it should also be noted that, while the center of the pyramid does not line up with its larger counterparts, the southeast sides of all three pyramids are in alignment.
All three pyramids stand empty, probably plundered during the political unrest that ended the Old Kingdom when the monarchy collapsed. Yet there are the occasional surprises. Airtight pits along the southern and eastern walls of Khufu's pyramid contain boats (not small ritual boats, but fully-functional funerary barges with 40-ton displacements. One was excavated in 1954).
Throughout the Old Kingdom, the cemetery of Giza remained the most prominent, even when the kings moved again to Southern Saqqara. For example, important officials such as the architects of the 'inti family, who constructed the pyramids of the 5th and 6th Dynasties, continued to live in the pyramid town of Khufu and had their family tombs at Giza.
During the First Intermediate Period, the pyramid town of Khufu and the cemetery of Giza were both abandoned, and they remained so during the Middle Kingdom. In fact, the pyramids were forcefully opened and plundered, and the private tombs were not ignored by thieves either. The causeways and temples were in fact even used as quarries by the architects of the kings of the 12th Dynasty.
New Kingdom - 18th Dynasty
This all changed completely during the New Kingdom. The kings of the 18th Dynasty showed deep respect for the pyramids as monuments of their ancestors at Giza, and the area gained considerable religious significance as the center of royal worship to the Great Sphinx, "Lord of Setpet, the Chosen Place." Princes and kings of the 18th and 19th Dynasties erected stelae between the paws of the Sphinx, which was no longer seen as a royal statue but rather as an image of the sun god Harmachis, "Horus in his Western Horizon", which was actually a reference to the "Horizon of Khufu". Amenhotep II dedicated a small temple to Harcachis to the northeast of the Sphinx. On foundation tables of that temple, the Sphinx is also named Harmachis-Hauron. Hauron was the name of a Syrian-Palestinian god of the netherworld that a community of Syrian-Palestinians living near the Great Sphinx identified with his image. Ramesses II installed a sanctuary within the forepaws of the Sphinx.
In the Late period, Osiris became the dominant god of the area, taking over the cult locations of Rostau from Sokar and installing his cult in the Sphinx. High, massive pedestals were actually added to the body of the Sphinx, on which chapels of Osiris and probably Isis stood. Isis became known as the "Lady of the Pyramids."
During the Sixth Century BC onward, Greek travelers admired the pyramids at Giza, and it was they who eventually placed the monuments in the list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
After the Pharonic Period, and up until recently, stone from the monuments were taken and used to build buildings in nearby Cairo. First the polished white limestone "casing" was taken, then the softer core stones. Many of Cairo's oldest buildings are built partly from stones from the pyramids. This destruction continued well into the Nineteenth Century until preservation efforts and a resurgence of national pride put a stop to it. It is believed that had the pyramids not been vandalized, they would still remain to this day much as they were when they were built. As the saying goes, "Man fears Time, but Time fears the Pyramids."
Sizing Giza Up
Exactly how big Giza is may never be known. Excavations have continued to find new tombs and artifacts since Bezoni, Caviglia, Perring, and Vyse began the first systematic study of Giza in the early 1800s. It has been explored and excavated more thoroughly than any other site in Egypt, possibly more than any other site in the world, yet no one believes the research is anywhere near complete today. -- edited form the original by Alan Winston