ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 22, 2017. UPDATED SEPTEMBER 22, 2021.
For more than 4,000 years the Great Pyramid has drawn people to Giza. The largest pyramid currently standing anywhere in the world has borne numerous names across the millennia and inspired countless stories. For two Arab authors, writing after the 3rd or 4th century AD, it was a monumental repository raised by the legendary King Surid to safeguard the wealth and wisdom of Egypt from flood and fire. A few hundred years earlier, Greek and Roman tourists celebrated it as a wonder of the ancient world, while the historian Herodotus offered a damning verdict on the antics of its builder, whom he called Cheops. Perhaps the most prosaic writings concerning the pyramid are also the earliest. These take the form of funerary inscriptions, graffiti, and even a journal penned by those toiling to construct it in the 3rd millennium BC, during the reign of Pharaoh Khufu. It is the name for the pyramid coined by its creators that has also proven most prophetic: the Akhet Khufu or ‘Horizon of Khufu’.
Today, the horizon at Giza is one of the most recognisable in the world, thanks to the three close-set, pharaonic pyramids silhouetted like serrated teeth against the skyline. Of these monuments, the middle one – with its pinnacle still clad in fine limestone casing – often appears the largest, but this is no more than a trick of perspective. This edifice overlies the tomb of Khufu’s second son, Khafre, while the smallest of the ‘big three’ Giza pyramids was commissioned by Pharaoh Menkaure. He is believed to be Khafre’s son, and Khufu’s grandson, but time ran out on Menkaure before his resting place was complete. His demise resulted in the lower part of the pyramid bearing lumpy, unfinished, granite casing stones, producing a somewhat rustic finish. Despite such concessions to speed, these grandiose funerary monuments, probably raised over the course of about 70 years during what Egyptologists call the 4th Dynasty, have overshadowed Giza, both literally and figuratively, ever since.
Despite the impressive scale of the pyramids, there has always been more to Giza than these immodest monuments. Traces of the first activity on the plateau have been all but wiped away by quarrying and later burials. Even so, both earlier pottery found in the vicinity of the Great Pyramid and three grandiose tombs just south of the Giza plateau, pre-dating Khufu’s dynasty, suggest the escarpment was no blank canvas for the pharaoh’s grand design. Even during the heyday of pharaonic pyramid-building at the site, these monuments were only the most ostentatious element of an intricate suite of funerary structures. Each Pharaonic pyramid was served by an upper and lower temple, which were connected to the pyramid via a ceremonial causeway. Smaller satellite pyramids for queens could be arranged around the pharaoh’s resting place, while pits containing boats emphasise their role as ports on a voyage to the afterlife. Giza was not restricted to royalty, though, and there are also elite tombs, which were laid out like the orderly city blocks of a modern new town and contained the elite of ancient Egyptian society.
Life from death
The Egyptian mania for pyramids may have stemmed from a very simple observation. Every year, as the Nile floods receded, it was the mounds projecting above the waters that turned green fastest. This reading casts the corpses of the dead as metaphorical seeds, planted beneath their own ceremonial mounds, preparing them for renewed life. In their new book Giza and the Pyramids, Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass show that there was far more to the plateau than mummified ranks of the elite awaiting reanimation: the living were also present in large numbers. Although their text provides an engaging and comprehensive account of the many elements that made up Giza, this article will focus on the fresh evidence that has emerged over the last few decades for the living community that developed to create and serve the cemetery. This recent work also reveals how the very act of building the Giza pyramids changed Egypt forever.
‘When I went to graduate school in Yale in 1985,’ says Mark Lehner, president of Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA), ‘I read the surveys of Mesopotamia, where archaeologists were taking sites like Ur in Iraq and trying to estimate the size of the population. I was dealing with the opposite situation at Giza, where Egyptologists were calculating that 20,000-30,000 people must have been present. So in Mesopotamia they had a site and were estimating the numbers of people; I had an estimated number of people, but no settlement. Where did these workers, priests, and craftsmen live? That’s the question I wanted to answer when I came back to start excavating at Giza.’
‘A couple of years earlier, I’d mapped the Great Sphinx stone by stone, and for me that project served as a key leading into a wider focus on the Giza plateau. The Sphinx sits in a U-shaped quarry and is basically a cross-section of the natural geological layering at Giza. It became clear that the stone removed from around the Sphinx had been taken, in the form of blocks weighing up to 100 tons, and used to build its temple. They left a core of stone that became the body of the Sphinx, but the upper stone – which was better quality – has mostly gone and may have been used to build the valley temple associated with Khafre’s pyramid. The point is that if, in our mind’s eye, we could build and unbuild the Sphinx and its temple, what could we do with the quarry construction sequence across the whole plateau?’
‘Due south of Khufu’s Great Pyramid there is a huge hole created by quarrying. We wondered if this hole corresponded with the “pile” – if I can put it so ignominiously – of the Great Pyramid, and in turn if the quarry could help inform us how the whole Giza necropolis developed. For that reason, we carried out a mapping project, which involved David Goodman, who is a professional surveyor and civil engineer. The grid that we established then still serves us to this day. One of the questions that came out of that work was “Well, if the hole is down there, and the pile is up there, wouldn’t it be logical for the infrastructure needed to create the pyramids to be beyond the wadi passing the mouth of the quarry?” That area was also marked by a gigantic stone wall known as the Wall of the Crow, which is 200m long and 10m wide at the base. The other side of that seemed a good place to look for the infrastructure and settlement.’
The area beyond the Wall of the Crow, known in Arabic as Heit el-Ghurab, was still serving the inhabitants of Giza, as both a football pitch and – more seriously for the archaeology – a source of sand. Locals would dig it up and transport it to the horse-and-camel stables that cater for tourists visiting Giza. Once there, the sand would be spread over the floor of the animal pens, where it served to soak up their waste. When the sand needed refreshing, it would be shovelled up and returned, complete with its new contents, while clean sand was taken to replace it. Both this activity, and the gradual merging of the modern villages with the Cairo suburbs, posed a risk to the site. Trenches in 1988 and 1989 revealed clear traces of settlement dating to the 3rd millennium BC beneath the sand. Could this be where the workers building the pyramids lived?
‘In 1999 it became possible, thanks to benefactors like Ann Lurie and David Koch, to clear off the overburden of sand and expose the upper level of the archaeology,’ says Mark. ‘This revealed what we call a “mud map”, which was essentially a horizontal section running through the settlement. It was originally created by erosion after the abandonment of the site at the end of the 4th Dynasty. From this, we could see the lines of walls and streets, and we only excavated down to the occupation levels in selected places. Within the town is a gallery complex, with the individual galleries seemingly acting as barrack blocks to accommodate the people pulsing through the site as part of this royal project. It is one of the most significant things that we have found. Each gallery is more like an expanded house, with a domicile in the back for an overseer, and rear cooking chambers, with space for perhaps 40 to 50 people sleeping in the galleries. That means the entire complex could have sheltered about 2,000.’
‘There is also a sub-complex either side of the galleries. This is the Eastern Town and what we call for convenience the Western Town. Our findings suggest that this is where those in control of the gallery complex lived. This is especially true of the Western Town, where sealings featuring some of the highest ranking scribal titles known from the period show that elite administrators were present. We also find concentrations of fine beef, as well as sheep and goat, so these administrators were eating well. These people were present because of the galleries, and also because of what I called the Royal Administration Building, which was clearly the central storage facility. Around the galleries we found caterers, including dozens of bakeries operating on an industrial scale. The bakers took the standard household bread mould, which is known from countless sites across Egypt, and expanded it into huge bell-shaped pots to make the biggest loaves they could. It’s an intensification of production and it’s geared towards feeding the people in the galleries.’
‘We think the galleries were barracks housing young men – conscripts – who rotated in and out from elsewhere in Egypt to work on the project. The caterers and those involved in the central storage lived in the Eastern Town, and the administrators lived in the Western Town. We should think of this as not just a workers’ town, but also a port settlement. Giza was the major Nile port of its time. So should we be thinking of these young conscripts marching out of the galleries, through the Wall of the Crow, and up to the pyramid to work? Well sometimes, but some of them may also have been ships’ crews, fetching the fine limestone casing from Turah across the river. You’ve got to imagine a multi-ethnic settlement, which probably included Syrians and people who were ethnically Nubian, so it was a very mixed place. Although the gallery complex was probably quite gender-restricted, the Eastern and Western Towns seem to have been lived in by men and women. It’s possible that this was the most populous place in Egypt during its 4th Dynasty heyday.’
Inequality in death
While many of the young men believed to be occupying the galleries probably only remained at Giza for a set period before they were returned to their home villages or towns, some of those living and working at Giza were destined for a much longer stay. Their story has been revealed through work by Zahi Hawass, who has been involved with Giza since 1974 and served as Minister for Antiquities. ‘When I came back from the University of Pennsylvania in 1987, I started a site-management plan of Giza plateau’, says Zahi. ‘I was able to discover the route of the causeway of Khufu’s Pyramid and the location of its Valley Temple. I was also able to find the cult pyramid of Khufu’s Pyramid, and excavated in the Western Cemetery, where I found large tombs, especially the tomb of the dwarf Pr-ny-ankhw, who danced for the king, and the tomb of the priest Kay.’
‘The most important moment for me at the Giza plateau was when I was with Rudolf Gantenbrink inside the King’s Chamber of the Khufu Pyramid and we sent a robot into the so-called “air shaft”.’ These long and constricted passages are an enigmatic feature of Khufu’s Pyramid. The ‘air shafts’ are far too small for humans to enter, with one measuring 21cm wide by 14cm high, but they may have been intended to allow the pharaoh’s spirit to ascend towards the sky. ‘Wepwawet was the name of the robot [the name of an Egyptian god, which means “the opener of the roads”]. The moment I saw on the TV screen how the stones inside the Great Pyramid were interlocked, I remembered a sentence at the back of my mind. It was a saying by the Arabs who first came to Egypt: “man fears time and time fears the pyramid”. We took the robot down to the so-called Queen’s Chamber, and the robot stopped in front of a blocking slab with two copper pins.’
‘My major work was the discovery of the tombs of the pyramid-builders. I began, after I returned from UPenn, to excavate to the south of the three pyramids to prove my theory about the location of the tombs of their builders.’ In 1988 and 1989, excavations 400m south of the Sphinx revealed what seemed to be mud-brick storage buildings that had been repurposed as burial places for the poor. Then, in 1990, a horse accident changed everything. ‘I stopped excavating in May thinking that I would continue in September. But, during that time, a lady was riding her horse in the area, when its leg fell in a hole and a mud-brick wall was discovered. That is how we firmly located the location of the tombs of the pyramid-builders.’
Investigation of the mud-brick wall revealed the presence of a hillside cemetery divided into two parts. On the lower ground stood a group of comparatively simple tombs of mud-brick and field-stone, with even more modest burials clustered around them. Further up the hill, more impressive stone tombs for craftsmen and administrators followed the ridgeline. These two elements were connected by causeways that issued from the upper tombs and led down to the simpler burials. Despite the comparatively modest means available to those constructing the lower tombs, their work shows no shortage of ambition. Although these structures were executed to a miniature scale, many incorporate no-frills versions of elements found in far higher-status burials. These refinements can include false doors, and even a diminutive beehive superstructure that mimics the shape of the pyramids. One such domed burial chamber was even approached by a mud-brick causeway, which seems to imitate the construction ramps that serviced the royal pyramids.
‘There were also tombs built from the left-over limestone sherds used in building the pyramids,’ says Zahi. ‘All the false doors were made of mud-brick and none of them bore an inscription. Underneath those tombs, there was a skeleton and a beer jar to be used in the afterlife. The most interesting type is the pyramid-shaped tomb, because it was previously believed that pyramids were a strictly royal symbol. It was from this cemetery that we found out the pyramid shape actually came from the court of the poor: it was used by kings and members of the public.’
It was investigation of the lower cemetery that first revealed one of the causeways leading to the upper burials cut into the ridgeline. After following the passage for over 23m, the team eventually came to the face of a limestone tomb that had been buried beneath the sand. Attached to it was a chamber cut into the living rock, which contained an intact burial. Within the chamber, there was also a niche sealed with a stone, mud, and mortar partition, which had been carefully assembled so that only a small hole remained uncovered. Shining a torch through it revealed something remarkable.
‘That was a very interesting discovery,’ Zahi remembers, ‘because when we excavated this tomb and we entered inside, I saw at the back, the eye of a statue. First, we recorded this eye. Then I began to remove the north and south mud-brick, and we found the face of the statue. After that, I took the first limestone block away and found that there were four statues representing one person at different ages in their life. This is the only example of this type of statue to have been found in the tombs of the pyramid-builders, and indeed the entire Giza plateau. When we took out the last block, I received a surprise. At the centre was a seated statue, and to the left there were standing and seated statues, but on the right, there was only one seated statue. I thought that no ancient Egyptian would ever create such a composition because they believed in symmetry, and this was asymmetric. But then I realised that there had once been a fourth statue made of wood, which had deteriorated because of the air entering the tomb.’
The skeletons of those buried within the workers’ cemetery reveal something about the lives of those toiling to build the elite tombs at Giza. While they seem to have had access to healthcare that was nothing short of excellent for the period, there were ample signs that these labourers paid for the privilege with hard graft. ‘All of the skeletons have stress marks on their backs,’ says Zahi. ‘They also showed that people had accidents while moving the stones. There was one worker with an amputated leg, and he lived for 14 more years after the amputation. Most of the people buried in the cemetery had broken arms that had been set with wooden splints. One lady was pregnant and had died in childbirth. The average age of the workers is 30-35. This short life-span may be due to bilharzia, caused by a parasite that lives in the fresh waters of northern Africa and eats away the liver, causing early death.’
For those who survived their time in Giza and returned to their homes elsewhere in Egypt after participating in the great schemes of Khufu and his descendants, the experience must have been one that changed them forever. ‘The town was as densely populated as you’ll find in the ancient world’, says Mark. ‘The cognitive effects on the young conscripts of being compressed into this intense production and industrial centre, when they probably came from villages of a few hundred or towns of a few thousand, would have been considerable. It was a cosmopolitan place, and it must have had a very socialising effect. If you were a young man working in one of these gangs, you would go back home a different person. I used to think a lot about how the Egyptians built the pyramids – and there’s a chapter on that in the book – but then I started to think about how the pyramids built Egypt. It changed people, because being involved was a transformative experience. At the same time, new infrastructure and networks were created to build the pyramids. Ultimately that became more important than the pyramids: it laid the foundations for the future development of Egypt.’
This article touches on just some of the elements of the Giza plateau. A lavishly illustrated, full account of its archaeology and wider context has just been published by Thames & Hudson: Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass (2017) Giza and the Pyramids (ISBN 978-0500051894, £75).
CWA is grateful to Victoria Brown.