For nearly 5,000 years, the Great Pyramids of Egypt have instilled wonder and awe in mankind. In the last half a dozen centuries, they have also become a tempting lure for many to climb them - especially the Great Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu). Pyramid climbing is a temptation ever since the limestone casing of the Great Pyramid collapsed from an earthquake during the Middle Ages. Climbing had been permissible up until the 1980s when it was forbidden following the deaths of several climbers.
Despite the ban, the Great Pyramid is still climbed periodically, generally in the dead of night. Sometimes guards are bribed and guides hired to show intrepid climbers the way up. Other climbers prefer to forego paying unnecessary bribes and find ways of avoiding opportunistic guards. Interestingly enough, the leading nationality of these thrifty nocturnal climbers are the Japanese. The young Japanese travelers in Egypt have made pyramid climbing virtually a profession. They even have a handwritten book about how to do it in one of the hotels in Cairo.
"Never Give Up!" is the Japanese climber's motto for surmounting the pyramid, or as it is written in their book: "Never Up Give!"
The temptation to climb proved too great even for me to ignore despite my academic background in historical preservation and, more importantly, my fear of heights. I had climbed pyramids in Mexico and a minor pyramid or two in Egypt, but Cheops just laughed at me. After all, what were these pitiful things compared to the Great Pyramid?
At 450 feet (135 meters), the Great Pyramid is nothing to sneeze at, especially when you're clinging to the side of it for dear life in the dark, 200 feet up and a sneeze would send you tumbling to the ground in a broken bloody heap.
Before going, I diligently consulted the Japanese book for the necessary information. The book was a compilation of accounts and advice from successful climbers written in both Japanese and English. In addition there were detailed maps on how to sneak into the area and which side to properly climb.
Around three in the morning, I and another American, Greg, sneaked onto the Pyramid grounds. We had both taught English in Egypt for nearly a year and decided we had to climb the pyramid before we left. We went crouching and darting about like ninjas amongst the shadows, trying to avoid the guards. We climbed up one of the small pyramids supposedly made for Cheops' Queens to see where the guards were posted. From there, we watched the guards walk back and forth taking note of their positions before climbing back down. We were prepared to make our ascent but unfortunately, the guards had other plans.
Our ninja skills must have been a wee bit rusty because the guards caught us. They harassed us at first with threats of jail and fines but they soon softened up and asked for a friendly bribe. In the end, they let us go once they realized we didn't have any money to bribe them with and that arresting us would require them to actually work. The guards weren't paid enough to do actual work so they escorted us out. We waved goodbye to them, walked out of sight, then sneaked back in. This time we skirted wide around the Great Pyramid running along the open area between the Sphinx and the Pyramid of Khafre/Chephren. We were horribly exposed but somehow the gods that protect fools were with us and no one saw us.
The Japanese book had listed the Southwest corner of the pyramid as the safest place to climb. Here the pyramid resembled a high-stepped staircase of steady, firm blocks. It makes for easy climbing but we made the mistake of scaling straight up the middle of the west side rather than the corner. We didn't take the corner because we were afraid of being spotted again, so instead we nearly ended up as bloody spots at the bottom of the pyramid. The west side was steep and crumbly. There was nowhere for us to stop and rest. It was tricky business climbing as our feet kept slipping out from underneath us and our hands kept losing their grip from time to time. Our only comfort was that we had promised each another if one of us should fall to our horrible gory demise, we would not scream out during our death plunge so as to give away the other.
We eventually achieved the summit in about half an hour. At the top of the pyramid was a small flat area the size of a Japanese apartment where several people could sit. It was also large enough for several thousand mosquitoes to gather and dine on weary climbers.
We were not there long when three Japanese climbers suddenly popped up. We took each other's pictures then waited for the sunrise together.
The pollution of Cairo looked beautiful in the morning light; unfortunately it blocked out any sunrise. The sky just got lighter and lighter but the sun didn't show till 9 or 10 and by then we were long gone.
They took us to a guard station and made us sit there for an hour. The captain asked me where I heard that I could climb the pyramid. I told him in a book. He asked which book. "Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad," I told him. I neglected to inform him the book was over 130 years out of date.
When he asked the Japanese their nationality, I was surprised when they said "Thai." I later learned that every climber from the Land of the Rising Sun goes up the Pyramid Japanese, but comes down Thai or some other Asian nationality whose country doesn't have the economical means to sustain its citizenry in paying off large bribes. Typically, Japanese are favorite targets of Egyptian hustlers, guards, and touts in relieving large amounts of money from them.
Disappointed with the "Thais" of his three Asian detainees, the captain left. After sitting around for another half hour, we finally just got up and left. The guards made minimal protests to our departure. They go through this little routine just about every morning so they were not too concerned. We were confidant they wouldn't shoot us but, just in case, I bravely made sure Greg and the Japanese were blocking me from the guards' line of fire as we walked away.
We are told of pyramids all over the world. We are told of pyramids in Australia and Greece, the United States and Spain. We are told of pyramids under the oceans and even in space. Besides the pyramids of Egypt, we certainly know of the pyramids of South Mexico down into South America. It also seems likely that pyramids exist in China, though their investigation has been limited, and we know of no formal archaeological investigation. It is very probable that the small Greek pyramids exist, but many of the remaining structures claimed to be pyramids are questionable. One pyramid in China, called the White Pyramid, is even rumored to be larger then the Great Pyramid of Khufu, though this has only been reported by one person that we know of, and the China pyramid is made of earth, while the Great Pyramid is made of massive stones.
We can not really positively identify any true pyramids outside of Egypt. These are pyramids originally built with smooth sides that come to a point at the top. Most of the pyramids in Mexico, and most probably those in China were step pyramids, built up with successive "steps" of stone or other substances. Also, pyramids outside of Egypt appear to have been build for a different purpose then those in Egypt. While Egyptian pyramids most always have a man made substructure and are funerary in nature, we know of no pyramids outside of Egypt with such structures. Instead, other pyramids most often seem to have a temple, altar or chapel on the top step, and their purpose seems more oriented to that of a temple. It can also most likely be said that Egyptian pyramid complexes were more structured then those found outside of Egypt. Over very long periods of time, they often retained the same components and even a basic design.
Many questions remain about pyramid's including persistent speculation, some of which is very wild. Some people seen to continue to believe that the pyramids of Egypt were built by aliens or an ancient, advanced race. Among other arguments, they provide the worldwide construction of pyramids, and the obvious difficulties involved with building these massive structures as evidence.
However, there are a number of facts that support more traditional views that Egypt's pyramids were, in fact, built by none other then the ancient Egyptians without outside assistance. These include:
Evolution: Monolithic, smooth sided pyramids did not just suddenly appear in Egypt. There was an evolutionary period, leading to the great pyramids of Giza that began with simple mastaba tombs, expanded into step pyramids, which led to experimentation, some of which failed miserably, and culminating with the perfected structure. In addition, the decorative themes associated with pyramids also evolved over time.
Context: Pyramids fit within both a physical and theological context. Physically, they do not exist alone. They are almost always a part of a religious compound, and sometimes these compounds even fit within the larger context of the pyramid field, all of it related to the very specific religion of the ancient Egyptians. They do not honor a superior or ancient race, but rather their own well documented sun god.
Construction Methods: We not only find the Egyptian's ancient stone cutting and other tools within the ruins of pyramids, we also find some of the ramps that they used, and evidence of other construction methods. These are contemporary tools, and construction methods that would have fit the times.
Regardless, it would appear that pyramids built both inside and outside of Egypt most often are in some way related to sun worship, or at least some form of astronomical religious activity. In Egypt, pyramids were mostly built in the north, where the worship of the sun god, Re was most dominant. In fact all of the major pyramids were built not far away from Memphis and nearby modern Cairo. Most are located at Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, at Saqqara or nearby Abusir or Dahshur, or somewhat farther away, close to the Fayoum region. At least as regards pyramids, the north was at its zenith during the late Old Kingdom (5th Dynasty), when kings not only built their pyramid complexes, but also built sun temples.
While the pyramid's built in Egypt seem to be all funerary in nature, to regard them as merely tombs is an oversimplification. It involved a complex of buildings because it was the dead pharaohs palace of the afterlife, where he was mystically transformed and resurrected as a full god. The pyramid itself represented the primeval mound from which the world arose from the ancient waters.
The first pharaoh to build a pyramid in Egypt was probably Djoser, of the 3rd Dynasty, It was an evolutionary step away from the mastaba tombs with their layer of stone over a substructure. In effect, the first pyramid builders simply stacked layer upon layer of stone in ever decreasing size atop one another until a step pyramid was built.
Djoser's complex at Saqqara was most likely designed by the famous architect and priest, Imhotep, and was not only the first pyramid that we know of, but also the first great monumental stone structure that we know of in, or outside of Egypt.. However, like the pyramids in the Americas, it was not a true pyramid, lacking an outer, smooth casing. After Djoser, there was considerable experimentation directed towards building a true pyramid, evidenced by those such as the Bent Pyramid at Dahshure, as well as other greater failures, such as Snofru's pyramid at Meidum, which was the first to be planned as a true pyramid. At first, their attempts to build a true pyramid were foiled by designs with the sides of the pyramid at too steep a slope. However, by the time Snofru built his other pyramid at Dahshure, the Red Pyramid, they had worked this out, for it is the first of the successful, true pyramids.
The culmination of the grand, most monumental true pyramids came in the 4th Dynasty with the builders at Giza, though the Red Pyramid is indeed a colossus structure. However, for all our awestruck wonder at the great pyramids at Giza, this was certainly not the culmination or even the apex of pyramid building. Only in the 5th Dynasty do we see the form of the pyramid complex grow into maturity.
Pyramids did not have the same structure or follow the exact same guidelines throughout Egyptian history. The early pyramids, particularly Djoser's were very complex with many components. In these early pyramids, the placement of the subterranean chambers and corridors, as well as their number varied considerably from later pyramids.
Milestones in Egyptian Pyramids:
However, by the end of Egypt's 5th Dynasty, the complete nature of the pyramids evolved into somewhat simpler, standardized structures with all the necessary components. While the pyramids may not have been as grand as those of Giza, their theology had matured.
With Unas, the last ruler of the 5th Dynasty, we find a pyramid complex with all the components and the proper layout, design and construction. This pyramid is oriented east-west. It had a pyramid, built with a local limestone core and fine white limestone casing, with a north entrance chapel, and beneath the pyramid, a substructure consisting of a descending entrance corridor, with a barrier, leading to the dead king's mortuary apartment directly under the vertical apex of the pyramid. The corridor first arrives at an antechamber, and to the right, or west is the burial chamber, while to the left (east) was a small annex chamber.
There was a pyramid courtyard, a small cult pyramid, thought to be perhaps for the king's ka (soul) and a mortuary temple just to the east of the pyramid. The mortuary temple consisting of an outer section with an entrance hall and an open columned courtyard, which would often have a basalt floor. The columns supported an ambulatory around the outskirts of the courtyard. The inner sanctum of the mortuary temple had a five niche chapel and behind it an offering hall with a false door adjacent to the pyramid, and centered before it, an altar. The false door allowed the dead king to enter the offering hall in order to take his symbolic meals. Both the inner and outer sections of the mortuary temple had storage annexes to either side The inner and outer sections of the temple were also divided by a transverse corridor. Throughout the structure, liberal amounts of pink granite and fine white limestone were used to sheath walls and for other purposes.
This complex was surrounded by an enclosure wall. A causeway, often covered, connected the mortuary temple and pyramid to a small, valley temple, which in many cases was nothing more then a monumental gateway. In the valley temple, causeway, mortuary temple and substructure of the pyramid, all the proper decorative themes were mostly present, including now finally the famous pyramid text. While none are present at the pyramid of Unas, we might also expect to see subsidiary pyramids and tombs for relatives of the king within the outer enclosure wall, and near the complex there would have been a small town. While the pyramid was being built, workers and craftsmen would live in the town. Priests and others employed by the mortuary temple would live in a community such as this indefinitely, or at least as long as the king's cult retained worshipers. While Unas's pyramid was not the grandest, or the best preserved, it was a milestone in pyramid construction, with a balanced and complete design.
After Egypt's First Intermediate Period, the 12th Dynasty saw the resumption of monumental pyramid building, but these new pyramids were built of mudbrick cores and did not fair as well over time as the great pyramid's of some earlier builders. As time progressed, and the end of the pyramid age approached, pyramid construction began to again be less structured. Some traditional concepts, such as the door of the pyramid being located under the north chapel at the center of the pyramid's north face became less important then hiding the door from tomb robbers. It is probable that these pyramid builders forgot some of the skills of their predecessors, for often they have a difficult time placing the burial chamber under the pyramid's vertical axis.
Now, rather then queens having their own smaller pyramids within the complex, they are buried within their own chambers of the main pyramid. And even though some of the tradition is lost, some traditions strongly revert back to design concepts from Djoser's complex at Saqqara.
But with the coming of the Second Intermediate Period, the power structure of Egypt began to shift to the south, where the sun cult was not as prevalent as in the north. There would be some revivals later in Egypt's history, but for the most part this move signaled the end of the pyramid builders. Perhaps because of available resources, but most certainly also because of changing religious concepts, Egypt left the domain of the pyramid for the high decorative themes and more complex religious theology of the tombs on Thebes' West Bank. This was nevertheless an evolution, for we see many aspects of the pyramid complexes carried over into these new mortuary complexes.