Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Pyramids at Giza

Fig.1: If the pyramids were built today, insurance companies would claim they need to be replaced in thirty years to account for "regular wear and tear" and "water damage."
Close your eyes and think of Egypt. What's the first thing you see? No, not the horrendous special effects in The Mummy franchise. You're probably thinking of the pyramids at Giza, carefully guarded by that watchful sphinx. This complex (officially called a "necropolis," meaning "city of I see dead people") is one of the most famous attractions in the world, visited annually by millions of tourists who don't mind having sand in their hair forever. Not only is the Great Pyramid the oldest of the Ancient Wonders of the World, it's the only one still standing! (I know I'd trust those contractors more than the slackers that made the Hanging Gardens of Babylon!) Most importantly, without these Ancient Egyptian works of engineering, we wouldn't have any clue what a polyhedron with the characteristics of a conic solid and a polygonal base is called, cause we sure ain't learning that crap from the 10th grade math teacher in whose class we spent more time playing Candy Crush.

Ancient Egyptians put a lot of stock in the afterlife. The belief that the soul continued to survive past the life of the body influenced every facet of Egyptian society, from their art, to their religion, to their willingness to eat one more piece of cheesecake because "I'll just work it off in the afterlife." And they probably would, because the Egyptian great beyond wasn't a cushy gated community where you lounge around on clouds playing harps all day like the Christian Heaven. After death, the real adventure begins: you journey to the Hall of Two Truths, where you have to fight monsters, recite spells, solve puzzles, decrypt passwords, collect amulets, find the Heart Pieces, and defeat all 100 Golden Skulltulas. Even when you got there, if your heart did not weigh less than a feather, you'd be eaten by the demon Ammit who had body that was part-lion, part-hippo, and part-crocodile. Talk about a let down (and overkill)!

Fig.2: Yawn!
But in order to ensure a deceased person's quest got off on the right foot, their body needed to be preserved or else their "ka" or "akh" or some crap would become diluted. Thus the need to mummify the dead (and give an extra use for toilet paper during Halloween that does not involve decorating your neighbor's trees). Unfortunately, simply digging a hole and throwing the corpse in there didn't prevent its face from rotting away, no matter how much botox they injected into it. So the Egyptians devised a structure using the stone and clay native to the area in which the mummy could be interned. Which was a pyramid, right? Well no, they were lazy at first, and only made mastabas, which look like pyramids taking a nap (fig.2). In the 2800s BC, the pharaoh Djoser was honored with six mastabas of decreasing size built on top of each other, demonstrating that they at least read up to Chapter 3 of "Pyramids for Dummies." Over the next hundred years, they got pretty good at constructing these tombs, complete with internal chambers, secret entrances, decent cell reception and everything!

This eventually culminated with the pyramids built outside the present town of Giza. The largest pyramid in the necropolis is believed to have been built for the pharaoh Khufu, who ruled in the early 2500s BC during the Fourth Dynasty. At a height of 481 feet, it became the largest man-made structure the world until the construction of the Lincoln Cathedral in England in 1311 (though it briefly reclaimed the title in 1326 when it was attacked by King Kong, fig.3). Little is known of Khufu, other than what can be inferred from a vague inscription inside the pyramid's chambers, an ivory statue found within a distant temple, and a papyrus receipt from the local market that included the purchase of Cosmopolitan magazine. Weirdo. The three tiny pyramids standing in front of the larger ones are called the queens pyramids, because they are believed to house the corpses of Khufu's wives (cause you know they were going on about how, "You never build anything nice for me!").

Fig.3: Climbing the tallest buildings makes King Kong 
feel good inside. Watch out, Burj Khalifa in Dubai!
The other two larger pyramids were designed for Khufu's son and successor, Khafra, and then his subsequent son and successor, Menkaure. Menkaure's pyramid appears to be unfinished, most likely due to the pharaoh's untimely death, meaning there was no one to impress with its construction anymore. This incompletion helped archaeologists deduce how the pyramids were originally designed and built, especially since the only instruction manual the Egyptians left behind was the one in Spanish. For example, we can see that the builders carefully smoothed out the exterior limestone after their placement within the pyramid starting at the top; construction ended before they got around to doing the whole thing however, leaving the bottom oddly misshapen (thus it is considered the Grimace of pyramids).

There has always been a question as to who actually built the pyramids. No, I'm not referring to those boneheaded conspiracies about aliens stopping by the North African desert and feeling the urge to make some triangles in relation to the summer solstice or Orion's belt or what shape their mashed potatoes took when piled on their plates. I mean, whose rough calloused hands carved and carried these massive chunks of rock in the service of the pharaoh? Tradition dictates that the only people crazy enough to put themselves through the torture of building the pyramids were those forced to put themselves through the torture of building the pyramids; aka: slave labor. This idea first arose through the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived 2000 years after the fact and heard about it from a friend of a pharaoh, and reinforced through the biblical imagery of Moses shouting, "Let my peeps go!" In fact, newer evidence proves that the poor schlubs who built the pyramids weren't poor or schlubby at all, but actually skilled workers held in high esteem! Behind the pyramids, archaeologists found remains of a worker's village, complete with all the amenities of Anytown, USA, as well as a nice-sized cemetery. If the builders were merely slaves, would they have been given the honor of having a proper burial just yards away from the pharaoh's sacred tomb? Donald Trump wishes he could be that lucky!

Fig.4: "What do you call cheese that doesn't belong to you? Nacho cheese!"
But you can't talk about Giza without mentioning the Great Sphinx. Go ahead, I dare you! Your spleen will rupture. I've seen it many times. Anywho, a sphinx is a mythological creature with a human head on a lion's body, known for asking stupid riddles to anyone stupid enough to talk to it (fig.4). Luckily, because this sphinx is one of the largest monolithic statues in the world (meaning it's carved from a single piece of stone), it is physically unable to say, "What's black and white and red all over?" (The right answer, of course, is a nun in a blender.) The overwhelming opinion is that the Sphinx was built for Khafra, the middle-child pyramid pharaoh, as there was a causeway that connected his tomb to the sculpture. In addition, two temples dedicated to the Sphinx existed: one built contemporary with it as its paws, and another flashier one designed at least a thousand years later during the New Kingdom to its east, complete with mini-golf and a laser light theater. In regards to the Sphinx's missing nose and beard, a rumor persists that Napoleon's army blew them off with a cannon during his 1798 Egyptian campaign. It is more probable that these parts weathered away naturally, but I'm sure Napoleon didn't appreciate a nose that was larger than all four feet of his body.

Fig.5: Those appendix scars never quite go away.
However, there have been much bigger worries for the pyramids than Napoleon (get it?). Since the pharaohs just had to be buried with all of their Christmas presents, it became a ripe target for bandits from the Old Kingdom to the New Kingdom to the Not Available in Any Stores Kingdom. Some Egyptologists claim that building materials and treasures were removed by the ruling dynasties in the 2nd millennium BC to construct the new-and-improved burial site, the Valley of the Kings, akin to a U.S. President ransacking Lincoln's tomb in order to increase his own prestige. None of the remains of the pharaohs are present inside their tombs; Khafre's sarcophagus actually contained the bones of the bull, meaning that either a thief placed them there hoping no one would notice, or (most likely) Khafre was an Animorph. The biggest damage to one of the pyramids occurred to Menkaure's in the 12th century, where Al-Malik Al-Aziz Osman, Muslim ruler of Egypt and son of the famous anti-Crusader Saladin, attempted to tear the pyramid down stone by stone for religious reasons (fig.5). Of course, he only got so far before he decided that he would rather kill a Saturday with a good book of crossword puzzles.

Four and a half thousand years later, the pyramids continue to stand tall in the sands outside of Giza, as well as in the public imagination. People from all over the world associate the Giza Necropolis with everything Egypt, and dream about the secrets that these tombs may hold. Although mankind has since constructed larger, more elaborate, and more attractive monuments (how you doin', Statue of Liberty?), you just can't beat the simplicity and majesty of the pyramids at Giza. I think that's all I've got to say about that!

Ah, my spleen! I guess I failed to mention the Sphinx recently enough. Now my senescent red blood cells will never have their hemoglobin metabolized! No!

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