Ancient Cairo

Western desert
The western desert at Sakkara


The mention of the word conjures up images of pyramids and temples, hieroglyphs and elaborately carved tombs, and the golden treasures of King Tutankhamun.

However, as we begin our story of Cairo, we see that the world of Ancient Egypt does not have a great impact on the Cairo area.

Though the Pyramids at Giza, Sakkara and Dahshur are located just outside of Cairo, these vast monuments were not temples visited by the living; they were temples to the dead. They stood guard over vast "cities of the dead," or necropoles (singular: necropolis).

The pyramids at Giza are part of the largest remaining necropolis, which included funerary temples as well as the Sphinx. These structures were built by a chain of successive pharaohs in a line from grandfather to great-grandson.

The Cairo area was not deserted during the Ancient Egyptian period, however. Let us learn the story:

Legend has it that, from the time of creation, Egypt was divided into two vast kingdoms: Upper Egypt (which is in the south of the country) and Lower Egypt (which is the northern part of the country, including the Nile delta).

Desert and Pyramids

The 'small' pyramid of Menkaura (Mycerinus) and tributary pyramid

Why is "Upper Egypt" south and "Lower Egypt" north? Shouldn't it be the other way around?

The answer to this question is related to the Nile River. The Greek historian Herodotus once said that "Egypt is the gift of the Nile," a phrase which describes how much Egypt relied - and still relies - on the Nile. Since the days of the Pharaohs, the Nile has been the main source of Egypt's water for agriculture. The yearly flooding of the Nile was the most important factor in ensuring a good harvest. The Nile was also an important trade route - boat travel up and down the river was the easiest way to get people and things from one place to another very quickly.

Egyptian civilization developed along the river. The vast majority of the cities were located on the east side of the river, whereas the majority of the tombs were built on the west side of the river. The east side, where the sun rose, was associated with birth and life, while the west side, where the sun set, was associated with death. Because the Nile would flood every year, temples and palaces and most of the important constructions were built at the edge of the desert, so that they would remain dry during the flood. It was after the ancient period came to an end that the practice of building on the fertile land began. The ancient Egyptians considered it too precious to use for anything other than growing crops.

The Nile River is actually the result of the confluence of two tributaries: the Blue Nile, which has its source at Lake Tana in Ethiopia, and the White Nile, which has its source at Lake Victoria in southeastern Africa. The two tributaries join at Khartoum, in the Sudan, and from there the river flows from south to north until it reaches the Mediterranean Sea in northern Egypt. Ancient Egyptians who sailed the river did not have our concept of south and north. To them, the direction of the river's flow was the easiest means of orientation: hence, Lower Egypt is down river and Upper Egypt is upriver, even though Lower Egypt is north of Upper Egypt. Makes sense, right?

The ancient Egyptian legends speak of the first Pharaoh, named Menes, who unified Upper and Lower Egypt and established his capital at a place just a few miles to the southwest of modern Cairo. This site was chosen because Menes, not wanting to look like he was favoring Upper or Lower Egypt, decided to build the new capital on the border between the two. The city was called Men-nefer, or, as the Greeks later called it, Memphis.


Reconstructed ruins of the old Pharaonic capital of Memphis.


Ruined foundation of pharaonic-era building at Memphis

New Memphis

Modern village near the site of Memphis

The city of Memphis was one of the largest and most important cities in its day. Some archaeologists think that as many as 100,000 people may have lived in it at the height of its power, which lasted for almost one thousand years during the Old Kingdom period. During this time, the pharaohs erected monuments to themselves, starting at a site just to the west of Memphis. This place is called Sakkara, and the first pyramids ever built were constructed here.

Rameses II
Statue of Rameses the Great at Memphis

Before the pharaohs began to construct pyramids as monuments, they were buried in long, low lying brick buildings called mastabas. In these mastabas, the pharaohs would prepare lavish tombs with all the possessions they would need for the afterlife. Legend says that the Old Kingdom Pharaoh Djoser, who ruled from about 2670-2650 B.C.E., did not think that the mastaba would be good enough to remind future generations of his brilliance and power. He wanted something bigger and better, and he called upon his royal court to think of something that would be more suitable for him.

The answer came from his royal vizier, or adviser, a man by the name of Imhotep. Imhotep had the idea to build one of these low mastabas, and then build no less than five more on top of it, each smaller than the one before, creating a staircase to the heavens. The result was the Step Pyramid, which so impressed Zoser that he issued a royal decree stating that Imhotep, upon his death, would be worshipped as a god.

The idea of the pyramid quickly caught on with the Old Kingdom Pharaohs, who followed Imhotep's original idea, but improved on it, removing the stair-step appearance and replacing it with a more smooth appearing edge. The most enthusiastic builder of all the Pharaohs was the Pharaoh Sneferu (2575-2551 B.C.E.), who had at least four pyramids built during his reign. In Sneferu's day, the engineers were still trying to figure out how to make a pyramid that would not fall over, and they were not always successful. At a place called Meidum, about 75 miles southwest of Cairo, one of Sneferu's pyramids collapsed. Another, at a site near Sakkara called Dahshur, began to sag during construction, so the workers quickly changed the angle of the edges, giving this pyramid a "bent" appearance, which gave it the name that it has to this day: "The Bent Pyramid."

Imhotep's Step Pyramid at Sakkara

It was Sneferu's son who started the most famous pyramid complex in the world. The Pharaoh Khufu (also called Cheops) selected an imposing site above a rough escarpment in the desert, where the Nile plain rises to meet the Sahara. The ancient name for this place is now lost, and the site is called by the name of the suburb of Cairo where the pyramids are located: Giza. When Khufu's pyramid was completed, it was simply the most exquisite, elegant and massive structure ever built. Over 2.5 million stone blocks, weighing 2.5 tons each, rise to a height of 450 feet above the desert floor, which had to be leveled to create a flat building surface. The sides angle inwards at a precise measurement for their entire length to a carefully centered point. The entire pyramid was covered in white limestone slabs so carefully fitted together that it appeared that the entire pyramid was one solid piece of stone. The limestone was so fine that the residents of medieval Cairo used it as building material for their lavish palaces, so that--of the three major pyramids at the site--only the limestone cap of the second great pyramid, that of Khufu's grandson Khafra, remains in place.

Giza Pyramids and Sphinx
Left - right: The "second" pyramid of Khafra, the Sphinx of Djedef-ra, and the pyramid of Khufu.
To the right are the funerary temples that once met canals coming from the Nile.

It is believed that Khufu's son, Djedef-ra built the Sphinx, and Djedef-ra's son Khafra built the second pyramid, which is directly behind it. The third pyramid on the plateau, that of Khafre's son Menkaura, was covered in granite, which was a more expensive and harder-to-find material. Although the pyramid may appear less impressive due to its smaller size, the granite coating would have made a statement of wealth equal to that of the pyramids built by Menkaura's father and great-grandfather.

The "Middle" pyramid of Khafra
"Great" pyramid of Khufu and the Sphinx

Who Really Built the Pyramids?

Ever since the day that the finishing touches were put on the Great Pyramid at Giza, there has been all sorts of speculation about who really built the pyramids, and how they were built. The ideas range from the possible (the pyramids were built by the Jewish slaves who were later freed by Moses in the story of the Exodus) to the really ridiculous (the pyramids were built by any or all of the following: the flying saucer people; the inhabitants of the lost continent of Atlantis; some previously unknown civilization that predated ancient Egypt by hundreds of thousands of years; the Egyptians, but using the power of the Ark of the Covenant / the flying saucer people / the lost magic of the people of Atlantis).

Front view of the Sphinx, the pyramid of Khafra and the pyramid of Menkaura (left)

The Greek historian Herodotus (who, though very prolific and well respected, was also wrong about a lot of things) was told on his visit to Egypt that it took 100,000 men working year round for twenty years to build his pyramid. He was also told that Khufu was a horrible tyrant who saw to it that these workers were subjected to the most horrible conditions: they were beaten, not fed well, and many of them died while working on the pyramids.

The real story, however, is probably a lot less interesting. Most modern archaeologists think that the real number of workers needed to build the pyramids was only around one third of the number given by Herodotus. Most of the laborers were farmers, who were recruited to work during the annual flooding of the Nile, when their fields were underwater. During that time, it would have been easy to send the large limestone blocks across the Nile from the quarries on the east bank all the way to the construction site on the west by barge. Demonstrations have shown that it takes only one six-man team to move blocks even bigger than those used in the construction of the pyramids using technology that the Egyptians had available to them. And, while the story that it was the Jewish slaves who built the pyramids seems plausible, the fact is that the pyramids were built about a thousand years too early for there to have been any Jews involved in the construction at all.

Over time, Memphis fell from prominence. As the dynasties progressed, new capitals were built, and though Memphis remained important as a trade center almost until the time of the birth of Christ, it never regained its prominence as a political center. The construction of pyramids was phased out in favor of vast temple complexes and tombs carved in the solid rock at a place called Thebes in Upper Egypt.

Egypt's political power weakened as well. In 1080 BCE, the priests who served the pharaoh seized power for themselves. They ruled badly, and their power weakened. Although the country was still technically united, most local rulers governed however they wanted and paid little attention to the pharaohs. The royal line changed two more times – first in 950 BCE, and then in 720 BCE, when a group of Egyptianized Nubians, from modern-day Sudan, took over the country. Although the Nubians considered themselves Egyptian, the Egyptians considered them foreigners and continued to rebel against them throughout their short rule.

In 671 BCE, the Assyrians, a powerful and militaristic group from Mesopotamia, invaded Egypt. At first they tried to convince the Egyptian people to peacefully accept their rule, but when that failed to work they turned to destruction and oppression. The same thing happened to the Persians, who conquered in 525 BCE.

In 332 BCE, Greek forces led by Alexander the Great came to Egypt after a series of victories over Persia that had sent the Persians into a quick retreat back to Iran. The Egyptians, tired of Persian rule, welcomed the Greeks. Alexander set up a new government for Egypt, and a new capital city on the Mediterranean: Alexandria. Alexandria became a new center for learning and scholarship that further sent the settlements around Memphis into a decline.

Alexander's arrival brought an interesting new innovation: an alphabet. Until this time, the Egyptians had used a system of writing based on hieroglyphs. Hieroglyphs are a series of pictures, each of which has a particular meaning as well as a particular sound, and the Egyptians used thousands of different ones to write their language. The Greeks, by comparison, had just twenty four different symbols, each of which represented a specific sound, and could be easily combined to create words. The Greek alphabet was much easier to learn, since it could take many years to become a qualified scribe of hieroglyphs. Egyptian scribes adapted the Greek alphabet, adding seven more letters to represent sounds that did not exist in Greek. The result of this was a new alphabet that became known as Coptic. The language also became known as Coptic, and although it is no longer spoken, it is still used in Egyptian church services today.

After the fall of Alexander's empire, one of his generals, named Ptolemy, took control of Egypt. His dynasty was called the Ptolemaic dynasty. The Ptolemies governed Egypt independently, although Egypt became an ally of Rome. Alexander had built a great city on the sea called Alexandria, which became the center of Egyptian culture. The story of how Egypt lost its independence is legendary. The last Ptolemaic Pharaoh, Cleopatra VII, was able to govern the country independently, but found herself involved in a power struggle between the Roman general Marc Antony and the Roman Emperor, Ceasar Octavian. Octavian won, killing Marc Antony in battle, and then came to Egypt to take his revenge on Cleopatra for supporting his enemy. Rather than face Octavian, Cleopatra committed suicide, supposedly by allowing an asp to bite her.

After Cleopatra's death, Egypt became a Roman colony. As Rome declined, so did Egypt. Alexandria waned, and the city of Memphis was abandoned in favor of a nearby small fortress town called Per-hapi-on, which plays an important role in the next chapter of the story of Cairo.

All photographs copyright 1995 by Christopher Rose,
except panorama of Giza plateau, copyright 2005 by Christopher Rose.

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