Let us progress. Here, in the midst of a group of palm trees gracing an esplanade of about 100 meters in diameter, an imposing sphinx towers above us, a monumental alabaster monolith that, although it is anepigraphic, tends to be dated by experts to the 18th Dynasty. No inscription, no cartouche, informs us of the patron's name. However, by comparison with other historical statues, the general consensus is that it depicts the great Queen Hatshepsut. It would have been a votive offering that she had erected in the middle of the holy precinct in order to render the start of her reign official. A few steps further on, a yellow concrete pavilion houses still another Ramses II colossus. This one, which is in limestone, must have been over thirteen meters high, including the pedestal.
Anyone hoping to find traces of the original capital's splendor will be disappointed by these few remains, no matter how impressive. As we continue our route, we will come across still a few more almost unintelligible monument foundations, sections of former colonnades, scattered drums, collapsed walls, levelings What is actually left of all those temples and palaces that held such fascination for the Roman and Greek travelers and historians of yore? Alas, hardly anythingor, rather, the ghost of whatever lies under the layers of silt accumulated by hundreds of floods over hundreds of years of silence and oblivion.
Memphis was once a major cityundoubtedly, one of the largest in all of ancient Egypt, since it served as the capital of the Two Lands throughout the first six dynasties. Later, in Classical times, it became a major religious center; still later, during the Late Period (664 to 332 BC, Dynasties 26-30) and the Ptolemaic Period (332 to 30 BC), it remained pivotal to the kingdom's administrative and political system. The city's importance derives from its very location. Examining a map of Egypt, we see that the entire country divides up most naturally into two parts: the Delta, or Lower Egypt, to the north, as distinct from the valley of the Nile, or Upper Egypt, to the south. Sitting on the boundary between the two, Memphis is thus a center point.
In Egyptian, Memphis was called , which translates as "Good Place" (the word can be difficult to translate: beautiful, good, fortunate, harmoniousi.e. everything that is positive). was later debased by the Copts into men nefri, and then men nefi; it was subsequently transcribed in Greek as Memphis.
The religious name of Memphis was , that is , the house , of the soul, of the double , of Ptah, or again, the City of the Double , the mystical Essence of the god Ptah, since Ptah was the principal god of Memphis. Hence, according to a certain school of linguistic research, instead of deriving from Coptos, as traditionally believed, the word Egypt actually might come from the divine name for Memphis.
In any case, the city sank deeply underground, for here we are at the very spot where the muddy Nile River concentrated its flow before being driven by the currents to separate into the various Delta branches. As a result, once the irrigation canals watering the various districts were no longer kept up and drained on a regular basis, the branches filled in and Memphis disappeared under a layer of silt measuring from one-and-a-half to six meters.
The limestone colossus mentioned above was discovered by the Italian archaeologist Giovanni Battista Caviglia. In around 1820, it was the first monument to be excavated from the still virgin terrain; a few years later, it was described in detail by Jean-François Champollion in his "Letters from Egypt." As for the alabaster sphinx, it was not until 1912 that the British Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie unearthed it and set it back up at the site where it seemed most likely to have been erected in antiquity. And it was sometime between 1890 and 1900 that the French school of Egyptian archaeology, directed by such masters as Grebaut and Daressy, excavated the few temple and palace remains mentioned above.
Later, in around 2780 B.C., when the actual history of Egypt begins, the 3rd Dynasty monarchs inaugurated what the the Egyptian priest historian Manethon termed the Old Kingdom. Among those to reign, it was Djoser, seconded by his vizier Imhotep, who no doubt was the first to foresee the fabulous destiny to which his kingdom was promised. Indeed, the tales of his exploits as chronicled down through the ages would have us believe that he was the father of all the Amenhoteps, Tuthmoses, Setis, and Ramseses to comeall those who would contribute to the glory of Egypt.
The country's first golden age came with the start of the 4th Dynasty, during the reigns of Cheops (Khufu), Chephren (Khafre) and Mycerinus (Menkaure)a period of time when political and economic stability encouraged great fortunes to be amassed. Egypt became a powerful conquering country, as testified by the graffiti since recorded in Upper Nubia and towards the north, up to the boundaries of the Fertile Crescent. Bearing witness to how Egypt flourished at the time are the pyramids of Giza, built on the scale of the country's gods.
The first signs that the system was weakening appeared with the 5th Dynasty. At the time, the empire had organized itself, and a social hierarchy had been established; the royal court and the higher-ranking administrative officials began holding claim to ever greater privileges. In its subtle and nonetheless highly efficient manner, the Egyptian government played a basic role in ensuring the country's stability. Memphis was still basking in its grandeur. And yet, the 5th Dynasty's harmonious but more modest accomplishments pale by comparison with the gigantic monuments of the 4th Dynasty. Clearly, much of the spiritual impetus had already been lost under the pharaohs Sahure, Neuserre and Unas.
The 6th Dynasty only accelerated matters, since under Pepi II (last ruler of the 6th Dynasty, whose reign was the longest in history94 years!), Egypt sunk into dramatically troubled and anarchic times. In around 2260 BC, the country experienced a socialand soon after, an economiccrisis that brought on a slump lasting until the 11th Dynasty and the start of the Middle Kingdom. An alabaster statuette of Pepi I, barely a few centimeters-high, shows the pharaoh wearing the "pschent" (overlapping red and white crowns) as he sits on the throne protected by Horus, Lord of the Crowns: In the 6th Dynasty, and despite the continuity of the symbols, a statuette replaced the former colossus!
What sort of place would we find under the Nile silt? No doubt a very "modern" urban city boasting its residential neighborhoods, working-class districts and market sector; further on, one would come upon the royal palaces (the Egyptian pharaohs were known for their reluctance to live in their fathers' residences, preferring instead to build a whole new complex at the start of their own reigns). The holy precinct undoubtedly took up a large area, featuring a Temple of Ptah, a temple for his wife (the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet), and most probably a shrine dedicated to their son Nefertum. Within close proximity of these three main monuments, one would surely find the adjoining chapels, holy buildings and, a bit to the side, the living Apis Bull god's apartmentsincluding his temple, his estate and, watching over him, his priests and officiants. In short, an entire religious, economic and social enterprise devoted to the living god.
We mustn't forget that it is here, in this ancient city, that the Old Kingdom pharaohs held their coronation
ceremonies. This tradition was renewed by the pharaohs of the Late Period and the Ptolemaic Period. No doubt a
special enclosure would have been reserved for this purpose, where the various constructions, stalls, and altars
of repose required to carry out the accompanying rites were to be found. Quite certainly these units were made
of wood and adobe, leaving little hope of finding any traces of them.
How can a lost city be brought back to life? It takes diligent but also very meticulous questioning of the few remains that have shown up: a stela fragment here, an inscription there, a relief piece no matter if smashed, a statue... More vividly than any chronicle, these often enable us to revive various events from the official or religious life of the past, major events in a monarch's life or minor details in the life of the common people. Hence, it is thanks to documentation extracted from the sands that certain inhabitants of ancient Memphis have managed to hold on to their dignity of yore for over thousands of years:
The city's high-ranking officials, its princes and priests, are not the only ones to have lived through the ages. There are also traces of its common people, the craftsmen, workers and farmers: - Here, for instance, a cook looks as if he has been sketched straight from life: Apparently exhausted by his work, he stops to rest for a moment and leans against an earthenware jar. And there, a butcher is busily at work cutting up a steer and preparing the best pieces for his master's table.
It is as if the very tastes and colors of the countryside live on: donkeys drink at the trough; cattle ford a river; geese are being led to the pond; startled birds fly off in tight rows from the thickets along the Nile; kingfishers, wild ducks and cranes animate the river banks; while, further on and half hidden under the papyrus umbels, little grasshoppers laze in the sun. Nature bustles and buzzes, with the donkey driver haranguing his herd while, at a turn in the road, the herdsman hails his companions who plow the fields. Even small anecdotes crop up: thus this little calf, too young to swim, gets hoisted on to his master's shoulders to cross the canal, while his mother moos anxiously behind.
The inscription on the side of a 19th Dynasty sarcophagus housing the mummy of an adolescent reads: «I was a young child who got carried off by an act of violence. My years were shortened while I was still among the youngest. I was snatched from life like a man gets swept away by sleep. I wasn't even fifteen when death abducted me and carried me away to the city of eternity and I came before the master of the gods without having had my fair share on earth. I had a great many friends, but not one could defend me. My father and mother pleaded with Death, my brothers prostrated themselves, but all to no avail.»
These lines reveal that Egyptians were aware of death's injustice, of the cruelty with which it arbitrarily severs "he who is endowed with life" from the world to which he rightfully belongs. The young deceased asserts that he arrived before Osiris (king and judge of the dead and god of the underworld) without having had his fair share of life, implying that he, like everyone else, expected something of life!
Certain formulas defining the sages'attitude to death, as defined in the Old Kingdom ethical treatises, have also come down to us. The commentaries are usually very terse, since attempts to grasp one's destiny can be put in few words: "No one has ever come back after leaving." - "You who live on earth, watch out for the Peak of the West."< Ancient Egypt's funerary rites were carried out in accordance with the alternatively diurnal and nocturnal course of the sun; following this star, the deceased entered the realm of the dead through the West, clearing the mountain, the Peak - dwelling place of its goddess Merseger, "Protectress of the Peak of the West," who was also known as "she who loves silence." Hence, this peak represents the way leading from here below to the Beyond; it is the site where, in search of his destiny, man undergoes transformation.
Egyptians appealed to the gods to earn their just share of life becausejust like the Greeks, the Romans, and we ourselvesthey feared "the moment that cannot be put off." They knew the day of judgment would come, but hoped at least to have time to prepare themselves for it: "When your messenger comes to fetch you, let him find you ready to go to the place assigned to you and welcome him with these words: See, messenger, one who has prepared himself for you will accompany you." Egyptians were loath to dwell on death, but considered it to be their holy duty to await the messenger in all serenity and be able to say lightheartedly : "I can accompany you." Most interestingly, the verb "to die" was rarely used in the Egyptian language of Classical times; the preferred term was a circumlocution such as "to leave one's ka"or "to see one's ka make its way," since the "ka," as we all know, is the soul or, better still, the double of a given individual.
Hence, it is not to the realm of art as we conceive of it today but to that of the sacred, of the Egyptian "neter", that all this belonged: the pyramids, mastabas and hypogea (underground burial chambers), as well as their furnishingsbeds, chests, seats, apparel, toilet articles, jewelry and down to the amulets serving to guarantee the integrity of the deceased, even down to the ritual texts, and to the reliefs or paintings unfolding against the walls. The inhabitants of ancient Egypt considered any object, no matter what it was, to be an active and intelligent force inasmuch as it fulfilled the requirements of the rites of the day by supporting, manifesting and exalting the power of the neter. That is, to the extent to which its beauty could be said to stem from its harmony with the divine rather than from merely any aesthetic principles. To be beautiful was equated with being nefer, with the capacity of signifying the neter.
Coming near to Saqqara, the first thing we see, towering against the horizon, is the stepped pyramid of King Djoser (3rd Dynasty) with, at one of its corners, the pyramid of King Unas (5th Dynasty). Just a few steps from there are the leveled remains of the pyramids of Horus Sekhemket (3rd Dynasty), Userkaf (5th Dynasty) and Teti (6th Dynasty).
Within the Memphis area alone, over fifty-seven pyramids were erected by the pharaohs of the Old and Middle
Kingdoms. Over ten of these were built in the region of Abusir, including those of the 5th Dynasty kings Sahure,
Neferirkare and Neuserre.
Dahshur features two pyramids that date to King Snefru (4th Dynasty), including the strangely rhomboid "Bent Pyramid" (south of Dahshur and designated by the ancient Egyptians as "the South Pyramid"), together with those of the 12th Dynasty kings Amenemhat II and Sesostris III. At Licht, further to the south, we find the pyramids left by the other Middle Kingdom (12th Dynasty) kings Amenemhat I and Sesostris I. And, finally, we owe to the French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero the discovery, in 1881, of a third pyramid belonging to King Snefru (4th Dynasty) and located at Meydum. And these are only the most important of the lot!
4th DYNASTY Pyramid of Snefru, Meydum, royal necropolis
4th DYNASTY Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu), Giza, royal necropolis
The very shape of the monument has a history that dates back to earliest times. In prehistoric times, the deceased person was lowered into a pit and placed in fetal position on his or her left side. Covering the pit was a mound of earth and loose stones. Hence the tombs at the (ca. 4000 BC) sites of Badari and Merimdeh are the direct ancestors of the so-called "classical" pyramids that appeared during the 4th Dynasty (ca. 2500 BC): in effect, during the protohistoric and predynastic periods, the originally bare burial mound was encased in carefully bonded limestone and already began resembling the mastabas. Early in the Historic Periodthat is, during the first two dynastiesthe royal tombs recorded at Abydos and Saqqara became more elaborate: King Aha's tomb (1st Dynasty), for instance, is shaped like an enormous rectangular brick mass measuring 62 feet (19 meters) in length by almost 10 feet (3 meters) in width, and its outside walls, featuring pilasters and redans (vertical offsets), emphatically bespeak the birth of an architecture.
The decisive transformation of Ancient Egypt's royal tombs from the early mastabas into pyramids belongs to Djoser, the second king of the 3rd Dynasty. The subsequent and astounding epic of stone constructions began with this king, who opened a whole new world to the builders of his day thanks to his collaborator and architect Imhotep. Availing himself of the stability furnished by the limestone strata, the latter daringly created an enormous six-step stairway towards heaven.
The history of the Egyptian pyramids can be traced back to Djoser's funerary monument at Saqqara, which represents the ultimate Thinite prototype. However, despite the boldness of the overall layout, the king's burial chamber remained underground. It was lined with Aswan pink granite and sealed off by an almost 4-ton monolith during the funeral ceremony. This vault, together with a room for maneuvering the stone blocks and four long galleries carved into the bedrock are still reminiscent of the Pre- and Protohistoric tombs or the subterranean storerooms of the Thinite mastabas.
During the almost two centuries separating the reigns of Djoser and Cheops, the very concept of pyramids evolved from case to case. Thus, the pyramid built by Sekhemkhet (3rd Dynasty) at Saqqara was of a step design very similar to Djoser's pyramid, while the one built by Snefru (4th Dynasty) was dressed entirely in a smooth facing of limestone from Turah. For reasons that remain unexplained to this day, Snefru went on to order the construction of two new pyramids at Dahshur: the Bent (or Rhomboid, or Southern) Pyramid featuring a strange change in the angle of its slope, and the Red (or Northern, or Shining) Pyramid. Both of these boasted a smooth facing and, for the first time, funerary chambers that instead of being carved underground at bedrock level were inserted into the lower reaches of the masonry. Snefru's successor, Cheops (Khufu), chose the plain of Giza as his final resting place. By general consensus, his pyramid represents the archetypal Memphite tomb, not only due to its size756 feet (230 meters) along each side of its base, 482 feet (146 meters) in height, and a 613 foot-(187 meter-) long slope at 51°, thus attaining the enormous volume of 89,016,510 ft3 (2,521,000 m3)but also because of the perfection and originality of its design, which make a true masterpiece of it. The galleries and burial chambers are built into its masonry: Thus, the king's chamber, at the core of the pyramid, opens up at some 164 ft (50 meters) above ground, as if suspended between heaven and earth. A close look at the map and elevation reveals that this layout was the fruit of long and patient analysis and revisions: The first projectpatterned on the traditional concept, with a gallery leading downwards to a first burial chamber carved into the subterranean bedrock at a depth of around 82 feet (25 meters)was left unfinished; a second project foresaw an ascending gallery opening up onto a horizontal corridor leading to the new burial chamber, misleadingly labeled the queen's chamber and the only one of the three chambers to be located exactly along the pyramid's axis. A third and final revision produced the famous, 151-foot (46-meter) long Grand Gallery, leading to the third and last of the burial chambers, the king's chamber, made entirely out of pink Aswan granite. Superimposed above the nine granite blocks constituting this chamber's flat ceiling, are five relieving chambers to distribute the weight away from the burial chamber.
Reign after reign, ever since King Djoser, the anonymous teams of architects, engineers and foremen responsible for the royal construction sites gained ever vaster experience, which reached its zenith at Giza. Indeed, the sites of Badari, Merimdeh, This, Saqqara, Dahshur, Meydum and Giza all represent distinct stages of one and the same evolution from a primitive mound to the ideal pyramid, over a period lasting almost one millennium and a half. And during those 1500 yearsaside from certain technical considerations-the basic tomb shape remained the same. This implies that the symbol illustrated by that form was powerful enough to enforce strict compliance with the canons and traditions attached to it.
In order to attempt to understand that symbol, we must return to its point of departure: In classical Egyptian, the world "tomb" was written per en djet - that is, "house of eternity" or, more precisely, "house for eternity."
Already in Thinite (Early Dynastic) times, the mastabas of This and of Saqqara were structured like the civil buildings: For example, the walls around King Aha's tomb, with their alternating pilasters and redans (vertical offsets), bring to mind the property or town perimeter walls of the time. Hence, they symbolically underscore the deceased's intention to rest for all eternity in his fief, his dwelling place. The wall that sets the boundaries of Djoser's funerary complex at Saqqara is similar, even though it was erected almost three centuries later.
However, with the dawn of the Old Kingdom, the funerary symbolism began to evolve, reflecting the fact thatamong the temples depending on the crowncertain heretofore rather scattered religious ideas were being pooled, encouraging a syncretist approach to the burial rites. In the divine system that came into being, the mastabas of the pharaohs were no longer considered worthy of rulers now ranked highest, and endowed with a "neteric" destiny whereby they were called upon to join their father gods. More than a site serving to ensure their immortality, it was a vehicle with which to join their divine dwelling place that the kings deserved. The pyramid was meant to serve both purposes, providing the king with an impregnable refuge and assisting him in the first steps of his ascension towards the hereafter.
The famous Pyramid Texts help elucidate this double role of the pyramid: the passive inertia of its construction material and the active power of its shape. These texts, which are the fruit of a gigantic compilation accomplished by the Heliopolitan (Heliopolis = "city of the sun", center of astronomy under Old Kingdom) priests during the first dynasties of Ancient Egypt, consist of hymns, incantations, and magic formulae. The purpose of such verbal amulets was to protect the deceased on his way to fulfilling his destiny, to overcome the dangers that he might cross on his way or, in the words of the Egyptians themselves, "to lay the foundation in the heart" all the way to the end of his journey. The three main versions that have come down to us are taken from the burial chambers of the pyramids of Unas (5th Dynasty), Pepi I (6th Dynasty), and Merenre (6th Dynasty): Here they were inscribed on the walls in long columns of hieroglyphs painted in blue. In today's cultural context, these intentionally hermetic inscriptions are of course very difficult for us to grasp. Nevertheless, and despite the differences between them, together they furnish the basics of the "how to be reborn" ritual.
Some passages are of relevance to our topic. Thus, for instance, paragraph 267: "The earth is beaten into steps for him towards heaven, that he may mount on it towards heaven." From this we are made to conceive of the pyramid, in particular the step pyramid, as a staircase enabling the deceased pharaoh to fulfill his cosmic destiny. Further on, paragraphs 508 and 523 comment: "N has trodden down for himself thy splendor, as stairs under his feet, that N may ascend them to his mother, the living uraeus which is the head of Ra." - "The sky has strengthened the radiance for N, that N may lift himself to heaven as the eye of Ra." [www.sacred-texts.com] In other words, the smooth-faced pyramid represents at once the supreme protection afforded by Ra spreading his rays over the mortal remains of his son and, like the staircase in ¶ 267, the pathway of light that the resurrected king will follow to reach his father's bosom.
To assert that paragraphs 267, 508 and 523 of the Pyramid Texts alone provide a definitive explanation of the symbolism belonging to the Egyptian burial rites would be an exaggeration. Still other sources confirm the hypotheses being put forward: Egyptian writing offers an extraordinarily fertile field of research in the matter. As those familiar with that writing know, to any given group of signs forming a word, the scribes were in the habit of adding an additional ideogram that served as a determiner for purposes of clarifying the essence of the term in question.
Take the term "beer" : Written as heneket, it was followed by the sign , the symbol for a beer pot; that is .
Likewise, the verb "to ascend" was written er, with as its determiner the schematic image of a two-sided stairway whose outline is strangely reminiscent of the pyramid of Djoser.
he noun "pyramid" itself was written mer. The prefix em most commonly meant the "place," or "site," so that the word can be translated as "the place where one ascends." Hence, the writing corroborates the content of the sacred texts: The pyramid is the staircase, the mystic way, or simply the place from which the king ascends towards Ra.
Not that this brings our problem to an end, for the step pyramid does not always symbolize the first steps of the path leading to Ra, nor does the smooth-faced pyramid always symbolize the supreme protection afforded by the rays of the sun. Studying the inside layout of the pyramids at Saqqara, Dahshur, Meydum and Giza, Egyptologists made a surprising discovery: In most cases, both systems were superimposed in the same pyramid. The pyramid at Meydum, for example, consists of a smooth outer facing over a seven-step inner body. Research has revealed that such a solution was not prompted simply by technical needs, since it is just as easy to encase a straight-walled structure in limestone as a stepped one. In fact, the real reason might well enough be symbolic: Snefru's burial tomb could be a "double pyramid," at once vehicle (staircase) and site of protection (Ra).
3rd to 5th DYNASTIES Boat tomb, causeway and pyramid of King Unas; to the right, South Wall of the funerary complex of King Djoser, Saqqara, royal necropolis
Another finding by the archaeologists who continued the research on Ancient Egypt's funerary monuments was that, instead of sitting on entirely level ground, as was formerly thought, the pyramids rested on natural mounds, or in any case a rocky knoll deliberately set apart for their construction. Any technical considerations notwithstanding, here again the explanation has to do with the realm of the symbolic: According to Heliopolitan dogma, which was the dominating current of the day, in the Beginning there was chaos or "noun"a neutral compound of matter and non-matter, inert and animated, passive and active. From this chaos was said to have arisen, spurred by the creative Will, the first organized element, a stone hillock emerging from the marshes. It was further said that here was the birthplace of Atum, father of the gods who organized the cosmos: Shu and Tefnut, Nut and Geb, Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nepthysa group of gods forming the "Grand Ennead."
This primeval mound was worshipped in the heart of the Heliopolis sanctuary in the form of a squat obelisk; for lack of testimony, it is not known whether its section was round or square. Originally named "ben," thanks to the well-known phenomenon of reduplication it subsequently became "benben" (original mound). Hence this sacred monolith represented the site of the emergence of life, harmony, and orderall of which were the outward signs of the active neter.
In seeking to assert their victory over the nothingness that is death, the Old Kingdom pharaohs laid claim to the privilege of participating in the Heliopolitan myth: By choosing the original mound as their resting place, they allowed themselves to become assimilated with the creative cycle of Atum. The knoll at the origin of pyramids and, by extension, the pyramids themselves, represent the site of the first day of genesis, of being able to come into being, of being able to come back into being, by analogy with the Heliopolitan genesis.
This makes of the pyramid an instrument of the greatest divine mystery, that of coming back to life. Set up against the horizon and facing the whole country, the pyramid exalts the supreme power of the gods. In the words of J.H. Breasted: "The pyramidal shape of the royal tomb was of highest holy significance . (...) and when the pyramid arose, enormous like a mountain, above the royal sepulchre, dominating the city at its feet and the valley beyond, it was the loftiest object greeted by the sun in all the land and the morning rays of the divine sun sparkled over the summit, dazzling for a long time before scattering the shadows in the dwelling places of the humble mortals."
Many a mortal has crossed the plain of Giza in the last forty-four centuries. No matter of what culture or confession, not one of them, I feel certain, ever gazed upon Cheops without experiencing the deep thrill that the discovery of the sacred unfailingly invites.