One of the oldest and greatest civilizations of earth is that of Egypt. Over 2000 years ago, the Greek historian Herodotus said of Egypt: "there is no country that possesses so many wonders." And he said that at the low point of Egyptian art and culture.
Egypt is in Africa. It is surrounded by desert. It was a hard place to live. Death was common. Life was bearable only along the Nile, the second longest river in the world. For the Egyptians, the Nile was everything. It gave them water and food. The Egyptians worshipped the Nile for the life it gave them. They also worshipped the harsh desert, the hot sun, and many other things in their world.
Ancient Egyptian Art
The Stepped Pyramid of King dZoser was the first stone building in Egypt. It was built around 2610BC. It stands at Saqqara near Memphis, Egypt. It was the first attempt at creating a monumental resting place for a dead pharaoh. Before the Stepped Pyramid, kings had been buried in mastabas, rectangular house-like tombs. Mastabas were mostly below ground, but the rectangular top of the buildings stuck up above the desert floor. Mastabas could be as big as a house, with several rooms through which the dead king's spirit could wander.
The Stepped Pyramid is basically seven mastabas stacked on top of each other, getting smaller the higher up they go. The architect was Imhotep, who was probably the first artist in history known by name. He was also an advisor to pharaohs, and a wizard, doctor and priest. His design for the Stepped Pyramid would later be copied over and over. Future architects would increase the size, smooth the sides, and wind up with the true pyramids like those at Giza.
The Stepped Pyramid of dZoser
The Great Pyramid and its surrounding structures on the Giza plain in Egypt is the last remaining of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was built by the Pharaoh Khufu as a symbol of Egyptian power and as a marker for his final resting place. The pyramid was built around 2500BC and for thousands of years was the tallest building in the world. It stands 450 feet tall and is about 775 feet on each side at the bottom. It is not much more than a mountain of stone, with only a few small rooms inside. One room acts as a burial chamber for Khufu and another is a fake burial chamber to fool would-be tomb robbers. The deception didn't work. Khufu's tomb was robbed just as blind as every other pharaoh's except Tutankhamen. The pyramid, when new, was covered in a smooth coat of white limestone with a gold-covered capstone at the very top of the building. Nor does the pyramid stand alone. It shares the desert with two other huge pyramids, each only slightly smaller than Khufu's. These are the pyramids of Khufu's son Khafre and the pyramid of a later pharaoh, Menkure. Arranged about these three giant structures is a city of the dead consisting of several smaller pyramids for the pharaohs' queens, many temples, and many, many mastabas, which are rectangular tombs, mostly below ground, where nobles and rich businessmen may have been buried.
The Great Pyramid
This is most of the pyramid city at Giza. The large pyramid at the bottom is that of Khufu. Notice the three small pyramids in front of Khufu's. These are the burial places of the pharaoh's three wives. Many rectangular mastabas are arranged like buildings in a town about the larger pyramid. Far out from Khufu's pyramid are a few larger rectangles. These are Khufu's temples, where his priests took care of the tomb and worshippers came to visit.
Next to Khufu's pyramid is that of his son, Khafre. Khafre's pyramid is a little smaller than Khufu's, but looks the same size because it sits on higher ground. Right in front of the pyramid is a large temple. A very long covered road, or causeway, leads from this temple down to the main temple near the River Nile (the large rectangular building in the lower right that looks like a brick). Just behind this temple are many temple buildings and the amazing Sphinx. The Sphinx was carved from a natural outcropping of rock. It is a huge sculpture that looks like a lion with the head of a pharaoh.
The Great Pyramid
The Pyramids of Khufu's Wives
The riches of the pyramids were huge. These were the burial places of kings, and Egyptian kings took all their wealth with them into the afterlife. Though nothing of these riches was ever found by modern people, we get a hint of what may have been buried with the pharoah by looking at the treasures of Tutankamen, the only pharoah whose grave was not robbed.
The Sphinx is a giant sculpture standing near the end of Khafre's causeway. With the body of a lion and the head of a man, it seems to guard the entrance to the pyramids. The face on the statue is believed to be that of Khafre, son of Khufu of the Great Pyramid. The sculpture was carved from a huge, natural limestone outcropping and is the largest and oldest sculpture in the world. The Sphinx is almost 67 feet tall (as tall as a five-story building) and is about 240 feet long. Time has not been good to the Sphinx. Its nose is missing, having been broken off 700 years ago by an arab Mufti who caught local people worshipping the Sphinx as a harvest god. There is a legend that the nose was blown off by cannon fire from Napoleon's soldiers in the late 18th century, but this story is incorrect.
"It is the antiquity of the Sphinx which thrills us as we look upon it, for in itself it has no charms. The desert's waves have risen to its breast, as if to wrap the monster in a winding-sheet of gold. The face and head have been mutilated by Moslem fanatics. The mouth, the beauty of whose lips was once admired, is now expressionless. Yet grand in its loneliness, – veiled in the mystery of unnamed ages, – the relic of Egyptian antiquity stands solemn and silent in the presence of the awful desert – symbol of eternity. Here it disputes with Time the empire of the past; forever gazing on and on into a future which will still be distant when we, like all who have preceded us and looked upon its face, have lived our little lives and disappeared."
--John Lawson Stoddard