Thursday, February 12, 2009

Pyramid Power

Today we did the usual stops in Giza: Pyramids, the "solar boat" museum (a 150 foot boat that was reassembled from pieces buried more than 4,000 years ago), and the Sphinx (who looks surprisingly tiny next to the Giant Pyramid).

The best part of the day came with the biggest warning label. "If you have claustrophobia, back problems, knee problems, heart problems, a fear of heights, or aren't in good shape, you probably shouldn't enter the Great Pyramid," warned our guide. Her pep talk dissuaded most members of our tour group, but we decided to take the plunge. And through lucky timing, we ended up having about ten minutes as the only two people inside the Great Pyramid. The ascent lived up to the warning -- it was dark, narrow, steep, and required a couple hundred yards of crouching. Donald even crawled for part of it. But it's worth it to visit the burial chamber in the center of the pyramid. There's almost nothing there -- an empty sarcophagus which you can see if you bring your trusty, high-BPP Brookstone flashlight -- but it's pretty darn cool to be in the center of a gigantic pyramid that was built more than 4,000 years ago. The pyramid builders weren't into hieroglyphics or art, just impressive architecture.

One fascinating aspect of pyramids is the history of technological innovation. It all began with the mastaba, a simple one story tomb for ancient rulers. Think square building. But as the centuries passed, some innovative pharaoh thought: hmm, I am a big deal, why not add some additional levels? So you get step pyramids. Think five or six levels, each somewhat smaller than the previous one. And then another enterprising pharaoh says: hmm, I am a bigger deal, why not have the levels converge to a single point at the top? So you get the idea of a complete step pyramid. But reality is difficult and builders of the first one either miscalculate, run short of money, or lose enthusiasm. Whatever the reason, the only way to have the levels converge is to flatten the slope of the pyramid partway up. So you get the bent pyramid. Then another pharaoh comes along and he has a good architect, enough money, and enough longevity to pull the whole thing off. So you get a complete step pyramid. And then another pharaoh comes along and says that whole step pyramid thing is old school, I want smooth sides. And so you get the ultimate in pyramids, where they build a complete step pyramid and then encase it in extra-nice stone to create smooth sides all around. (You can see the remaining casing at the top of one pyramid in the Sphinx photo.)

Another fascinating aspect of pyramids is the sheer logistics of constructing one. The Great Pyramid -- which is comprised of more than 2 million hand crafted blocks -- took more than twenty years. Researchers estimate that as many as 12,000 workers were involved at one time, not to mention all the folks providing logistical support (food, water, etc.). The Egyptians showed genius in construction methods -- imagine fitting together 2.3 million pieces into a perfect pyramid -- but they must also have had some genius in organizational management. (And no, the pyramids were not built by slaves.)

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