Tutankhamun's gold mask

Showing off with stonework


Cairo is Africa’s city of 15 million – they don’t come with more residents on the entire continent. It is hot, hot-headed and frenetic with bustle, bazaars and traffic chaos. Our trip itinerary includes the experience of Coptic Cairo. You will visit The Hanging Church – built into the masonry of the Roman water-gate, before moving on to Saints Sergius-the Bacchus Church. Also known as Abu Serga, this 4th century-AD Coptic Church is believed to stand on the spot where Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus rested after their journey into Egypt.

Cairo’s Egyptian Museum exhibits King Tutankhamun’s fabulously famous Gold Mask. Moulded to hide his facial bandaging, it is 11kg of solid-gold and clearly represents dynasties that buried their treasure and artefacts with their corpses. A reminder that to ancient Egyptians, ‘you can’t take it with you’ was pleasantly unthinkable!

The world’s largest pyramids rise from the lands of Egypt, China and Mexico. Unknown to most until the 1940s, China’s great pyramids are about 91.44 metres high; as for Mexico, its Teotihuacán falls short of 58 metres. Famous for millennia, Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza is the oldest of the three in the Giza Necropolis, and is 146.5 metres tall. Usefully, ancient Egyptians were also ambitious enough to invent the first calendar, making it easier to estimate when Giza’s pyramids were constructed. We know that The Great Pyramid took approximately 20 years to build, was completed in about 2560 BC, and that it stood, the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years – the longest period ever held for such a record.

The pyramids at Giza blot out so much sky and are so wonderfully ancient, that it is difficult to think of the land on which their foundations were dug before the first pyramid stood finished. 100 years before Giza’s pyramid shapes were first drawn up; this desert plateau lay flat and featureless, waiting for its townspeople’s grandchildren to think of how great all this would look with pyramids!

Early inspiration for Giza’s pyramids came from ancient prehistoric graves and tombs, and crucially, from Egypt’s very first pyramid at Saqqara. Completed in 2648 BC, it was ‘stepped’ at an angle and honoured King Netjerikhet Djoser. Egypt’s first two ‘true’ non-‘stepped’ pyramids appeared in Meidum, both enormous, and built by order of King Sneferu between 2589 and 2566 BC. Sneferu’s son and heir, Khufu, became a well-known constructor of pyramids. So much so that on completion, The Great Pyramid of Giza was chosen to be his funeral monument.

But why did ancient Egyptians need to build monuments to their dead on such a huge scale? How much of all this was showing off with stonework – an over-confident desire to construct something highly intimidating? Intimidation frightens and suppresses both the enemy and the local populous. Barbaric ways of achieving this included displaying severed heads or hung corpses. Everyone could smell and witness them grimly rotting over the months.

Pyramids could frighten and deter too, exclude the masses with their in-built dynastic, religious or astronomical association – many believe they were associated to all three. What’s certain is that during the construction of the pyramids at Giza, and over the years until their completion, they transfixed; they were built to transfix with unworldly mystery and ‘impossible’ architectural and engineering accomplishment.

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  1. I always get a shiver down my spine whenever I read about the Egyptian pyramids. Just like the incredible Taj Mahal in India, these pyramids symbolize an overwhelming devotion that kingdoms had to their rulers. These expressions of ancient devotion are just thrilling.