During the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, large carved Buddhist sculptures on cliff walls were desecrated. Photos documenting the Buddhas before and after their destruction were featured in the exhibit Afghanistan: A Timeless History that I saw at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston in 2002. The exhibition was introduced with a statement and photo of first Lady Laura Bush presenting how the US Invasion and Presence in Afghanistan has allowed the saving and protection of many more of this culture’s works. Leap ahead to spring 2003 when the Iraq National Museum was left unguarded by US Troops after the invasion of Iraq, holding one-of-a-kind relics from the origins of civilization completely destroyed or taken by looters. Think of continuous character desecration in the United States with McCarthyism; Democratic and Republican ad campaigns; and the destruction of an individual’s or social group’s public image for the purpose of control and regaining power. Those in power have the option to rewrite history as they see fit. Howard Zinn references this within The People’s History of the United States and the exhibition Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh, shows some examples of this centuries before Christ. Continue reading Queen Hatshepsut Pharaoh
NOVA: Recently your crews unearthed one of the only intact tombs found since the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in the 1920s. What was that like?
Hawass: Very exciting. When I attended the opening of the tomb, it was like looking at the past and the future. There was a big, six-ton sarcophagus. I had to ask myself, Is it empty? Is there something? In archaeology, you have to be a lucky person. If you are unlucky, you can excavate your entire life and discover nothing. Therefore, when we took off the lid of this sarcophagus and found inside another five-ton anthropoid sarcophagus, beautifully inscribed, and underneath that a mummy, it was a moment that no one could really describe.
| Relief from the tomb of Kai, showing traces of 4,600-year-old paint.
NOVA: You’ve been excavating the tombs of the Pyramid builders. What have you found?
Hawass: We’ve uncovered titles of the craftsmen, draftsmen, tombmakers, the overseer of the east side of the Pyramid, the overseer of the west side of the Pyramid, and so on. We found that the average age at death of the workmen was very early, 30 to 35, while officials died at 50 to 60. We’ve also studied the bones in these tombs, which have provided much information. All the skeletons of men and women show signs of stress in their backs, because people were involved in moving heavy stuff. We determined through x-rays that someone had syphilis, and we found evidence of brain surgery on a workman, who lived for two years afterwards. The ancients even had emergency treatment for workers on site, because we discovered that they were fixing broken bones and even amputating legs that had been crushed by a falling stone.
We have unearthed another 65 tombs, the best being that of the priest Kai, which is dated to the reign of Khufu. It is a beautiful painted tomb with a unique artistic style. One relief shows Kai’s daughter affectionately putting her arm around his shoulder. At the entrance to the tomb it says that it is the tombmakers and craftsmen who made his tomb. He says, “I paid them beer and bread. I made them to make an oath that they were satisfied.”
NOVA: Egyptologists often talk about pyramids as “complexes,” especially at Giza. How do the Pyramids integrate with the Sphinx and the temples at Giza?
Hawass: People always look at the Pyramids by themselves, but each lies within a group of related architectural components, including subsidiary pyramids, solar-boat pits, a palace, a harbor, workshops, and a funerary temple connected by a causeway to a valley temple. Together these constituted the physical elements of the cult of the pharaoh, in which the king was worshipped after his death. The Sphinx itself is connected to the Pyramid of Khafre.
| A lone camel driver makes his way home against Pyramids gilded by a late-afternoon sun.
NOVA: It is difficult to get an inside sense of what life was like during the Pyramid Age. Can you give us a glimpse of what you’ve learned about the life of the pharaohs in Dynastic times?
Hawass: Well, the basic design was for the king to become a god. To achieve that status, he had to do certain things in his lifetime. He had to build a tomb, such as a pyramid. He had to erect temples for worshipping the gods, such as the funerary and valley temples at Giza or the great mortuary temples at Luxor. He had to “smite his enemies,” that is, win victories in battle against foreigners. And he had to sustain the unification of the two lands, Upper and Lower Egypt.
Then, after the king’s death, he was buried in his tomb. The walls of the tomb depict scenes to help guide him through the afterlife. A funerary cult developed, and his followers worshipped him as a deity for years afterward. The ancient Egyptians believed their kings would live again for all time.
NOVA: Do most Egyptians today feel an ancestral link to the ancient Egyptians?
Hawass: Of course, because we are the descendants of the pharaohs. If you look at the faces of the people of Upper Egypt, the relationship between modern and ancient Egypt is very clear. Habits in the villages, our celebrations when we finish a project, are similar to what they had in ancient Egypt. After someone dies, we make a celebration after 40 days, just like the ancient Egyptians did during the mummification process. Everything in our lives is like ancient Egypt.
| Zahi Hawass poses with the future gilded capstone.
NOVA: What are your plans for celebrating the new millennium at the Pyramids?
Hawass: We are approaching the third millennium A.D., and we’re celebrating the third millennium B.C. If you ask people where they would like to spend the change of millennium, many would say near the Pyramids, because the Pyramids have magic and mystery. Many people even dream about the Pyramids!
Our celebration of the millennium will consist of two parts. The first part will happen December 31st, 1999. Jean-Michel Jarre, the well-known composer, is designing a party that will extend from sunset to sunrise, through the change from night to day. Who knows? It could be that something incredible will happen here. We’re also designing a capstone encased in gold, which we’ll place on top of the Great Pyramid by helicopter on that day.
In excavations at Abusir, I discovered two important scenes in blocks. One scene shows the king and his workmen dragging a capstone; other scenes depict people dancing and singing. My interpretation is that when the king finished building the Pyramid, he had his workmen place a capstone sheathed in gold on top. Then everyone danced and sang—one million individuals celebrating—because the Pyramid was a national project. Every household in every village, in the north and south, participated in building it. (If you thought today of building a pyramid, you’d never do it, because you don’t have what drove the Egyptians. Pyramids were built in Eygpt, because the ancient Egyptians made technology for the afterlife, while we make technology for our life today.)
The second part of the millennium celebration will take place at the beginning of January. Several years ago, in cooperation with the Germans, we found a stone inside the Great Pyramid with two copper handles on it. We will send a robot to see what’s behind this door. This will be something that everyone all over the world will be waiting to find out.
NOVA: Are tourists a danger to the Pyramids and, if so, what are you doing about it?
Hawass: When tourists enter the Pyramid, they leave behind a lot of water in their breath. This becomes salt, which can create cracks. We are now removing this salt mechanically, with ventilation systems, and restoring the cracks. But to tell you the truth, if I had the power, I would close such things as the Pyramids and the tombs of Seti, Nefertari, and King Tut at Luxor. These are things we cannot repeat; we should close them to save them.
| The Giza Plateau.
We’re undertaking a major conservation project on the Giza Plateau. This will include a ring road around the plateau. All cars will have to use this; none will be permitted around the Pyramids themselves. We’re building a new stable for camels and horses in the desert to the south of the Pyramids. And we’re demolishing all unnecessary buildings on the plateau, including guard houses, rest houses, and even my office. Only then can we have the plateau as a sacred, divine place, where visitors can have private time to enjoy the magic and mystery.
Soon I will open a site located between Sakkara and Giza called Abusir, which contains 11 pyramids. They call them the “forgotten pyramids,” because no one knows anything about them. If we open these, then hopefully fewer people will visit the Great Pyramid, which when it’s open is visited by 5,000 people a day, Egyptians and foreigners.
NOVA: Do you think there’s too much excavation and not enough restoration and conservation?
Hawass: I personally think that excavations should be stopped completely in Upper Egypt—completely, for ten years. We’ll concentrate in Upper Egypt only in conservation, restoration, epigraphy, photography, and publication. (In the Delta, on the other hand, you can encourage excavations, because moisture is quickly deteriorating the monuments.)
Egyptologists have to stop being selfish. I know to get funding you’ve got to excavate, but we have to think about future generations, what they will say about us. UNESCO now is telling everyone that in 200 years these monuments will be finished because of massive tourism. We have to think about site management and preservation.
| A restored Sphinx dwarfs its chief modern guardian, Zahi Hawass.
NOVA: The Sphinx has undergone extensive restoration in recent years. Is it possible that we run the risk of losing it, and what’s being done?
Hawass: When Emile Baraize cleared sand from around the Sphinx in 1926, he found that the mother rock had completely deteriorated. This is why I say the Sphinx has cancer. It has suffered a lot from poor restoration, including the use of cement. Limestone, the rock it’s carved from, is like a human being—it needs to breath. When you put cement on it, you stop the limestone’s ability to breath. Recently we did an enormous modern restoration, but it requires constant vigilance.
NOVA: Do you recommend young people become Egyptologists?
Hawass: I do, I do. I mean, it’s the best job in the world! I believe that Egyptologists have a mission to teach interested young people about working in the past. Archaeology, after all, is not Indiana Jones. I encourage young people to study and prepare for the field.
NOVA: Do you think that finding remains of ancient Egypt hidden in the sands will be ongoing for hundreds of years?
Hawass: I believe that we’ve only found about 30 percent of Egyptian monuments, that 70 percent of them still lie buried underneath the ground. You never know what the sand will hide in the way of secrets.
| “I would love to be Khufu!”
NOVA: Have you ever wished you could have lived during that time?
Hawass: An interviewer once asked me something like, “If you lived in ancient times, what time would you pick?” And I said, “The time of the Great Pyramid.” Another time, the actor Omar Sharif asked me during the filming of a program, “If you believe in reincarnation, who would you wish to be?” I said, “If I believe in reincarnation, I would love to be Khufu!”
Dr. Zahi Hawass is Director of the Pyramids in Giza, Egypt. He is also in charge of the pyramids at Dashur, Abusir, Saqqara, and the Bahariya Oasis. His most recent book is The Secrets of the Sphinx: Restoration Past and Present (American University in Cairo Press, 1998).
Photos: (1,4) Peter Tyson; (2,3,5-7) Aaron Strong.
Standing at the base of the Great Pyramid, it is hard to imagine that this monument—which remained the tallest building in the world until early in this century—was built in just under 30 years. It presides over the plateau of Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, and is the last survivor of the Seven Wonders of the World. Five thousand years ago Giza, situated on the Nile’s west bank, became the royal necropolis, or burial place, for Memphis, the pharaoh’s capital city. Giza’s three pyramids and the Sphinx were constructed in the fourth dynasty of Egypt’s Old Kingdom, arguably the first great civilization on earth. Today, Giza is a suburb of rapidly growing Cairo, the largest city in Africa and the fifth largest in the world.
About 2,550 B.C., King Khufu, the second pharaoh of the fourth dynasty, commissioned the building of his tomb at Giza. Some Egyptologists believe it took 10 years just to build the ramp that leads from the Nile valley floor to the pyramid, and 20 years to construct the pyramid itself. On average, the over two million blocks of stone used to build Khufu’s pyramid weigh 2.5 tons, and the heaviest blocks, used as the ceiling of Khufu’s burial chamber, weigh in at an estimated nine tons.
How did the ancient Egyptians move the massive stones used to build the pyramids from quarries both nearby and as far away as 500 miles? This question has long been debated, but many Egyptologists agree the stones were hauled up ramps using ropes of papyrus twine. The popular belief is that the gradually sloping ramps, built out of mud, stone, and wood were used as transportation causeways for moving the large stones to their positions up and around the four sides of the pyramids.
The Sphinx, which embodies the body of a lion and the head of a pharaoh, is believed to be the head of Khafre and his guardian spirit for his entire burial complex. Carved from the natural limestone of Giza, the sphinx has disintegrated over the years, entire pieces dropping off to the desert floor below. It is not known to have chambers inside, like those found in the pyramids at Giza.
Dates Built: undetermined
Base: 187 feet (57 m) in length
Total Weight: undetermined
Width: Face is 20 feet (6 m) wide
Height: Total height is 66 feet (20 m), 30 feet (9.15 m) high from chin to head
Construction Material: Soft limestone
Photo: Aaron Strong
(click and drag in image, left or right)
| The most enigmatic of sculptures, the Sphinx was carved from a single block of limestone left over in the quarry used to build the Pyramids. Scholars believe it was sculpted about 4,600 years ago by the pharaoh Khafre, whose Pyramid rises directly behind it and whose face may be that represented on the Sphinx.
Half human, half lion, the Sphinx is 240 feet long and 66 feet high. Badly eroded, it has undergone numerous restorations over the millennia, beginning with one conducted about 1400 B.C. by the pharaoh Tuthmosis IV, who dreamt that the Sphinx asked him to clear the sand around it in return for the crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. The Sphinx has recently undergone a major modern restoration.
In this 180° image, as you “walk” around the Sphinx from its left side to its right, watch the sunrise first strike the top of the Khafre Pyramid in the background, then light up the Sphinx itself. To get a sense of the sheer size of the sculpture, keep an eye out, too, for the man standing below it.
An excerpted interview with Mark Lehner
NOVA: Tell us about your current excavation at Giza. Does it stem from a desire to define who built the pyramids and how they were built?
LEHNER: I started asking new questions. Not who built the Sphinx, and how were the pyramids built, but where are all the people? It seemed to me that 200 years of Egyptology had focused on pyramids, tombs and temples, and hieroglyphic inscriptions, and understandably so. Once you could read those things, my God, they were speaking to you in every tomb and temple wall. But if in fact as Herodotus said, there were 100,000 people—Herodotus the Greek, who wrote about 450 B.C.—if it took 100,000 people to build the great pyramid, I started thinking, having started to do some reading in anthropology, my God, that would be a super city in the third millennium B.C. Where is the city? How were they fed? How were they housed? Now Egyptologists have more sober estimates of some 20,000, 30,000, but even that would be a colossal city. So I started saying, well, we must be missing a whole component of the Giza Plateau, namely the people who built it, the evidence of their infrastructure. But it was the geology or the geomorphology, the shape of the landscape, that gave me the clues. Continue reading The Dig On Pyramids