Memphis and Its Necropolis and Areas of The Pyramids of Giza to Dahshur

From Khartoum (Sudan), the Nile rushes successively in six waterfalls, numbered from north to south; so that the sixth is close to this city and the first at Aswan, where the Nile enters Egypt. Before the gigantic dam of Aswan was built, the Nile overflowed every year because of the torrential rains that fall in Ethiopia and fertilized the lands near the river. The Egyptian civilization flourished along the 1200 km that separate the first waterfall from the Mediterranean Sea, in two distinct areas: the upper Nile, which reached Aswan, and the lower Nile, or Nile Delta.

About 5000 years ago, King Menes unified upper and lower Egypt, founded the first dynasty, and made Memphis the capital of his empire. With the first pharaoh of the third dynasty, Djoser, the period that historians call the Ancient Empire began. To this monarch belongs the step pyramid of Sakkara built by the great architect Imhotep.

Just two centuries later, the development of technology and, what seems even more important, the ability to organize and direct thousands and thousands of workers who, doing different jobs, had to converge at the exact moment in the necessary point, allowed the construction in Giza of the famous pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, better known by the name given by Herodotus of Cheops, Khafre and Mycerinus.

Map of Ancient Egypt (3150 B.C. - 332 B.C.)

Memphis and Sakkara, a forgotten city and an eternal necropolis 

Memphis, despite holding for several centuries the capital of Egypt and therefore being the center of power of the largest empire known until then, is today nothing more than a small set of ruins, which has not even been studied completely. Its most brilliant period is the one that goes from the third to the sixth dynasty, that is to say, from approximately 2700 B.C. to 2150 B.C., the moment in which it yields its title to Thebes.

The Historical City of Memphis, Egypt

Despite this change, Memphis maintained its influence as a religious center for centuries.  We must not forget a fact that, although at the time should not have had the slightest importance, has been a basic change for the current knowledge of Egyptian culture, and is that the priests of the temple of Ra in Memphis were the authors of the famous Rosetta Stone, thanks to which Champollion managed to decipher the hieroglyphs and opened the way for modern Egyptology. The fall into the oblivion of Memphis, which occurred when classical Egypt had already disappeared, is actually due to the emergence in its vicinity of a new city that was to absorb their roles: Cairo, and although it is logical to assume that future excavations will lead to great discoveries, so far very little has been found. Only a few statues are known, among them a gigantic limestone of Ramses II and an alabaster sphinx. It can also be seen today in Memphis a part of the temple of Ra and the embalming room of the sacred Apis bulls. But if Memphis seems almost unimportant today, the same is not true of the tomb areas that we can group, from north to south, in the following groups: the first Giza, with its pyramids of Cheops, Khafre and Mycerinus; the second Sakkara, with the Step Pyramid of Djoser, its groups of tombs and pyramids and the necropolis of sacred animals, and finally Dahshur, with its five pyramids of different ages and the neighboring tombs.

The Great Cheops Pyramid and The Great Sphinx of Giza

To these basic complexes we could also add others of lesser importance such as Abu Sir, Abu Gorab and Ziyet el-Aryan.

The Sakkara complex is the work of a brilliant architect, Imhotep, chancellor of the pharaoh Djoser. Imhotep not only laid the foundations of future funerary architecture, but was worshipped by the ancient Egyptians as a demigod, before becoming the patron of science and medicine.

Around the tomb that would house the body of the pharaoh, Imhotep erected a monumental complex whose surface area was equal to that of the entire city.

It has long been said that the step pyramid of Sakkara was actually formed by a series of mastabas, placed one on top of the other and smaller and smaller.

Imhotep, "The Egyptian Da Vinci"

Today this theory does not seem to be tenable; rather Imhotep intended to make a real pyramid, as evidenced by the carefully fitted blocks rising obliquely from the ground, recently discovered at the base of the pyramid.

This fact means that Imhotep could not finish his work, precursor of the famous pyramids of Giza and that, in any case, it is the oldest construction in stone worked regularly.

In the nearby pyramid complex stand those of the kings Userkaf, Unas, Teti, Pepi the First, Pepi the Second, and that of Sekhemket, the probable successor of Djoser. In the great plain of Sakkara, there are several monumental complexes, among which it is worth mentioning the archaic cemetery of the first and second dynasties, with an approximate age of 5000 years, and that has been fundamental for the knowledge of the primitive Egyptian culture.

Also important is the necropolis of private tombs, coeval with the pyramids and famous for their extraordinary decoration; thus, the tomb of Mereruka, of the sixth dynasty, has such magnificent paintings of hunting and fishing in its numerous chambers that it can be used to study the fauna of ancient Egypt, while the tomb of Ti, of the fifth dynasty, is a real marvel in terms of the data that can be deduced from its decoration about the daily life of those times. 

The Tomb of Mereruka

To the north of the tomb of Ti is the Sacred Animal Necropolis, among which we can mention the ibis, or the baboons, but with a large building dedicated especially to the ox Apis: the Serapis.

From the plateau of Sakkara you can see in the distance the five pyramids of Dahshur, including that of Snephru, the father of Cheops, very interesting because while in its lower part is staggered, at the top the faces change inclination and give rise to a small upper pyramid.

Pyramid of Menkaura a.k.a. Mycerinus

This case has been considered an intermediate step between the tomb of Djoser and Cheops, but it could well be a real unfinished pyramid, as we now know that the final touches were started from the top to go down to the ground.

And we arrive at Giza, where we find "The horizon of Cheops", "Great is Khafre" and "Divine is Mycerinus".

Such names are those that served the ancient Egyptians to recognize these wonders, since according to experts in hieroglyphics, the word pyramid did not exist in those times. Giza is located on the outskirts of Cairo, which is already a surprise on the first visit.

The custom of photographing the pyramids from the most flattering point of view, makes those who do not know the area wrongly assume that they are lost in the middle of the desert. The pyramid of Cheops, one of the seven wonders of the world, measures about 230.35 m on each side, 146.59 m high, occupies an area of 54,000 m² and was built with 2,590,000 m³ of stone, enough, according to Napoleon, to surround the entire territory of France with a 3 m high wall.

The great pyramid is located on the 30th parallel and its base was oriented exactly in the direction of the four cardinal points (today, because of the precession of the Earth, this orientation is not exact).

Herodotus tells that its construction took 30 years, 10 to prepare the access ramp for the materials and 20 to erect the pyramid.

The labor force consisted of 100,000 people, but only during the three months of the Nile flood when it was not possible to work in the fields. The organization had to be perfect and it is very likely that for storage of materials and work area a level surface was built that would later be used as the base for the pyramid of Chephren. The royal sarcophagus is found without a lid in a small interior room that is accessed through a long and narrow corridor.

There are five chambers above this room, strategically placed to unload the weight of the large mass of stone above; however, such an arrangement was insufficient and the roof gave way, so it is very likely that the builders themselves decided not to introduce the royal coffin in such a dangerous place. The pyramid of Chephren is half a meter lower, but being built on higher ground it seems at some distance the highest. At the top are still seen the thin stone slabs that once covered all the pyramids but were removed to be used in the construction of mosques and other buildings.

Finally, the pyramid of Mycerinus is smaller, measuring only 66 m, and although if it were alone it would be a marvel, surrounded by its larger ones it goes somewhat unnoticed.

The famous sphinx that guards the pyramids was probably made once found, in situ, a large rock with the silhouette of an animal.

It is 57 m long and 20 m wide, but to the lion's body was added the face of Chephren. Much later, around 1400 BC, the son of the second Pharaoh, Amenhotep, found the sphinx buried in the sand up to his neck and had a dream in which the statue spoke to him. When he acceded to the throne with the name of Thutmose the Fourth, he immediately went to Giza, freed the sphinx from the surface that covered it, protected it with a stone casing, erected, probably, a statue of his father before the chest of the leonine figure and placed a stele in which he narrated the dream he had when he met the sphinx for the first time.

Oldest known photo of The Great Sphinx of Giza taken circa 1880

A century later Ramses the second added his own steles and it is well known that in more recent times the Mamluks used the sphinx as a shooting target, which meant the loss of the nose, and even that just a few decades ago part of the right shoulder fell off.

In any case, the big problem of the Giza complex, apart from the massive tourism in politically quiet times, is the pollution coming from nearby Cairo. Nevertheless, the importance of these monuments is of such a caliber that measures tending to their protection, and even their restoration, are assured.

Let us hope that for many thousands of years to come, future generations will be able to continue to contemplate this marvelous ensemble.