In this series, I’m taking you on a tour of the Histories of Herodotus - the ancient Greek who loved to travel and explore the world and different cultures. He wrote around the year 450 BC. His second book is all about the fabulous, weird and wonderful land of Egypt - ancient Egypt as we would call it now. And of course one of the things that everyone knows about ancient Egypt now, is that they built the pyramids.
The pyramids are some of the most impressive structures built at any time in history. For example, The Great Pyramid of Giza stands 138 meters tall. It held the record for being the tallest building in the world for four and a half thousand years, until the Eiffel tower was erected in Paris as the entrance to the world fair of 1889. Its engineer, Gustave Eiffel, compared his tall pointy creation to the pyramids.
Each side of the Great Pyramid of Giza rises at an angle of 51.5 degrees and is aligned almost exactly with true north, south, east, and west.
It was just as famous in ancient times as it is now, and is the only wonder of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World to survive to the present day. All the others, including the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, and the lighthouse of Alexandria are now turned to dust.
The word 'pyramid' actually comes from the Greek word 'pyramis' which means 'wheat cake'. The Pyramids reminded the Greeks of pointy-topped wheat cakes. Herodotus writes about the Pyramids in a way that assumes his audience already knew what they were . But of course few had actually seen them with their own eyes, as he had done.
Any visitor who gazes upon the pyramids must wonder how they could possibly have been made by a civilization without hydraulic cranes, bulldozers, and steel girders, and all the rest of the technology that goes into erecting say skyscrapers. In fact, quite a few people have concluded that they must have been made by aliens, or gods, or superheroes.
But Herodotus tells us that they were built by human effort and suffering. What he does NOT say is that they were built by slaves, as shown in the epic Biblical movies, complete with blood and sandals.
And most modern historians agree that the pyramids were built by free Egyptian workers- perhaps farmers in the part of the year when their fields were flooded by the Nile and they had little to do.
Heroditus says that originally the people of Egypt lived happy lives under their rulers, the Pharaohs. But when a Pharaoh called Kheops came to the throne, he brought misery to the land.
Now Kheops is the Greek name for Khufu in Egyptian and he is the Pharaoh who ordered the Great Pyramid of Giza to be built. He was on the throne around 2,600 BC and reigned, says Herodotus, for 50 years. But he was far from a popular ruler. Herodotus claims he closed all the temples and forced the Egyptians to work for him. Some had to cut stones in the quarries for his vast building projects. Some had to bring the stones in boats along the river Nile. And others had to build, build, build, in the burning sun. And the fashion for pyramid building was not buried with Kheops’s mummy.
Heroditus reports that for a hundred and six years Egypt was a sad place, while the pyramids were built, and the temples were not open. The Egyptians he met hated the memory of those the kings who built the pyramids so much that they did not wish to utter their names, and called the pyramids after the shepherd Philitis, who previously pastured his flocks of sheep where they now stood.
The first great project of King Kheops, or Khufu, which took ten years to complete, was to lay a broad road from the river Nile to the site where he planned his Pyramid. Herodotus says this royal road was paved with polished stones, and that statues stood along its sides all the way. Just building the road was a huge accomplishment.
In addition to the road, a canal brought water from the River Nile so that the Pyramid could be protected by a moat.
The Pyramid itself took 20 years to build. It was made in steps and its sides are like stairs. Herodotus says that wooden machines lifted up the great stones, one step at a time.
This description makes sense at least - and so it is kind of odd when he then states that they made the pyramids from the top down. It is rather hard to imagine the highest point of the pyramid floating in the air, and the other stones being placed beneath it. So what he must have meant was that when the structure had been built, the final outer layer of polished stone was added from the top down.
An inscription on the Pyramid told visitors how much money had been spent on the food for the builders. Apparently, they lived on a diet of radishes, onions and garlic, and the cost of feeding them over 20 years was sixteen hundred talents of silver. By my calculation that makes 450 tons of silver which would buy an awful lot of radishes even today.
The pyramids were built as tombs for the mummified Pharaohs, along with many beautiful and precious possessions that were placed inside. Later Pharaohs were buried in underground tombs, presumably to hide from grave robbers - or maybe because building the Pyramids involved too much cost and misery to build. The most famed collection of elaborate royal tombs—the Valley of the Kings—lies further south along the Nile near the site now called Luxor or ancient Thebes.
But Heroditus says that the Pyramids were far from the only wonders in Northern Egypt near the city of Memphis. There were wonders, in his day, that surpassed even the pyramids.
He visited a vast maze or labyrinth near the City of the Crocodiles, and if he had not had a guide, he might never have found his way out. He tells us that the maze was intricate and windy, and full of carvings and statues.
It was made of twelve roofed courts with doors facing each other. And there were three thousand rooms fifteen hundred above and the same number underground. He visited the maze above ground, but his guide refused to show him the underground labyrinth because kings and sacred crocodiles were buried down there.
The labyrinth was described by Roman writers later on, but does not exist to this day. One Roman writer, Pliny the Elder described the labyrinth as a “bewildering maze of paths”, adding that, anyone who entered the temple had to find their way through a confusing array of ramps, porticoes, rooms, and stairs, was confronted with “a fearful noise of thunder” and had to pass through chambers in darkness.
And if the Labyrinth was not amazing enough, Heroditus also describes a vast artificial lake. In the middle stood two pyramids, rising out of the water; and on top of each was a colossal stone figure seated on a throne. The lake was filled with water for six months of the year via a canal from the Nile, and for the other six months, the water flowed back into the Nile.
And those are just some of the amazing buildings of ancient Egypt. Heroditus tells us they were far more wonderful than anything the Greeks built, even the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus on the mainland of what is now Turkey, or the temple of Hera on the Greek island of Samos.
As ever, Herodotus is gently reminding his readers that the land of Egypt is more ancient, vast, and wonderful than their own Greek civilization of which they are so proud. It is humbling to travel and learn about faraway places and peoples, and puts everything in your own life into perspective. And we too, today, can wonder at the massive achievements of the ancient Egyptians.
And I thought you might like to know that I’m writing a book set in ancient Egypt - about a favourite Storynory character, Lapis the Cat. I hope to finish writing it in a few months, but it seems books take about a year to be published. In the meantime, please don’t forget you can buy my book, Undercover Robot, about a loveable Android called Dotty. I wrote it with David Edmonds, a philosopher - and it has lots of clever stuff going on under the surface.