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Tombs of the Nobles

The riverscape of Aswan is dominated by the sand-covered hills of the West Bank which is strewn with rock-cut tombs of high-status officials of the Old and Middle Kingdom. At the crest of the hill is the domed tomb of a Muslim prophet which gives the hill its local name, Qubbet el-Hawa or ‘Dome of the Winds’.

The ticket office is to the northern end of the tomb area and a steep climb up several flights of stone steps leads to the upper level of the cemetery where there are around 6 or 7 tombs open to visitors. The guide will usually begin at the southern end of the upper level where the most interesting tombs can be seen. These ancient tombs are roughly cut from the natural rock, and though they are not as well preserved as some of those to be visited in the Luxor or Cairo areas they are well worth seeing. Tombs of this period are usually fairly inaccessible in most places south of Cairo and these show fine examples of hieroglyphic texts detailing the careers of their owners as well as scenes of daily life in the earlier periods. Many of the tombs are linked together as family members added their own chambers.

Tombs 25/26: Sabni and Mekhu –
The owners of these tombs were father and son, both Overseers of Upper Egypt in Dynasty VI during the reign of Pepy II. Reliefs on the walls of Mekhu’s tomb record his murder while on an expedition in Nubia and the revenge taken by Sabni, his son. He seems to have been buried with much ceremony. The tombs were roughly constructed in Old Kingdom style, with small obelisks at the entrance doorway and an offering table of Mekhu still in situ.

Tomb 31: Sarenput II –
The next major tomb in the sequence is that of Sarenput II, Overseer of the Priests of Khnum and Commander of the Garrison at Elephantine, dated to the reign of Dynasty XII king, Amenemhet II. This is one of the best-preserved tombs at Aswan. It consists of a large chamber with six perfectly symmetrical undecorated pillars and a gallery flanked by six niches each once containing mummiform statues of the deceased prince. The four pillars of a second chamber were decorated with images of Sarenput. Beyond this, a chapel cut deep into the rock is plastered and painted in vivid colors and depicts his wife, a Priestess of Hathor and other family members. In the niche at the back of the chapel, Sarenput is named as ‘Hereditary Lord’. This biographical text is very colourful with well-depicted hieroglyphs and shows the cartouche of ‘Nebkaure’ – Amenemhet II as well as an unusual glyph of an elephant. The style of painting and the hieroglyphs are distinctly similar to the Old Kingdom tombs, leading some Egyptologists to suggest that the same artists decorated them and that the length of the 1st Intermediate Period was therefore very short.

Tomb 31: Khunes –
This is a Dynasty VI tomb, its owner Khunes was a Lector Priest and Chancellor. A side chamber to the left of the entrance was re-used as a Coptic cell and another chamber on an upper level was a serdab. The tomb contains scenes of the deceased and his family in daily life.

Tomb 31: Harkhuf –
Harkhuf was an Overseer of Foreign Troops during the reigns of Pepy I, Merenre and Pepy II in Dynasty VI. This tomb is famous for Harkhuf’s biographical text and a copy of a letter from Pepy II requesting that Harkhuf should hurry to bring the young king a dancing pigmy from an expedition into Africa.

Tomb 35: Pepynakht (also called Heqa-ib)-
The owner of this tomb was another Overseer of Foreign Troops during the reign of Pepy II of Dynasty VI. The tomb has a columned façade, biographical texts and good reliefs showing hunting and bull-fighting scenes. Heqa-ib was the deified official whose cult chapel stood on Elephantine Island.

Tomb 36: Sarenput I-
The last major tomb on the upper level dates from Dynasty XII and the reign of Senwosret I. Sarenput I was a Governor of Elephantine and Overseer of the Priests of Satis. A columned court has scenes on the rear walls of the deceased hunting and fishing with his dogs and his sandal-bearer. In a hall with four columns, there are scenes of daily life, a boating scene and a biographical text with finely painted hieroglyphs. A chamber at the rear of the tomb has a ‘false door’.

Note the causeways which run down the hillside from the different cemetery levels. These would have been the original ‘paths’ to the tombs and coffins and burial goods would have been dragged up these steep inclines from the river. At night the whole cemetery area is floodlit and can be seen from all over Aswan.

The tombs are mostly quite deep in the hillside and therefore very dark. Photography is not usually allowed.

How to get there

To get to the Tombs of the Nobles, there is a ferry which leaves from the northern end of the Corniche. Alternatively, you can hire a felucca which will wait and bring you back. You could also combine a visit to the tombs with a longer felucca trip.


Karnak Temple

Karnak Temple – Luxor East Bank, Upper Egypt. Thebes was the capital of New Kingdom Egypt. It had grown in importance throughout the Middle Kingdom, when it was a sanctuary of the god, Montu. Karnak and Luxor Temples together were known as Waset, Thebes was the later Greek name for the town. The history of Karnak Temple and its gods is told in three performances in different languages each evening in a spectacular Sound and Light Show.

Karnak is the biggest temple complex in the world, covering an area of 100 hectares and there is nowhere more impressive to the first-time visitor. Much of it has been restored during the last century and our knowledge of the buildings here in different periods of Egyptian history is still increasing each year. In ancient times, Karnak was known as Ipet-isut, ‘The most select of places’.

The temples are built along two axes (east-west and north-south) with the original Middle Kingdom shrines built on a mound in the centre of what is now called the Temple of Amun.

On the west side is the entrance to the temple used by visitors which was once a quay built by Rameses II to give access via a canal to the river Nile. This is where boats carrying statues of the gods would have arrived and departed from the temple during festivals, such as Opet, and from where the cult statue of Amun would leave on its weekly tour of the west bank temples such as Deir el-Bahri and Medinet Habu. There are many names of kings on the quay each recording the levels of inundations during their reigns.

On the right, in front of the first pylon, is a small barque shrine built by Hakor in Dynasty XXIX, which was used as a resting place during the gods’ professional journey to and from the river.

An avenue of ram-headed sphinxes leads the visitor towards the massive front of the first pylon, each one holding a statue of the king, Rameses II, in its paws (later usurped by Pinudjem of Dynasty XXI). The sphinxes were fantastic beasts with the body of a lion and the head of a ram, a symbol of the god Amun.

The first pylon is unfinished and its height, originally of 43m, is still pretty impressive. There is no certainty as to who built it, but it’s thought that it may have been the Dynasty XXV king Taharqo whose buildings are in the forecourt. Alternatively, it may have been constructed by Nectanebo I of Dynasty XXX who built the temenos walls which link to the pylon and surround the temple complex. The remains of a mudbrick ramp can still be seen on the inner side of the pylon, the only example we have, and which shows how the pylon was constructed.

The forecourt is now inside the entrance pylon but would have originally been outside the main temple. In the centre are the remains of the giant Kiosk of the Nubian pharaoh, Taharqo, with its one complete papyrus column still standing. It is worth remembering that Karnak Temple was built to expand outwards from a central core, the oldest part being in the middle of the main axis, behind the sanctuary of Amun.

To the north of the forecourt and adjoining the first pylon, is the triple barque shrine of Seti II, with three rooms built to contain the barques of Mut, Amun and Khonsu, the gods of the Theban triad.

On the south side of the forecourt is the entrance to a temple of Rameses III, who was not satisfied with the simple way-stations of his ancestors and built an elaborate barque shrine designed as a mini-version of his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu on the west bank. Its first court is lined with Osirid statues of Rameses and its walls show festival scenes and texts. Next to this is the ‘Bubastite gate’, built by Sheshonq of Dynasty XXII, the biblical king ‘Shishak’.

The second pylon was built by Horemheb but not completed until the reign of Seti I. Seti’s son Rameses II built two colossal statues of himself which stood in front of the pylon gate. A third statue of Rameses II still stands in situ and has a tiny statue of his daughter Bent’anta between its feet. This statue was later usurped by Rameses VI then the High Priest Pinudjem I. Inside the walls of this pylon many of the sandstone talatat blocks from the Akhenaten temple were found which had been reused as infill in the construction of the walls.

Through the entrance of the second pylon is the famous hypostyle hall. Standing amongst its 134 gigantic columns the visitor can’t help but be awe inspired by the grandeur of the place. The centre 12 columns are larger (21m tall) and have open papyrus capitals, which may have been intended to symbolise the original ‘mound of creation’. The other 122 columns are smaller (15m) and have closed capitals, perhaps representing the swamp which surrounded the mound.

The hypostyle hall was begun by Amenhotep III who built the side walls which close off the space between the second and third pylons. It was not completed until the reign of Seti I who carved his beautiful raised reliefs around the walls of the northern half. His son Rameses II completed the decoration of the southern half of the walls and pillars, often overcarving his father’s reliefs with his own crude sunk relief carvings including temple foundation rituals. ‘Rameses the Great’ was not going to be forgotten.

Both Seti and Rameses have left us fine examples of temple ritual and the relationship of the pharaohs with their gods. Accounts of their battle exploits are carved around the outer walls. It was Rameses who added a roof of stone slabs to the hall and we can imagine the dim, mysterious atmosphere it would have had, lit only by the high clerestory windows. The pillars are very close together and it’s difficult to get an overview of the hypostyle hall. When it was in use the spaces between the columns would have been filled with statues of gods and kings. Looking back at the hypostyle hall from beyond the third pylon we can see just how high it must once have been.

The third pylon was built by Amenhotep III and beyond this to the east, we move towards the older part of the temple, built in early Dynasty XVIII. Many reused blocks have also been found inside the third pylon from buildings which are now being reconstructed in the open-air museum. One of a pair of obelisks of Tuthmose I is still standing in the area between the third and fourth pylon and the bases of a pair belonging to Tuthmose III can also be seen. The north-south axis of the temple branches off from this court.

It seems that each successive pharaoh was compelled to build bigger and better than his forebears. As we get closer to the sanctuary area, the original Temple of Amun, the pylons get smaller and closer together. The fourth and fifth pylons, built by Tuthmose I are much smaller than the third and the area between them is the oldest extant part of the temple. This area was once a pillared hall containing wide papyrus columns – perhaps the prototype of the hypostyle hall and had huge Osirid statues of Tuthmose I lining its walls. It was later restored and added to by various pharaohs, including his daughter Hatshepsut who built two red granite obelisks here, one of which still remains, and the pyramidion of the other lies on its side near the sacred lake. The texts on Hatshepsut’s obelisk give important details of the building of the monument from a single piece of granite and gilded with the finest gold. It is dedicated to her father Amun and it attempts to legitimise her claim to the throne.

Not much remains of the sixth pylon which was built by Hatshepsut’s successor, Tuthmose III, apart from texts giving details of captured prisoners on its lower walls. The area before the sanctuary contains two beautiful pillars, sometimes called the pillars of the north and south, erected by Tuthmose III. The northern pillar shows the emblem of Lower Egypt, the papyrus, and the southern one is the lily (or Lotus) of Upper Egypt.

The sanctuary now standing is a granite barque shrine which was built by the Greek Philip Arrhidaeus and replaces an earlier shrine of Tuthmose III. The rooms surrounding the shrine were built by Hatshepsut, who had constructed an even earlier shrine here. If we walk around the passage we can see a statue pair representing Amun and Amunet, dedicated by Tutankhamun and thought to show the face of the boy-king.

The open area behind the granite sanctuary is the oldest part of Karnak Temple where the earliest sanctuary once stood, right at the heart of the Temple. In the Middle Kingdom a shrine of Senwosret I stood here but the area was robbed for its stone and all that remains is a large alabaster slab which would have had a shrine built on it. The central court is surrounded by various semi-ruined chambers which contain a wealth of fragmentary but interesting reliefs if you have time to explore them.

Following a paved path along the south side of the central court, the visitor will come to a building known as the Festival Temple of Tuthmose III, anciently called ‘Most splendid of Monuments’ and built as a memorial temple to Tuthmose and his ancestral cult. The pillars inside the hall are said to imitate the ancient tent poles of a pavilion, unique in Egyptian architecture, and still show good remains of the coloured decoration. One of the rooms to the southwest of the pillared hall once contained a table of kings which listed the names of 62 kings and is now in the Louvre in Paris. There are several ruined statues to the north of the hall, in an area which was used as a church in the Coptic era. Behind the columned hall is a suite of rooms dedicated to Amun. A larger room to the north is sometimes known as the Zoological Garden, or Botanical Garden because it contains superb delicate carvings representing plants and animals which Tuthmose encountered on his Syrian campaigns.

A flight of wooden stairs lead over the wall behind the festival temple. In the area leading towards Karnak’s east gate is a small ‘Temple of the Hearing Ear’, built by Rameses II. Here local inhabitants of Thebes would bring their petitions to the gods of Karnak, or rather to the priests who would intercede. This was a tradition suggested by earlier niche shrines built against the back of the Tuthmose complex.

Also just inside the crumbling eastern walls are various remains of later temple structures such as a Colonnade built by Taharqo. The Eastern gate must have been once imposing but is now in quite a ruinous state. Beyond this gate and outside the main temple walls, the scant remains of Amenhotep IV’s (Akhenaten) Karnak temple buildings were discovered. These were excavated in the 1970s and many of the colossal statues of Akhenaten now in the Luxor and Cairo museums came from here.

Following the walls round to the north, we come to the Temple of Ptah. The original three sanctuaries were constructed by Tuthmose III and dedicated to the Memphite god, Ptah. It was restored by the Nubian king Shabaqo and later much added to by the Ptolemies and Romans. There are Ptolemaic screen walls and flowered columns in front of the original sanctuary area. The north and centre sanctuaries were dedicated to Ptah and the southern one to Hathor. Today, in the southern shrine which is usually now kept locked, is a beautifully restored statue of the lioness goddess Sekhmet.

Beyond the temenos wall to the north is the derelict Precinct of Montu, who was the earlier falcon-headed god of the Theban area before Amun gained prominence. The temple was originally built by Amenhotep III and his cartouches can still be seen on some of the blocks in the compound. Several later kings added to the temple and a large propylon gate was built by Ptolemy III in the quay area to the north. There were many smaller adjoining chapels and shrines dedicated to various deities, as well as an avenue of human-headed sphinxes to the north.
Moving west, past the shrines of the ‘God’s Wives of Amun’, we come to the Open Air Museum which houses various blocks and reconstructed shrines found in other parts of Karnak. Most of the fragments here were found inside the second and third pylons or in the floor of the court of the seventh pylon.

The limestone barque shrine of Senwosret I is an airy structure, built as a ‘way-station’ for the king’s jubilee. On its beautifully carved square pillars, we see the king offering to Amun in his ithyphallic form. Next to this is a shining white alabaster shrine built by Amenhotep II, a much simpler construction, and also a similar shrine built by Tuthmose IV. Also here, archaeologists are reconstructing parts of a Temple of Tuthmose IV towards the back of the museum, which are showing some very fine reliefs. One of the most recent reconstructions in the open-air museum is the ‘Red Chapel’ of Hatshepsut which was the original Sanctuary of Amun at the heart of Karnak. It was dismantled by Tuthmose III who rebuilt his own sanctuary, reusing Hatshepsut’s door jambs. Later Amenhotep III made use of the red chapel’s blocks as part of the filling of his third pylon, which is why they have survived in such good condition. French archaeologists have spent the past few years rebuilding the chapel from the available blocks – a very difficult task due to the original construction techniques.
On the other side of the Temple of Amun, to the south, the visitor comes to the Sacred Lake. The area in the foreground was originally a fowl yard and the domesticated birds belonging to Amun were driven from here through a stone tunnel into the lake each day. The lake is overlooked by seating for the Sound and Light show today, but underneath here the remains of priests’ houses were found.

Pylons seven, eight, nine and ten run on a north-south axis to the main temple, called the transverse axis. When the court before the seventh pylon was excavated, a treasure store of 751 stone statues and stelae were found, along with over 17,000 bronzes which now form a large portion of the Cairo Museum collections. Some of the statues can now be seen in the Luxor Museum. They were probably buried in the Ptolemaic Period, but no-one knows exactly why.

The way through the eighth to tenth pylons is blocked due to work in progress. The ninth pylon at present is being painstakingly taken down and reconstructed. Blocks from local Aten temples were used as infill here and we can see some of these talatat blocks of Akhenaten now in the Luxor Museum. To the east of the ninth pylon is a chapel commemorating Amenhotep II’s jubilee, restored after the Amarna Period by Seti I.

In the south-west corner of the Amun precinct, we come to the Temple of Khonsu – ‘son’ of Amun and Mut, a well-preserved small temple from the late New Kingdom, built towards the end of the Ramesside Period. The temple has the feeling that it is built in miniature, with squat pillars and low ceilings, which seems appropriate for Khonsu, the child. Reliefs in the rooms to the back of the temple still have some good colour, including this unusual depiction of a lion-headed ithyphallic god.

A doorway from the Khonsu Temple leads through to a later structure adjacent to it. This is a temple dedicated to the hippopotamus goddess Apet, or Opet (not to be confused with the festival of Opet). She is said to have helped women in childbirth, possibly a later aspect of the goddess Tauret. Reliefs inside the temple, however, depict the funeral rites of Osiris, in the Graeco-Roman tradition.

Karnak can be a confusing place, its buildings spanning a long period in Egyptian history. Most visitors on guided tours have very little time to see much of the temple, and many visits are needed to get even a brief idea of the temple as a whole.

How to get there

Karnak Temple is on the northern edge of the town of Luxor. It is within walking distance from the Corniche, but visitors may prefer to take a taxi or a caleche (horse-drawn carriage) each way from the centre of town. Karnak temple is open from 6.00am to 4.30pm in winter and tickets cost EGP 65. To visit he open-air museum and extra ticket costing EGP 25 is required.


Luxor Temple

Luxor Temple – Luxor East Bank, Upper Egypt. Within the center of Luxor is the temple once known as ‘Ipet-resyt’ or ‘the southern Opet’ which served as a focal point for the Opet festival. Once a year the divine image of Amun with his consort Mut and their son Khonsu would journey in their sacred barques from Karnak Temples to the temple at Luxor to celebrate the festival which was held during the inundation. Opet’s primary function was religious but the festival was also significant in maintaining the king’s divine role.

The earliest remains found at Luxor Temple date to Dynasty XIII and it is possible that there was a shrine or temple on this site during the Middle Kingdom, but it became more prominent in Dynasty XVIII. It would seem that Hatshepsut first began the overland processional way which linked Karnak and Luxor temples, with barque stations along the route. It was Amenhotep III who constructed the colonnade and court in the heart of the temple which was added to by other pharaohs. Reused blocks of Hatshepsut, Tuthmose III and Amenhotep II from earlier destroyed structures have been found.

Unusually, the temple does not face the river, but its main axis faces Karnak with the remains of an avenue of sphinxes pointing to the professional way. This remaining 200m avenue of human-headed sphinxes was erected by Necatnebo I to replace the original ram-headed sphinxes of Amenhotep III when Nectanebo built an enclosure wall around the precinct. A Roman shrine with a headless statue of Isis can be seen in the north-western corner of the forecourt.

The modern entrance to the temple is to the west and after descending the new stone steps the visitor faces the massive first pylon, 21m high, which was a later addition by Rameses II. Six statues of Rameses stood before the pylon, but only three remain today with one of an original pair of tall obelisks. The northwest obelisk now stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The pylon is decorated on its outer face with scenes of the battles of Rameses II and the famous ‘battle poem’. This is best seen in the early morning sun. The inner face has a dedication text and records of the battle of Kadesh as well as festival scenes. On the south face of the east tower in the first courtyard is a relief showing the exterior of the temple when it was first built, with flags flying on the flagpoles.

Beyond the first pylon is the court of Rameses II which would have been the original forecourt of Amenhotep III’s building. On the north-western side is a triple barque shrine of Amun, Mut and Khonsu constructed in sandstone with features belonging to the earlier structure of Hatshepsut retained in the rebuilding. Rameses’ great court features a colonnade around each of its sides interspaced with colossal statues, many of which the king usurped from Amenhotep III.

When entering the colonnade of Amenhotep III you may notice a slight change in the axis of the earlier part of the temple. This colonnade with its 14 tall papyrus columns was unfinished at Amenhotep’s death and its decoration only completed during the reign of Tutankhamun (and finally completed in the reign of Seti I). Here you can see superbly executed reliefs of the Opet procession to and from karnak on its west and east walls, but Tutankamun’s name has been altered throughout the texts to that of Horemheb. These are best viewed at night when the temple is floodlit, the lighting at the base of the walls throws the decoration into sharp relief.

The colonnade leads into the elegant columned court of Amenhotep III with barque shrines of Mut and Khonsu at its southern end. In 1989 during restoration work, a spectacular cache of statues was found beneath the floor of the eastern side of the court and these can now be seen in the Luxor Museum. Beyond the portico on the south side of the court is a room which was transformed into a cult chapel of the Roman legion based at Luxor during the third century AD. The room was plastered over and this has served to preserve the painted reliefs of Amenhotep III. A niche-shaped shrine is now a modern entrance to a small offering hall or vestibule, with pharaonic scenes of sacrifices and offerings to the gods. Within the sanctuary or barque shrine beyond, a free-standing shrine was built by Alexander the Great in which the Greek king appears as Pharaoh.

A doorway to the east leads to the ‘birth-room’ with its scenes illustrating the myth of the divine birth of Amenhotep III on the west wall. After scenes of the union of Amun with the king’s mother Mutemwiya, the creator god Khnum can be seen fashioning the baby king Amenhotep III with his ka behind him. Mutemwiya is shown giving birth and the newborn king is presented to the gods. These interesting scenes which claim the legitimacy of the king and his divine right to rule are also best seen when lit up at night.

Behind the sanctuary is a private antechamber known as the ‘Opet (harem) suite’, a broad hall with 12 columns which opens into a number of smaller chambers behind. These chambers are said to have a special significance relating to the creation and solar mythologies of Amun and Re at Luxor. The central chamber at the back of the temple was the original holy of holies which still has the remains of the pedestal on which the image of the god rested. It would seem that it was in these rooms that the real mysteries of the temple were enacted.

The exterior walls are also worth a look. The western side depicts the battles of Rameses II including the Syrian and Libyan wars, with details of named fortresses.

During the Roman occupation of Egypt, Luxor Temple was surrounded by a vast military encampment which may have housed as many as 1500 men. By this time the temple would have ceased to have a religious function and it is likely that many blocks from the outer temple buildings were used to supplement the mudbricks of the Roman barracks. Remains of stone pillars and avenues can still be seen all around the temple enclosure.

A Christian basilica was built in the north-eastern corner of the temple and later a mosque dedicated to the Muslim saint Abu’l Hagag was built over the site. This is now a monument in its own right and is a dominant feature of the eastern side of the Rameses court.

How to get there

Luxor Temple is on the Corniche in the central part of the town, opposite the ferry dock. Winter opening hours are 6.00am to 9.00pm and tickets cost EGP 50. In the evening the temple is floodlit and many of the reliefs which are indistinct during the day can be clearly seen.


Pyramid of Khufu

Pyramid of Khufu – Giza, Lower Egypt. The Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) has been known as an immense impressive structure since ancient times and is the only one of the original seven wonders of the world still in existence. Khufu, whose monument ‘Akhet Khufu’ (Horizon of Khufu), known today as The Great Pyramid, was the son of Snefru and he reigned for about 23 years. He was the first pharaoh to construct a pyramid on the Giza Plateau – his father had built three great burial monuments at Meidum and Dashur to the south – and at the height of Dynasty IV, Giza became the new extension to the Memphite necropolis.

The base of the pyramid measures 230.37m and its height was originally 146.6m, with an angle of slope of 51° 50′ 40”. The structure consists of an enormous quantity of limestone blocks (estimated at around 2,300,000), quarried from an area south-east of the pyramid and transported over a ramp to the construction site. The casing blocks were of fine white limestone, probably from the Tura quarries on the east bank of the river. There are, and probably always will be, many arguments and debates on the subject of the method of pyramid construction, and even whether they were built by human hands at all, but the precision of the design and perfection of its construction has always fascinated scholars and visitors.

The pyramid’s northern entrance was built at the level of the nineteenth layer of core blocks, but today visitors enter by a tunnel cut into the core, so Arabic legend tells us, by Caliph el-Ma’amun in the 9th century AD, which is below the original. The cave-like tunnel connects to a passage which the first time visitor almost expects to be lit with blazing torches – such is the atmosphere evoked – but is now lit by electric light. The passage splits into two parts, a lower corridor leading down into the pyramids bowels in the bedrock of the plateau and a subterranean chamber which was abandoned, perhaps due to lack of air, or for ritual reasons. This is usually kept locked.

The other passage ascends in a corridor so low that you almost have to crawl on your hands and knees towards a high processional way leading upwards into the Grand Gallery and the heart of the pyramid. My first experience of the Great Pyramid was at a time before the recently improved lighting and ventilation, when I could feel the pressure of millions of tons of stone bearing down on me from above, its high limestone walls leaning inwards to form a corbelled vault about 8.5m above the stair ramp. Higher and higher you go (the Great Pyramid is not for the faint-hearted or unfit visitor) until the entrance to the cathedral-like Grand Galley is reached. A horizontal passage at the bottom of this hall leads south into the so-called Queen’s Chamber.

The Queen’s Chamber is a small room with a gabled ceiling and lies exactly on the pyramid’s vertical east-west axis. This chamber seems not to have been intended for the burial of a queen and was left unfinished when the pyramid was sealed, suggesting that it was originally designed as the king’s burial chamber or a serdab (statue chamber) for the king’s ka, or spirit. The black-walled room at the heart of the pyramid produced an eerily solemn feeling when I entered the chamber alone and evokes a feeling of the insignificance of man and a strong sense of infinity.

Onwards and upwards into the Grand Gallery, another ascending passage, 47m long, which is so narrow that you wouldn’t wish to encounter a party of fifty Egyptian schoolboys (as I did) coming in the opposite direction. This is considered to be one of the greatest masterpieces of ancient Egypt and its corbelled roof is a stupendous achievement in architecture and engineering from any age. At the top of the gallery, another very low passage leads to the room known as the King’s Chamber, built entirely of red granite, where Khufu’s uncovered sarcophagus still stands against the western wall. The room is undecorated and contains no inscriptions, so how do we know who was the owner of the pyramid? The weight of the masonry above the ceiling of this chamber is relieved by five compartments covering the same area as the floor below. These are believed to have been constructed to relieve the stress of the enormous mass of stone above the burial chamber. The highest of these chambers has a cantilevered roof, and it was in this chamber that the early excavators Vyse and Perring found a graffiti left by the pyramid workmen, which included the cartouche of Khnum-Khuf (Khufu).

One interesting phenomenon I discovered in the king’s chamber, is the distortion of sound. If you hum a single note very quietly, it is amplified as it would be in the soundbox of a musical instrument and is thrown back at you from each of the walls. I would recommend that you are alone for this experiment!!

There has been an enormous amount of discussion and theorising about ‘air shafts’ in both the King’s Chamber and the Queen’s Chamber. The significance of these structures which lead steeply upwards, though not in a straight line, is still unknown and recent investigations with robot cameras have not really clarified their purpose.

The Great Pyramid continues to retain its many mysteries. On a first visit, it is better to just experience the awesomeness of this mighty structure rather than look for explanations of its secrets. It is almost a relief to get back into the sunlight and fresh air and the hassle of guides and hawkers for which the plateau is renowned. You may feel however, as I did, like an astronaut returning from a trip to another galaxy!
Pyramid Complex

Khufu’s pyramid complex has all of the elements of the traditional pyramid, though many are now long gone. Around the pyramid’s walls there are five large boat-shaped pits. In 1954 the pit on the south-eastern side was found to contain a completely dismantled wooden boat, the ‘Solar Boat’, thought to be used in the king’s funerary procession. This boat has now been reconstructed and is now on display in a purpose-built museum near where it was found. Although it has not yet been excavated, in 1987 the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation examined the second boat pit on the south-east, using a special probe. This was also found to contain a boat similar to the first.

The mortuary temple on the eastern side of the pyramid today consists only of the remains of a large rectangular courtyard covered with basalt paving, which must have been over 50m wide. It was destroyed in antiquity and its plan is now difficult to reconstruct, but of the few fragments of reliefs found there, motifs include the sed-festival and the festival of the white hippopotamus.

Khufu’s causeway has now virtually disappeared and has only been partly examined. Its original length has been estimated at around 810m, abruptly changing direction before it reached the valley temple. The ruins of the valley temple, which was mostly destroyed in antiquity, are now engulfed by the modern village of Nazlet es-Simman to the north-east. Recent excavations by the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation in 1990 have revealed the remains of a dark green basalt paving and the continuation of the causeway at the base of the escarpment. At the edge of the pavement a mudbrick wall thought to be 8m thick, suggests that a pyramid-town may have existed near the valley temple.

Better preserved are Khufu’s three small queens’ pyramids on the eastern side of the Great Pyramid and across the road running around the monument. The first pyramid to the north (G1-a), belongs to Khufu’s mother Hetepheres which was excavated by American Egyptologist George A Reisner in 1925. Hetepheres was the wife of Snefru and probably the mother of Khufu. Reisner’s team found Hetpheres’s beautiful funerary furniture and other burial equipment in a shaft tomb (G7000x) to the north of the queen’s pyramid. Her empty coffin, gold jewellery and sealed canopic chest was found with dismantled wooden furniture now reconstructed and on display in Cairo Museum. The queen’s remains were missing, however, and this has puzzled Egyptologists and has led to many theories about the location of her actual burial.

The second queen’s pyramid (G1-b) probably belongs to Meretites who lived during the reigns of Snefru, Khufu and Khafre according to an inscription in the nearby mastaba of Kawab, Khufu’s son. The third small pyramid (G1-c) may have belonged to Henutsen, daughter of Snefru and Khufu’s half-sister. Her name is known only from an inscription in the pyramid’s chapel which was converted to a Temple of Isis during Dynasties XXI to XXVI. The goddess Isis (or Isi) was worshipped as ‘Lady of the Pyramids’ at Giza until Roman times.

The pyramids of Khufu’s queens opened for the first time ever in 1998 after the restoration of the exterior masonry and the removal of black spots and salt stains from the chamber walls, by the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation. Wooden staircases, new lighting and ventilation were installed.

Recent excavations at the south-east corner of Khufu’s pyramid have revealed a destroyed satellite pyramid with T-shaped inner chambers and a descending corridor ending in a rectangular vaulted burial chamber. A large limestone block with three sloping sides was found on the satellite pyramid’s south side which proved to be the base of its pyramidion. Other stones of the pyramidion were found a year later on the northern side of the pyramid.

Not a single image of King Khufu has been found in the whole of his pyramid complex. The only known figure of the builder of one of the world’s greatest monuments is a small ivory statuette only 7.6cm high, which was found at Abydos. The figurine of the king on his throne bears the Horus name of Khufu, Hor-Mejedu.


Only 150 visitors per day are allowed to enter the Great Pyramid and tickets are sold in two lots at 8.00am and 1.00pm. Tickets for the Great Pyramid cost EGP 100. The three main pyramids are open on an annual rotation with one of them being closed for restoration each year.


Pyramid of Menkaure

Pyramid of Menkaure – Giza, Lower Egypt. On the south-western corner of the Giza Plateau, the Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus) stands in alignment with its larger neighbours. Menkaure was Khafre’s son and his monument, by far the smallest of the three Giza pyramids, was called ‘Menkaure is Divine’.

The pyramid appears to have been unfinished at the death of the king and was completed in mudbrick by Menkaure’s son Shepseskaf, and later additions were built to his temples during Dynasties V and VI, suggesting that his mortuary cult was still flourishing then. The king ruled for around eighteen years and an inscription in the pyramid’s entrance (thought to have been carved by Khaemwaset, son of Rameses II) gives the day and month of his death. The casing blocks on the upper parts of the pyramid were probably of white limestone, but the lower courses were sheathed in rougher pink granite. This suggests that the final casing was done from the top, downwards and adds to the theories of the pyramid being unfinished. The granite casing blocks can still be seen around the modern entrance.

A great gash was made in the northern side of the pyramid during the Mamaluke era, in the 12th century AD, but the first Europeans to enter the monument were Perring and Vyse in 1837, who found a basalt sarcophagus which was shipped off to England in the Beatrice – only to meet with the disastrous fate of being lost at sea when the ship was wrecked in the Mediterranean. The pyramid was later properly excavated by Reisner and the Harvard University Expedition from 1906 to 1924.

The entrance to Menkaure’s pyramid, on the northern side about 4m above ground level, leads to a descending corridor opening into a short horizontal passage and a decorated chamber with carved stone panels, reminiscent of palace façade motifs, but the significance of this unusual decoration is unknown. A horizontal corridor leads into a large rectangular antechamber, oriented east to west, which seems to have undergone a number of changes before being completed and may have been intended as an earlier burial chamber. This room was also reached by another descending passage (known as the upper corridor) which runs above the lower corridor from the pyramid’s base. When the plan was changed, the floor of the large antechamber was lowered which meant that the upper corridor came out near the ceiling and so was abandoned. Vyse discovered remains of a wooden anthropoid coffin in this room, which bore the name of Menkaure and contained human remains, but these have subsequently proven to be of a much later date than the pyramid. Another passage leads down from the floor of the antechamber to the burial chamber. Before the burial chamber is reached there is another room which has six deep niches – four in the east and two in the north – which may have been used to hold funerary goods, or the canopic jars of the king.

The rectangular barrel-vaulted burial chamber in the bedrock below the pyramid is lined with pink granite and oriented north to south and it was here on the west wall that Vyse found the beautiful basalt sarcophagus of the king. The lost sarcophagus had carved panel decoration in a recessed ‘palace-façade’ design.

Menkaure built three queen’s pyramids on the southern side of his monument, though the largest eastern one (G3-a), which has a T-shaped substructure, was perhaps first intended as a satellite cult pyramid, but later presumably used for the burial of a queen, as were all three satellite pyramids, which had mudbrick chapels attached. The rock-cut burial chamber in G3-a once contained a pink granite sarcophagus embedded into the floor, and charred remains of wood and matting were found there. It was possibly the burial place of Menkaure’s Chief Wife, Khamerernebty II, who is thought to be buried at Giza. The central queen’s pyramid (G3-b) was found to contain a pink granite sarcophagus and the bones of a young woman, while the third pyramid (G3-c) was unfinished and had no traces of a burial.

The remains of the king’s mortuary temple are still visible on the eastern side of the pyramid and this was also found to have been hastily completed. It appears that it was begun in locally quarried massive blocks of limestone, with the intention of facing the inner and outer walls with black granite, but in fact they were mostly finished in painted plaster over mudbrick, presumably by Shepseskaf. The structure was built around a rectangular courtyard, leading to a portico with a double colonnade flanked to the north and south by store-rooms and niches and to the inner sanctuary. The temple is actually better preserved that Khafre’s mortuary temple and Reisner’s team found the evidence of construction techniques very interesting. Fragments of royal statues were found in the temple.

Menkaure’s causeway was apparently completed by Shepseskaf, in mudbrick rather than limestone, but never reaching as far as his valley temple. Reisner’s excavations of the sand-covered valley temple revealed several very fine statues of Menkaure which display the superb quality of Egyptian art from this period. Three complete triads and one fragmentary, showing the king wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt with the goddess Hathor and four different nome deities (now in Cairo and Boston Museums), were uncovered in 1908 and the famous perfectly preserved dyad depicting Menkaure with an unnamed queen (possibly his Chief Wife Khamerernebty II), were found in 1910 (Cairo Museum). Two different phases of construction were found in the valley temple, the earlier parts built from stone and the later parts in mudbrick. An inscription in the valley temple indicated how Shepseskaf completed the temple in memory of his father. It was completely rebuilt during Dynasty VI, probably by Pepy II.

Reisner found evidence of huge clay walls, workshops and lodgings of the pyramid-builders in front of Menkaure’s valley temple and houses which later invaded the temple walls. It is not surprising that recent excavations by Mark Lehner’s team have again begun to uncover this vast city of workers who built and maintained the pyramids for generations afterwards. Since 1988 excavations have been concentrated around the area about 300m south of the Sphinx and the gigantic structure known as the ‘Wall of the Crow’, near to a recently discovered ‘worker’s cemetery’. So far they have uncovered bakeries, a copper workshop, and worker’s houses which, in the year 2000 were found to belong to a vast royal complex comprising huge galleries or corridors, separated by a paved street. The royal palace?

Other recent excavations around the pyramid of Menkaure have been conducted by the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation in search of evidence of the king’s funerary boats and the pyramid’s construction ramp. They have discovered an unfinished double-statue of Rameses II, sculpted from a single block of stone and measuring over 3m tall – the first large New Kingdom statues to be discovered at Giza, and yet another mystery.


The three main pyramids are open on an annual rotation with one of them being closed for restoration each year. Tickets on sale at 8:00am and 1:00pm and cost EGP 25.


Pyramid of Khafre

Pyramid of Khafre – Giza, Lower Egypt. Khafre (Chephren) sited his pyramid at Giza, a short distance to the south-west of the monument of his father Khufu. Khafre’s brother Djedefre had succeeded their father on the throne but only reigned for around eight years and had chosen to site his own pyramid at Abu Roash to the north. Returning to Giza, Khafre’s monuments have survived better than most and his pyramid makes an impressive backdrop to the Great Sphinx which lies next to his causeway and was probably part of the pyramid complex.

Appearing to be bigger than Khufu’s pyramid because of the rising ground on which it was built and its steeper angle of slope, Khafre’s pyramid actually had a base measurement of 215m and a height of 143.5m, making it slightly smaller than his father’s. It is the only pyramid to be preserved almost to its full height by the casing stones remaining at its apex. Belzoni, in 1816, was the first to enter the pyramid in modern times. He discovered the upper entrance and underground chambers and is commemorated in an inscription by the English Colonel Fitzclarence on the upper entrance. In 1860 Auguste Mariette found seven statues of Khafre while excavating the valley temple, including a wonderfully preserved diorite statue of the king protected by a Horus falcon, one of the great masterpieces of Egyptian sculpture now in the Cairo Museum. More recent investigations of Khafre’s pyramid complex, using modern archaeological techniques, have been undertaken by the Giza Plateau Mapping Project under the directorships of Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass.

The core of the pyramid, which was built on a levelled terrace, was of rough irregular limestone blocks, left behind when the casing blocks of Tura limestone were stripped off in antiquity, although a band of more regular-shaped stone can be seen just below the remaining casing. A lower course of the pyramid’s outer skin is composed of red granite which are well preserved on the southern side.

There are two entrances on the northern side of the pyramid. The first or ‘upper entrance’, found at a height of 11.5m, leads to a descending corridor which straightens out to join an ascending passage from the ‘lower entrance’. It is the lower entrance, at ground level which is used today to access the structure. This leads to a lower corridor which has an unfinished chamber cut into its western side and it is suggested that the lower gallery was begun on the assumption that the pyramid was to be built further north, or was intended to be larger, as the two entrances show. This may have been a serdab chamber however, similar the the ‘Queens Chamber’ in Khufu’s pyramid. The lower passage then ascends to meet the entrance corridor from above, and continues horizontally to the burial chamber.

Khafre’s burial chamber lies on the vertical axis of the pyramid and is simply constructed in a pit in the bedrock. The roof of the chamber is composed of pented limestone blocks, similar to those used in Khufu’s pyramid to relieve the weight of stone. The words ‘Discovered by G Belzoni – March 2 1816′ (in Italian) appear on the south wall of the burial chamber, although he had already discovered writing on the west wall showing that the pyramid had been entered previously, probably around the 12th century AD. The burial chamber was found to contain Khafre’s red granite sarcophagus, sunk slightly into the floor, it’s cover broken and a nearby pit which would have contained the canopic chest.

A satellite pyramid (G2-a) belonging to Khafre’s complex is now almost gone, with only the foundations remaining on the southern side of the king’s pyramid. It is currently believed to have been a cult pyramid and not to contain a burial.

The huge mortuary temple of Khafre’s complex is separated from the east face of the pyramid by a limestone pavement, which runs around all four sides of the pyramid. The temple was excavated in 1910 by Holscher and von Sieglin and shown to have consisted of an entrance hall, courtyard, five statue chapels, store-rooms and an offering hall. Sadly the structure was quarried for its stone in ancient times, but the surviving foundations show its innovative construction method, using massive core blocks of limestone cased with finer quality stone and lined on the inside with red granite. In the massive open courtyard there were recesses for huge statues of the king. Five boat pits were discovered to the north and south of the mortuary temple, but all of them had been plundered.

The ruined causeway leads from the mortuary temple, 494m south to Khafre’s valley temple, which is in a better state of preservation – the only well preserved valley temple found to date. This too was constructed from huge limestone monoliths, faced with granite and was discovered by Mariette in 1852 who wrongly described it as the Temple of the Sphinx. Huge rectangular blocks of Aswan granite form pillars and lintels, giving the structure a very distinctive style, reminiscent of the Osirion at Abydos. Originally there were 24 diorite statues of the king seated on his throne around the walls, of which only one survives to be seen in Cairo Egyptian Museum. Although it’s function is not yet clear, it is thought that the valley temple may have been used for the embalming rites before the king’s funeral and in 1995, traces of a ‘purification tent’ were found near the temple, along with two ramps and underground tunnels.

To the north of Khafre’s valley temple lies the Great Sphinx, inside its own enclosure. It is currently thought to have been modelled during Khafre’s reign, and would have been the first colossal statue in ancient Egypt.


The three main pyramids are open on an annual rotation with one of them usually being closed for restoration each year. Tickets for Khafre’s Pyramid cost EGP 30 and are on sale at 8.00am and 1.00pm. The numbers may be limited.


Temple of Rameses II

Temple of Rameses II – Sohag, Abydos. About 300m from Seti I’s temple at Abydos, on the western edge of the village of Beni Mansur, Rameses II built an another temple for himself. This was also dedicated mainly to the Osirian cult but was a more conventional design than his father’s temple. It was built when he was still co-ruler with Seti I. The walls of the temple of Rameses are very reduced, now only about 2m high, but the plan of the structure is still plain to see. The temple’s greatest attraction is the brilliantly coloured painted reliefs which are possibly the finest in any monument built by Rameses II.

The walls of the temple are built of limestone, with sandstone pillars. The first pylon and court are now ruined and the pink granite portal leads straight into a second court surrounded by a colonnade of Osirid pillars on its north, east and south sides. None of the pillars is preserved to their full height and the engaged Osirid statues of the king all lack their heads and shoulders. The north wall of the court depicts processions of priests and offering bearers with a decorated bull and gazelles, as well as soldiers, Libyans and negroes. Also on the north wall there are some interesting graffiti. Some ancient amateur artist incised an image of the god In-hert and a painted priest before him bears the inscription ‘Djed-Iah, the justified, wab-priest of Osiris, Djedi-ankh-f’.

At the back of the court on the western side is a raised portico with two chapels dedicated to Seti I and the king’s deified ancestors on the left and two chapels to the nine gods of the Ennead and Rameses II (and Osiris Khenty-Amentiu) on the right. The shrine of the ancestors once contained a table of kings on its north wall, part of which (the ‘Second Abydos List’) is now in the British Museum.

On the north wall of the portico, Rameses carved nine name-rings of the Asiatic tribes he conquered. A magnificent highly polished black granite gateway, 5m tall and decorated with scenes and inscriptions, which has been restored in the centre of the portico leads us into the first hypostyle hall.

The first hypostyle was decorated while the young Rameses was still his father’s co-ruler though his cartouches were later altered to contain his own pharaonic titles. Eight rectangular pillars supported the roof which is now missing. The decoration of the hypostyle is similar to that in the court and portico, but has a brightly coloured dado on its lower walls depicting the Nile gods. These are painted in different colours; red represents the Nile at inundation, blue represents winter and green, summer. At the western end of the hall’s south wall, a narrow staircase ascended to the roof, though there are now only 12 stairs remaining.

The second hypostyle contains eight sandstone pillars with three chapels on each of the north, west and south sides. The northern chapels are dedicated to Thoth, Min and Osiris. The southern chapels are very badly damaged but it is thought that the central one was dedicated to Osiris with a clothing room where the god’s daily garments were stored. The chapels on the western side of the hall were dedicated to Amun-Re, Osiris and possibly Horus. In the latter shrine on the north wall there is a colourful relief of the goddess Hekat ‘Mistress of Abydos’, usually portrayed as a frog, but in this case showing her human face. Next to her the god Anubis ‘Lord of the Sacred Land’ also has the head of a man rather than the usual jackal. This is the only known example of Anubis with a human head.

The Central shrine on the western side of the hypostyle is the ‘alabaster’ sanctuary of Osiris where we can see a restored statue group in grey granite which was brought from another location in the temple and depicts (probably) Osiris, Isis, Horus, Seti I and Rameses II.

In the corners of the western wall at the north and south are two chambers thought to be statue halls which also have some very colourful reliefs. The each contain decorated niches and the southern chamber has a beautiful relief of Rameses offering to Osiris who is being protected by a winged djed pillar. This is thought to be one of the earliest representations of a symbol which became popular in later dynasties.

Only the lower parts of the exterior walls still exist and the northern and western walls bear a version of Rameses’ Battle of Kadesh in beautiful incised relief, though not as complete as in some of his later monuments. On the southern exterior wall there is the lower part of a calendar of feasts which lists offerings provided by the royal endowment to be presented on the days of the festivals. Beneath this Rameses describes his temple and seems to be accurate in what remains of the text. He describes a pylon of white limestone, granite doorways and a sanctuary of pure alabaster which must have been very beautiful in its time.