by Dr. Zahi Hawass
Egypt is the land of the pharaohs, a land of magic and mystery. Egypt's emergence as one of the earliest civilizations was due to the bounty of the Nile. Flowing north through its cliff-lined valley, the river was the country's natural highway and chief source of water. Each year in July, the waters rose to cover the land and deposited a layer of rich silt, ensuring the fertility of the coming year. When the inundation receded, crops were grown—emmer wheat, barley, beans, and other pulses—which needed no further watering. The harvest was gathered in the spring; by the early summer, the land was dry and parched, waiting for the next flood. Low or high inundation could mean disaster, but usually the land produced more than enough to feed the population, and surpluses were stored for the future and for trade.
The deserts that bordered Egypt on both sides were also a source of wealth. As early as 4,000 B.C., gold and copper were mined in the Eastern Desert, as well as semiprecious stones, including carnelian and amethyst. A variety of good building stones were quarried, such as alabaster, granite, schist, diorite, and basalt, as well as the ubiquitous limestone. Egyptian craftsmen were soon producing many different artifacts, both for the home market and for export. In return, imports included timber from Lebanon, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, and even a few Sumerian artifacts. Settlements grew up along the Nile, and on the desert fringes. Towns and villages were soon grouped into districts, called nomes, governed by a nomarch, an office which, by the end of the Old Kingdom, had become hereditary. The nomarch was responsible for his district, collecting the taxes for the government, administering justice, and supervising work on canals, dykes, and property boundaries.
The basic unit of Egyptian society was the family, based on marriage. With the exception of the king, marriage was usually monogamous. Women had the right to own property and to take legal action, and therefore had much more independence than their Greek sisters. Egyptian social life was lively; the ancient Egyptians were one of the first civilizations to drink alcohol. They even used drink as a hallucinogen in their funerary rituals, to realize a spiritual communication with dead ancestors. A caption above one tomb painting reads, "Give me a beaker of wine, my throat is dry," but the reply is, "You have already had 19 beakers of wine, so pass the beaker to me!"
The pyramids of ancient Egypt are perhaps the most famous man-made structures in the world. The Great Pyramid of Giza is the only remaining one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The pyramids captivate mankind on two distinct levels—the material and the spiritual. These massive structures are engineering marvels. How did our ancestors four and five thousand years ago erect monuments that modern man would be hard pressed to duplicate? What kind of social structure made this achievement possible?
Spiritually we see in the pyramids of ancient Egypt an attempt—however futile—to attain immortality. An old Arab proverb reads, "Man fears time and time fears the pyramids." The pyramids mock death; their physical presence defies the limitations of time. Our natural human wishfulness—or is it arrogance?—tells us that if there was genius enough to produce the pyramids given the primitive conditions of the Bronze Age, then perhaps modern man, with his ever-expanding knowledge, can someday actually live forever.
A pyramid represented the dignity and power of the king. Its construction was a national project involving the entire country. Every household in both the north and the south sent workers, grain, and food. The pyramid enabled the king to become a god in the afterlife. The final step in the construction was the placement of a capstone encased in gold on top of the structure. When the pyramid was finally finished, it was a time for everyone to dance and sing as the entire nation celebrated its completion. In this sense, it was the pyramids that built Egypt rather than vice versa, since they unified the nation in the service of one great achievement.
The wonders of this civilization came to the world's attention in 1922, when Howard Carter found the tomb of Tutankhamen. Nothing compares with the massive solid gold mask covering the king's head or the solid gold coffin containing his mummy. The king is depicted with arms crossed, holding the symbols of power: the crook and the flail. Below, the goddesses Isis and Nephthys enfold his body in their protecting wings. The king's expression is serene, reflecting the assurance of an all-powerful ruler. Among the many other treasures are some of the pectoral jewels worn by the dead king. His mummy wore two gold rings, and others were placed in the tomb's treasury. The king is also shown riding in his gold-covered wooden chariot, sitting with his wife on his golden throne, and lying on his funerary bed.
Ancient grave-robbers broke into the tomb and were in the process of removing the gold when they were stopped in mid-theft by something or someone unknown. Tutankhamen's tomb alone remained largely untouched by the scavengers of the dead. We can only imagine what it would have contained had he been a more important pharaoh.
In 1871, the Abd El Rasul family in Luxor discovered the second most important monument in Egypt—the Mummies, a cache of the remains of the kings of the New Kingdom. When this find came to the attention of antiquities officials in 1881, it awed the world.
Mummies conjure up many images in people's minds. Most of us first see mummies in scary movies. We are both frightened and awed by their obvious connection to a world beyond our own, and their existence has certainly given rise to Egyptomania in popular culture. Mystery enshrouds these ancient remains as tightly as their protective coverings, but Egyptology is a science, and what this remarkable find of mummies really provides is an outstanding opportunity to learn about the civilization of another place and time.
Finally, but no less captivating, is the Sphinx, who stands sentinel over the desert landscape. This famous statue is a representation of a lion with a king's face and head; the king wears the nemes headdress and a false beard. The monument is carved directly from the natural limestone of Giza. It sits within the Giza necropolis, which is dominated by the pyramids of Khufu (Cheops), Khafre (Chephren), and Menkaure (Mycerinus), the pharaohs of the 4th Dynasty (c. 2551–2472 B.C.). The Sphinx is intimately connected to the Khafre causeway and the Valley Temple, which suggests that Khafre built it as part of his pyramid complex.
To date, only 30 percent of Egypt's monuments have been discovered, and the rest remain a mystery. Today, when you tour Egypt and wander around the pyramids, the Sphinx, and the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, you cannot help but wonder what still lies beneath the sand, what more there is to know about one of the most remarkable civilizations to have existed on Earth.