Robert Curzon finds manuscripts from 4th century AD in Egypt
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Built during a time when Egypt was one of the richest and most powerful civilisations in the world, the pyramids are some of the most extraordinary man-made structures in history. The Great Pyramid in particular has captured the attention and imaginations of countless humans over the centuries. The scale of these constructions reflects the unique role that the pharaoh, or king, played in society.
While pyramids were built from the beginning of the Old Kingdom through to the close of the Ptolemaic period in the fourth century AD, the peak of their construction came in the late third dynasty.
This continued until roughly the sixth dynasty, in 2325 BC.
More than 4,000 years later, they retain much of their majesty, but with a backdrop of modern architecture.
The Great Pyramid of Giza, for example, while viewed from east to west, backs onto a seemingly endless desert, but when looked at from west to east exposes a cramped and polluted city in the background.
It means that the pyramids of today are mostly a dark colour, covered in soot.
The ancient process of creating the bricks that made up the pyramids is still practiced today.
Master stonecutter Ali Hamid was filmed working on a block of tura limestone with the type of techniques that were first used on the site at Giza during the Smithsonian Channel’s documentary, ‘Secrets: Great Pyramid’.
His movements showed that in order for the pyramid to have smooth sides, the outer face of each block was cut to a precise angle.
It was then polished using a sandstone brick and fine sand as an abrasive.
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Dr Jacquelyn Williamson, an Egyptologist at Harvard University who accompanied and helped Mr Hamid with the stone work, said: “You can see how much of his body he’s putting into this work.
“He’s really putting absolutely all his effort into it.”
The process is intended to clean the brick, revealing its base layers and leaving the surface smooth and a shining white colour.
Pointing to the side of the stone that had not yet been worked, Dr Williamson said: “We can see the difference between the unworked side and the incredible white brightness of the worked limestone.”
The Great Pyramid and its neighbours today are seen though clouds of smog, and become hazy and sometimes shapeless when viewed from a distance.
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While the bricks of today are black with soot, the newly finished product thousands of years ago would have been a beaming white.
Taking the slice of white brick that Dr Williamson and Hamid had worked on, the documentary rendered what the Great Pyramid would have looked like moments after it was constructed.
The narrator noted: “A perfect triangle of white, dominating the horizon, and reflecting the powerful Egyptian sun with a dazzling glare.”
In order to get the pyramids to the level they are, millions of man-hours went into painstakingly working each brick by hand.
Dr Williamson said that, on an individual level alone, this was an impressive feat.
But, she noted how the administrative procedures that would have gone on in the background revealed the degree to which the ancient Egyptians worked like a well-oiled machine.
She said: “The exciting thing about studying pyramid building is that you learn both about the micro and the macro.
“Not only did it require incredible skill in these small environments, but also incredible administrative skill, to be able to marshal the human energy and power of hundreds if not thousands of people to build these objects, to bring the objects here, to work them and then put them up in place.”
Approximately 2.3 million blocks of stones — averaging 2.5 tons each — had to be cut, transported and assembled to build Khufu’s Great Pyramid.
The Ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote that it took 20 years to build, and required the labour of 100,000 men.
Later archaeological evidence suggests this was exaggerated, the real number somewhere around 20,000.
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