Visiting the Pyramids and Ancient Egypt's Treasures
Considered one of the world's greatest civilizations with a history that spans close to 3,000 years, the period of Ancient Egypt has left a compelling legacy in the many monuments that have survived the test of time. As one of the world's six civilizations to have emerged independently, Ancient Egypt has long intrigued anthropologists and today continues to draw travellers looking to explore enormous pyramids, impressive temples, sacred chambers and treasure-filled tombs.
A Brief History
The official history of Ancient Egypt civilization begins in 3100 BC (Early Dynastic Period - c. 3050–2686 BC) when King Meni united the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. Ancient Egypt's history is then divided into three stable Kingdoms - the Old Kingdom (2686–2181 BC) when the Pyramids were built, the Middle Kingdom (2055–1650 BC) which saw an explosion in art and literature, and the New Kingdom (1550–1069 BC) when many great temples were built. These Kingdoms are separated by Intermediate Periods characterised by political instability with the glory of Ancient Egypt falling into decline around 1070 BC when Egypt effectively split back into two states.
The earliest settlements of ancient Egypt concentrated on the Nile Valley at a time when the climate was much wetter and the lands much greener, and much of ancient Egypt's success is attributed to the way in which they adapted and utilized the ever-changing water levels of the Nile River with clever irrigation systems and crop production. Ancient Egypt reached its zenith during the New Kingdom under rule of some of the period's most well-known pharaohs including Tutankhamen, Ramses II, Amenhotep III and Queen Hatshepsut. The spoils of these rulers and their prosperity can be found dotted across Egypt from the bejewelled death mask of King Tutankhamen housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo to the temples of Abu Simbel in the south.
With such an illustrious history there's a wealth of ancient sites to visit in Egypt from the world-famous attractions frequented by travellers from across the centuries to the lesser-known sites that remain peacefully quiet. Here's our guide to the best of what ancient Egypt has to offer.
Highlights around Cairo
Some of Egypt's most popular ancient sites can be visited from Cairo, the Islamic world's greatest city and a travel destination in its own right with Coptic churches and bustling souks.
Pyramids of Giza
The great pyramids of Giza need little introduction. Looming large on the outskirts of Cairo's outer city limits, the magnificent monuments are the world's oldest tourist attraction and the sole remaining survivor of the ancient seven wonders. For many travellers the pyramids are the epitome of Ancient Egypt while for scholars they evoke endless debate on exactly how they were built. Standing beneath them it's less easy to laugh at theories surrounding alien-intervention as the sheer size and arrangement of the Pyramids are beyond imagination.
The archaeological site of Giza consists of three pyramid complexes along with the legendary Sphinx, a large limestone statue measuring 74 metres-long with the body of a lion and a human head believed to depict Pharaoh Khafra. Of the three monuments the Great Pyramid of Cheops is the oldest and largest with an estimated 2.3 million blocks used in its construction. It's possible to enter the pyramid along a low, narrow corridor (not for the claustrophobic) that leads to the exquisitely built Great Gallery and central chambers.
Thanks to its site on higher ground, the Pyramid of Chephren often appears to be the largest of the three and similarly to Cheops pyramid has an internal burial chamber that can be entered as well as a funerary temple outside of the pyramid and causeway leading to the Sphinx. The Pyramid of Mycerinus is the smallest and known as the Red Pyramid for the rusty hue of the Aswan granite that would have once encased the lower half of the structure.
Museum of Egyptian Antiquities
Located in downtown Cairo, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities is home to an extensive collection of ancient artifacts spanning three millenia with over 130,000 exhibits and 40,000 more items kept in storerooms. It would take close to a year to see all of what the museum contains but thankfully the main highlights can be covered in a half day visit. Top of the list of highlights is the Tutankhamen exhibition, which includes the boy-king's solid gold funerary mask inlaid with coloured glass and gemstones, one of the best-known objects of Ancient Egypt. Other highlights include the colossal statue of Akhenaten with its striking and delicate features, and the luminous golden mask of Psusennes I.
An overview of Ancient Egypt's pharaonic civilization is displayed in the Rotunda and the Atrium with monumental sculptures from various eras while more detailed exhibits on the ground floor follow a clockwise direction and chronological arrangement. On the second floor exhibits are arranged thematically and include the famous Mummy Room (additional ticket required) where the mummified remains of eleven royals are on display.
Necropolis of Saqqara
Located south of Giza on the edge of the Western Desert, the necropolis of Saqqara is Egypt's largest archaeological site occupying an area of 7 x 1.5 kilometres. Serving as the cemetery for Memphis - the ancient capital of Egypt - for over 3,500 years, Saqqara was the final resting place for numerous pharaohs buried within 11 major pyramids, the most famous of which is Zoser's Step Pyramid. This pyramid is largely considered to be one of Egypt's earliest and dates back to 2630 BC. Originally measuring 62 metres-tall with polished white limestone cladding, the pyramid and its surrounding funerary complex are just one of many sights contained within Saqqara. Elsewhere important administrators and generals lie buried in hundreds of smaller tombs known as mastabas, which are rectangular in shape with flat-topped roofs and outward sloping sides, while the underground Serapeumcontains huge granite sarcophagi with many of the treasures found within now on display in museums around the world.
Pyramids of Dahshur
Further south of Saqqara lies the royal necropolis of Dahshur, which contains some of Egypt's most impressive pyramids yet sees surprisingly fewer visitors. Dating back to the 4th and 12th dynasty, 11 pyramids once stood in Dahshur but only two have withstood the test of time - the Red Pyramid, one of the very first pyramids ever built in Egypt, and the Bent Pyramid, which has remained remarkably intact. These two pyramids mark an important stage in Ancient Egypt's pyramid-building history with the first attempt to build a smooth-sided pyramid. Although this was ultimately something of a failure with the unstable base and uneven weight distribution resulting in the 'bent' shape of the pyramid, the pair are still a breathtaking sight rising from the desert sands with dimensions exceeded only by the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Although little remains of the ancient capital, Memphis is worthy of a visit for its pivotal role in Ancient Egypt's history and for its claim to being the world's earliest imperial city. Constructed from mud-brick, Memphis has largely been reclaimed by the Nile silt with just a handful of surviving monuments including the Colossus of Ramses II, which lies on its back in a concrete shelter, and an impressive alabaster sphinx. The small open-air museum of Memphis can be visited in a short amount of time and although not nearly as impressive as Egypt's other ancient sites, the time and weather-ravaged site offers fragmented evidence of its glorious past with rustling palm groves and gardens that make for a pleasant visit.
Highlights along the Nile
The Nile River traces a route from Egypt's southern border with Sudan to its delta along the coast beside the Mediterranean Sea. The highlights covered here span the distance from south of Cairo to Luxor.
Valley of the Kings
Spread across the arid Theban Hills on the Nile's west bank near Luxor are Ancient Egypt's most famous royal tombs. Unlike the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom who were buried in the north around Giza and the Nile Delta when Memphis was the capital, the ruling dynasties of the New Kingdom preferred to be buried close to the ancient capital of Thebes (present-day Luxor). The hidden underground mausoleums were built over the course of 500 years to preserve the mummified bodies of Egypt's royal figures as well as favoured nobles and their families. After centuries of looting and tomb-robbing, most of the treasures usually buried alongside dead pharaohs have been lost but with vast chambers and wall murals, the elaborate tombs are impressive enough.
Since archaeologists first discovered the site 63 tombs have been uncovered, some of which were known to tourists as early as the Ptolemaic times (323 - 30 BC). Of these 63 tombs the most well-known is that of the boy-king Tutankhamen, discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, a surprisingly intact tomb that contained fabulous treasures including the iconic golden death mask now housed in Cairo's Egyptian Museum. In recent months Egyptian officials have claimed that there is a hidden chamber in King Tutankhamun's tomb, which has reinvigorated interest in the Valley of the Kings.
In order to save the burial chambers from damage caused by roaming hands and humidity, only ten tombs are open to the public at any one time with the rest closed for restoration. Not far from the Valley of the Kings lies the Valley of the Queens where the wives of pharaohs were buried, including Queen Nefertari, in 80 tombs that have fine murals to rival those found in the kings' tombs. Entering the Theban Necropolis via the main road through New Gurna will mean you pass by the gigantic Colossi of Memnon statues that once marked the entrance to the long-lost mortuary temple of Amenophis III.
The spectacular temple complex of Karnak is Egypt's second most visited archaeological site and with good reason - a host of sanctuaries, kiosks, pylons and obelisks stand in superb states of preservation and testify to the magnitude and complexity of this ancient religious site. Dedicated to the Theban trio of gods Amun - one of the most powerful deities in Ancient Egypt, Mut - a mother goddess associated with water, and Khonsu - the moon god who marked the passage of time, Karnak comprises three separate temple enclosures that were constructed over a period of 1,300 years.
At the heart of complex stands the great Temple of Amun, a sprawling complex that measures some six acres with a Processional Way lined by sphinx statues bearing ram heads leading to the famous Great Hypostyle Hall, a man-made canopy of towering columns ornamented with hieroglyphics and carvings. This temple deserves a minimum half day for exploration thanks to its sheer size and scale and you may wish to return at night for the informative Sound and Light Show that tells the story of Karnak and the dramatic history of ancient Thebes.
Queen Hatshepsut's Temple
Within the grounds of the Theban Necropolis stands the exquisite Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, built in honour of the only female pharaoh to reign over Egypt. Set against the dusty Theban Hills in a large natural amphitheatre, the temple is instantly recognisable with its three elongated colonnaded terraces connected by long ramps. The temple would have once been reached via an avenue flanked by sphinxes with the Middle Terrace decorated with myrrh trees and water fountains, features that have now long disappeared. Of the four stone-carved lions that would have stood at each corner of the ramp only one survives today. Following the ramps from the entrance to the Upper Terrace takes you pass numerous colonnades with reliefs that depict events from Hatshepsut's life and a pair of chapels with friezes and pillared chambers. The highlight of the Upper Terrace is the row of eight giant statues of Osiris that appear to guard the Sanctuary of Amum with arms crossed and serene faces looking out across the outlying ruins.
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