The Last Pyramids Of Egypt

pyramids
They just don’t make pyramids like they used to.

The pyramids of Egypt have fascinated people ever since they were built. The Step Pyramid at Saqqara started things off around 2650 B.C. Later came the iconic pyramids of Giza. What’s often forgotten, however, is that pyramid construction continued for more than a thousand years and there are at least 138 built to house the remains of pharaohs and queens. More are still being discovered. Last year, satellite imagery revealed seventeen previously unknown pyramids.

The later pyramids of Egypt tend to be overlooked, and it’s easy to see why considering the sad state of most of them. Just take a look at this photo of the pyramid of Senusret II (ruled 1895-1878 B.C.) and photographed by Jon Bodsworth. Like a lot of later pyramids, it was made of mud bricks instead of stone blocks to save money, and that’s why it’s a giant sad lump today – an interesting lump, though.

The interior tunnels are still intact and archaeologists discovered the nearby village where the workmen lived. Contrary to popular belief, slaves didn’t construct the pyramids. Actually, it was trained craftsmen and farmers who didn’t have any other work to do when their fields were underwater during the annual flooding of the Nile.

Senusret II was part of the 12th Dynasty, a high point in Egyptian power and civilization. It’s strange then that pyramids were in decline. You can see several of these pyramids at Dahsur, not far from Saqqara and an easy day trip from Cairo. One is the Black Pyramid of Amenemhat III (ruled 1842-1797 B.C.). It started to collapse almost immediately so he had to build a second one at the Faiyum Oasis near a giant temple to the crocodile god Sobek. This site reopened last year.

%Gallery-155699%The experimentation with cheaper building methods may have started with Senusret I (ruled 1962-1928 B.C.). Instead of a solid geometric shape, the builders first constructed a network of walls crisscrossing each other and dividing the pyramid into 32 parts. These were then filled with loose stone. A smooth limestone facing was put over the whole thing. It sounded good in theory, but it’s another sad lump today.

Perhaps as a compensation for the cheap building styles, the later pyramids had elaborate tricks to stop tomb robbers: dead end tunnels sealed with thick stones; interior chambers made of quartzite, the hardest substance worked in Ancient Egypt; elaborately sealed rooms that contained nothing; and sarcophagi as big as the rooms that held them in order to deny robbers room to work.

Sadly, none of these tricks worked and the pharaohs eventually resorted to hidden underground tombs in places like the Valley of the Kings. After the 12th and 13th dynasties, pyramids went out of fashion. Many of the 13th dynasty rulers didn’t bother building one at all. Only a few were made by later dynasties. The last pyramid made for a pharaoh was for Ahmose I around 1525 B.C. It’s a pile of rubble now that barely measures 30 feet high. Much later, pyramids briefly became fashionable in the Sudan.

The pyramid was dead, and last year, so was Egypt’s tourism industry. It’s been gradually rebuilding itself, though. Cruise lines are returning, as are independent travelers. The tourist sights remained mostly unaffected by the unrest and there’s not much trouble outside of a few spots in Cairo.

Visitors will have more to see with six tombs at Giza having reopened and Egyptologists hard at work uncovering more ancient wonders. Many of the later pyramids haven’t been excavated and while all the ones that have been explored were plundered by tomb robbers centuries ago, there’s always a chance that the treasure of a pharaoh remains hidden inside one of them.

Met Showcases Predynastic Art Of Egypt

Predynastic Art, Egypt, MetThe Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has one of the best collections of ancient Egyptian art in the world. Now it has opened a special exhibition focusing on the lesser-known art from the early days of Egypt before the pharaohs.

The Dawn of Egyptian Art” brings together art from the Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods (ca. 4000–2650 B.C.), a time when Egypt was developing into a society with towns, specialized labor and, eventually, a centralized government. This broad swath of time included several distinct local cultures that slowly became the ancient Egypt that we are familiar with.

The main culture was the Naqada culture. Villages each had their own animal deities, many of which survived as gods and goddesses of dynastic Egypt. The dead were buried with works of art such as jewelry and figurines of these deities. As agriculture became more important in the fertile Nile valley, villages grew into towns and art flourished. Local rulers became more powerful and expanded their territories until Egypt was two kingdoms: Upper and Lower Egypt.

The 175 objects from the Met’s collection, and those of a dozen other institutions, put Predynastic Art into its historical and cultural context as well as display them as objects of beauty. For example, this female figure, shown here in a photo courtesy the Brooklyn Museum, was made about 3500-3400 B.C. and is typical of the highly abstracted figures made throughout most of the Predynastic Period. It’s unclear what this figure symbolized, although many Egyptologists think these figures are goddesses, since similar figures painted onto pots are always larger than the male “priests” shown next to them.

Some art is easier to identify, like ships and hunting scenes painted onto pottery or on tomb walls. There are also statues of gods and goddesses, many of which can be identified as the major deities of the age of the pharaohs. A masterpiece of early Egyptian art is the Narmer Palette, seen in the gallery, which commemorates the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt in the 31st century B.C.

For more information, check out this excellent page on Predynastic Art and check out the gallery below.

“The Dawn of Egyptian Art” runs until August 5.

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Sacred ship from ancient Egypt is undergoing restoration

ancient Egypt, solar boatA sacred boat that lay hidden in the sands of the Sahara for 4,500 years will be restored and put on display, Egyptian authorities say.

The boat is one of a pair discovered buried next to the pyramid of the Pharaoh Khufu at Giza, also known as the Great Pyramid. They rested in long, stone-covered pits.

The first boat, shown here in this photo courtesy Berthold Werner, was excavated in 1954 and is already on display at the Solar Boat Museum at Giza. It’s considered one of the most remarkable finds from ancient Egypt and is similar in design to the feluccas that still ply the Nile today.

Japanese and Egyptian archaeologists are working together to gather samples of the second boat’s wood in order to understand how best to restore and preserve it. The current project to uncover and analyze the second boat has been going on since 1992. Last summer the painstaking task of excavating and removing the boat from its pit was completed.

According to tests, the boat is made of Lebanon cedar and is actually a little older than the reign of the Pharaoh Khufu, who ruled from 2551-2528 BC, according to the Japanese team. His name has been found inscribed on the boat.

It’s not certain that the two vessels were actually used, and may have only been symbolic boats to carry the pharaoh across the sky with the sun god Ra in the afterlife. Egyptians were often buried with little statues of servants, animals, soldiers, and even entire farms to serve them in the hereafter.

Animal mummies discovered in Egypt

animal mummiesA cache of animal mummies is among the finds from a recent excavation in Egypt.

The discovery was made by a University of Toronto team last summer at Abydos and was announced at a recent meeting. Abydos was the first burial ground for the pharaohs and remained a holy place throughout the history of ancient Egypt. The tomb of Osiris, king of underworld, was believed to be there.

Because of this, Egyptians wanted to be buried there too and numerous tombs have been found at the site. The Canadian team found a mysterious building that contained a pile of animal mummies. These animals could have served various purposes. Usually they were offerings to the gods, but they could also act as food for the afterlife or even post-mortem pets.

Many of the deities of Egypt had animal heads and aspects, and animals that were mummified as offerings were of the same species as the associated god. Hawks were dedicated to Horus, ibises to Thoth, cats to Sekhmet, etc.

Most of the 83 animal mummies found in Abydos in the latest field season were dogs, and may have been offerings to Wepwawet, a wolf-headed god associated with Osiris. Wepwawet was a war god and an “opener of the ways” who protected the dead on their journey into the underworld. The team also uncovered mummified sheep, goats, and two cats.

The function of the building where these mummies were found is unclear, although it may have been a temple. It’s not known exactly when it was built either. A few inscriptions at the site refer to Seti I, who ruled from 1290–1279 BC. The team also found a wooden statue that may represent Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh who ruled from 1479–1458 BC, and two tombs. One of them tombs has yet to be opened.

Animal mummies are common finds throughout Egypt. Everything from shrews to catfish to bulls were dipped in preservatives and wrapped in linen. Some were given elaborate sarcophagi, like the gilded one shown in the photo gallery. Others mummies were fakes. There was a big market for animal mummies as they were a popular sacrifice. Thus unscrupulous priests would often create mummies that contained only a few bones or feathers of the animal, or sometimes no animal parts at all.

Any museum with a good Egyptian collection will have at least some animal mummies. Museums that I’ve seen that have especially large collections include the British Museum (London), the National Museum (Cairo), the Louvre (Paris), the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto), the Ashmolean (Oxford), and the Met (New York). Have you seen a good collection of these pickled pets? Tell us about it in the comments section!

Photo of cat mummy in the Louvre, Paris, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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Ancient Egypt–Art and Magic, opens at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida

Ancient EgyptAncient Egypt never ceases to fascinate. Its elaborate religion, art, and ritual make it at once foreign and compelling. Now a new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida, showcases some of the highlights of this unique culture.

Ancient Egypt–Art and Magic: Treasures of the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art brings to the public eye one of the greatest private collections of Ancient Egyptian art. These 100 choice pieces from the collection of Jean Claude Gandur of Geneva, Switzerland, include mummy cases, statues of pharaohs, papyrus texts, and precious jewels.

Each item emphasizes the skill of the ancient Egyptian artisans and their culture’s deep connection to magic. Alongside the works of art are explanations of how magic played a part in every aspect of Egyptian society, and how these particular objects fit into that belief.

Some of the items have an interesting modern history too. One sarcophagus was owned by the late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.

It’s rare for so many items from a private collection to go on display all together, so if you’re passing through Florida, be sure to make it to this exhibition. The exhibition runs until April 29, 2012.

This photo shows the lid from a sarcophagus, made of gessoed and painted wood from either the 21st or 22nd dynasty (1080-720 BC), from the Collection of the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art.