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.

Egypt’s newest public wonder: the temple of the crocodile god

Egypt, SobekLast week a new ancient site opened to the public in Egypt–a temple of the crocodile god Sobek.

Medinet Madi is located in Egypt’s Faiyum region, a fertile area around a lake at the end of a branch of the Nile called Bahr Yusuf (“The River of Joseph”).

The temple features a long avenue lined with sphinxes and lions, plus an incubation room for hatching the eggs of sacred crocodiles. You’d think these crocs would live the good life, splashing around the swamps and gnawing on a sacrificial victim or two. Instead they were mummified and sold to pilgrims. Check out the gallery for a couple of photos of crocodile mummies.

Sobek was one of the most important gods of ancient Egypt. He’s generally pictured with the body of a man and the head of a crocodile. He’s said to have created the Earth when he laid eggs in the primordial waters, and the Nile is supposed to be his sweat. He’s the god of the Nile, the Faiyum, and of course crocodiles.

In ancient times the Nile and the lush wetlands of the Faiyum were full of crocodiles. The people prayed to Sobek to appease them. Because he was a fierce god, he was one of the patrons of the ancient Egyptian army.

Sobek’s temple at Medinet Madi was built by the pharaohs Amenemhat III (c.1859-1813 BC) and Amenemhat IV (c.1814-1805 BC) during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom and expanded during the Ptolemaic period (332-30 BC) after Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great.

The temple is also dedicated to the cobra-headed goddess Renenutet, who in some traditions was Sobek’s wife. Despite her appearance, she was a much kinder deity than Sobek, a sort of mother goddess who nursed babies and gave them their magical True Name. Farmers liked her because cobras ate the rats that would eat their crops.

%Gallery-123603%The new tourist site was funded by Italy, which coughed up €3.5 million ($5 million) to clear off the sand and restore the temple. Italian archaeologists have been working in the area for decades and in addition to the Sobek temple they’ve found a Roman military camp and ten early Coptic Christian churches dating from the 5th-7th century AD.

Medinet Madi isn’t the only crocodile temple. Not far away stands Crocodilopolis, where Egyptians honored the sacred crocodile Petsuchos by sticking gold and gemstones into its hide. There are several other Sobek temples along the Nile, the most impressive being Kom Ombo far to the south near Aswan.

Kom Ombo is one of Egypt’s most fascinating temples. It’s rather new as Egyptian temples go–being founded in the second century BC by the Ptolemaic dynasty. Carvings of Sobek and other deities adorn the walls and columns. There are also some scenes from daily life. On the inner face of the outer corridor keep an eye out for a carving showing a frightening array of old surgeon’s tools. Also check out the small shrine to Hathor in the temple compound where piles of sacred crocodiles from the nearby necropolis are kept.

[Photo courtesy Hedwig Storch]