1 Playground of the pharaohs
Long before Cairo appeared, the Nile delta was a pivot of one of the ancient world’s great civilisations
You can’t tell a history in Egypt without the ancient Egyptians. Cairo didn’t appear for more than three millennia after Pharaoh Khufu commissioned the Great Pyramid at Giza, but that doesn’t mean the ancient Egyptians weren’t active in the region the city now occupies. The reason for the site’s importance is a simple geographical one. Cairo sits at the base of the Nile delta, the point where the mighty river starts to split into many tributaries heading towards the Mediterranean. From the earliest civilisations, this was one of the most strategically desirable pieces of real estate in all of Egypt.
From c3100 BC, when Egypt was united under one ruler, to the end of the so- called Old Kingdom a thousand years later, the ancient Egyptians had their political capital on the outskirts of modern Cairo. It wasn’t called Cairo, of course, but Memphis – and, sadly, very little survives from that once splendid city.
Pharaohs were laid to rest in the great burial grounds at Saqqara, also in the outskirts of modern Cairo, within sight of Memphis. The exception to that rule was the fourth dynasty (c2600–2490 BC), whose rulers had their pyramids constructed on the Giza plateau. The plateau (which, again, was situated on the site of modern Cairo) was a natural plate of limestone, high above sea level. At the time of the fourth dynasty, it actually sat next to the river Nile (the Nile has shifted its course east and west continuously over the millennia).
The western part of the plateau acted as the quarry where the bulk of the stone for the Great Pyramid was cut. During the building of the pyramids, 8,000–10,000 workers lived in this area. They were supplied by goods brought in by boat along the Nile to a harbour area just south of where another of ancient Egypt’s architectural masterpieces, the Great Sphinx, now sits.
During the building of the pyramids, 8,000–10,000 workers lived in this area
Pyramids built by the pharaohs Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure tower over the outskirts of Cairo. These awesome edifices were constructed three millennia before the city’s foundation