1 Play­ground of the pharaohs

Long be­fore Cairo ap­peared, the Nile delta was a pivot of one of the an­cient world’s great civil­i­sa­tions

BBC History Magazine - - Cairo In Five Cultures -

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

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