The Giza Plateau of Egypt, located about 15 miles southwest of modern Cairo, is one of the most important and famous archaeological sites in the world. It is home to the Great Pyramid, the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing. Built by King Khufu in the Fourth Dynasty of ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom (around 2550 BCE), the Great Pyramid was the largest ever constructed in Egypt, originally reaching a height of 481 feet. Two of Khufu’s successors also built major monuments at Giza: Khafre, whose burial complex includes the second-largest pyramid as well as the Great Sphinx; and Menkaure, builder of the smallest of the three pyramids at Giza.
As these royal complexes were being constructed, and even for centuries after Egyptian kings began to build their monuments elsewhere, hundreds of tombs were systematically added to cemeteries surrounding the pyramids, to serve as the eternal resting places for the royal family and bureaucratic elite. Today Giza provides a broad window onto one of the world’s first great civilizations, ancient Egypt. Carved and painted tomb scenes preserve snapshots of the everyday activities and beliefs of Egyptians from all walks of life. Settlements offer opportunities to walk the same halls where ancient feet once tread. And burial remains inform a modern understanding of the lives of individual Egyptians. Exploring Giza’s history and archaeology provides insight into not only the differences but, more importantly, the many similarities that are shared between the ancient and modern experiences of being human.
Pyramids were the burial places for Egyptian royalty during the Old Kingdom. The three large pyramids at Giza were built for three generations of Egyptian kings: Khufu, his son Khafre, and his grandson Menkaure. There are also several smaller pyramids at Giza, constructed for these kings’ wives and mothers. In Egyptian mythology, the world was created by raising a mound of land out of the sea; the triangular shape of the pyramid was meant to represent that first hill, so that the king could use the power of creation to be “reborn” into the afterlife. Although pyramids were built at multiple sites in Egypt, the ones at Giza are the largest, with the Great Pyramid of Khufu standing about 481 feet tall.
In ancient Egypt, a sphinx was a mythical creature with the body of a lion (symbolizing the strength and power of the kingship) and a human head (usually that of the ruling king, wearing the royal headdress). The colossal Great Sphinx of Giza and its associated temple are located near the valley temple of Khafre, builder of the second pyramid at Giza, and are generally believed to have been built during his reign. It is one of the earliest and largest monolithic statues in the world, 241 feet (73.5 m) long, 63 feet (19 m) wide, and 66 feet (20 m) high. During the New Kingdom (roughly a thousand years after its construction), the Sphinx was worshipped as Horemakhet ("Horus in the horizon"), an embodiment of the sun god.
King during the Fourth Dynasty of ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom; builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza, the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing. Known two thousand years later by the Greeks as King Cheops.
King during the Fourth Dynasty of ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom; builder of the Second Pyramid at Giza and probably of the Great Sphinx as well. Known two thousand years later by the Greeks as King Chephren.
King during the Fourth Dynasty of ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom; builder of the Third Pyramid at Giza. Known two thousand years later by the Greeks as King Mycerinus.
Wife of King Snefru, founder of Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty, and mother of King Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid. Her burial was hidden in a secret chamber (labeled G 7000 X) nearly 90 feet underground, and contained beautiful pieces of gilded and inlaid wooden furniture, silver jewelry, and a large alabaster sarcophagus that was found to be mysteriously empty.
Granddaughter of King Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid, and wife of either his son or grandson. Her unique underground chapel (labeled G 7530-7540) preserves beautifully carved and painted scenes of the queen and her royal family, as well as servants, artisans, and funerary priests. The scenes also depict the sort of rich burial goods that would have been placed in Meresankh’s tomb: statues and fine furniture; boxes containing food, clothing, and jewelry; even a representation of the black granite sarcophagus that was actually found in situ in her burial chamber.
King during the Eighteenth Dynasty of ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom; came to the throne at age nine and ruled nine years until his untimely death. His spectacular tomb, discovered in 1922 by Egyptologist Howard Carter in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, contained many rich treasures, which may be seen today in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Despite ruling over a thousand years after the pyramids were built, Tut and other kings of his dynasty continued to visit and venerate the sacred site of Giza, building small chapels and rest-houses, and setting up inscribed dedications to the Sphinx.
King during the Nineteenth Dynasty of ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom; ruled nearly 67 years and fathered over 100 children. Ramses fought a number of battles against foreign enemies, such as the Hittites and the Nubians, and built many temples and other monuments throughout Egypt and Nubia. Despite ruling over a thousand years after the pyramids were built and being buried far to the south in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, there is evidence that Ramses may have done some building, restoring, and/or usurping of earlier monuments at Giza.