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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 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. Among these individuals were Khufu’s mother Queen Hetepheres I, whose mysterious burial was hidden nearly 90 feet underground; the vizier (or prime minister) Hemiunu, architect of the Great Pyramid; and Queen Meresankh III, owner of a unique, beautifully decorated tomb east of her grandfather Khufu’s pyramid.

The ancient Egyptian Old Kingdom (about 2650–2150 BCE) was a period of strong central government. Thus, it makes sense that its kings were able to organize the vast quantity of labor required for such vast building projects, and also that many officials chose to be buried at a site so near the capital, the focus of power. After the collapse of the Old Kingdom, however, came a time of weakened central control along with the rise of powerful local district rulers. In parallel to the decentralization of government and administration, there was a move away from the primary elite cemetery at Giza; instead, officials built their tombs at smaller regional burial grounds, closer to the now-prominent local centers of power. As a result, building at Giza tapered off, and was not resumed even with the reunification of Egypt under a single, strong dynasty during the Middle Kingdom (about 2060–1640 BCE).

After another period of fractured rule and civil war, Egypt rose to new heights of imperial power during the New Kingdom (about 1550–1070 BCE), when a resurgence of attention to Giza and especially the Sphinx occurred. Several pharaohs of Dynasties 18 and 19 built or added onto chapels in the area of the Sphinx, and Thutmose IV cleared away the sand which had buried the Sphinx’s body after supposedly having a vision which promised him the kingship if he did so. This event was commemorated in a nearly 12-foot tall stone monument called the Dream Stela, which Thutmose set up between the paws of the Sphinx after the foretold events things had come to pass; the stela still stands there today.

When the New Kingdom ended, there was a final era of decline and political instability, followed by a period of foreign rule over Egypt, which was put to an end by the indigenous kings of Dynasty 26. Having broken free of foreign control and established a new central government, they tried to legitimize their reigns by emphasizing their native Egyptian-ness. This included a surge of interest in Egypt’s past, especially in the glory days of the Old Kingdom. Already ancient, the pyramids were one of the iconic images of Egypt, and so the elite returned once more to Giza, digging new burial shafts across the plateau—many of them intruding into the existing Old Kingdom structures.

While the pyramids identify Giza as the great royal necropolis of ancient Egypt’s earliest state, the Giza Plateau preserves a much broader window onto the first flourishing of ancient Egypt, one of the world’s first great civilizations. Tomb scenes capture snapshots of everyday lives 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. Although Giza thrived several millennia ago, connecting with ancient Egyptian culture now through 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.

Suggested reading:

Manuelian, Peter Der. "Excavating the Old Kingdom. The Giza Necropolis and Other Mastaba Fields." In Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids, pp. 138–153. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999.

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