The Stepped Pyramid of Saqqarah is undoubtedly an astonishing achievement and moves us with its triumph of man over materials. But how much more astonishing and moving then are the Great Pyramids of Giza, beside which even Imhotep's work looks small? And yet the time-span which separates Zozer's pyramid from that of Cheops, is a mere 100 years - so far and so fast did the art of constructing in stone progress in the hands of these ancient masters.
The Great Pyramid of Cheops - his Greek name: properly he should be called Khufu - was the first to be built on the imposing rocky plateau which overlooks the Nile and present-day Cairo, around the year 2550 BC. It was originally 460 feet high, now reduced by loss of stones to 450 feet. It once had over 2,500,000 blocks of limestone, mostly from local quarries. Some 170,000 were stolen by the Arabs and Turks for building in Cairo; that such a massive quantity of stone could be removed with barely any visible effect on this man-made mountain is a testament to the ungraspable quantity involved. Although the nearby pyramid of Chephren, or Khafre, appears larger, this is because it stands on higher ground, and it retains the smooth stone casing at its peak whereas Khufu's has lost blocks even here, reducing its height. There is also a third pyramid, of Mycerinus or Menkaure, less imposing than the other two, as well as a host of even smaller ones, probably for the kings' queens. Each of the pyramids is meticulously aligned with the cardinal points of the compass, the entrances facing due north.
For the tourist, perhaps the most exciting experience - apart from the initial impact of these ancient masterpieces - is to venture deep inside them. Khufu's pyramid offers the most rewards in this respect, allowing the visitor to climb up a long and steep shaft and gallery to the main burial chamber, constructed of massive slabs of perfectly-fitting stones at the heart of this tremendous construction.
Each pyramid stood not on its own, but as part of a larger funerary complex including temples, causeways and mastabas for the burial of the king's nobles. The best-preserved temple is that of Khafre, adjacent to the famous Sphinx carved within one of the quarries which provided building stone. The latter's small size and obscured location can prove something of a disappointment to visitors accustomed to photographs taken from certain flattering angles. It has suffered much through wind-erosion and from human abuse. Its nose is today in the British Museum.
It was in the mortuary complex of Khafre that the fine diorite statue of the king was found, one of an original 23, and now in the Egyptian Museum. It was also here that the important ceremony of the 'Opening of the Mouth' was performed to enable the king to live on after the death of the body. A few words on the vexed issue of Egyptian religion are probably in order at this point.
The pyramids were first and foremost tombs. The earliest, those built in the mastaba form, were simply buildings to house the dead king. The invention of the pyramid was partly practical - it provided more protection for the king's body and spirit - and partly symbolic - its form offered a ready means of ascent into heaven.
Other reasons for the new shape have also been suggested. For example, the true pyramidal form is said to mimic the form taken by the sun's rays breaking through the clouds. It is also claimed to be a representation of the original mound from which the universe sprang.
There are several Egyptian creation myths, representing different local religions. Just as politically the various towns had fought for supremacy, so the various religions tried to impose their particular beliefs on others. What emerged in time was a synthesis of elements from many different religions, paralleling the fusion of different local tribes into one people.
Although the religion and creation myth based around the sun-god - originally from Heliopolis, the 'city of the sun' - came to dominate, the resulting theological mish-mash is highly confusing for modern-day visitors. Thus the sun-god Re is also known as Atum, and later as Amun - all originally gods from different religious centres. The god Osiris, in some cycles the great-grandson of Atum, also became an important deity in his own right. He was particularly associated with the cult of the dead - and the detailed story of his death and resurrection has surprising similarities to that of Christ.
Just as the Egyptian conception of gods was complex, so too was the Egyptian idea of the soul. Each person had a 'ba', able to move in and out of tombs at will. The 'ka' however, was a double, born and dying when a man was born and died, and needing sustenance within the tomb. It was for the ka that all the offerings of food and drink and furniture were provided, and for whose consolation the tomb might be painted to represent the walls of a house or tent. Together with these came the 'akh', the 'shining one', the unique essence of a person which endures for ever.
The famous Egyptian mummies - the word comes from the Arabic 'mummiya' meaning bitumen, one of the substances later used in the embalming process - were attempts to preserve the earthly body for the use of the 'ka'. Various charms and amulets were included in the wrappings as an additional help and protection for the spirit in its journey to the next world. So far as we can tell, heaven was conceived of as very similar to existence here on earth. At first only the pharaoh, the son of the god, could benefit from this resurrection, but soon anyone able to use the appropriate spells and perform the correct rituals was guaranteed salvation. In addition to human mummification, the Egyptians also preserved the bodies of various sacred animals, such as the bulls of Apis, found in the Serapeum, and ibises and baboons which were sacred to Thoth, the god of writing, and hence of spells and magic.
Though we know them largely through their funerary monuments such as the pyramids, the Egyptians emerge as a people obsessed not with death, as it might first appear, but with life and its continuance. They exulted in its joys, as represented by scenes in their tombs, and in the comprehensive paraphernalia with which they were provided for its continuance there. They were, however, conscious of the fragility of life and its pleasures. Perhaps aware of their dependence on the fickle Nile's annual rising which brought both life to the fields but also threatened destruction by drought or flood, they saw life as a constant battle against chaos, a chaos that could only be averted by an unending round of prayers and supplications to the right gods. Chief among these, along with Re in all his forms and Osiris, was Maat, the goddess of balance without whom all the other gods were impotent, and life itself was impossible.