Mountains of the Pharaohs: The Untold Story of the Pyramid Builders

Mountains of the Pharaohs: The Untold Story of the Pyramid Builders

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An unprecedented account of one of civilization's greatest achievements.

The great pyramids of Giza have intrigued humanity for thousands of years. Questions about the construction and the purpose of these majestic monuments have existed since the middle period of ancient Egyptian civilization; in the sixth century B.C., Herodotus was the first of generations of explorers to travel to Egypt in an attempt to unlock their secrets. Recent cutting-edge research has uncovered information about how and why they were built unimaginable to previous generations. In Mountains of the Pharaohs, Zahi Hawass, a world-renowned archaeologist and the official guardian of Egypt's timeless treasures, weaves the latest archaeological data and an enthralling family history into spellbinding narrative.

Nearly five thousand years ago, the fourth dynasty of Egypt's Old Kingdom reigned over a highly advanced civilization. Believed to be gods, the royal family lived amidst colossal palaces and temples built to honor them and their deified ancestors. Hawass brings these extraordinary historical figures to life, spinning a soap opera-like saga complete with murder, incest, and the triumphant ascension to the throne of one of only four queens ever to rule Egypt.

The magnificent pyramids attest not only to the dynasty's supreme power, but also to the engineering expertise and architectural sophistication that flourished under their rule. Hawass argues that the pyramids-including the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the only one of the Seven Wonders of the World still standing-were built by skilled craftsman who took great pride in their work.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400102808
Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
Publication date: 09/05/2006
Edition description: Unabridged CD
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 5.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Zahi Hawass is the secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities and director of the Giza Plateau. He is the author of many books on ancient Egypt, including the bestselling Valley of the Golden Mummies. He was the host of such National Geographic television specials as Open the Lost Tombs and Pyramids Live.

Simon Vance, a former BBC Radio presenter and newsreader, is a full-time actor who has appeared on both stage and television. He has recorded over eight hundred audiobooks and has earned five coveted Audie Awards, and he has won fifty-seven Earphones Awards from AudioFile magazine, which has named him a Golden Voice.

Read an Excerpt

Mountains of the Pharaohs

By Zahi Hawass

Random House

Zahi Hawass
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0385503059

Chapter One

Chapter One

The Reign of Sneferu

King Sneferu was very pleased. His brother Rahotep, an energetic, handsome young man with black hair and a debonair mustache, had returned from his raid across the southern border into Nubia laden with booty. The Nubians had put up very little fight and surrendered with hardly any bloodshed. The might of the Egyptian king was already a legend in foreign lands; and the arrival of his well-trained troops, breaching the rocky impassability of the First Cataract with speed and efficiency, had struck fear into the hearts of the enemy. Seven thousand healthy men and women had surrendered themselves and two hundred thousand head of precious cattle to the royal expedition; these families would be put to work tilling the royal estates scattered up and down the river Nile, tending the royal herds, and helping to build the royal monuments. Sneferu was so pleased with his young brother that he ordered the royal sculptors to carve exquisite statues of the prince and his wife, the beautiful Nofret, out of fine limestone. Little did he dream that archaeologists would stumble across these same statues over four thousand years later or that the workman who first laid eyes on the lifelike painted faces of Rahotep and his wife, their eyes gleaming with inlaid crystal, would be sofrightened that his heart would stop forever.


Sneferu was a king revered throughout pharaonic history as a wise and beneficent ruler. He was one of the most powerful kings of ancient Egypt and the founder of a great dynasty; he ushered in a period of impressive achievement, an era of power and mystery. Sneferu was an energetic monarch who sent both trading and military expeditions into neighboring lands and carried out an ambitious building program within Egypt's borders, leaving behind no less than four pyramids. Given the name Ptah-Sneferu ("Ptah is the one who makes things beautiful"), he was remembered by later Egyptians as the archetype of an excellent king. He was held in such high honor that he was deified five hundred years after his death; his cult remained active for thousands of years.

Sneferu's mother was a queen named Mersyankh, the wife of Huni, the last king of the 3rd Dynasty. Since Sneferu was considered to have inaugurated a new dynasty, we believe that Mersyankh was not the principal wife of Huni but was instead a secondary queen. Huni and his principal queen, whose name we do not know, had a daughter named Hetepheres. If the main royal couple had any sons, they all must have died before their father. To ensure the line of succession, Huni married Sneferu to his half sister Hetepheres, and made him the new heir to the throne.

In ancient Egypt, queens-the king's chief wife, his mother, and sometimes his eldest daughter-symbolized the female principle and were essential to proper rule. Some of these queens exerted considerable authority and power of their own-we know of four queens dating from various periods of Egyptian history who actually ruled Egypt, even though this was contrary to the fundamental tenets of Egyptian kingship.

We do not truly understand the rules of succession in the Old Kingdom, although it is generally assumed that the next king should be the eldest son of the reigning king and his principal queen (although there is no particular evidence for this except the better-known practices of Middle and New Kingdom kings). I myself am not certain that the eldest son was supposed to inherit the throne, since we know of many king's eldest sons who held important administrative titles but were never kings. In any case, when, for whatever reason, the successor was the son of a minor wife or came from a secondary branch of the royal family, his claim was usually consolidated by marriage to a royal daughter, especially a daughter of the chief wife. Often this would mean marrying a half sister or a niece, a common practice for the king.

Sometimes the king also married his full sister. The reasons for this are not clear. Perhaps it was in order to consolidate family power or, more likely, because there was a divine precedent for it in the marriages of divine siblings. Brother-sister marriages are quite common in Egyptian mythology. The earth god Geb married his sister Nut, the goddess of the sky, and their four children paired up with one another. Their son Osiris married his sister Isis, and the second son, Seth, married the second daughter, Nephthys.

The principal queen and the queen mother shared in the divinity of the king and also had important roles in the religious life of the country. While the king was associated with male images, such as the Horus falcon (a sky god) and the bull (a potent symbol of royal might), his queen was identified with the vulture goddess Nekhbet, the tutelary deity of Upper Egypt, and with the cow goddess Hathor, daughter of the sun god Re and protector of Horus. Thus, on one level, Huni was presumably maintaining the divine order by arranging the marriage of Sneferu as the future Horus king to his half sister Hetepheres as an incarnation of Hathor. On a more practical level, I am sure that all this served to keep power in the family.

Sneferu became king at the death of his father, in about 2649 b.c. When he first put on the double crown, symbol of a united nation, Egypt was already a strong, wealthy state, secure within her own borders. Deserts formed a formidable barrier to the east and west; the Mediterranean Sea protected her northern border; and cataracts-outcroppings of granite-broke up the Nile to the south, making navigation difficult and protecting the Egyptian heartland from threats of invasion. During Sneferu's reign, Egypt became even more powerful, with access to enormous resources of goods and manpower.

The role of the king was central to Egyptian society as a whole. The worldview of the ancient Egyptians was based on an important philosophical concept called ma'at. This was represented by a feather, or by a goddess with a feather on her head, and translates roughly as "truth," or "justice." The broader and more accurate meaning of ma'at was the proper functioning of the cosmos, the way that things were supposed to be. The ideal Egyptian world was a place of stability and predictability, where the chaos of darkness and limitless water that both preceded and surrounded the cosmos was kept at bay by the eternal renewal of creation. This was played out on the earthly stage by the rising and setting of the sun each day, and echoed in many smaller ways. The fertility of the land was assured by the annual Nile flood and the predictable round of the seasons. Fields were prepared; crops were sown and harvested; domesticated animals were born, reared, and slaughtered; and the wild creatures that lived on the edges of the land-desert animals, fish, wild birds, and human foreigners-were all officially kept in check by the efforts of the royal house.

The king had the primary responsibility for the maintenance of ma'at. It was his job, as the earthly embodiment of the god Horus, to ensure that the world continued to function properly. We know that the god Horus, depicted as a hawk, was important from the earliest days of the Egyptian monarchy. An important myth, reconstructed from later sources, tells us that in the beginning of time, Horus was the son of the sun god Re and ruler of the sky. He had two eyes, the sun and the moon. An evil god named Seth wounded his moon eye, so that each month it would wane as it was damaged and wax as it was healed. According to another myth, Seth was the brother of Osiris, first king of Egypt. Seth was jealous of his brother and conspired to murder him, after which he cut his body into pieces, scattered them throughout the land, and took the throne. Osiris's sister wife, Isis, gathered the pieces together and wrapped them into the semblance of a body, and revived her husband long enough to conceive a child, Horus. Isis raised Horus in secret, and when he was old enough, she brought him to a council of the gods to reclaim his father's throne. After much back and forth and considerable nonfatal bloodshed, Horus reclaimed the throne and became king of Egypt, first of the northern part (Lower Egypt) and then of the entire land.

The king stood between the terrestrial realm and the celestial one and interceded with the gods on behalf of his subjects. Temple ritual was an important tool for the maintenance of ma'at. The king was, in theory, the chief priest in all of the temples; in a nation with no real division of church and state, this was not a small task. All his official activities, from military campaigns to building projects to holding court and carrying out ceremonies of various sorts, were in some way part of his effort to maintain the order of the universe. The name Sneferu took upon his ascension to the throne, Nebma'at, or Lord of Ma'at, reflects his concern with maintaining the proper order of the cosmos.

Despite its relative geographical isolation, Egypt in the early Old Kingdom was already carrying on a variety of relationships with her neighbors. To the northeast, the coast of what is now Syria and Israel was occupied by a number of fortified cities. Trading caravans traveled through the Sinai Peninsula, carrying exotic goods from afar; the Egyptians also exploited the turquoise and copper mines in the Sinai. To the west was the land of the Tgehenu, the Libyans, who seem mostly to have been treated by the Egyptians as marauding tribes who needed to be restrained.

The lands far to the south were of especial interest to the rulers of the Old Kingdom, as they were to later kings. Many wonderful and exotic goods, such as ebony and incense, exotic animals and their by-products-ivory, ostrich eggs, and panther skins, to name a few-came from this area, and the Egyptians were concerned with protecting their access to raw materials such as gold from the Nubian desert and diorite from mines to the southwest. Under Sneferu's energetic leadership, Egypt expanded her trading relationships with her neighbors and mounted a number of military expeditions into nearby territories.

Our knowledge of the primary events of Sneferu's reign comes from a fragmentary basalt stele called the Palermo Stone. This monument, which dates from the end of the 5th Dynasty, over two hundred years later, is the closest thing we have to a contemporary history of the 4th Dynasty. Its surface is divided into sections, each assigned to a specific king (listed in order from the beginning of Egyptian history and some way beyond, back into the mists of a mythical prehistory). Each section is divided into years, and within each year division is a list of the important events of that year; below the events is a record of the all-important level of the Nile flood. Unfortunately, only pieces of this important monument still survive, so many kings and many years have been lost to us. However, a segment of Sneferu's reign has been preserved, and it gives us a glimpse into some of the details of his reign.

In his thirteenth year as king, Sneferu launched a campaign into Nubia. Out of what must already have been a very small population, the expedition brought back seven thousand human prisoners and two hundred thousand head of cattle. Another campaign, in the eighteenth year of his reign, was against the Libyans to the west: the Egyptians brought back eleven thousand human prisoners and just over thirteen thousand head of cattle. To protect Egypt's borders from her enemies, Sneferu also built fortifications to the south and north. There are remains of an Old Kingdom town at the site of Buhen in northern Nubia that may indeed date back to Sneferu's reign; no archaeological remains have been found of northern fortifications.

The Sinai in the time of Sneferu was called "the land of turquoise." Inscriptions in the Wadi Maghara (located in southwest Sinai) bear testimony to military campaigns to the northeast. Reliefs carved into the cliffs of this remote locale show the king using his mace to smite the chieftain of the Bedouins, fighting to ensure the safety of the royal caravans and the mining expeditions. Sneferu's name was connected with the Sinai long after his death, and one of the mines at Wadi Maghara was named after him. He was deified here in the 12th Dynasty, six hundred years after his death.

Not all of the events known from Sneferu's reign were acts of war. Boatbuilding was important, which is not surprising given the importance of the Nile as the main route for transportation and trade. Some of the boats were also seagoing vessels, important for trading with the coastal cities in the eastern Mediterranean. The entry for the thirteenth year records an expedition to Byblos, a vital port city on the coast of Lebanon, to bring back a special type of wood-probably cedar or some other coniferous wood (Egypt itself was and is relatively wood poor, and the types of trees that grew there, such as acacia and palm, were not suitable for many sorts of building activities); the boats used for this expedition would themselves have been made of imported wood. Sneferu used some cedar from Lebanon to build an enormous boat, over one hundred meters (328 feet) long. This was probably a state barge, used for royal journeys on the Nile. Sixty royal "sixteener" boats, possibly boats with sixteen oars, were also built in the same year. In the next year, three more large boats were built of various types of wood, and foreign wood was also used to make doors for the royal palace. Ancient cedar beams, perhaps even from this same shipment, were also found inside Sneferu's first pyramid at Dahshur, the Bent Pyramid.

In addition to these military and trading expeditions, the Palermo Stone mentions either the birth of two royal children or the creation of images of these children. One entry also records the foundation of thirty-five populated estates and twenty-two farms. The goods produced and livestock raised on these estates and farms would have been dedicated to the royal house, both for the supply and sustenance of the living king and his retinue and also for the royal cult centered around the king's mortuary complexes. In the fifteenth year of his reign, two important buildings, named "Sneferu high of the white crown" (the crown of Upper Egypt) and "Sneferu high of the red crown" (the crown of Lower Egypt) were erected; these were probably sacred in nature. Additional events deemed worthy of recording for posterity were the visits of the king to important national shrines and the fashioning of important statues, again of the king, in precious materials such as copper and gold.

Excerpted from Mountains of the Pharaohs by Zahi Hawass Excerpted by permission.
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"Simon Vance's educated British accent and soft voice add a dusty patina to his descriptions…. Egyptian names, words, and places seem to roll off Vance's practiced tongue as though the author himself were speaking them." —-AudioFile

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