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Egyptian Pyramids and Tombs of the Pharaohs


Egypt is rich in towering pyramids, lavish tombs hidden deep in hillsides, and glorious art treasures that filled those tombs. Thanks to the ancient Egyptian belief that you could take it with you, the wonders of this society survive and take us back four or five thousand years.

Complete Video Script

[40] While not in Europe, the more advanced civilization of Egypt would contribute to the rise of European civilization. With god-like kings, incredible wealth and power concentrated in the royal court, a preoccupation with religion, and an ability to organize beyond anything yet, Egypt was a society of grand architecture, massive temple complexes, a sophisticated written language, and lavish art.

[41, Pyramids at Giza, near Cairo, Egypt] Towering just outside the capital city of Cairo stands the greatest sight of the ancient world — the pyramids at Giza. The tombs of three great kings, these monuments were built to protect the bodies and preserve the memories of fabulously wealthy and powerful pharaohs.

[42, Giza, Egypt] The iconic sights of Egypt — four or five thousand years old — are basically buildings and art for dead people. Back then, they believed you could take it with you. And your big challenge: to be sure your body and your valuables survived the journey into the afterlife. That's why, if you had the power and the money, you'd lock everything up in a big tomb — a pyramid. These are the most famous: the pyramids of Giza.

[43] The pyramid of the pharaoh Khufu is the only survivor of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This grandest of all pyramids — 700 feet long on each side — was built 2,500 years before Christ. The neighboring pyramids are likely those of Khufu's son and grandson. The smaller ones? They're for the wives and daughters.

[44] Workers dragged over two million huge stones up ramps, eventually constructing this 450-foot-high monument. In their day, the pyramids were encased in a shiny limestone veneer. I sure hope Khufu was satisfied.

[45] Egyptian pharaohs spent a good part of their lives and their kingdom's wealth building these huge tombs, which served as lockers for whatever they wanted to take into the afterlife: their bodies, their treasures — even their favorite pets.

[46, Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt] Nearly everything filling these old halls is funerary art, art designed to help save the souls of the pharaohs: statues filled with symbolism, written prayers, and offerings to deal with the gods and help assure a happy transition into the afterlife.

[47, treasures from Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt] This ancient art is so well-preserved because most of it was hidden away for 4,000 years, locked up dark and dry, in tombs. This portrayal of geese dates from 2500 BC. This "seated scribe" recalls the importance of the educated elite in the court of an often-illiterate king. And this couple — a husband and wife — was also found in a tomb. It's nearly all art for the dead, sealed away until rediscovered in modern times.

[48, Valley of the Kings, Luxor; Egyptian Museum, Cairo; British Museum, London] The art of Egypt revolved around death — preserving your body, your possessions, and your deeds for the afterlife. This woman died 3,000 years ago. Her entrails were placed here. Her body was placed in a wooden coffin like this, which was put into a larger stone sarcophagus like this, then placed inside a tomb, which was covered with magic spells and prayers. At the door of the tomb, a recognizable statue of the deceased served as a kind of safe harbor for the wandering soul on its journey to the afterlife. The art was simplified, yes, but the Egyptians created art that captured fleeting beauty and preserved it for eternity.