Amelia Blanford Edwards was one of a stream of European travelers drawn to see the wonders of Egypt at the close of the 19th century. In her 1877 book, A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, she writes of the hot drive to the edge of the desert, until “the Great Pyramid, in all its unexpected bulk and majesty, towers close above one’s head ... The effect is as sudden as it is overwhelming. It shuts out the sky and the horizon. It shuts out all the other Pyramids. It shuts out everything but the sense of awe and wonder.”
Most modern travelers would probably reach for similar words to pinpoint the sublime thrill of seeing the Pyramids at Giza in person today. They are so iconic, so astonishingly ancient, that it is hard to imagine that 4,600 years ago the plateau where they stand was a desolate, dune-covered wilderness where a scattering of tombs lay under the burning Egyptian sun. Along with the enigmatic Sphinx and other smaller tombs and monuments, Giza has three principal pyramids: Khufu (originally 481 feet high, and sometimes called Cheops, or the Great Pyramid); Khafre (471 feet); and Menkaure (213 feet). Emerging out of the complex dynastic needs of Egypt’s 4th dynasty, they are the triumphant product of one of the most daring and innovative engineering projects the world has ever known.
The kings of the 4th dynasty ruled Egypt from around 2575 to 2465 B.C. Presiding over the golden age of the Old Kingdom, their center of power was the sophisticated Nile-side city of Memphis, about 15 miles south of Giza. The dynasty’s second king, Khufu, ruled during a period of relative peace in Egypt, although the Greek historian Herodotus later depicted him and his son as cruel and proud.