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By Brian Fitzgerald
The pyramids of Egypt's Giza Plateau have always inspired awe and wonder. Who built them? How and why were they constructed? Archaeologists debate their age, but conventional theory holds that they were commissioned 4,600 years ago by the Dynasty IV pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure.
But what inspired the builders of these ambitious works? In an article in the March/April Archaeology magazine, Farouk El-Baz, director of the GRS Center for Remote Sensing, argues that not only the pyramids, but also the Sphinx, may have been based on the shapes of natural landforms in the eastern Sahara.
He points out that many conical hills punctuate the landscape of the Nile Valley. These rock formations, which appear to have developed from flat-topped elevations, escaped destruction over the ages because their shape led the harsh wind upslope. "This way, the incredibly erosive power of the wind would be funneled to the apex, where its energy dissipates into the air," writes El-Baz.
The former NASA scientist postulates that the pyramids' builders knew of these natural processes, and built their pointed stone structures to last, like the hills. "Today, the pyramids of Giza exist in perfect harmony with their windy environment," he writes. "Had the ancients built their monuments in the shape of a cube, a rectangle, or even a stadium, they would have been erased by the ravages of wind erosion long ago."
El-Baz asserts that the ancient Egyptians undoubtedly became familiar with these rock forms when they quarried desert areas both east and west of the Nile. The natural pyramids were first observed by nomadic peoples who migrated to the Nile Valley 5,000 years ago, when North Africa's climate began to change dramatically, bringing drought conditions to the eastern Sahara. "No wonder that the hieroglyph denoting desert hills depicts a pointed form, a concept most likely brought into the Nile Valley by immigrants from the windy domain of sands," he writes.
The dawn of Egyptian civilization
El-Baz says it may have been the dynamic convergence of these nomadic people, who were well-versed in astronomy, and the agrarian people already living on the banks of the Nile that planted the seeds of civilization in ancient Egypt.
The eastward migration of the desert people was documented 41 years ago by German Egyptologist Siegfried Morenz. In his 1960 book Egyptian Religion, Morenz writes, "At the start of the Old Kingdom, the Admonitions of Ipwer contain a lament that foreigners are pouring into northern Egypt and gaining power there. Near the beginning of the surviving text, we read, 'The tribes of the desert have become Egyptians everywhere.' "
El-Baz says that he was stunned when he recently read that text. "I have not seen that statement anywhere else," he says. "I went back to my field notebooks and found my first reference to these landforms in 1978, which I had totally forgotten. I wondered whether ancient Egyptians saw these kinds of landforms and built monuments based on them."
In the past few decades, El-Baz says, there has been accumulating evidence of major changes in environmental conditions in the land west of the Nile. "That the dawn of the pharaonic age coincides with the change in climate, and the migration that followed, suggests that these events must have been inextricably linked," he writes.
What about pyramids in the Americas, including ones in the Yucatán Peninsula and Peru? There are no similar landforms near these structures. Although El-Baz's article is on the pyramids of Egypt, he says that the theory can still explain the inspiration for the pyramids in the Western Hemisphere. "The Egyptian pyramids are much older," he says. "Either Egyptians traveled westward to convey the form, or others made it to the West and carried that knowledge with them."
He points out that in 1970, world-renowned explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who had done extensive research on the pyramids of Tucume, Peru, debunked the theory that vessels from the Eastern Hemisphere built before Columbus could not have crossed the Atlantic. Heyerdahl's boat, Ra II, made from papyrus, sailed from Safi, Morocco, to Barbados in 57 days.
The Great Sphinx
The Great Sphinx, built in 2500 bc on the Giza Plateau, has the head of a king wearing his headdress and the body of a lion. Was this also inspired by -- and possibly carved into -- a desert landform?
During a trek into the Asian interior beginning in 1890, Swedish explorer Sven Hedin came across a strange wind-eroded knoll of rock in the Taklimakan Desert in northwestern China. His guides called each ridge a yardang, from the Turkic word yar, meaning steep bank. Many such yardangs exist in the eastern Sahara. Indeed, they are plentiful south of Gizanear, near the Kharga Oasis. The structures were described in 1924 as "sphinxlike" by the German geomorphologist Johannes Walther. In 1939, the yardangs in southwestern Egypt were termed "mud-lions" by British explorer Ralph Bagnold.
El-Baz theorizes that a yardang-like protrusion, naturally carved by the wind, may have risen on the Giza Plateau. "The ancient engineers may have elected to reshape its head in the image of their king," he writes. "They also gave it a convincingly lion-like body, inspired by forms they encountered in the desert. To do so, they had to dig a moat around the natural protrusion."
The theory is not far-fetched. To be sure, fantastic shapes in nature have always played an important role -- and often had a religious significance -- in cultures across the world, from the Native Americans' belief in spirits in mountains and glacial erratics to carved symbol stones in Ireland. "There is no question about the fact that ancient societies have given the natural landforms around them a great deal of attention and respect," says El-Baz.
The ancient Egyptians obviously wanted their monuments to last for a long time, and they were successful. "The shapes of the Great Sphinx and the pyramids of Giza convey a deep understanding of the dry, windy environment there," says El-Baz.