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Pyramids and Sphinx may be Gifts of the Desert

Boston University : 26 February, 2001  (Technical Article)
'Egypt is the gift of the Nile,' wrote Herodotus in 450 B.C. But according to research by Boston University Professor Farouk El-Baz, the Greek historian got it only half right: without the desert, too, the great civilization of ancient Egypt might never have flourished as it did.
'Egypt is the gift of the Nile,' wrote Herodotus in 450 B.C. But according to research by Boston University Professor Farouk El-Baz, the Greek historian got it only half right: without the desert, too, the great civilization of ancient Egypt might never have flourished as it did.

Newly published research by El-Baz suggests that the Pyramids and Sphinx, symbols of the emergence of Egyptian civilization - were inspired by natural landforms that abound in the Western Desert of Egypt. Knowledge of these landforms came with people of the desert who moved to the Nile Valley in response to a dramatic climate change some 5,000 years ago.

In the March-April 2001 issue of ARCHAEOLOGY magazine, El-Baz contends that it was the merger of these two peoples -Nile farmers and desert nomads - that served as a catalyst that led to the flowering of Egyptian civilization, and made possible the construction of great monuments that endure today.

Although the land west of the Nile River is now one of the driest places on Earth, it had much kinder climates in the past. Cycles of wet and dry climates alternated during the past 300,000 years. The last wet cycle persisted from 11,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Radar images from space can penetrate today's sand cover to unveil ancient topography. Analysis of satellite images by Dr. El-Baz and his team at the Boston University Center for Remote Sensing reveals numerous channels of rivers and streams in the desert which are now covered by sand. Archaeologists have found ostrich eggshell fragments in the desert - evidence that the land was once a savanna - along with the remains of plants at the boundaries of dry lakes and hand-axes fashioned by prehistoric people.

In his article in ARCHAEOLOGY, El-Baz points out that the beginning of the current drought in the eastern Sahara coincides with the emergence of Egyptian civilization 5,000 years ago. He presents a number of indicators that the migration of nomadic people from the drought-stricken land to the Nile Valley ignited the spark of civilization.

During the 2,000 years before the drying of North Africa, agrarian people tilled the banks of the Nile and developed an advanced 'river technology,' living in harmony with the seasonal ebb and flow of the river and learning how to lift water to channels in their fields. The nomads who joined them 5,000 years ago brought with them 'desert wisdom.' Having roamed the drying land during night to escape the day's heat, they became especially adept in astronomy.

As the nomadic people converged with the river people, the growth in population required an increase in the production of food. Around this time, kingdoms along the river were unified by Mena, and the presence of a strong central state made possible a more efficient organization of society. Over time, this made possible the production of a surplus of food. In a little over three centuries, Egyptians built the first pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Djoser, at Saqqara.

According to El-Baz, it was the cross-fertilization of the agrarian river dwellers and the nomadic people of the desert that made possible the construction of the great Egyptian monuments. The nomads' knowledge of natural pyramidal landforms came with them from the desert.

During wet climatic cycles, great stone masses in the desert acquire numerous shapes through water erosion. During dry climates, only pyramidal shapes evade wind erosion, because wind moves along the faces of the natural pyramids and dissipates at the apex. This resistance to wind erosion is among the reasons that the Pyramids of Giza are all that remain of the Seven Wonders of the World.

In another parallel with nature, landforms called 'yardangs' bear a striking resemblance to the Great Sphinx. These rock masses feature a long axis parallel to the prevailing winds and a head-like protrusion rising at the windward end. El-Baz provides ample photographic evidence of the similarity between yardangs and the Sphinx, which may have been a natural rock protrusion that was sculpted into a lion's shape.

El-Baz offers another intriguing bit of evidence about the role of the desert-dwellers in the rise of Egyptian civilization. The ancient hieroglyph for 'desert' is a pointed form, like the shape of the natural pyramids far out in the desert. Such a concept would likely have traveled to the Nile with nomads of the Sahara.
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