A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A new series examines how ancient cultures constructed colossal monuments.
At 9 pm on October 9, the History Channel will launch their new weekly series "Engineering an Empire" with a two-hour special premiere episode on ancient Egypt, following various architectural marvels from the planning stage through the building phase. The program, which is arranged chronologically, includes background information describing what is happening in Egypt at the time of construction as well as mini bios on the rulers and architects who commissioned the work.
I thoroughly enjoyed the variation in monument types featured in "Engineering an Empire: Egypt" and learned a lot about the process of construction in ancient Egypt. The History Channel did a fantastic job featuring live reenactments and computer animated recreations of how monuments were built using only simple machines, such as ropes, sleds and pulleys, and manpower, over the course of decades in some cases. These digital visuals helped illustrate how it really is possible to build a giant pyramid using men, ropes, and sleds; it just takes an incredibly long time. Instead of asking themselves, "How are we possibly going to construct an enormous monument to commemorate our god-king in the afterlife without the marvels of twenty-first century machinery?" the ancient Egyptians turned to the community and said "Hey, you 10,000 men! How about giving up the next 10 to 20 years of your life to build a tomb for your King? Food, shelter, and clothing provided, please bring own hammer." Too bad we don't see the invention of the labor union until much later in history. Not only was ancient Egyptian construction more advanced than anything else in the world during that time, but the sheer magnitude of organization and manpower is astonishing.
Using interviews with renowned Egyptologists, on-site narration by actor-historian Peter Weller, re-enactments of Egyptian workers and rulers, and pictures of artifacts and wall carvings and paintings, "Engineering an Empire: Egypt" tells how these monuments were constructed. The show also has digital schematics of the interior chambers of some pyramids and tombs as well as computer reconstructions of what the ancient structures, which have not been well preserved probably looked when new. The variety of visual mediums used in the program kept me entertained and interested. The show is quick paced and spends an appropriate amount of time on each structure (i.e. more time is spent discussing Djoser's step pyramid which took 10,000+ men 20 years than on the construction and raising of a single obelisk). Each of the program's 8 to 10 segments covers a different time period and monument, moving smoothly from one structure to the next, often with a commercial break between sections.
The monument analysis begins with King Menes, a little before 3000 B.C. at the start of the 1st Dynasty. Menes built a large dam around the city of Memphis to protect it from the occasionally catastrophic Nile floods. Despite having no archaeological remains of the dam in question, the show does a good job mingling the historical record and remnants of other ancient dams to show what it might have looked like. From Menes's dam, we move to Saqqara where Imhotep, a 3rd dynasty architect and high priest, built the Step Pyramid for King Djoser, who ruled beginning around 2662 B.C. Djoser is called the "opener of stone" by the History Channel because, they say, his tomb is possibly the earliest known stone structure in the world (never mind Malta's impressive megalithic temples of a thousand years before). "Engineering an Empire: Egypt" had a comprehensive re-creation showing the different construction phases of Djoser's tomb starting out as a moderate mastaba (a one story, rectangular burial structure with slanting sides) and evolving into the large step pyramid still standing today. And how did a mastaba turn into the revolutionary pyramid structure? Well, the king lived longer than expected and they had to keep building until he died. From Djoser we move to Snefru (ca. 2597-2547) and his multiple attempts at a successful smooth-sided pyramid. If Snefru should be remembered for anything, it's his perseverance! He is known for truly perfecting the pyramid structure (and emptying the country's treasury to do so). While examining Snefru's Red Pyramid (his final, and successful attempt) the program explain the three most popular theories regarding the ramps used to pull the stone blocks up to the top layers. I like that the viewer is allowed to draw their own conclusions based on the information given, but I would have preferred a more in-depth look at each theory, instead of a 30-second narrated computer graphic.
My major complaint about the show? Where are the Great Pyramids of Giza? The show includes a brief bird's-eye view of the Giza plateau and a sentence or two about the measurements but that's it. I understand that the construction and engineering of the great pyramids are virtually the same as Snefru's Red Pyramid, except on a much larger scale, but after recently seeing it for the first time myself, I have to say that Khufu's pyramid is extraordinary. When the majority of the public thinks of ancient Egypt, this is the first thing that comes to mind, plus the interior chambers and overall engineering are more complex and advanced. I would not have minded a quick minute or two describing the construction of the Sphinx either.
Now we leave the Old Kingdom and venture forward to the Middle Kingdom and King Sesostris III's forts near Aswan. Sesostris reigned from 1881 B.C. to 1840 B.C. His greatest fort, built at Buhen, in Upper Egypt along the southern border of Nubia, held back the Nubian forces at the Egyptian border. Unfortunately, any archaeological remains of the forts were drowned by Lake Nasser. In the 1960's, the Egyptian Government built a large dam across the Nile river near the city of Aswan, which resulted in the lake. I enjoyed the reconstructions of what the Buhen fort probably looked like and re-enactments of Sesostris III's troops running into battle, but I must say, I missed the physical remains. I would have liked the History Channel to send a diver into Lake Nasser to do a little underwater archaeology or reconnaissance. Failing that, they might have shown some archival photographs.
From the Buhen fort we travel to the New Kingdom and queen, or should I say king, Hatshepsut. The History Channel had their job done for them here seeing as Hatshepsut's funerary temple at Deir el-Bahri has had reconstruction work done since the 1960s. The reconstruction work appears to be accurate to what the temple originally looked like based on archaeological evidence about where columns and statues fell from. Many of the temple murals still contain colorful carvings. Here the show drew me in with bits of intrigue and scandal regarding Senenmut, Queen Hatshepsut's "architect." Though all of the information is mostly gossip, it was fun to hear about her architect actually being her lover and building the funerary temple out of love for the Queen, not for the purpose of showing regal power. There was also the dreadful relationship she had with her stepson Thutmose III who later tried to eradicate Hatshepsut from history.
Hatshepsut was a woman who ruled as a man and built a massive funerary complex to prove her power. As a side note during this segment, the History Channel examines obelisk formation, transportation and erection. Among her building projects was the quarrying at Aswan of two pairs of granite obelisks she had set up at the Karnak temple of Amun, the national god of ancient Egypt. What did I learn? Don't crack the obelisk! If you do, it will have to stay in the Aswan quarry hundreds of miles away for all of eternity and pharaoh will be quite annoyed with you.
From Hatshepsut, we get a few sentences about heretic King Akhenaten and his city Amarna. We see a quick minute long preview of Ahkentaten being carried in a litter across the desert sands and a flash of a computer animated re-creation of Amarna. Then what? A commercial break! When the show returns, Akhenaten is not even mentioned and the show moves on to the next monumental project. I would have preferred a bit more about him, seeing as that he moved the entire capital city and re-built it at another location in a very short amount of time. Amarna is one of the best (if not the best) preserved ancient Egyptian cities and I would love to see more of the colorful computer recreations of what the city could possibly have looked like at its zenith.
In the next segment, "Engineering an Empire: Egypt" moves to a subterranean structure: the tomb of Seti I (1296-1279) in the Valley of the Kings, the burial ground of choice for New Kingdom royals. The show's inclusion of a digital schematic of Seti's burial place, helped me better appreciate this intricate, multi-chambered tomb. The show then ventures inside the tomb to show the still highly colored wall paintings and carvings. The night sky painted on the ceiling is a marvelous sight in it's own regard. During this section, the History Channel digresses for a few minutes for an expose on column building Seti I built a hall of columns in the temple of Karnak. The whole process is much simpler than I would have expected. The Egyptians piled circular stone discs on top of one another and built mud ramps as the piles got higher. Once they reached the ceiling, they began taking the mud ramps away and painting the columns.
Last, but by far not least, we move forward to Ramesses II (aka Ramesses the Great), father of 200 children and conquerer of, well, everything if you believe his self-congratulatory inscriptions. Here the show focuses on his Abu Simbel temple which is a feat of architecture signifying Ramesses's true narcissism. Abu Simbel was carved out of a rock face with four 69-foot tall statues of himself along the front. The inside temple--completely carved out of rock--is the size of a cathedral. Once again the show visits the 1960s and the Aswan Dam. Instead of letting Abu Simbel drown in Lake Nasser, the Egyptian and American governments picked up and move the temple to a new location, using hundreds of men with cranes and helicopters over a few years to accomplish the task. I wonder what the equivalent would be in Ancient Egyptian labor. Maybe 15,000 men, 3,000 sleds, and a whole lot of mud-brick ramps? Ramses the Great is probably watching from his home in the Royal Mummy Room at the Egyptian Museum and thinking to himself, "Three millennia later and I still have the power to compel armies of men to work on my temple." While watching the program, I really appreciated the juxtaposition of modern technology being used to save one of the ancient world's more complex temples. It helped put into perspective the scale of ancient Egyptian construction and manual labor as opposed to today's modern methods.
Overall "Engineering an Empire: Egypt" is a fascinating look at how ancient people built extraordinary monuments. The techniques used to create, build, and decorate are unique methods which haven't been seen or implemented in quite a few millennia. The only inspiration for architecture the Egyptians had was what nature itself created. The show was entertaining and I plan to catch some of the episodes to follow which will feature the Aztecs, Greeks, Maya, Chinese, and Russians, to name a few. If you have ever wondered how the pyramids and other ancient wonders were built, then tune in to the History Channel on Monday nights.
Tracy Spurrier works at the Archaeological Institute of America managing the Membership Department. She has a degree in archaeology and currently works on excavation projects in Egypt.