Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Gifts of the Desert Volume 54 Number 2, March/April 2001
Text and Photographs by Farouk El-Baz

Natural rock formations in the Sahara may have been the inspiration for the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx.


The Old Kingdom pyramids at Giza, built in the mid-third millennium B.C. [LARGER IMAGE]

Of all human undertakings, the building of the pyramids of Egypt's Giza Plateau ranks among the most ambitious. Commissioned more than 4,600 years ago by the Dynasty IV pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, they are the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world and the only one still standing. At nearly 451 feet in height, Khufu's pyramid, in fact, is so large that it is among only a few architectural works visible from space.

What inspired the Egyptians to envision and execute such magnificent feats of engineering? I believe the design of these monuments was inspired by the numerous imposing natural landforms found in the eastern Sahara. These forms had been observed by nomadic peoples who migrated into the Nile Valley when North Africa's climate began to change dramatically some 5,000 years ago. That the dawn of the pharaonic age coincides with the change in climate, and the migration that followed, suggests these events must have been inextricably linked.

Farouk El-Baz is director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America