The question of how the ancient Egyptians, without any of the powerful modern building equipment that we've taken for granted for several centuries, managed to build some of the biggest, most enduring, and perfectly engineered structures ever, is a toughie, so I encourage you, as I have, to consult Miroslav Verner's The Pyramids (AUC Press). The truth is that nobody has come up with a watertight answer yet. There are plenty of theories around, and they run the gamut from the truly ridiculous alien-intervention spiels of the "pyramidiot" crowd to some that are eminently reasonable, but in the end they all still fall just short of complete.

Leaving aside the possibility of help from above, the theories fall into two obvious categories: First, that the ancient Egyptians built ramps up the side of the pyramids, and second, that they used some kind of lever device to lift up the blocks.

Back in the 5th century B.C., the Greek traveler and historian Herodotus recorded the entirely plausible explanation that the blocks had been lifted up one course at a time with "machines made of short pieces of timber." Herodotus was notoriously slack in details (he also wrote that the stone for the pyramids had been brought from Arabia when there was a perfectly good limestone quarry just up the river near Saqqara, and that the number of leeks that the pyramid builders received for their troubles was recorded on the side of the monuments), but in this case he seems to make sense, and many people have followed up with theories about what sort of elaborate machines might have been used for the task.

The problem with the lifting machine theories is that there is very little evidence to actually support the theory. The Egyptians recorded just about everything else, from harvests to battles to parties in elaborately detailed wall paintings, but not these "machines made of short pieces of timber." Aside from this, consider on the one hand that some of the individual blocks used in the smallest of the Giza Plateau pyramids, the Pyramid of Menkaura, weighed around 220 tons. A compact car weighs around a ton, so we're talking about 200 cars being shifted in a single go. These would have been quite some timbers.

The other group of theories circles around the idea of ramps. This too makes good sense. The ancient Egyptians were clearly adept at sliding these massive blocks of limestone out of their quarries and down to the Nile, so why not up ramps built onto the side of the pyramid? As each course was added, the ramp would simply have to be made a little higher and a little steeper.

But stand back a little and squint at a pyramid. If you're lucky enough to be in Giza, have a good look at the Pyramid of Khufu. It's 137m (almost 450 ft.) high now, but when it was first built it was 146m (almost 480 ft.). Imagine the size of the ramp needed to get to the top -- building it would have been a feat greater than building the pyramid itself. This, of course, isn't an objection in and of itself, but the problem with size is simply that there's no evidence of the material. By one estimate, the ramp would have required more than 4 million cubic meters of material (more than 140 million cubic ft.). A hole that big doesn't just fill up with sand and disappear, and a pile like that doesn't just blow away, yet there is no evidence of either. Another problem plagues the ramp-theorists, however. We know approximately how long they took to build, and we have a pretty accurate idea (thanks to ultrasound investigations) of how much material they contain. We can therefore calculate how quickly the material would have had to flow up the ramp in order for the whole thing to work out. Many ramps that could have plausibly been built -- including some of the ingeniously efficient spiral ramps that would have hugged the outside of the structure -- fail this critical test by simply being too narrow to allow the stone to be slid up in sufficient quantities in the time allowed.

At the end of the day, then, we're left not much further ahead than Herodotus. It seems highly possible that, in fact, both theories contain the essential elements of a complete solution: that the ancient Egyptians used a combination of machinery made of wooden levers, rollers, and papyrus ropes and inclined ramps to get those blocks of stone to the top of their manmade mountains. Whether the details of how they did it will ever be fully worked out, however, remains an open question.

Islamic Cairo

Islamic Cairo is an ill-defined area covering, roughly, the densely packed neighborhoods between Khan al Khalili and Midan Ataba, and the neighborhood of Gamaleya to the north and Sayed Zeinab to the south. It is the setting for a number of Nobel-laureate Naguib Mahfouz's works, and reading Midaq Alley or the Cairo Trilogy can give you a good head start on understanding the area (all Mahfouz's works are available at the American University in Cairo bookstores and Diwan).

Though it is an older section of the city, much of the core being within the 10th-century Fatimid walls of Qahira, Islamic Cairo doesn't seem to be especially Islamic. What it is notable for, however, is the density of its old buildings and the number of its people. This is Cairo certainly as I imagined it before I had been to Egypt: a constant jostling of busy, friendly people packing alleyways lined with stalls selling everything from nightdresses, rope, and fish to pots and pans, buckets, and stools. The place is alive with the sound of people living outdoors -- greetings yelled across the heads of others, wares advertised, and scores being settled -- and the air is thick with the smells of cooking and livestock. Islamic Cairo is a place that vibrates with life, a place that you experience with all your senses, and no visit to Egypt is complete without a wander through these ancient streets.

Turning to God -- You're going to see it billed as "whirling dervishes" or "Sufi dancing," and when you do, grab the opportunity: This is one practice that has survived commercialization and retains, even performed in odd costumes on a cruise boat in the middle of the Nile, a powerful and unique aura of spirituality. The "dance" is actually a type of zikr, a religious act of "remembering" God. These zikr take many different forms in the celebrations and rituals of the various Sufi sects, and whirling -- which is literally turning away the world and toward God -- is the specific form given to it by an originally Turkish sect called the Mevlevi. The traditional garb for the performance is a white gown, which swirls out and rises as the worshipper whirls around, and a long black cloak. Many of the cheesy "folklore shows" foisted on unsuspecting cruise-boat passengers include some whirling, and the odds are that it's going to be good -- this is one skill that you cannot learn to fake (try it yourself afterward if you don't believe me). The best place to catch the real thing, however, is at the Ghuriya in Islamic Cairo.

Old Cairo

Also known as Coptic Cairo, this is a rich and fascinating area on the site of Fustat, the capital of Egypt until 1169. The area contains a number of sites, several connected by picturesque cobbled streets, and requires at least half a day if you want to see and appreciate them all. Old Cairo is the easiest of Cairo's sites to access. Simply board a southbound (toward Helwan) Metro at Sadat Station in Tahrir Square to Mar Girgis Station (three stops); tickets cost LE50 ($9.10/£4.60).

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