Joann Fletcher explains how ancient Egypt's story fits together. In the first episode, she goes in search of the building blocks of Egyptian civilisation.
Browse content similar to The Road to the Pyramids. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
Camel, get up.
This is brilliant.
This is obviously an iconic image -
taking a camel ride by the pyramids.
Surely, it encapsulates the spirit of Egypt.
But such an image is completely misleading,
because there weren't any camels here
when the pyramids were built 4,500 years ago.
And that's the thing.
Ancient Egypt is instantly recognisable
but all too often completely misunderstood.
So, I'm going to try and change that.
The Great Pyramid of Giza,
the final resting place of King Khufu,
over 140 metres from bottom to top.
No wonder it still pulls in the crowds...
and the occasional Egyptologist.
-Sabah al-khair. MEN:
It's hard to really get it into words, but we are now entering
into the depths of this iconic monument of ancient Egypt.
It's a very busy iconic monument, though.
And as we set foot on this journey upwards, it's a brilliant metaphor
for the way that the ancient Egyptian civilisation literally rose up
from the Earth to a real zenith.
So, come with me and I'll show you something really brilliant.
Because the pyramids are really only the tip of the iceberg.
Oh, flipping heck.
So all this was a big city.
-Overwhelming in size.
-Yeah, it is.
That is absolutely superb.
In this series, I am going to explore the story
of what I consider to be the world's greatest civilisation -
more than 4,000 years of history that has shaped our world
and left unmistakable marks that can still be read today.
I'll be looking into every nook and cranny,
from little-known tombs...
I've never ever been into a tomb quite like this before.
..to the hidden corners of vast monuments...
It's like being on top of the world, isn't it?
Yeah, we are on the top of Karnak.
So it's really no surprise that weird and wonderful theories
about ancient Egypt crop up all the time.
But what I find so amazing is that this most intriguing civilisation
was actually created by people not so very different from you and me.
And that's the story I want to tell.
The story full of secret treasures, dark deeds...
..and sometimes controversial theories.
This mask was originally made for someone else.
And for the first time, I'll be piecing it all together...
..from the earliest Egyptians to the last of the pharaohs.
Wow! Look at that, look at that!
Oh, that is... Oh, that is so beautiful.
Welcome to my story of ancient Egypt.
The big question is, how did ancient Egypt begin?
Where did the first Egyptians
and their extraordinary culture come from?
This immortal civilisation was thousands of years in the making,
so to pull it all together is a daunting task.
But bear with me, as it's utterly fascinating.
But we won't begin with massive monuments
but with some enigmatic clues you could easily miss.
This is Qurta, around 100 kilometres south of Luxor.
Unless you're an archaeologist,
you almost certainly won't have heard of it,
because there aren't any great temples or royal tombs to admire.
But high in the cliffs,
you can see real signs of ancient life here.
Thousands of years before the pyramids,
and this is where our story begins.
Welcome to Qurta, Joann.
Thank you so much
for letting me come here.
It's incredibly exciting.
-It's the first time you're here, I suppose?
Nothing escapes the sharp eye of Dr Dirk Huyge,
and he's got something very special to show me.
Not many people have been here before you
because it's a quite recent discovery.
These carvings in the rock reveal an amazing story
about the beginnings of Egyptian life.
It's a 19,000-year-old picture gallery.
Complete with its own hippo.
Back line, very short tail, hind legs,
belly line, front legs.
And the mouth is shown.
The hippo was smiling. But then again, a hippo is always smiling.
But another type of animal is by far the most common here.
Ah! It's not just cattle,
this is the mighty aurochs - the wild bovid, wild cattle.
And extremely powerful images that seem to be in movement.
They are, they're charging down towards us, aren't they?
These wild aurochs were ancestors of the domestic cow.
And nearly 20,000 years ago, beef was the main thing on the menu.
About maybe 50% of their diet was composed of aurochs.
So they were experts and masters in representing this animal.
It's always high on the cliff - very prominent positions that give
an excellent panorama over what must have been in the Palaeolithic,
the hunting grounds of the people.
It's easy to picture these early hunters here
as they tracked their prey.
But the landscape would've looked very different from today.
Because back then, this was savannah grassland -
a green and fertile region.
Do we have any idea why these creatures
were engraved on these rocks here?
We can guess, Joann, but we don't know.
Maybe they wanted to
influence the hunting,
maybe this is some sort of hunting magic.
It really is magical to sit here and imagine Egypt's earliest
nomadic people passing right through this spot and portraying
on these very rocks the animals that they saw all around them.
Human figures and boats joined the animals as the carvings
became stranger and stranger.
But these carvings are also
the earliest glimpse of the amazing things to come.
These are the first signs of what makes ancient Egypt,
well, ancient Egypt.
As for its ancient landscape,
this evolved under dramatic circumstances.
10,000 years ago, gravity tilted the entire earth off its axis
by about half a degree,
and this had a profound effect on climate.
And as the world began to change,
Egypt would never be the same again.
Now, these early people were nomads, seasonally mobile pastoralists
who moved around, following the summer rains.
And these rains really were the vital, life-bringing force
which created the greenery on which wild animals depended.
But of course, with climate change,
these rains began to dry up.
OK, you can cut the rain.
The diminishing rainfall forced both animals and people towards
large lakes, which formed during the rainy season.
One such area is Nabta Playa,
100 kilometres southwest of Aswan.
And here, these nomadic hunters began to settle into communities.
But still reliant on the annual summer rains,
they needed to predict exactly when these would return.
And so they turned to the night sky.
Welcome to the beginning of time.
because this is Egypt's oldest calendar.
It's around 7,000 years old.
This stone circle from Nabta Playa
is the earliest evidence
of how Egyptian weather forecasters
They aligned its central stones to the circumpolar stars,
visible in the night sky all year round.
When the sun appeared directly overhead,
the stones cast no shadow.
The mid-summer rains were approaching.
This meant that the animals would drink,
the plants would grow and the world would survive for another year.
So in many ways,
this circle represents the solution to the very real problem of survival.
But the Egyptians would take this a step further.
I think the really great thing about these mini monumental markers
is that this is the earliest example
we have of the way in which the Egyptians are aligning
their monuments to various things, to the sky, to the cardinal points.
And from now on, every tomb, every temple, every monument
will be aligned to the heavens, to the very gods themselves.
If the stars and the rain were this closely linked...
..then this world and the next must be one and the same.
Now, this has been described as Egypt's earliest
sculpted stone monument and dates from around 5000 BC.
This chunk of sandstone was quarried over a mile away from where
it was eventually discovered.
This certainly suggests a kind of sense of community where
people were already working together to achieve a desired aim.
In this case, the stone was hauled into place,
and then there are clear signs
that it has been sculpted into a specific shape.
Now, you might have to go with me on this,
but some believe that this is in fact a cow...
..with its large hind quarters...
..and this sculpted head.
Now, the cow was a vital part of everyday life for these people -
it was a source of meat, of milk and of blood -
key sources of protein they needed to keep them healthy.
And yet so important was the cow,
they chose to take it through into the afterlife with them,
to sustain them on a spiritual level.
And this is the very beginnings of the great cow goddess, Hathor.
Hathor may have started off as a source of milk and meat,
but eventually she would be loved
and idolised by millions of Egyptians,
since she represented love, joy, beauty and motherhood.
And although her image develops from a lifelike animal
to a female face with cow's ears,
this may be Hathor's very earliest incarnation.
Yet Hathor is only one of a multitude of gods and goddesses.
The Egyptians just couldn't get enough of them!
Over the centuries, emerged hundreds -
if not thousands - of deities,
each with a specific purpose and appearance.
Some came in human form.
Some had animal heads.
They could be male, female, even androgynous.
It seems that there were few aspects of life
that didn't have their own gods.
We know that in the very earliest times,
their gods resembled familiar things,
the world around them - elements of nature
and certainly animals.
And over time, the animals, their forms, their shapes,
were distilled down into this sort of divine figure,
each one worshipped for a different quality.
In the case of the ram,
they were worshipped for their procreative powers.
In the case of the cow,
for their nurturing, motherly instincts.
And of course, you've got rather different creatures -
the dangerous creatures, the ones that lived on the edges
of the Egyptian world -
the lions, the crocodiles, the jackals.
But it wasn't just about finding the appropriate divinity,
it was about gaining power over them.
The goddess Sekhmet was a ferocious lioness
and the bringer of death to humans.
So the Egyptians transformed her into a deity
as a way of controlling her destructive powers.
By worshipping Sekhmet, it was believed that she could be
placated and transformed into a more benign deity.
On so many levels, the Egyptians were trying to tap into nature
to affect the way that nature then in turn affected them.
In many ways,
Egypt's unique religion was the glue that held society together,
uniting the population
and underpinning almost every aspect of life.
It's everywhere, in tombs and temples,
in everyday life.
And yet, there is another, even more fundamental element
without which ancient Egypt never would have existed at all.
Later, Greek historians famously observed that Egypt was
the gift of the Nile.
And how right they were.
Because as the climate continued to change,
the desert lakes eventually dried up,
leaving the Egyptians with just one source of water.
This is an incredibly special place. Located in modern Sudan,
it nonetheless forms the very source of Egypt,
for it's the place where two great rivers meet - the White Nile
and the Blue Nile - which combine here
to form the world's longest river,
flowing from the heart of Africa and out into the Mediterranean Sea.
For much of the year,
the wide, lazy White Nile is the main source of water,
until annual rainfall in the Ethiopian highlands swells
the faster-flowing Blue Nile.
Today, the modern Aswan dams hold back these floodwaters.
But until the 20th century, huge volumes of water and fertile silt
surged downriver to flood the entire Nile valley...
..bringing life and fertility to the desert that is Egypt.
This annual Nile flood was the single most important event
in the lives of every ancient Egyptian,
for its life-giving waters brought the nutrients and minerals
which enriched the soil all along its banks,
and this allowed agriculture to flourish.
Egypt is blessed with some of the most fertile land in the world...
..where farmers can grow everything from sweet corn and garlic
to bananas, sugar cane and cotton.
Badaway, it's quite intensive farming, isn't it?
The land gives the people a lot, doesn't it?
Yes, but we need to give the land also a rest.
We grow one time and we leave it for one month.
Then after, we use the land again to grow again.
That's amazing that it only needs one month rest time
and then it can be planted again.
-Yes, sometimes 15 days, sometimes one month.
But it really does emphasise that this land of Egypt
has always been so rich and so giving to the people -
it's always given the people everything they need.
And it's the Nile that turned this desert land into a paradise.
And 7,000 years ago, the people who could no longer
survive in an increasingly desert landscape
were forced to migrate towards it
as their only source of water.
So ancient Egypt took shape as these people came together along the banks
of the Nile.
In the north, settlements clustered around the delta and the Faiyum.
And in the south, around the Qena Bend.
This was the beginning of Egypt's so-called two lands -
Upper and Lower Egypt,
which developed into two distinct cultures.
But what they both had in common was the astonishing fertility,
replenished every year by the miracle of the Nile.
El Kab, located to the south of the Qena Bend,
is one of Upper Egypt's earliest settlements.
And while it may lack the wow factor of the pyramids,
it's actually far more revealing to see traces of this amazing evolution.
Because here, we can see how a nomadic lifestyle
was soon replaced by a settled, social structure.
And although it was a slow and gradual process,
archaeologist Elizabeth Hart
can identify each stage of this transformation.
Descending into small pits...
-Wow, you do work in an enclosed space.
-But it's much cooler down here.
-It's lovely, actually.
So down at this level, we have sterile soil
where nobody lived.
And then starting around 4200 BC,
are layers of silt from the Nile flood,
followed by wind-accumulated sand, and then another layer of silt and
then more sand. And here you can see it really well -
a thin silt layer from the Nile
coming up and flooding, and then the sand.
And over here,
we have a hearth feature.
So this tells us that humans were actually living on these
and coming into the Nile valley and then moving back out.
And we also found lots of pot shards and stone tools in these layers.
You know, it might be a small space,
but you've got people's real lives unfolding within it, haven't you?
And we have thousands of years of it here.
When we started, people were just moving into the Nile valley,
they were just starting to farm.
And by the end here, we have pharaohs and a whole united Egypt.
It's really impressive when you think about all the change that
happened over this chunk of sand.
Although we are still centuries away from the grand pharaonic monuments,
you can still find traces of the lives these ancient people lived,
if you look hard enough,
for very little has survived,
except for tonnes of pottery.
Yeah, this one is... Yeah.
So it's 5,000 years old?
-So it's 5,000 years old.
-Still so tactile, these things, aren't they?
These pots help us to identify when this early society began
to produce a food surplus,
a pivotal transition which required robust pottery for the storage
of large-scale food and drink production.
These bread moulds, from slightly later,
are one of the most common finds.
So, you heat the mould,
then the dough gets into it.
And by the heat of the mould,
-the bake...the bread will be baked.
But this comes in massive amounts
These are the beer jars.
-Ah! Bread and beer.
-Bread and beer.
-The Egyptian staples.
Oh, nice for a beer jar.
This is the nuts and bolts of how Egyptian chronology all came
-together in the early days, isn't it?
The pottery is especially fundamental to understand
how people were living.
Yet in Egypt, living was only half the story.
Because what really sets the ancient Egyptians apart
is their view of death.
To them, death wasn't the end of life but a new beginning.
A transformation from the world of the living
into an everlasting afterlife.
And such a belief would shape Egypt's most mysterious practice -
and my favourite subject.
Although the origins of this enigmatic tradition are only
now becoming clearer,
the burial of their dead had a strong significance
from the very earliest times.
This is a typical burial from around 3400 BC.
The body is curled into the foetal position
and here placed within a reconstructed pit grave,
surrounded by the belongings he might have had in his earthly life -
like pottery, jewellery and a palette for preparing cosmetics.
Everything that was important to him in life accompanied him into death.
And I think that's quite significant because it shows that already,
5,500 years ago, the Egyptians wanted to take it all with them.
They clearly believed that something happened beyond death.
Death was simply a transition into another state of existence,
when you continued to live and it was assumed you would need everything
you'd needed in your life on Earth.
His body was naturally mummified in the hot desert sand,
but its placement here may not have been accidental.
Because even when dead,
the body had to be preserved
in order to house the soul for eternity.
A skeleton simply wasn't good enough.
Skeletons, bones, they are very, very anonymous.
And yet, when the soft tissue, the skin, the hair is all present,
we are ourselves.
And that's exactly what this individual represents.
Being face to face with one of the very earliest Egyptians
gives us insight into the development of their ideas
about the afterlife.
It started off as a practical thing -
burying the dead in a relatively small space, bundled up -
and then it developed these layers of kind of like the symbolism.
The foetal position - this idea in rebirth into the next world.
It's almost like the seed
from which the Egyptian funerary belief system evolved.
This is the very beginning of a process which would be repeated
a million fold, throughout Egyptian history.
It's this combination of the esoteric
underpinned by the practical
which really does sum up the Egyptians in a nutshell.
From the very beginning, the Egyptians were masters
of making sense of their world,
no matter how complex and mystifying it might seem to us.
And this same ability to bring order is also found in the way
they structured their early society,
adopting levels of bureaucracy that border on the obsessive.
In the ancient city of Abydos,
the site of Egypt's first royal burial ground,
archaeologists found the origins of a system
that we still have to put up with today.
It's most fitting that this city of death was the find spot
of the earliest means of calculating that other great certainty - taxes!
The evidence comes from small bone and ivory labels like these,
which have been dated to around 3250 BC.
The originals are probably the size of a postage stamp,
and you can see that each one is engraved with images of animals,
of birds, of plants, and so forth.
And each one is pierced for suspension to a chest
or pottery vessel,
which would have contained oil, linen, grain.
And it's thought that these symbols represent the regions that produced
these commodities, which were then
brought here to Abydos.
Thought to have been sent as tax payments,
these tiny labels
show how these early people were already capable of collecting
duties from a vast geographical area.
Some experts even believe these symbols can be vocalised.
By turning the simple drawings into sounds
makes this the world's earliest known writing.
Now, isn't it interesting that the world's earliest writing
wasn't developed to express some great outpouring of emotion
or express grand passion?
It was simply a means of calculating taxes.
These symbols soon became a sophisticated writing system of
elegant signs we call hieroglyphs, which means sacred carvings.
And these signs represented every aspect of the Egyptian world,
which were only translated in 1822
with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.
And a common language was needed, as goods were transported
between the two lands of Upper and Lower Egypt.
The people of Lower Egypt had also developed trade links
with the rest of the ancient world.
But as more war-like regions began to emerge in Upper Egypt,
it soon became clear that the Nile had spawned two very different
and distinctive cultures.
And in many ways, the only thing they really had in common
was this great river.
The inevitable clash between these cultures is recorded
on what many consider to be ancient Egypt's founding document.
Taking the form of a giant ceremonial cosmetic palette,
this is an exact copy
of the original Narmer Palette.
And however idealised and embellished,
it depicts the pivotal moment when the southern king Narmer
defeated his northern enemy.
A split second after this mace comes down
onto this northern enemy's head,
and he's executed, he's killed, he's no more,
Narmer himself remains,
the first king of a united Egypt.
And what this means is
that the whole of the country
is now united under one man's rule.
He is setting himself up quite literally as the god-king,
as the one central figure at the very pinnacle
of the pyramid that forms Egyptian society.
And from him, everything else flows.
Egypt is now the world's first nation-state.
What made ancient Egypt ancient Egypt is all here.
The art forms, their forms of religion
and even the world's first writing - hieroglyphic script.
And this is the name of Narmer.
The catfish - Nar.
And the chisel - Mer.
Narmer - the striking catfish.
As the first king of Egypt, Narmer is protected by the cow goddess, Hathor,
stands beside Horus, the falcon god of kingship,
and is dressed in all the same paraphernalia
as every king who succeeds him.
He has the tie-on false beard
to emphasise his virility and his strength.
And this is matched, of course, by the tie-on bull's tail.
It's a wonderful feature - this idea you could just tie
a little tail onto the back of the belt,
and then take into yourself the power of a bull.
This palette is Egypt's earliest historical document.
It's the blueprint of how every future pharaoh
will be portrayed, in the company of the gods.
Yet perhaps most significant is Narmer's smiting pose.
This powerful image with the mace held high will be endlessly repeated
throughout Egypt's long history.
This is a horrible way to die - to have your brains bludgeoned out.
And yet, even this the Egyptian artists can show
in an almost ballet-like pose.
It's been sanitised,
it's been elevated to a piece of art,
and yet the message still gets through.
For the next 3,000 years,
every one of Egypt's subsequent rulers
would try and link themselves to Egypt's first pharaoh.
To rule legitimately and successfully,
they had to be absorbed into the complexities
of the Egyptian hierarchy,
both in this world and the next.
So their names were recorded on a series of king lists,
a kind of royal family tree.
And the best preserved of these is here,
in the temple of Seti I at Abydos.
It lists himself and 75 of his royal predecessors,
going right back to the very dawn of Egyptian history,
with the very first king up there, King Narmer.
And the other important detail about this is that it's essentially
emphasising that royal continuity because Seti has his own young son,
Ramses, the crowned prince,
actually reading out these names on a piece of papyrus paper.
So it's as if Seti is saying to the gods,
"Look, I'm now pharaoh,
"and this is my son who'll succeed me
"to become yet another name on this remarkable list."
In all, Egypt had over 300 pharaohs,
organised into 30 dynasties.
But in the case of Egypt's earliest kings,
being merely mortal was not enough.
They needed to prove their divinity
by exercising absolute control over their subjects.
And the evidence for this was found
in the desolate desert surrounding the ancient city of Abydos.
This was Egypt's first royal burial ground,
the original version of the Valley of the Kings.
Now, being here, you get a real sense
of the importance of this place for the ancient Egyptians,
for as the wind funnels down this valley and swirls around the sand,
if you listen very carefully, you can hear a whispering sound.
A whispering once thought to be the voices of the very dead themselves.
And here, Egypt's earliest kings were laid to rest
within huge subterranean burial chambers.
Like this, the location of the final resting place
of Egypt's third pharaoh, King Djer,
one of the largest and most complex tombs of the first dynasty.
And although it's been recovered in sand,
it clearly demonstrates the power that Djer still wielded...
even in death.
Djer himself was buried here, in the central chamber.
But all around, are 318 subsidiary graves of his courtiers.
Not only that,
a little way beyond, many others were also buried.
In total, 587 individuals accompanied this man into the next world.
Which is incredible enough, but there is evidence
of a more sinister twist.
The fact that this tomb was all sealed over at the same time
suggests these people may have been victims of ritual sacrifice,
perhaps even ritual stabbing, as portrayed in art of the time.
And certainly, that power over life and death would give any king
a god-like status.
Now, later kings seemed to have realised that killing
all their courtiers in one go was not the best use of people,
who were a precious state resource.
After all, who'd be around to make the next king his cup of tea?
Although this cruel and short-sighted practice of ritual killing
soon died out, it had, nonetheless,
demonstrated that Egypt's rulers had complete control over their subjects,
an essential step along the route towards building the pyramids
and indeed Egypt itself.
Yet the Egyptian people were not slaves.
By this time, Egypt was a land of plenty,
where all could enjoy its bounty, both in life and in death.
This is the later tomb of an official called Irukaptah.
And here he is, greeting as he's coming to the door of his own tomb,
emerging from the walls,
captured in all his splendour with his finery on,
his jewelled belt and his white linen kilt.
Even details down to his little sort of pencil moustache.
Looks a little bit like Clark Gable, to be honest.
The scenes in his colourful tomb depict a refined life
that's a world away from Egypt's earliest farmers.
We have Irukaptah seated in front of a table of food offerings -
there is fruit, vegetables, wine and so forth.
The bearers are coming forward with offerings to sustain his soul.
Irukaptah was the royal butcher, an important member of court.
And with royal courtiers
no longer sacrificed for burial with their king,
they could now make their own elaborate preparations
for the afterlife.
There are a couple of scenes up here of the household servants
making the beds of Irukaptah
and his family there - stretching out the linen sheets.
They're bringing even a little fly whisk
and the ancient Egyptian pillow, the headrest there.
So even in the afterlife, Irukaptah will be comfortable.
Irukaptah's tomb is in Saqqara,
a sprawling city of the dead for Egypt's first capital, Memphis.
Yet Saqqara wasn't just the burial site of courtiers...
but of kings. And the site of a revolution in royal tomb-building.
And whereas previously the dead had tended to be buried away
in the desert, hidden away almost,
here at Saqqara, high on the desert escarpment,
the dead were literally placed on display.
Up to this point, the Egyptians had tended to build their tombs
and temples - like their houses -
from organic materials -
from the mud-brick, wood and reeds which rarely survive.
But in the third dynasty,
the great innovator King Djoser
built his legacy
in something far more permanent.
For he built in stone,
which could potentially last forever.
Djoser built this huge stone wall to surround his tomb complex,
although his architects and workmen
still drew their inspiration from the natural world.
You can see that the masons are just trying to get their head around
how to actually work with this stuff,
what forms to put it in.
So we have Egypt's first hypostyle hall of columns, sure.
But it's taking the form of reeds bound together to make the kind
of columns that would have been in Djoser's palace down by the Nile.
But this, of course, is a house for death.
This is a palace of eternity
and must be built in something as solid as stone.
At the rear of his complex is an intriguing stone shrine,
where I can come face to face with King Djoser himself.
The shrine looks like it's suffering a severe case of subsidence.
And yet, the Egyptians purposefully built it on this very definite tilt.
And it has these two holes here where modern tourists can see Djoser.
But Djoser can see them.
He can actually see beyond them,
cos this faces true north.
It faces the northern stars,
which the Egyptians called the Imperishable Ones.
And so at death,
Djoser's soul could rise up and merge with these stars,
so he too would be imperishable and he too would never die.
In order to ensure that his soul could live on, Djoser's body
needed somewhere safe to rest - within a tomb truly fit for a king.
Most burials were topped by a simple, single-storey building
called a mastaba, meaning bench.
But Djoser did something radical.
Djoser really wanted to impress with his funerary monument,
so another step was built on top.
And I think Djoser must have quite liked the effect that this gave
and so built a third step,
a fourth step,
a fifth step,
a sixth step...
And when they stood back and looked,
they realised - they'd built Egypt's first pyramid.
The step pyramid stands over 60 metres tall
and still dominates the Saqqara landscape.
At the time, it was the largest building on Earth,
reinforcing Djoser's status as a living god in the grandest of ways.
It certainly secured his place in Egyptian history,
with ancient visitors flocking here to marvel at his achievements.
Now, Djoser had created a true landmark,
but he'd also created Egypt's first tourist attraction.
And if you come with me, I'll show you the evidence.
Because in here, we have what many tourists still leave today -
And this is the original handwriting
of a couple of ancient visitors from around 1300 BC
who were so impressed by what they saw, they described Djoser's pyramid
as if heaven were in it.
And they credit Djoser with being the inventor of stone.
But why did Djoser build this?
Was it just an ego trip or an exercise in personal vanity?
Or was it designed to show the world just how far Egypt had come?
Because in only a few centuries,
these disparate people had come together
to create the world's first nation-state.
Egypt was now an unstoppable powerhouse,
a nation unified both politically and culturally
under a single ruler, whose authority was limitless.
Yet it wasn't just the king who could achieve immortality,
for the man who designed and built Djoser's pyramid
was destined to become even more famous
than the pharaoh he had served.
This statue base once held a full-sized figure of King Djoser.
But carved into the base is also the name of his architect.
And here we can see it, with this reed,
the owl and then the little mat with a little bread loaf on,
which reads Imhotep.
And here is the man himself.
Although most likely a commoner by birth,
Imhotep rose through the ranks
to become one of Egypt's most powerful officials.
He was made the royal chancellor, the prime minister,
he was even made high priest of the sun god.
He was the ultimate local boy made good
because he then gained a reputation
as an academic, as a great healer
and he was famous the length and breadth of Egypt.
He was ultimately worshipped as a god.
Imhotep represents the ultimate in social mobility,
a kind which was certainly possible within Egypt's unique society.
This was a society in which ideas were often taken to extremes.
With 1.5 million people united by an absolute belief
in the power of their king
and in the certainty of the afterlife,
Egypt enters its most ambitious era so far.
The pyramid age.
Over 130 pyramids would be built across Egypt,
and they represent the zenith in royal tomb-building -
huge state-sponsored civil engineering projects
that used vast resources of materials, man-power and time.
The largest of all, the Great Pyramid of King Khufu,
which took over 20 years to build.
And in order to build something so ambitious,
an entire city was created
specifically to house the construction workers,
just beyond this monumental wall.
It's known as the Wall of the Crow
and it separated the silent, sacred space of the dead
from the busy, bustling city of the pyramid builders.
This five-hectare site once housed workshops, bakeries,
a tool-making facility and a fish-processing area,
for this was an integrated, self-sufficient community
of over 8,000 people,
who even had their own medical care.
Anthropological archaeologist Dr Richard Redding
has been excavating the site since 1991.
Where we are now, this is kind of a big workshop
a big industrial park where there's lots of activity going on.
Out here, they were probably producing granite statues,
maybe granite columns.
We find tools out here
for polishing the granite.
We find tools out here for chipping at the granite.
It's very well planned. We have three streets -
we have north street, main street we're on
and we have south street down there.
-So we are walking down main street?
-You're walking down main street.
The pyramid workers lived cheek by jowl in two-storey barracks.
You would've walked in
and you would've been in a very quiet, dark,
long, narrow room.
This is where they would have slept.
There would've been a higher bed
for the overseer at each end.
And then everybody would have laid down,
probably with their head
in this direction or the other direction,
exactly like this. You'd be lying here like this, and this would be
your night-time position.
Very comfortable(!) Can I try out the overseer's bed?
-Is that OK?
-You want to try out the overseer's bed there?
Delusions of grandeur.
Is it this one or that one?
Yeah, it's... That's the wall, so right where you are.
Oh, so this is all right. So if I sat down here...
Yeah, the overseer's bed is actually buried
under a few centimetres of sand,
and the floor here is probably under about a half metre of sand.
-No, this is nice.
I can keep my eye on you now.
That's right, you can see me. If I got up in the night and I tried
to sneak out to go someplace, you would see me.
Everything the workers needed was here, on site.
The team have recovered data that shows that workers consumed
74 cattle and 257 sheep and goats each week.
This corral area could hold a week's supply of cattle,
before more were shipped in from Egypt's grasslands.
You could have almost just-in-time delivery,
another small heard coming down from Kom el-Hisn,
or the delta, coming down and in.
Well, it's a really well-oiled machine. You can see now
how efficient the Egyptians were at obtaining their food,
bringing it to the right place at the right time
for the right people - it's brilliant.
It wasn't just simply the food, it was everything.
There was the copper to make tools,
there was the stone being brought in here from Aswan and other areas.
So a lot of things were coming into here.
These were government workers -
they got everything from the government.
In many ways, this settlement is Egypt in microcosm -
a highly ordered social structure with job specialisation
and mass cooperation.
It's hard to believe that in a relatively short period of time
Egypt had been transformed
from simple subsistence into a united state
which could provide for everyone who worked on its behalf.
What we are seeing here
is the final building block in Egyptian culture
but not just for the pyramid age.
For once this infrastructure was in place,
it would never change.
So whether they are building a pyramid
or setting up a colossal statue,
the level of organisation and cooperation would remain the same,
for this was the foundation stone of Egypt.
The pyramids are eternal testament to just how powerful
Egypt had now become.
And in many ways, they are Egypt at this time -
dominating everything around them on a gigantic scale.
And towering above the Giza landscape is the Great Pyramid.
It took around 20,000 people to set in place the 2.3 million
blocks of limestone.
It remained the tallest structure anywhere in the world
for 3,800 years,
until the building of Lincoln Cathedral spire in 1300 AD.
It's a phenomenal achievement for any civilisation at any time.
But for me, its exterior can't compare to the sense of wonder
once you venture inside.
The roof of the Grand Gallery passageway is built
of multiple layers of enormous limestone slabs
rising over eight metres high.
Massive, massive blocks of masonry
built on a god-like scale, that is surely what Khufu wanted.
I sincerely hope Khufu's eternal resting place was rather less
congested than it is today.
But it still gives a real atmosphere of the busyness that must have been
here on a daily basis.
These guys were hauling massive blocks hundreds of feet up,
literally, into the air.
These guys were magicians!
Just look how brilliantly these courses have been laid.
These are perfect.
I defy any modern architect to be able to replicate this
using the tools that the ancients had at their disposal.
Here we are at the zenith. We are at the heart of the pyramid now -
King Khufu's burial chamber.
And we've hit it at exactly the right moment...
because the pyramid is closed for lunch!
So we've got the whole place to ourselves.
And you really get a sense of the sanctity of this divine mausoleum.
The walls and roof of the burial chamber are lined entirely
And it was within here that the body of the great King Khufu was sealed,
ready for his final journey into the afterlife.
We are at the heart of the pyramid in terms of its architecture,
but we are literally in the heart of ancient Egypt.
I feel like I should be speaking in a whisper
cos the acoustics are so extraordinary.
It's a sterile,
plain, stark room.
It's pretty much like a bank vault.
And when you think about it, that's exactly what it is
because it once contained Egypt's greatest treasure -
the mummified body of the god-king -
which contained the soul not only of Khufu
but of all the generations of pharaohs,
stretching way back to King Narmer.
Forget the jewels, forget the gold,
Egypt's real treasure was in here.
And it's the first time I've ever been in here
without crowds and crowds of other people.
And speaking now, the sound of the voice reverberating around,
immediately takes you back 4,500 years to the day of the funeral,
to the sacred words the priest would've chanted
to revive the soul of the god-king.
It's miraculous. It's a wonderful,
spectacular place that affects every sense -
In every sense, it's...it's beyond words, really.
I think I'd probably better stop talking now.
So now all the elements that made up ancient Egypt were in place -
a well-fed, highly organised population
that unswervingly followed their god-king,
and all of whom shared this fervent belief
in an afterlife.
Life in Egypt was good.
Now, of course, none of this could last.
Economic disaster and famine plunged Egypt into chaos.
This is ancient Egypt beginning to suffer.
With the pharaoh's power melting away,
local warlords ransacked its most sacred sites.
Egypt's dark age was coming.
Make no mistake, this is the home of the dead.
In the first episode, Professor Joann Fletcher goes in search of the building blocks of Egyptian civilisation and finds out what made ancient Egypt the incredible civilisation that it was.
Joann sees how people here changed, in just a few centuries, from primitive farmers to pyramid builders and finds the early evidence for Egypt's amazing gods and obsession with death and the afterlife.
On her search, Joann travels almost 20,000 years back in time to discover north Africa's earliest rock art, she discovers how the first writing was used to calculate taxes and explores one of the first stone structures on earth - Egypt's first pyramid. Joann ends her journey in the largest monument of them all - the Great Pyramid. Here, she explains how Egypt had now reached a pinnacle - the ultimate society, creating one of the wonders of the ancient world.