The Pyramids – a cross-curricular trip

Sunita Biswas

There is an old Arabic proverb which translates to “Man fears time, time fears the pyramids”. The Great Pyramids at Giza, the only surviving wonder of the ancient world, were built to endure an eternity, and they have done just that. And this year, as the world battles a pandemic that threatens to change life as we know it, these 4500 year-old symbols of life everlasting made headlines as they were lit up to convey a global message – Stay home. Stay safe.

For centuries, the pyramids of Egypt have fascinated us with their jaw-dropping size. People have pondered and researched and hypothesized about the complexities in the construction process (especially in hoary, ancient times that pre-date even the generally accepted pre-mechanical age!), the men who created these enduring marvels, and the possible reason/s for erecting these colossal structures. There are even doubts about these man-made mountains that suggest they were built using extra-terrestrial technology and were possibly advanced time machines!! More than any other artificial structure on earth, the Great Pyramid has been measured, studied, analyzed in every detail and theorized about from every possible angle. Since Napoleon’s failed, but historically significant, expedition to Egypt, an entire academic discipline called Egyptology has blended humanities and the sciences into a fascinating and challenging field of study, and an exciting and rewarding career option.

In the school curriculum, however, because these structures belong to a long bygone past, pyramids have found a place only under the subject of History. And even there, because they belong to a river-valley civilization that flourished in ancient times, by the method of syncing historical periodization with school levels, the Gift of the Nile and its incredible legacies are confined to the junior and middle school levels. Rarely, if at all, do students engage in finding out more about this civilization in the higher classes. However, even if we remain in the middle school, we can definitely take the pyramids out of the brief mention in a “chapter” in the history textbook, and allow students to explore them in a more holistic way through an interdisciplinary/blended/thematic… call it what you will… approach.

So, if we are to use this approach, history would probably be a good place to start. An introduction to the civilization, with location and chronology is necessary. Then, instead of the mandatory study of the aspects and features like political structure, administration, society, economic life, etc., the students can be introduced to the magnificent pyramids and through a study of these structures they would find out all about life in ancient Egypt, including the two fascinating Ms – so popular with all pre-teens – mummies and mythology! Because the pyramids touched every aspect of life and they were very important to all of Egyptian society. The focus would be on ancient Egyptian society and how those at the top organized the rest of the population in order to build these amazing structures. They will learn how the stable, hierarchical Egyptian social structure made building the pyramids possible. The burial customs of ancient Egyptians, their belief in an afterlife, and how the pyramids were considered to be doorways to the afterlife for the pharaohs, will help students to weave the different parts of the civilization together. Here, we can introduce the idea of shifts in historiography and the changing perception of who built the pyramids, and how historians now believe that free people built them, rather than slaves. They learn that the workers were conscripted, and that the signatures they left on the pyramids are called cartouches.

From the history classroom the unit transitions naturally to geography, as the location of the pyramids, briefly mentioned earlier, calls for further exploration. The river Nile as the raison d’être of the ancient Egyptian civilization cannot be gainsaid – it was the absolute gift of the river, being the source of food, water, trade and transportation. But beyond the Nile, three different geographic features also had a huge influence on the life of the people – the Desert, the Delta and the Fertile Land. If the physical features of the area are studied in the context of the pyramids at Giza, we find they were built on the western (left) bank of the Nile. The apparent reason for this was the ancient Egyptian belief that the west was the direction of death and therefore the pyramids, which were actually tombs, had to be placed in that direction. However, the practical reason was the ease and convenience with which building materials could be transported along the river. Also, the pyramids had to be built at a place that would not disturb the areas of arable land and human settlement, known as the Fertile Land. So, the best location would therefore become the west bank, not too far from the river, and not too far into the desert, at a place where subsoil and earth strata favoured heavy structures being built on them.

All of this can lead to an interesting map work class on the physical features of the land of the pyramids. And while the Nile remains Egypt’s most valuable natural resource, the area was rich in other resources too, most notably the different kinds of rocks and minerals that were quarried in ancient Egypt and which helped in the construction of the pyramids. Limestone, found in abundance all along the Nile valley, especially Memphis, and granite from Aswan, transported along the Nile, were the primary building materials for the pyramids of the Giza plateau. Basalt and sandstone, as well as deposits of decorative stones such as porphyry, alabaster, and carnelian were collected from the eastern desert and used with great ingenuity for ornamentation. Gold (from the Nubian mines), lead, copper (which was smelted), iron, all were put to amazing use by these extremely resourceful people. So a study of the materials used to build and decorate the pyramids will become a fact-packed lesson on natural resources and their sources which may be mapped, tabled, or represented in any other graphic organizer. And, we cannot move out of the geography classroom without a mention of the geographical coordinates of the pyramids and the school of thought that believes it was the original prime meridian – a fascinating idea for students to investigate.

Granite became the building blocks for the pyramids. Approximately 2.3 million blocks of stone (averaging about 2.5 tons each) had to be cut, transported and assembled into a structure covering two football fields, and rising in a perfect pyramidal shape, 480 feet into the sky to become Khufu’s Great Pyramid at Giza. Without sledgehammers, cranes, forklifts – how did they do it? From ramps, to water power to damp sand, theories abound. There are numerous inscriptions relating to supplies and difficulties in building the pyramids at Giza, but no definitive explanation of the practical means by which they were built. The problem is one of physics – of friction, load, effort and incline. Archimedes , who understood levers well, is said to have claimed, “Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I could lift the world.” A physics lesson could begin with this very quote – what does Archimedes mean by a lever “long enough”?

The learning would develop along the lines of what levers are and how they might have been used by the ancient Egyptians in building their monuments. To learn what the centre of gravity is, how to determine the centre of gravity of asymmetrical objects, and how this knowledge might have helped the Egyptians in building their monuments. The students will discover that the amount of force needed to lift a load changes, depending on where the fulcrum is placed, leading to the observation that the closer the fulcrum is to the load, the less force is required to lift the load. There is a point where the fulcrum is so close to the load that it appears no force is required at all. The weight of the lever itself actually provides the required force. The position of the fulcrum also affects how far you push down and how far the load is lifted up. While the lesson may not lift the shroud of mystery that covers the exact process of construction of the pyramids, and while the physics lesson on levers may need further elaboration, the pyramids of ancient Egypt will give the construction engineers in the class something to think about.

From calculations around the angle of incline it is but a short distance into the mathematics classroom. Beginning with the basics, it is important for the students to know the shapes in a pyramid and that a pyramid has one base and triangular faces. They will be looking at the edges, vertices, faces and bases. A pyramid is also named by its base – triangular, square, pentagonal, etc. They can also look at a cone which is a special type of pyramid. There are different kinds of pyramids, such as right, oblique, regular and irregular. The Egyptians pyramids could be looked at again in the context of this new information. This could lead to a comparative study of cones and prisms. The cone has one circular base. Some students may also see that there is one vertex. At this point there can perhaps be a discussion around why a cone cannot be classified as a pyramid and why it can. It does have one base, but it is missing the triangular faces. It is also a pyramid because it does meet at one vertex. A similar discussion may be initiated around a prism and a pyramid.

Connecting all the disciplines that we have visited in this unit is of course the English classroom. The literature syllabus may not have anything to do with Egypt at all…ancient or modern. But the story of the pyramids of Egypt will remain incomplete without the creative expressions of language, whether of acclaimed authors or of the students themselves. We can begin with etymology which is always so fascinating. The word ‘pyramid’ actually comes from the Greek word ‘pyramis’, which means ‘wheat cake’ because they reminded the Greeks of just that. The ancient Egyptian word for the pyramids was ‘mer’. This could become a project on word origins that explores the roots of many other words associated with ancient Egypt like papyrus, hieroglyph, mummy, pharaoh, etc. Modern children’s literature has a number of books with vivid recreations of ancient Egypt. As mentioned earlier, mythology is extremely popular, as is Rick Riordan and The Kane Chronicles of the Percy Jackson series, which takes the young reader into a fantasy world of a futuristic ancient Egypt. Terry Pratchett’s book, Pyramids, also belongs to the genre of fantasy fiction, while the Amelia Peabody series, by Elizabeth Peters, are detective stories set in ancient Egypt which are irresistible. While these may not be considered classics, they do tell a tale well, and young readers tend to reach out for them independently, which makes all the difference and a book reading or review could be done in class. The inspired teacher can perhaps even introduce young minds to classical poetry with a paraphrased explanation of Shelley’s Ozymandias. And then bring them back to an age-related look at the part in the ever popular musical ‘The Prince of Egypt’ where the workers are toiling over the construction of a pyramid and a creative writing extension activity can emerge out of this. Gardner’s multiple intelligences can be brought into play here through a graphic novel, a journal entry, a song and dance that interprets the shape of the pyramids to symbolize the rays of sun or the Nile delta, or maybe something else. In fact one could go even further and do a complete creative arts group presentation like an original scripted musical!

We have not yet set foot inside the art and craft room where a diorama on the pyramids, especially their interiors, could be found to be under construction. Or listened in at the value education classroom where engaging discussions on teamwork, leadership and rights are being debated. Or even taken a quick look at a fascinating co-curricular astronomy activity about the precise north-south alignment of the pyramids with the Little and the Big Dipper constellations. There are so many more miles to go!

There is an image in our minds of an archeologist as a person patiently sifting around a dig, excavating for broken pottery, or perhaps a sun-bleached skeletal hand sticking out of the ruins, trying to piece history together. And then we have the pyramids, gigantic, towering structures in full view, that speak to us and yet leave so much to imaginative speculation even today. It makes for a borderless and unforgettable journey of learning, much beyond the confines of the brief paragraph in the middle school history textbook.

The author teaches at Modern High School for Girls, Kolkata. She can be reached at [email protected].

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