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Egyptian pyramids new finding: Just add water

Egyptian pyramids: A desert with a sandstorm going on. There are 3 big pryamids in the center-right and 2 smaller ones on the left side.
Egyptian pyramids. Image via Gaurav D Lathiya/ Unsplash.
  • A mystery: How did the ancient builders of Egypt transport the heavy stones found today in Egyptian pyramids?
  • New research confirms a now-dry river played a role in the building of the pyramids. Scientists call this river the Ahramat. It was once a branch of the Nile. A major drought, some 4,200 years ago, might have led to its disappearance.
  • Satellite imagery, geophysical surveys and sediment cores confirm the existence of the Ahramat branch and its usage by ancient Egyptians, with many pyramids having causeways ending at the riverbanks of the Ahramat.

Egyptian pyramids: New finding

The amazing pyramids of Egypt … What a treasure to behold! But have you ever wondered why some of them – including the famous Giza pyramid complex – were built in the middle of nowhere, in a desert? And, how could Egyptians transport the tons-heavy blocks there? They were definitely smart and incredible builders. Still, there must be an explanation.

Now, according to a new paper from the peer-reviewed journal Naturepublished on May 16, 2024 – the answer is simple. A chain of pyramids was built where, once, there was a river. We now call that ancient river the Ahramat, and it was a branch of the famous and very necessary Nile River.

Clever builders, good location

Bird's eye view of the desert with a strip of green and the Nile River running through the right third. Dots marks the ancient Egyptian kingdoms, all of which lie along the edge of the green.
The water course of the ancient Ahramat branch borders a large number of pyramids dating from the Old Kingdom to the Second Intermediate Period. Image and caption via Eman Ghoneim.

It’s well known that civilizations settle where there are sources that will let people thrive. And to be sure, one of our most valuable sources is water. So, why would this advanced civilization build the famous pyramids in a desert? The answer, in fact, could well be this branch of the Nile, which has now disappeared.

There are thousands of pyramids in the world. Notably, around 100 are located in Egypt. And 31 of the Egyptian pyramids – including the Giza pyramid complex – were built along this 40-miles-long (64-km-long) stretch, called the Ahramat. These pyramids are concentrated in what is now a narrow, inhospitable desert. But when the ancient Egyptians built them over a nearly 1,000-year period, starting approximately 4,700 years ago, that area of the Western Desert – part of the Sahara – wasn’t entirely dry, scientists say.

Formerly, the Nile River used to have several branches. And the Ahramat branch was also close to the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis. This means that the pyramids were concentrated near the city and the river. Indeed, the pyramids would have been easily accessible via the river branch at the time they were built.

In addition, the authors of the paper found that many of the pyramids had causeways, which ended at the riverbanks of the Ahramat branch. This is evidence that the ancient Egyptians used the river for transporting construction materials, among other things.

How do researchers know?

Also, sedimentary evidence suggests that the Nile used to have a much higher discharge, with the river splitting into several branches.

With this in mind, the authors of the paper used satellite imagery to look for a former river branch running along the foothills of the Western Desert Plateau, very near to the pyramid fields.

In addition, they also used geophysical surveys and sediment cores to confirm the presence of river sediments and former channels beneath the modern land surface.

What happened to the river?

Over time, this branch of the Nile River became buried beneath farmland and desert. The authors suggest that an increased build-up of windblown sand, linked to a major drought which began approximately 4,200 years ago, could be one of the reasons for the Ahramat’s eventual silting up.

And, just like it happens to Venetians with their channels and gondolas, this now-dry river was an extremely useful source for Egyptians.

The results emphasize the significance of the Nile as a vital route and cultural lifeline for ancient Egyptians, while also shedding light on the historical impact of environmental changes on human society.

Moreover, further exploration to uncover additional extinct branches of the Nile could assist in prioritizing archaeological digs along its shores and safeguarding Egyptian cultural legacy.

Bottom line: Egyptian pyramids are marvelous constructions, a treasure to behold. How could the ancient Egyptians transport the tons-heavy blocks there? Now, a new explanation.

Sources: The Egyptian pyramid chain was built along the now abandoned Ahramat Nile Branch

Archaeology: Egyptian pyramids built along long-lost Ahramat branch of the Nile.

Read more: Thuban was Pole Star for the ancient Egyptians

May 23, 2024

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