For centuries, tourists have come to marvel at the Great Pyramids of Egypt’s ancient kings. Now, Egypt’s queens are about to get a chance at equal time.
Three small pyramids beside the massive monument of the pharaoh Cheops - one for his mother and two for his principal wives - are being opened to the public this month.
Zahi Hawass, chief archaeologist at the pyramids, says the goal is to preserve the 4,500-year-old ruins and give visitors more to see at the Giza Plateau on Cairo’s western edge.
“Tourists who come to Giza stay only a couple of hours,” Hawass said. “They visit the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx and then they leave. The plateau has so much more, and we want to make that available to them.”
In addition to the queens’ pyramids, visitors will be able to tour the newly refurbished tombs of 10 ancient noblemen later this month. As part of a decadelong restoration project, Egypt’s Supreme Council for Antiquities also has shored up the Sphinx and repaired the burial chambers of the three Great Pyramids - Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus.
Promotion of the Giza Plateau is part of Egypt’s effort to revive its tourism, which was devastated by an Islamic militant attack in Luxor that killed 58 foreigners in November. The number of people visiting the pyramids has plunged from 4,000 a day before the massacre to 700 now.
The three queens’ pyramids are dwarfed - and sometimes shaded - by the nearby pyramid of Cheops, which soars to 452 feet.
The largest of the trio, the pyramid for Cheops’ mother, Queen Hetepheres, once rose to a height of about 100 feet. But its smooth, limestone casing has been scavenged, exposing the jagged and crumbled underlying stones.
The other ruined structures belong to Cheops’ wives Henutsen and Meryetes, who probably was the mother of pharaoh Chephren.
Ramps and interior lights let visitors descend underground to visit the pyramids’ now-empty burial chambers.
Almost nothing is known about these ancient queens except their names.
“One description of Meryetes said she had blonde hair,” Hawass said, adding she may have come from Libya. “But we don’t even know that for sure.”
The queen’s main role “was to provide male heirs” for the pharaoh and, probably, to tend the shrines of the family ancestors, Hawass said.
He added that it was fitting that queens be buried near a king: “They supported him in his life, so they should support him in the afterlife.”
They probably lived well and definitely were buried in grand style.
Mark Lehner, a Harvard University expert on the pyramids, notes that the burial trappings of Queen Hetepheres - recovered from a shaft where they apparently had been moved to save them from grave robbers - included an alabaster sarcophagus and yards of fine linen.
There also was a canopy covered with gold foil, two chairs, a headrest and bracelets - what he described as “the private boudoir of a queen.”
The opening of Cheops’ queens pyramids means that six of the 11 pyramids known to exist on the Giza Plateau can be visited by tourists, along with about 50 of the 3,000 associated tombs.
The pyramids of three more queens - adjacent to the smallest of the Great Pyramids, Mycerinus - are to be renovated in the next phase of work at Giza.
Graphic: The queens’ pyramids