Research Highlights

Ancient hidden waterway brought workers to build Giza’s pyramids

Published online 9 June 2024

Study finds evidence of a Nile branch  probably used to transport workers and materials to the great monuments

Mohammed El-Said

Credit:Eman Ghoneim

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A study has offered an explanation for why ancient Egyptians chose the narrow desert strip that is now the Giza plateau to build many of their pyramids. A long-buried branch of the Nile, described in a study in Communications Earth & Environment, could have been the waterway needed to bring materials and workers to the site.

The study found that 31 of Egypt's pyramids, including the Giza complex, were originally built along a 64-kilometre channel of the Nile that had been covered by under agricultural land and desert. The channel has a depth between 2 and 8 meters and a width of 200 to 700 meters, which is similar to the width of the present adjacent Nile course.

Researchers used radar satellite images, geophysical data and deep soil coring to identify what they have now called the Ahramat Branch, which runs at the foothills of the Western Desert Plateau. The branch has causeways that lead to many of the Old and Middle-Kingdom pyramids in the area.

“The size of the  Ahramat Branch and its proximity to all the pyramids in the study area indicates the existence of a functional waterway of great importance,” says lead author, Eman Ghoneim, from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Although the path of the ancient branch is now invisible in aerial photographs or optical satellite data, satellite images using radar waves have penetrated the surface to reveal hidden terrain.

The researchers also found that the five surviving valley temples in the study area are all adjacent to the Ahramat Branch, confirming its use during the period of the pyramids construction. The valley temples are harbours that received river-borne visitors to start their walk up to the pyramid, often during religious and funerary ceremonies.

The team believes that this ancient branch played a major role in transporting the enormous building materials and workers needed to build the pyramid.

Magdy Torab, professor of geomorphology at Damanhour University, who was not involved in the study, explains that channels or river branches of the Nile changed over the centuries and would disappear or appear depending on flood status. Like other channels, the Ahramat Branch was subject to increased sand deposition due to drought and desertification, and was ultimately abandoned and disappeared as the river migrated to the east.

The researchers believe that their findings can help us better understand where ancient settlements were located in relation to the Nile. This understanding, the authors add, could help archeologists prioritize fieldwork locations, and improve the protection of Egyptian cultural heritage.


Original article.