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8 June 2013 | NewScientist | 11

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IT’S the admin centre of the
ancient world. The workers who
built the pyramids of Giza and
the accountants and managers
who organised them achieved
architectural immortality – but
you wouldn’t know it from
where they lived. Built in a flood
zone, their town was repeatedly
destroyed by flash floods.
Bizarrely, the Egyptians kept
rebuilding in the same place
despite the continual devastation.
During the reign of the pharaoh
Menkaure, thought to be between
2532 and 2503 BC, Egypt was run
from a city on low ground near
the Giza plateau. Known as Heit
el-Ghurab, this was a large
administrative centre surrounded
by houses, workshops and bread
ovens. After decades of occupation,
it was abandoned and buried
under tens of metres of sand.
Karl Butzer of the University
of Texas at Austin and colleagues
have been excavating Heit el-
Ghurab since 2001. They
discovered layers of muds and
sands, which they dated by
identifying the relics in them,
as well as radiocarbon dating.
The team found that the site
was hit by three floods in 26 years
during the reign of the previous
pharaoh, Khafre. The first
destroyed the town, while the
others caused widespread
damage. But under Menkaure
the devastation multiplied.
Menkaure built the big admin
complex, only to see it demolished.
“A huge flood came barrelling
through,” says Butzer. It carried
a torrent of rocks and mud,
smashing buildings to pieces.
Above that, Butzer found “layer
after layer of foundations and
then rubble”, attesting to frantic
rebuilding following a further
four or five flash floods. Menkaure
ordered the construction of a
70-metre-long defensive barrier
called the Wall of the Crow, yet

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“In total the city outside
Giza flooded 10 times in
about 45 years, being
rebuilt each time”

flooding continued. Another
flood struck soon after Menkaure’s
death. In total, Heit el-Ghurab
flooded 10 times within about
45 years. Further flooding may
have occurred later, but no
sediments have survived to record
them (Journal of Archaeological
Science, doi.org/mpk).
It’s not clear why the ancient
Egyptians kept rebuilding the
city in the same dangerous place.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” says
Butzer. People do build houses
on floodplains, but not if they
get swamped every four years.
It’s doubly strange because
ancient Egyptians paid close
attention to the weather, says
Stefan Kröpelin of the University
of Cologne in Germany.
“Generally they were much
more sensitive – they knew the
weather was changing and they
reacted.” Even the foundation of

the Egyptian kingdoms may
have been driven by climate, as
the drying Sahara forced people
towards the Nile, Kröpelin says.
Menkaure might be to blame,
says Butzer. “He had a problem
with his sense of importance.
He was the divine offspring of
the gods, and he thought if he
prayed hard enough things
would be OK. They weren’t.”
The floods may explain why
there are only three pyramids at
Giza. Menkaure built the last, and
smallest, of them. Later pyramids
were built elsewhere, despite the
Giza plateau’s prime position,
which meant its pyramids are
visible from great distances.
“Menkaure was the last one,” says
Butzer. “Maybe there was a reason
his son wanted to go someplace
else.” Michael Marshall^ n



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