What is special about human beings? One key thing is our use of language. Another key thing is that we recognize our own mortality. Animals can miss a dead owner or a companion, but even the cleverest animals can't fully understand the concept of death. Human beings can understand it. We are both frightened and fascinated by the thought that we will one day pass away. What happens next? Some cultures have made this question central to their way of life.
For example, think of ancient Egypt. What is the first thing that comes to mind? Almost certainly the pyramids, those giant artificial mountains of limestone. They have been inspiring awe and exciting wonder for more than 4,000 years. Many legends have gathered around them, but one thing has always been recognized: they are memorials to and resting-places for the dead, expressing the Egyptian belief that death is a gateway to another world.
Today we know that the three pyramids were built for three pharaohs, Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. Khufu, who is sometimes also known as Cheops, has the biggest pyramid. It is the only surviving Wonder of the Ancient World. All the others, from the Colossus, or giant statue, at Rhodes to the great pharos, or lighthouse, in the bay of Alexandria, have passed away. But Khufu's pyramid remains, standing huge and awesome in the Egyptian sun.
It was once believed that the pyramids were built by slaves, but Egyptologists, or historians and archaeologists who study ancient Egypt, now think they were built by free craftsmen. One amazing fact is that they were built without use of either wheels or cranes. The huge stone blocks used in their construction were moved on wooden rollers and hauled into position up giant ramps. When the ramps were taken down and the rollers taken away, nothing remained to show how such vast structures had been created.
That is why the legends started. How were the pyramids built? Did the Egyptians use magic, levitating stone with mighty spells? Were their spells recorded in the mysterious writing carved and painted on their temples and in their tombs? In time, when the writing was deciphered, these questions were answered. No, it wasn't magic. It was muscle-power and ingenuity. The Egyptians thought that their tombs and rituals would ensure their survival in the next world, but writing is the only sure way to defeat death. The ideas and emotions that motivated the pyramids are recorded in Egyptian hieroglyphics and thousands of years later we can read them again.
There are ancient tombs in Britain too, but we don't know the exact beliefs of the people who built them, because they didn't use writing. What were their names, when did they live and die? The answers vanished thousands of years ago. In modern Britain, we don't commemorate the lives of our loved ones with monuments as impressive as the pyramids, but we use writing, so we can tell the world who they were and express something of their personality. When we do this, we're following an ancient tradition that began far away in a sunnier and hotter country. The ancient Egyptians were different from us in many ways, but they were human beings like us and found death both frightening and fascinating. The pyramids are proof of that.