The Rhetoric of the Pyramids: from Historicity to Urbanism

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Contents

Introduction

The pyramids as an understudied rhetorical space

Theoretical Framework

Paper Outline and Argument

The Pyramids’ place in the Theory of Rhetoric

The Pyramids as a Rhetorical Artifact

The Pyramids as a Material Artifact

Embodiment

Experiential Rhetoric

Place-as-Rhetoric

The Pyramids as a Pre-existing Meaning

The Pyramids as a Repeated Reconstruction

Conclusion

Works Cited

Introduction

The pyramids as an understudied rhetorical space

The study of the rhetoric of places has attracted the attention of communication scientists and urban sociologists in recent years. Hyperspaces such as shopping malls, parks, and airports are being studied as they create what Zagacki and Gallagher call “spaces of attention” where visitors can “experience the landscape around them as a series of enactments” (171). Places are not only important in themselves, but for the community in general. It is always important to understand the intentions and purpose of spaces and places. Gregory Clark, as quoted in Zagacki and Gallagher, suggests that touring a place functions as a rhetorical experience that prompts engagement in the landscape as well as in the symbolic artifacts in that place which leaves the visitors understanding themselves and their place differently (171).

One of the places that are imbued with rhetorical artifacts yet remains overlooked is Egypt. As stunning as it is crazy, and as historic as it is fully modernized, there is always a love-hate relation associated with Egypt for Egyptians and tourists alike. In spite being ranked as one of the most polluted megalopolis in the world, and one that has high poverty and illiteracy levels yet upon looking beyond all that one can always see, feel, and smell the history in almost every corner. Egypt is home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Giza pyramids, which never fall short of captivating every visitor with their overwhelming size and incomprehensible construction that is almost near perfection. Standing tall for almost 5,000 years, the pyramids which belong to three rulers in the fourth dynasty (Shetawy and El Khateeb 822) remain a source of mystery and amazement for everyone. Countless movies, documentaries, and books have featured the pyramids and ancient Egypt. One can even find a pyramid on every US one-dollar bill symbolizing resilience and durability (Linse et al. 96).

One of most forgotten rhetorical spaces are the Giza pyramids. They are instilled with rhetorical meaning that cannot be more emphasized. Despite of their significance, and aside from the numerous studies published about their history, barely any studies explored the pyramids as a rhetorical place. The pyramids are not just a simple artifact, but they are one of the places that represent multiple rich rhetorical understandings. They are not just a global touristic space, but also a place for locals of the country to visit, as well as a form of art, and most of all, a historic and religious space. The value of studying the pyramids rhetorically lies in what Johnathon Crary characterizes in Suspensions of Perceptions as “more than the single-sense modality of sight, in terms also of hearing and touch” (3).

 

Theoretical Framework

For the purpose of this paper, I will use the traditional theory of rhetoric to discuss the rhetorical understanding of pyramids. I will follow the framework deployed by Danielle Endres and Samantha Senda-Cook in their article Location Matters: The Rhetoric of Place in Protest. The theory articulates five concepts of place: place as a rhetorical artefact, place as material rhetoric, place as embodied rhetoric, place as experiential rhetoric, and place as ephemeral rhetoric (261-264). I will be focusing on the first four understandings.

I will then adopt place-as-rhetoric which is a theoretical framework established by Endres & Cook to examine whether rhetorical understandings are created by place themselves or people. This framework proposes that places work in two ways: place-based argument and place-as-rhetoric. Place-based argument involves description of specific places. They do not rely much on the presence at a particular place, and thus depend on language & argument to induce action (Endres and Cook 264-265). The latter, place-as-rhetoric is the focus I will deploy to build my argument. It discusses how material aspects of places have meaning. The two constructs I will use to put forward my argument in discussing the pyramids relate to how places can have a (1) pre-existing meaning, and a (2) new meaning through repeated reconstruction (Endres and Cook 266).

 

Paper Outline and Argument

This paper has two main sections in addition to the introduction and conclusion. In the first section, I offer an understanding of the pyramids as a rhetorical place. By turning an analytical eye to a place like the pyramids, I will articulate how such a historical place can act rhetorically by relating it to the existing understanding in rhetorical studies. To do this, I will associate the pyramids as “spaces of attention” where visitors can engage rhetorically with the current rhetorical theory.

In the second section, I provide a detailed insight into the pyramids by applying the place-as-rhetoric theory established by Danielle Endres & Samantha Senda-Cook to the pyramids. I illustrate how the pre-existing meaning and the repeated reconstruction of meaning of the pyramids help us understand more about the rhetoric of the place which changes over time.

This paper’s addition to the body of existing literature is its application of theory of rhetoric to one of the world’s wonders, the Giza Pyramids, and its application of place-as-rhetoric in order to analyze the shifting meaning of such a place. I argue that places do not solely create their own rhetorical understanding, but it is rather the people who generate and construct the different meanings for places through diverse performances and understandings. Therefore, I posit that the traditional understanding and meaning of the pyramids as a religious place for Pharaohs has, through the repeated reconstruction by people, been superseded by the contemporary understanding of the pyramids as touristic and urbanized place. In other words, the pre-existing meaning of the pyramids has been reconstructed into new understandings.

The Pyramids’ place in the Theory of Rhetoric

There is a certain power, even if not always easily observed, to a place like the pyramids. The pyramids are rhetorical in that they are laden with meanings and understandings. Endres and Senda-Cook argue that “places, imbued with meaning and consequences, are rhetorical performances” (260). I will apply this understanding by explaining how the pyramids function rhetorically and associating them with the rhetorical theory.

The Pyramids as a Rhetorical Artifact

Endres and Senda-Cookcontend that places are rhetorical in that they are a “rich intersection of bodies, material aspects, past meanings, present performances, and future possibilities” (261).In other words, places are constituted as rhetorical artifacts through their symbolism and materiality. The pyramids are places ripe with rhetorical understandings. As an architecture that is standing tall for thousands of years, the pyramids are powerful enough to convey and translate meanings; to bestow historic atmosphere and understanding.

The design of the pyramids, for example, illustrates how they were built in a way that is mentally captivating and would make any visitor wonder how innovative the Pharaohs were. Jonathon Crary argues that the pyramids represent an art-structure that creates modes of attention which are “neither exclusively nor essentially visual but rather constituted as other temporalities and cognitive states (3). Multiple narratives offer speculations on the architectural design of the pyramids. In his article Topography, astronomy and dynastic history, Giulio Magli postulates that in laying out the pyramids, a “main axis” was present which was “directed to the area where the ancient temple of the sun of Heliopolis once stood, on the opposite bank of the Nile” (2). In a different anecdote, the pyramids’ shape represents the sunrays which were seen breaking through the clouds and were visualized as a ramp that the pharaoh employed to climb to heaven (Linse et al. 99). Both accounts illustrate the value of the sun which was worshipped and thus occupied a central position at that time.

The hieroglyphic engravings inside the pyramids carry too much connotations from thousands of years and into the present. The writings demonstrate the wealthy life that the pharaohs lived. They portray the value of communication and how advanced and inventive they were. So, we can see for example the tomb art including representations of farmers working in fields, fishing and herding livestock. The texts and inscriptions inside the pyramids allow research into Egyptian language. According to Peter Der Manuelian, Tufts University Egyptologist, “almost any subject you want to study about Pharaonic civilization is available on the tomb walls at Giza” (Handwerk).

 

The Pyramids as a Material Artifact

Not only do the pyramids act as a rhetorical artifact, but also a material one. Zagakci & Gallagher demonstrate that materiality entails “examining enactments (what does a text or artifact do/what are the consequences beyond that of the persuader’s goals)” (172). The pyramids submerge one in their immense structure and mentally teleport visitors into a different space and time. No written record has survived to account for how the pyramids were built. However, from Herodotus accounts, it has become known that about 100,000 men were employed for three months every year to do the work. They had to start by creating a road to transport the rocks and stones from the Nile banks. The stones were raised by certain machines which were made of short beams. It is stated that the top of the pyramid was finished first. It is estimated that the construction of the pyramids lasted for about twenty years. No evidence whatsoever was found that mechanical appliances were deployed in building the pyramids (Baikie 115 – 116). The Pharaohs designed the entrance of the Great pyramid (Cheops), located on the North side, with the intent of being unnoticed to robbers (Baikie 108). The pyramids are witnesses of “the very beginning of architecture, the most enormous piles of building ever raised, the most accurate constructions known, the finest masonry, and the employment of the most ingenious tools” (Baikie 107).

Material rhetoric does not only focus on material structures but also on the interrelated symbols (Endres and Cook 262). The pyramids as material structures are rhetorical due to their symbolicity. They symbolize the power and strength of the pharaohs. They disseminate a religious aura. They communicate durability, indulgence, and piousness. More than 3000 years ago, Pharaohs believed in life after death. Thus, they erected the pyramids in a way that communicates how they valued their religion and had strong beliefs about afterlife.

As a place designed for their burial, the pyramids are quite spacious from the inside to house all their belongings which they might need in their afterlife. The pyramids, however, are not just cemeteries, but these tombs also depict “wonderful scenes of every aspect of life in ancient Egypt—so it’s not just about how Egyptians died but how they lived” (Handwerk).

Embodiment

Bodies are understood rhetorically in that they are always located somewhere. There is a sort of a symbiotic relation between places and bodies (Endres and Cook 262). That is, bodies communicate something about the place they are in, whereas the place itself acts on the body in different ways. The collective bodies moving inside the pyramids communicate and translate a sort of an amalgamation with history. In their book Key Thinkers on Space and Place, Phil Hubbard and Rob Kitchin write “indeed, being ‘in place’ involves a range of cognitive (mental) and physical (corporeal) performances that are constantly evolving as people encounter place” (6). The Giza pyramids are one of the few places that can be explored from the inside, which makes the rhetorical experience a rich embodied one. Inside the pyramids, the body is physically present in a place where people existed thousands of years ago. The body is coexistent with their manifestations, in a way. Endres and Cook write that “human bodies interact with the physical structures to change a place, allowing it to take on significance that might otherwise remain unrealized” (263). In other words, the human body performs rhetorically in that it interacts with the pyramids’ physical structure. Walking inside the pyramid, nobody fails to notice how the body takes different shapes and forms to interact and align with the internal structure and physical space of the pyramids. The arrangement and design of the internal passageways temporarily changes how the body moves in space. Walking through them, extreme caution must be exercised to avoid head injuries. In specific places, one must crouch and bend a bit to eventually arrive at the chambers (see Figure 1). So, for example, the passage which leads to the Queen’s room is only 3 feet 9 inches in height, but then increases to 5 feet 8 inches (Baikie 112). It is in this way that the pyramids are an embodied rhetorical performance.

Experiential Rhetoric

Part of understanding any place is through experiencing it. As Endres and Cook put it, “place…may be best understood through co-presence or experience with the place as opposed to a mediated experience” (264). Presence makes a difference in the understanding of places since it entails the use of multiple senses to feel and get absorbed by the rhetorical power of the place. As quoted in Phil Hubbard and Rob Kitchin, Holloway and Hubbard contend that “the humanistic use of methods that evoke the multisensory experience of place (i.e., its visual, aural, and tactile elements, as well as its smells and tastes) provides one means by which this bodily geography of place has been evoked, though the relationship between the human body and highly meaningful places is often more complex than even these methods can reveal” (6).

Upon gazing at this immense structure of the Giza Pyramids, one cannot but feel dwarfed. In winter time, when the severe heat has declined, the pyramid is packed with visitors. Representing the true face of the ancient Egyptian civilizations, the pyramids are always a source of enigma. Tourists get to observe and experience the pyramids that have always been mere pictures and text in books in an embodied way. Hundreds of pictures are being captured every moment of those three giant structures: Cheops, Chephren and Menkaure. Tour guides surrounded by their respective groups explaining the baffling history that is unfolding in front of everyone’s eyes. Camels fill up a huge part of the space where tourists are hassled and pestered until they succumb to the pressure and agree to ride a camel. At dusk, the pyramids area becomes a stage for the magnificent sound and light show where laser and lighting technologies are deployed to visualize and simulate the Pharaonic civilization. Inside the pyramids, the space is quite dark that one needs to make good use of their senses to avoid bumping into one of those giant walls. Being such an enclosed space, the pyramids are not well-ventilated, they smell musty and humid, just like an old stale book. However, the moment one safely exists those narrow mazes, the irrevocable experience of having been that close to one of the world’s wonders will be there to last. In these ways, being present allows for a more realistic and accurate experience of the pyramids. One gets the chance to witness firsthand the place where pharaohs lived and died.

Place-as-Rhetoric

Place-as-rhetoric theory refers to “the material (physical and embodied) aspects of a place having meaning and consequence, be it through bodies, signage, buildings, fences, flags, and so on” (Endres and Cook 265). Place as rhetoric focuses on the materiality of the place and assumes that the place itself is rhetorical (Endres and Cook 265). In my study, the material aspect of the pyramids area speaks about its historicity on the one hand, as well as its value as an urbanized and modernized space on the other. The pyramids, as a place, have a material effect on every visitor: some sense the antiquity of the pyramids as an artifact, while others fail to see what is beyond those structures. I now turn to discuss how the pyramids had a pre-existing meaning, which was a religious one, that has been challenged and reconstructed into a contemporary and urbanized understanding.

The Pyramids as a Pre-existing Meaning

For the duration when the Pharaohs ruled Egypt, which is estimated with around 3000 years, religion was a dominant force. The pervasiveness of religion was affecting almost everything. Religious traces were found in Egyptian literature, while Egyptian art articulated religious symbolism (Okon 93). The pyramids existed and conveyed meaning as a sacred religious space.

One piece of information that stands as evidence to the importance of religion for the pharaohs is the design of the ventilation shaft in the greatest pyramid, Cheops. Robert Bauval cites Virginia Trimble and Alexander Badawy in his article A Master-Plan for the Three Pyramids of Giza who highlighted that the ventilation shaft was designed is such a way that it points to one of the stars of the Belt of Orion (Bauval 3-4). Trimble and Badaway argue that considering the “religious association between the dead pharaoh and Orion in the pyramid texts…the southern shaft had a symbolic significance, and suggested it was intended as a means for the pharaoh’s ‘soul’ to reach the place of Orion-Osiris in the sky” (Bauval 3-4). It is worth highlighting that in mythology, Orion is perceived as the celestial representation of Osiris, the god of rebirth and resurrection, with which all pharaohs who died were identified (Bauval 1).

As part of their strong religious conviction, the ancient Egyptian civilization established “the cult of the dead…which culminated into the process of mummification where pyramids were erected to house the remains of the kings” (Okon 94). Inside the pyramids, Okon quotes Philip Bishop, “shafts and rooms in the interior accommodated the pharaoh’s mummified body and the huge treasure of objects required for his happy existence after death” (Okon 94). Specific rituals were performed to “transform the dead pharaoh’s body into a mummy and prepare him for a God-like existence in the afterlife” (Linse et al. 98). The mummification process was a complex one which entailed taking the body to a mortuary, and after a long daunting procedure, the body was then placed in salt for as long as seventy days. Only sinless souls, they thought, could enter into the afterlife (Okon 94 – 95). Egyptians were under the impression that their pharaoh was the mediator between god and the people. So, in guaranteeing their pharaoh’s immortality, all people who lived during his reign will become immortal as well. In a nutshell, religion was the rhetorical meaning and understanding of the pyramids at that particular time. The pyramids simply symbolized religion.

 

The Pyramids as a Repeated Reconstruction

Over time, change happens to places. “Repeated temporary constructions of place may result in long-lasting additions to the meaning of a place” (Endres and Cook 270). Places challenge existing meanings and introduce new ones. The repeated reconstruction of the meaning of a place introduces new understandings. Year after year, the religious place that the pyramid was has been transformed to something very different. Cresswell argues that new spaces can result from the transgression of old spaces (176). The consistent presence of visitors from all over the world, as well as the transformation, which neared full reconstruction of the pyramids terrain has gradually associated the place with tourism and urbanization. The way the pyramids are being used in modern times has changed its old meaning as a sacred religious place and endowed it with a new understanding. The change took place over a long time, but over that period, the pyramids no longer became a religious or burial place.

Today, millions of tourists travel to Egypt just to take a glimpse of those gigantic monuments. The pyramids have been transformed to a place where you pose with your shade and hat on for one of those ‘touristic’ photos. You also walk into those tiny stores to purchase some souvenirs. But better than all that, you can just have a second to none view of the place on the back of a camel. Attempting to climb the pyramids is not a far-fetched activity, despite its illegality. The tour guides, legal or not, are everywhere explaining the history of those monuments. The burial and mummification space inside the pyramid has been changed into a multicultural area where bodies congregate to witness history. Renowned bands and celebrities like Scorpions and Morgan Freeman have contributed to the reconstruction of the new meaning of the pyramids by holding concerts or filming movies.

Those colossal monuments which once stood as the only architecture amidst the desert are now quite lost amid the urban sprawl. The pyramids have been reshaped by the modernization surrounding them. New roads and highways, which are almost always congested with Cairo’s traffic, have been built to connect the pyramids to the rest of the city. Some of the most famous hotels have been constructed with an overview of the pyramids and the surrounding area. Modern high rises have also been erected causing the pyramids to appear dwarfed. The pyramids have been too urbanized to the extent that in adjacent areas “some developers (are) even envisaging the creation of golf courses and artificial lakes” (Shetawy and El Khateeb 824). That way, the understanding of the pyramid as a rhetorical space has evidently been transformed and reshaped by tourists and city planners into a new meaning.

Conclusion

This paper discussed and highlighted the importance of the Giza pyramids as a rhetorical space. The theory of rhetoric has previously been applied to a number of places including museums and gardens. The main contribution of this paper is applying the rhetorical theory to an understudied rhetorical space like the pyramids, as well as tracing Endres and Senda-Cook’s place-as-rhetoric to illustrate how people can change the meaning of places. As I have shown, the pyramids are indeed considered a rhetorical space in themselves; however, through constant reconstruction the place has changed from a religious space into a touristic and urbanized one. This change and reconstruction in the meaning of the pyramids from what once was to what it is now has been advanced by the people, and not by the pyramids. Thousands of years ago, the pharaohs created this place as a religious one; today, through the repeated reconstruction of the pyramids as a world-famous touristic spot as well as the continuous urbanization and expansion, people have endowed it with a new meaning. Repeated reconstruction of places can well result in new permanent meanings. As Cresswell argues, the “value and meaning are not inherent in any space or place – indeed they must be created, reproduced, and defended from heresy” (9).

Works Cited

  • Baikie, James. Egyptian Antiquities in the Nile Valley. Routledge. 2018. eBook Collection.
  • Bauval, Robert G.  “A Master-Plan for the Three Pyramids of Giza based on the configuration Of the Three Stars of The Belt of Orion.” Discussions in Egyptology, 1989.
  • Crary, Johnathan. Suspensions of Perceptions. MIT Press, 2001. eBook Collection.
  • Cresswell, Tim. In place / Out of Place. University of Minnesota Press, 1996. eBook Collection.
  • Endres, Danielle, and Samantha Senda-Cook. “Location Matters: The Rhetoric of Place in Protest.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, pp. 257-282. 2011.
  • Handwerk, Brian. “Pyramids at Giza.” National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/archaeology-and-history/archaeology/giza-pyramids/. Accessed 20 November 2018.
  • Hubbard, Phil and Rob Kitchin. Key Thinkers on Space and Place. Sage. 2011. eBbook Collection.
  • Linse, Pat, et al. “The Mystery of the Pyramids.” ProQuest, vol. 8, 2000.
  • Magli, Giulio. “Topography, Astronomy and Dynastic History in the Alignments of the Pyramid Fields of the Old Kingdom.” 2009.
  • Okon, Etim E. “Religion and politics in ancient Egypt.” American Journal of Social and Management Sciences. 2012.
  • Shetawy, Ahmed and Samah Mohamed El Khateeb. “The pyramids plateau: A dream searching for survival.” Elsevier, 2009.
  • Zagacki, Kenneth S., and Victoria J. Gallagher. “Rhetoric and Materiality in the Museum Park at the North Carolina Museum of Art.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 95, no. 2, 2009, pp. 171-191.
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