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Dear Matt:

The wife and I saw The Mummy the other night. It brought back a fact I learned sometime in my life that I wonder is true. Is it true that limestone from the great pyramids of Egypt was used to build high-rise buildings in Cairo. If so, why don't they replace it to the pyramids' original condition?

-- Mud Calkins, Ocean Beach

You mean tear down the Cairo Marriott and put the stones back in place? Imagine how bad room service would be on the 15th floor of a pyramid. Anyway, your memory got the words right, just put them in the wrong order. There isn't a high-rise building made with pyramid limestone. But there is a pyramid-limestone building that is up high. The Citadel, a big old Muslim-built palace/fort that's on a hill overlooking the city.

Tomb robbers had been hacking away at the pyramids for a thousand years or so before Saladin (Salah-al-Din), the Suuni Muslim general from Syria, blew through town in 1168. Saladin was one tough hombre, a legendary (i.e., successful) warrior, particularly good at trouncing Crusaders; but apparently he was also a heck of a nice guy. Got along with everybody and held no grudges. One of his first acts was to open the city of Cairo to all people, not just the high and mighty. As a result, there was a real-estate boom during his family's dynasty in Egypt.

Unfortunately, he and his descendants decided that instead of quarrying their own rock for all those new forts, bridges, walls, houses, and mosques, it would be easier to use the limestone from the outer skin of the pyramids at Giza, already mined and shaped. The slabs were of very high-quality stone and had been so carefully fitted and mortared that the job was a real pain in the neck, but eventually they stripped most of them. In later years, plenty of other people blew holes in pyramids with dynamite, gouged tunnels in them, used the Sphinx for target practice, and committed other sorts of vandalism, sometimes in the name of science rather than greed.

By now the crumbing pyramids probably couldn't bear the weight of new limestone; they'd have to rebuild the under-structure, and is a rebuilt pyramid the same as the original? Not really. And considering what it took to build the pyramids in the first place, Egypt has to have better things to do than reconstruct them.

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