There were seven of us traveling on this day: our friend Gracie from South Africa, another friend and former student Leah Gaston, and the five of us Robertsons. Make that eight in the count with our taxi driver Mostapha. Our tiny Renault four-seater was a bit crowded for the 40-minute drive to Giza.
In ancient times the great pyramids of Khufu (Cheops), Khafre (Chephren), and Menkare (Mycerinus) sat on the west side of the Nile across from nothing more than small farming communities. Only the dead “lived” on the this side of the river, and if you lived anywhere near a city then you probably lived in Memphis 16 miles to the south on the east side. The Giza plateau was no-man’s-land; Cairo did not exist. Today the city of Cairo has sprawled across the Nile, and its 20 million plus inhabitants live at the doorstep of the pyramids. From the foot of the sphinx you can see a Pizza Hut and KFC!
Our taxi driver is a friend of a friend of a friend. In other words, doesn’t know us at all. We thought we were going to the pyramids; he thought we should ride camels. So we rode camels. After haggling with a friend of our cabbie (one step further removed) we mounted our trusty steeds and headed out into the desert. By the way, haggling over prices is a way of life in Cairo; it must be a required class for all with extremely high standardized test results because everyone is really good at it.
The first thing that struck us other than the nasty disposition of our camels was the enormity of the pyramids and the miniscuality (is this a word?) of the sphinx. It is only about 165 feet long and 66 feet high; I say “only” because it seems so dwarfed by the size of the pyramids in the background. I hope to return here to photograph the stele between the paws of the sphinx. It records the story/vision of Pharaoh Tuthmosis IV who became pharaoh even though he was not the oldest male child of his father Amenhotep II. A story that plays directly into another story on which I’m working.
Our camels carried us past the three pyramids to a rise on the plateau behind them. Here we dismounted and took numerous photos of the entire complex with the sprawl of Cairo and its smog in the distance. I haven’t mentioned the smog here yet. Cairo is rapidly gaining the reputation as the world’s smoggiest city. At one point during our visit to the pyramids, they almost disappeared into a cloud of smog that blew in across the river.
Our camel drivers returned us to the feet of the sphinx where we fought crowds and took the requisite photos of family. We quickly left the main area, ate our lunch and began our journey back up the plateau on foot to get up close and personal with the pyramids. To our relief, once you get away from the sphinx where the tour busses stop, the crowds thin out tremendously.
Khufu’s pyramid was our first stop, and upon reaching it we dutifully crossed the “Do not enter” sign to touch it, only to find that on the other side you can actually climb up part of it to a small entrance leading inside. In order to protect the pyramids and keep tourists from tumbling to their deaths, climbing the pyramids is no longer allowed. We had a bit of excitement though as we witnessed a man scale Khufu’s pyramid with police in hot pursuit. He easily out-climbed them and reached the top without a problem. How he got down we do not know.
The first thing that strikes you as you stand at the foot of the Great Pyramid is its enormity. We have heard the facts: built by Pharaoh Khufu around 2570 BC, 479 feet tall, 2.3 million limestone blocks each weighing in excess of 2.5 tons, originally covered in polished white limestone. But until you stand before the mountain of stones you just can’t grasp the immensity of the task. It’s huge.
After strolling around Khufu’s pyramid we walked up to Khafre’s. He was Khufu’s son and so as not to dishonor his father’s accomplishment in building the largest stone structure in the world, Khafre humbly decided to build his 32 feet shorter. Of course he did build it on a higher part of the plateau giving it the appearance of being bigger than his father’s pyramid, but that’s beside the point. Because there was no line here and the price was right, we decided to venture down into Khafre’s pyramid. After descending and ascending to a place about ground level but in the middle of the pyramid you arrive at a vaulted room where the sarcophagus of Khafre rests. His mummy has not been found. The room is bare except for the wall scrawlings of the explorers who first opened the tomb back in 1818. No hieroglyphics, wall paintings, nothing. Just white plastered walls about 30 feet high and lots of humidity. I can’t help but think that the humidity is bad for this once arid environment. Trying hard to not think about the weight of the structure resting over our heads, we began the crawl back out. Still inside Khafre’s pyramid, Sam had the winning comment of the day, “I’m a bit sad to have to leave it. I wouldn’t mind living in here ya know.”
One might think that the sphinx and the pyramids are the only interesting sites to visit here, but that is definitely not the case. While these structures are the main attraction, the numerous tombs of queens, architects, relatives, and royal friends are amazing in and among themselves. These lesser sites provide the advantage of no crowds, fewer haggling venders of “Egyptjunk” (say it like it’s one word), and no guards inside providing opportunities to take family portraits in the tombs of the rich and famous.
Our guidebook mistakenly suggested a half-day visit; I feel as though I could spend a lifetime here. Undiminished by crowded taxis, the haggling, and crowds, Giza is an amazing, must-experience location.
Camels & TombsHere is a video of Megan and Emma mounting an angry camel while Sam explores Khafre's tomb. Enjoy!