Visiting the Pyramids of Giza, Cairo, Egypt
There is a theory that the giant Sphinx, standing so majestic at the front of the Pyramids of Giza, might not be the only one here. It might have a twin, buried somewhere in the sand nearby.
The theory is based partly on the Ancient Egyptian love of symmetry – that smaller sphinxes found at other sites always had a pair. And it’s supported by an inscription and image carved into the rock here in Giza millennia ago that refers to two sphinxes.
Egyptologists have long searched for this sphinx twin but haven’t yet found it. Even after thousands of years, one of the most famous sites in the world could still have some new discoveries to unearth.
For a traveller like me, just visiting the Pyramids of Giza in Cairo unearths new discoveries.
I, like most people, have seen images of the pyramids since I was a child. They’re not just a part of Egypt’s heritage, they are a part of global heritage. You think you know them just because you always have.
It’s not until you’re here and you start to hear the stories of these amazing monuments that you realise there is so much more to learn. It’s not just the theory of the second Sphinx that I discover.
I’m here with my G Adventures tour of Egypt, which will take our group on a journey through the history of Ancient Egypt. Already I’ve written about our visit to one of the oldest archaeological sites here – Saqqara – where the first pyramids were developed. Now we’re seeing the greatest.
Egyptian pyramids facts
Our guide Adi is dazzling us with statistics about the largest structure here on the plateau, the Great Pyramid of Giza (also known as the Pyramid of Khufu). It’s an impressive site, no matter how you look at it.
It’s about 150 metres high and is believed to have been the tallest structure in the world for about 3800 years after it was built. The four sides of the base add up to about a kilometre in length.
It’s when you start to break down the numbers that the scale of the pyramid becomes even more impressive.
It was constructed with 2.3 million stone blocks. The lightest stone used to build the Great Pyramid is about 2 tons. The heaviest is 70 tons!
If you laid them all out, one next to the other, you would probably be getting close to the entire length of the Nile.
And the shape? It’s not just that a pyramid is a stable structure, Adi says. The way that he explains it, they are also designed to look like the rays of sun – the sun god Amun Ra being the most important of the Ancient Egyptian religion.
There are three main pyramids here on the Giza plateau that I want to mention. But, just for the record, technically there are 12 because each of the really large ones, which are the tombs of kings, have three smaller ones for close family members like his wife, mother, and daughter.
Pyramid of Khufu
The first of the main ones, the Great Pyramid of Giza, is breathtaking in its size. Once Adi has finished with his explanation, I get some time to explore on my own.
I walk around to different angles, taking in the different shapes that are created against the sky as I do.
From further away, you can appreciate the majesty of this grand tomb. Up close, you see how each of the blocks was roughly cut, placed on top of another, in what appears to be a staircase reaching towards the heavens.
Sure, we all know what a pyramid should look like and we’ve seen photos of these ones for our whole lives. But I still find it quite an emotional experience to stand in front of the Pyramid of Khufu and take in the grandeur of it for myself.
Pyramid of Khafre
The second pyramid – both in size and location – is the Pyramid of Khafre. This is the tomb of the pharaoh Khafre, who was the son of Khufu. Out of respect to his father, he did not make his pyramid taller.
There are two particularly important features of the Pyramid of Khafre that are worth noting. The first is that the top third of it is still covered by the polished casing stones that would once have given the whole structure a smooth look – I imagine it dazzling in the sun once upon a time.
And the second feature, one of the most impressive of the entire Giza plateau, is the causeway that runs from the pyramid for about 500 metres down to the mortuary temple and the Great Sphinx of Giza. Each of the three main pyramids would have had something like this but Khafre’s is the only one that has survived.
As a visitor, I go to the sphinx later on, after I have seen all three pyramids. That’s because it’s easier to access from its own entrance that you drive down to. But I’m going to mention the Sphinx now because it makes more sense to think of it as an extension of the Pyramid of Khafre.
The Sphinx was part of a temple complex where the pharaoh would have been mummified and blessed before his body was transferred up to the pyramid along the causeway and then entombed.
This temple is not overly-decorated but is beautiful in the way it allows the sun to shine in, making Amun-Ra part of the ceremonies.
Pyramid of Menkaure
It’s at the third tomb that I start to look at visiting the pyramids in a different way.
This is the Pyramid of Menkaure. It’s the smallest of the three pyramids and was the tomb for Menkaure, the son of Khafra and grandson of Khufu.
He continued the tradition of not making his monument larger than his father’s out of respect, but he tried to give it a unique beauty. That’s why much of it would have originally been covered in polished red granite – not just dazzling but glowing in the sun, I imagine.
The reason I get a new perspective at the Pyramid of Menkaure is because there is almost nobody else here except for my G Adventure’s group. At the first two, there were tourist crowds, local school groups, hordes of vendors.
But here it is quiet and calm. I can start to picture how it may have been all those thousands of years ago when the pharaohs were laid to rest in peace.
Although I do appreciate this relative solitude, it does make me question the behaviour of other tourists. I will never understand why people will make the effort to come all the way across the globe to one of the most incredible sites in the world and then not just take a few extra minutes to see the third and final pyramid.
Hassled at the pyramids
Spending a bit of time walking around the Pyramid of Menkaure is also nice because it gives me a respite from the vendors and scammers who have been hassling me elsewhere.
It’s really unfortunately but you can’t completely enjoy visiting the Pyramids of Giza because of this constant harassment.
The most common hassle are the camel riders who will constantly come up and ask you to take a photo of them, then ask for money if you do. The particularly annoying thing is they will say it’s free then angrily demand money anyway. (I don’t fall for this but I see other people who do.)
Similarly, there are the vendors who will try to give you a ‘gift’, telling you it’s part of the Egyptian hospitality. I have a guy force a head scarf on me this way, all smiles. Eventually I got him to take it back and he gave me a different smile, one that said “oh well, I tried, but you get it, don’t you?”
I also had a man who came up to me and flashed a badge in my face, demanding to see my ticket. Because I knew there were no ticket checkpoints after the main entrance, I didn’t show him even though he kept hassling me for a bit. But I just walked away and he didn’t follow. I’m not certain what his scam was but it’s annoying enough to know he was trying something.
Grand Egyptian Museum
There is a masterplan to change all of this.
Not far from the Giza Pyramids, you can see the new Egyptian Museum under construction. When this is finished, the entrance to the Giza Plateau will also be moved, closer to the museum.
From there, you’ll get ferried to the main site by small electric carriages. And, apparently, the camel riders and many of the vendors will be banned.
In theory it’s a great idea – less vehicles around the site will protect the structures and less vendors means a more peaceful experience for tourists. It may also spread out the crowds a bit.
After experiencing many of the historical sites in Egypt, I’m a bit dubious, though. Even where changes like this have been implemented, you still get hassled, and the system never works as efficiently in reality as it does on paper.
Then again, maybe I’ll be surprised. After all, visiting the Pyramids of Giza is full of mysteries.
I travelled to Egypt with the support of G Adventures in my position as a G Wanderer. All the opinions expressed are my own – I truly believe G Adventures is one of the best tour companies that you can use for a trip to Egypt.