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The Giza Pyramids - A Quick Guide.
If you're on holiday in Egypt then you'll be going here.
The last of the 'Seven Wonders', this is the Number-1 excursion for visitors to Cairo - and rightly so. When you return home from Egypt and your friends ask what the Pyramids were like, the most surprising answer you could possibly give would be : "Oh, we never bothered, the hotel was so lovely we couldn't bring ourselves to leave the poolside."
But for those eager souls keen to get these famous trigonometric titans into their camera cross-hairs here are a few paragraphs to (hopefully) give you a flavour of what to expect. I know it's been done by many others, but, well... each visitor has their own memories of the experience so here goes;
If you are not sure what the Giza Pyramids are, then simply take look at the picture below. Recognise them? If not, then alas, there is probably little of interest here for you as you are likely to be a solitude-embracing hermit or other remotely located individual who has no ambition to visit the Pyramids anyway. For those that do, then naturally you will know that :
The 3 main Pyramids are tombs built by the ancient Egyptians around 4,500 years ago for their Kings - better known to you and I as Pharaohs. The largest, called the Great Pyramid, was built for Pharaoh Khufu, the centre Pyramid for his son Khafre and lastly, the smallest for his grandson Menkaure. You may also hear them referred to as Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus respectively - these are their Greek names.
Khufu's is the tallest Pyramid and held the record as the tallest building in the world for over 3800 years until the English stole the title with Lincoln cathedral in 1311. Khafre's can look bigger (see above), but it is an optical illusion due to the fact that it is built on a higher part of the plateau.
When first built, the Pyramids were faced with mitred blocks of white limestone which would have given them a flat-sided finish rather than the sawtoothed one we see today. Only Khafre's Pyramid still has some of its facing stones intact, which can be seen near the top. Unfortunately, long after the original architects had departed, builders of later ages found the proximity of the ready shaped and dressed stones too tempting to resist and looted them for their own pet projects. There is no doubt that the Pyramids are impressive today, but when freshly constructed, with their massive profiles shining white and smooth in the desert sun, they must have been nothing short of breathtaking. Visiting dignitaries to Egypt would have found themselves reduced to slack-jawed gawkers at the sight of them, surely convinced that the Pharaohs spoke with the Gods.
Before proceeding further, let me introduce you to an important person whom you will meet whilst visiting the Pyramids. In fact, not only will you meet this person during your trip to Giza, but also on a regular basis in Cairo and throughout Egypt. This person will have a wide smile and a friendly nature and his job is to get you things you want - and often things you don't want - for as high a price as he can get you to accept. The gentleman in question is known as a 'Money-Tourist-Separation-Operative.' He may appear benign but, and have no misconceptions about this, you, my friend, are his prey. I will refer to this person from here on in by the acronym MTSO. When you get home and wonder why there are so many items of useless tat in your suitcase - it will be in no small part due to the finely honed skills of the Egyptian MTSO.
I know what you might be thinking - that you are worldly wise, and therefore no easy target. And that may well be true, but be aware of this; The Egyptian MTSO has been trained from birth and practices daily. And he is not alone - far from it - he has legions of similarly skilled colleagues who will all be attempting to separate you from as much of your beloved tourist's stash as possible.
Now, in part, I'm having a bit of fun here. Not all MTSOs are so predatory and if you do want to buy something then haggling can be great fun once you get into the spirit of it. Otherwise, a friendly 'No, thank you' or, even better, the equivalent Arab phrase, 'La Shukran' will often be enough to ward them off. But others are not so easily shaken and will have the persistence of limpets. If you do not wish to enter into negotiations with them then the best policy is to set your expression to 'Leave-me-alone' and maintain a polite dialogue of 'No-thank-you/La Shukran' until they go away. Enter into no other dialogue whatsoever, accept nothing by hand (even 'free' gifts) and do not take their photograph or have yours taken. And remember - you're on holiday, so try to keep smiling.
What to take
The ancient builders wisely anticipated the location of modern day Cairo (they were master astrologers) and conveniently placed the Pyramids on the outskirts of the city. Consequently, there is no need to pack for an expedition. Sunglasses, hat, camera and money should be all you need. You can buy food/water on the hoof and MTSOs will be delighted to supply anything else you might need.
Location of the Giza Pyramids
Taking a tour bus is the most common form of arrival. Or, if it is close enough, you can walk there. And, if you don't like the restrictive nature of bus tours and walking seems ridiculously strenuous in the desert heat, there is also the option of driving yourself or taking a taxi.
The bus :
Ah! Air conditioned luxury. It will pick you up from your hotel and you can relax. No thinking is required, simply get on and off the bus as directed. Tickets for the plateau will be included in the tour price.
The down-side of the bus trip is that you will not just visit the expected destinations (Pyramid, Sphinx, etc) but will also be ushered into establishments that have not been previously mentioned and were on no itinerary that you have seen. These establishments are shops and belong to up-market MTSOs who are in league with the tour bus operators.
You will be encouraged to wander around their shops and (hopefully, for them) buy things. They will sell papyrus scrolls, alabaster vases, perfumes, and all manner of things you were unaware you needed. Sometimes items have price tags on them in order to give the appearance of 'fixed price' and the owner (or their employees) will promote this apparency. But this is Egypt, so if you do want to buy something, bear in mind that almost everything here is negotiable, thus feel free to have a go at bargaining. A lot of people quite enjoy these shopping diversions but if you don't, there is not much you can do to escape as you are somewhat tied to the bus schedule.
The taxi / hire car :
A simple alternative to the bus and has the advantage of avoiding the visits to the MTSO shops. It is also great for time flexibility - you can come and go at your own convenience rather than at that of the bus. You can buy Pyramid tickets from the office at the site entrance. Please note; some taxi drivers will be devoid of change in order to elicit the 'keep it' response from you. If you don't want to take part in their minor subterfuge, negotiate the fare beforehand and carry the correct amount. If you are driving yourself, you can park at the Pyramids for a small charge.
Straightforward - just get a map and off you go. One unavoidable consequence of walking is that as you near the Pyramids you will have to pass the stables. Take my advice - try not to get seen as you slip past the entrance. I was, and was immediately accosted by an MTSO who could not believe he'd spotted a lone tourist passing his gates. Soon, more arrived. When the count got to six I did the only thing I could and ran off, leaving them arguing amongst themselves.
I approached the ticket office and encountered a surprised looking attendant who was evidently not used to people turning up on foot, his day normally consisting of waving disinterestedly to the tour buses as they passed through the gates. I got the distinct impression I had given him a welcome break as he happily sold me a ticket and wished me a pleasant visit. I caught a last glimpse of him as I set off towards the mighty Khufu. He had glumly returned to his default setting of bus-waving and I couldn't help but feel a pang of sympathy as I realised that for him, the thrill of the Pyramids had paled long ago.
On the Giza Plateau
Once on the plateau you will be free to amble around the Pyramids and surrounding funeral complexes to your heart's content, taking pictures and generally gazing in wonderment at the scale and magnificence of everything. There will be herds of your fellow tourists wandering around, constantly being disgorged and re-absorbed by the tour buses. Despite this, it will not feel crowded due to the sheer size of the Pyramid site and you will have no trouble finding places of relative solitude in order to admire things in a leisurely fashion. You will also notice MTSOs, moving carefully amongst the visitors looking for suitable targets, and at some point during your visit you will be approached by one of them (I'm joking. - you will be approached by many.) He may be selling trinkets, he may be selling 'genuine' (recently manufactured) Egyptian artifacts, but mostly what he will be selling, is an opportunity to ride his magnificent beast (his sentiments, not mine.) This magnificent beast will be either A) a horse, or B) a camel, and will be a denizen of the afore-mentioned stables.
Riding is a popular activity at Giza and most people, especially children, will enjoy it thoroughly. The camel is particularly good for photo opportunities, having an unfair advantage over a mere horse by being more comical. You can ride (be led by the owner) around the Pyramids, visiting the higher point of the plateau to get a good overview of the complex or even venture out into the desert a little way for a long-distance view. The price is pretty much between you and the MTSO, but usually (unless your haggling skills are shockingly weak) it will be cheap. If you are undaunted by the prospect of mounting these desert-hardened creatures and can bear the looks of interminable boredom in their eyes then by all means give it a try.
The Antiquities Police
As you stroll about the plateau, you may notice from time to time some fine looking gentlemen in white uniforms. These are the Antiquities Police, whose job it is to patrol the Pyramid site. It was unclear to me exactly what their specific duties were until I tried to take a picture of the Great Pyramid with two of them lounging in the foreground. At which point they flickered into life and entered MTSO mode, revealing that they were in fact part-time professional models and would require a fee for their posing services. Sadly, I have no photographs of them to show you here.
The Khufu Ship aka 'The Solar Barge' (sounds like Egyptians were the first to use green energy) was discovered in a covered pit at the foot of the Great Pyramid in 1954. Found in a de-constructed state, it had been perfectly preserved in its sealed tomb for millennia. It was intended as a pleasure cruiser for Pharaoh Khufu as he sailed the heavens with his great pal Ra, the Sun God - although there is some speculation that he actually used it while still breathing mortal air.
Handily, this antique DIY project has been re-assembled IKEA style (insert davit 'A' into hull 'B' etc) and is now located in its own glamorous boat-house next to Khufu's Pyramid, where it can be viewed by tourists and history enthusiasts alike (for a small fee, of course.)
P.S. The only toilets at Giza are in the boat house - If you want use them but not see the boat then there is no charge for entry.
Inside the Pyramids
Going inside is not for everyone. Pyramids can be hot, there are (mildly) strenuous climbs and some corridors will require walking bent over. If you are at all claustrophobic then the thought of millions of tons of rock pressing in on you should be enough to keep you out.
To be honest, there's not that much to see, so I don't have much to say beyond a brief overview. And if you are an information-hungry Pyramid-interior fanatic, then there are far better web pages than this one to satisfy your longings. All in all, the main point of going inside is purely to say you have 'done it'.
To go inside the Great Pyramid buy a ticket on site - only 300 per day are sold (150 at 8am and 150 at 1pm) so you might need to be quick at busy times. They are 100LE (LE=Egyptian Pounds) and 10LE extra to take your camera. To enter Khafre's Pyramid is only 20LE (there's not much inside Khufu's and Khafre's has even less.) Once you have obtained your precious ticket you can relax - you have a 4 hour slot to use it so you can let the initial crowd die down first. When you are ready, show your ticket to the 'bouncer' on the door and he will let you in.
What's in there :
I'll restrict myself to the Khufu's Pyramid here. There is an underground chamber, the Queen's chamber, the Grand Gallery, the King's chamber and that's it. All are empty except the King's chamber which contains a hollow stone sarcophagus. No treasure, mummified remains or other artifacts were ever found inside the Great Pyramid. Were they removed long ago by grave robbers? (or should that be Tomb Raiders!) Nobody knows. Or perhaps it was all a great game and no one was ever placed in there to start with. Another proposed theory - and my personal favourite - is that Khufu's architects have fooled everyone by creating chambers so cunningly hidden that they will never be found and to this day the King still rests within his great mausoleum discussing boat trips with his old pal Ra while all and sundry wander around outside, oblivious.
There are some conflicting opinions regarding the origins of the Sphinx, but most experts seem satisfied that it was fashioned at the time of Pharaoh Khafre. What is not in doubt is that it is one of the world's greatest and most famous statues so you will be happy to add it to your 'done-that' list.
The tour buses can drive you to the Sphinx but it is not far from the Pyramids (as is evident from the photo) and you can simply walk there.
What I noticed most was how close the district of Giza was. Higher on the plateau, the Pyramids had at least a 'feeling' of being away from the urban sprawl, but over time the city has crept up to the very edges of the necropolis and the ancient statue seemed to be only yards from a modern, built-up zone. When you can do a '360' turn that takes in both the grandeur of the Sphinx and a KFC then perhaps it is too late to start complaining, but for me at least, the proximity of the city has robbed the Sphinx of some of the beauty it would be lent by desert remoteness. Nonetheless, there's still enough room left to wander about so you might as well whip out the old Box-Brownie and get snapping.
As an extra trigonometric treat you can visit the Pyramids after dark to enjoy an evening 'light' show. These shows have been running since the 1960s and have been upgraded over the years. Today, the high tech addition of lasers has been included to further swell the gasps of amazement from the crowd.
Personally, I found the voice-over from the narrator and supporting cast to be hilarious. They seem to have somehow escaped from a 1930s British high society movie only to become trapped for eternity in the story of Khufu and his chums (maybe you have to be a Brit to appreciate how funny it is). The finishing music is straight from a Cecil B. Demille epic.
The whole show is about 2 hours long and rather than attempt to describe it to you, I suggest you simply visit YouTube and search for 'Pyramid light shows' whereupon you will discover many examples to give you a feel of what to expect.
Climbing the Pyramids
Alas, this age-old custom has been strictly forbidden since the 1980s (excepting to reach the entrance for interior visits) when one too many careless tourists fell off and killed themselves. Apparently, some climbing still takes place and I would love to have done it (who wouldn't) but considering the illegality of it, I had neither the nerve nor the wherewithal to try.
Climbing supposedly takes place at night (or at dawn) when it is possible to approach the Pyramids, bribe the guards (the Antiquities Police, again) and get scaling. A go-between may be required for bribery purposes. Who these go-betweens are, I don't know. But I expect that simply asking any MTSO with a nod and a wink (and possibly a sprinkling of cash) will get you the necessary information. I've also heard that some people sneak up and climb without paying. Whether this be truth or urban legend you'll have to decide for yourself, but I can't imagine the guards would be anything less than horrified to catch someone climbing bribe-free.
Also, it doesn't take a genius to work out that climbing a pyramid in the dark is a dangerous business and if you fall off, you will have no comebacks (assuming you are still alive) and your travel insurance company will be delighted when they discover that your injuries were sustained during illegal activity. And If that doesn't put you off, then be sure to wait until after the light shows have finished or you will run the risk of providing entertainment for thousands as you are 'lit up' halfway through your covert operation.
Just a pile of old stones?
Finally, if you're not sure that the Giza plateau is interesting enough to warrant your attention, let me say this;
Over the centuries the Pyramids have been variously battered, neglected, vandalised, pilfered for free masonry and sandblasted by countless desert windstorms, yet they are still here. These colossal monuments stand as a stunning testament to the ingenuity and determination of their constructors. They were built to last for eternity and after four and a half thousand years are still making a darned good go of it.
When you visit, walk up to one of them and place both palms against one of the great square blocks, close your eyes, and try to feel the depth of time contained within its ancient structure. Wars have raged, generations have lived and died, races, nations and even mighty empires have risen and subsequently vanished, and through all of them, the Pyramids have remained, waiting patiently for you, a small, modern day tourist, to come and stand in their shadow and goggle astoundedly at them.
When Alexander the Great walked amongst these ruins they were already more than two thousand years old (luckily, he came on Bucephalus so didn't have to haggle for rides.) And when, like Alexander, you and I are nothing but dust on the wind, the Pyramids will remain still. They will continue to endure and continue to welcome the keen and the curious to this timeworn desert plateau, where they in turn will marvel at these miracles of antiquity. When all is said and done, the Giza Pyramids are the closest thing to timeless that mankind has ever achieved. And surely that alone, if nothing else, makes them worth a visit.
(Yes, yes... I know there are probably better examples of 'timeless' around, but it was such a good sound-bite to finish on I couldn't resist it.)