Cairo Part 2: The Pyramids

April 2, 2020: The Pyramids

Maisie and I arrived at Giza Station at 9AM after a 13 hour sleeper train from Luxor. Our train was delayed 3 hours due to a crash 1 week prior. Our original plan was to arrive in Old Cairo, check into our hotel, and then get picked up by our Pyramids tour guide there. However, we changed the plan on the fly to reflect the new reality (glad we booked a private tour today with people who were flexible).

Ibrahim, our guide, met us on the train platform. I was tired from the too-small bunk, but there was nothing to do at this point except enjoy the day!

After a 45 minute drive, we reached out first stop: Saqqara. 

Saqqara is an ancient necropolis, which is a fancy word for collection of tombs. Like almost all ancient Egyptian tombs, it is located on the west bank of the Nile River, which represents death. All the cities are located on the east “life” bank. 

The royal tombs in Saqqara and elsewhere in the Cairo area date from the Old Kingdom and the Early Dynastic Period. The first tombs here are from the First Dynasty of a united Upper and Lower Egypt (3100 BC-2900 BC). For contrast, the tombs in Luxor´s Valley of the Kings were from the 19th and 20th Dynasty, 1500 years later. The complex is huge and many of the tombs here are still unexplored.

The most important burial at Saqqara was the pharaoh Djoser from the 3rd Dynasty (approximately 2800 BC). At the time, pharaohs and nobles were buried in called mastabas, large stepped stone structures with deep vertical burial shafts. Djoser wanted to do something different so he instructed his architect Imhotep to construct the world´s very first pyramid.

The Step Pyramid of Djoser- Egypt´s first pyramid

This pyramid has steps just like a mastaba, but rises to a single point. The pyramid is 62.5 meters (205 ft) tall and was considered the tallest and largest structure ever built by humans at the time of its construction. We did not enter the Step Pyramid. 

In addition to the pyramid, the funerary complex of Djoser had multiple temples. Two temples in particular were built for a ritual called Heb-Sed where, after ruling for 30 years, the pharaoh must ceremonially race around the temples representing Upper and Lower Egypt to regain the crowns. I am not sure whether it was due to COVID or the remoteness of the site, but Maisie and I were the only ones here. It felt lonely and mysterious to be alone with such a large and ancient hunk of stone.

The masonry was perfect and there were no gaps between stones. This led our guide Ibrahim to honestly believe that aliens assisted the ancient Egyptians.

A temple of Djoser

Besides Djoser´s pyramid, we actually got to enter two different tombs. One was a pyramid for the Pharaoh Teti from the 6th Dynasty (2300 BC). Teti´s pyramid was considerably smaller than Djoser´s and was worn down by time. However, it is significant for being the first pyramid to have hieroglyphics carved inside. 

The tomb of a vizier of the pharaoh Teti. The carvings are so precise that modern archaeologists know exactly what the ancient Egyptians ate

To get into the pyramid, we had to climb down a steep diagonal passageway. We were led by a “local guide” who ensured that we did not take photos. Actually, he was there to ensure that, if we did take photos, we would pay him a “present”. Because I despise the bakshish culture, I decided to not take pictures.

From there, we drove 20 minutes further from Cairo to Dashur. Dashur is home to two pyramids both built by the pharaoh Snefru (4th Dynasty 2600 BC). Snefru was inspired by Djoser´s Step Pyramid from 50 years before and wanted to improve on the design. He first tried to built a step pyramid called the Meidum Pyramid. After that was completed, he gifted it to the previous pharaoh and then tried to build a bigger pyramid. The pyramid was intended to have steep sides but midway through the construction, the builders changed the angle to a flatter one, giving it a bent appearance. 

The Bent Pyramid of Snefru

Snefru did not like the appearance of this one so he gifted it to his wife. 

On his third attempt, Snefru was able to built a grand straight-sided pyramid. This was considered the world´s first true pyramid. Today it is called the Red Pyramid and is open to tourists for no extra cost. 

The Red Pyramid of Snefru

Of course, we had to venture in. The entrance to the Red Pyramid lies about 1/3 of the way up. From there, we had to crawl down a steep 79-meter tunnel to the bottom of the pyramid. 

Inside the descending passageway of the Red Pyramid

From there, we then climbed up a series of wooden staircases and then ducked through one more short passageway to reach the burial chamber. 

The burial chamber of Snefru

The chamber itself was undecorated. While many feel like this is a disappointment, it was in awe to be standing in an ancient room in the middle of this massive stone structure. 

I loved Dashur. In addition to the thrill of walking into a pyramid, I loved being the only tourists here. I could really feel the emptiness of the desert when walking around. 

Our final stop was Giza, 45 minutes north of Dashur. Giza is home to the most famous pyramids in Egypt. It is also the closest to Cairo- Giza is technically a separate city but is located in the sprawl. The entire Giza Necropolis is surrounded by urban development despite what the postcards show. 

Unlike Saqqara and Dashur, Giza was PACKED. There were lines of tour busses waiting to get in. Additionally, Giza had a large number of locals. 

The area had a large number of vendors too. They consisted of postcard vendors and camel vendors. The camel vendors wanted to get you to either ride the camel or pose with the camel for a photo op. If you took a picture with the camel, the guy would come over to you and ask for money. Therefore, I had to be strategic to make sure I did not get any camels in my photos. Unlike in Luxor, the vendors here do take no for an answer. Perhaps this is because there are so many tourists that they can easily find business. 

Giza has three pyramids. The largest and most famous is the Great Pyramid. It is Egypt´s largest pyramid and is the only surviving of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. 

The Great Pyramid of Giza

The Great Pyramid was built by Khufu, who is the son of Snefru. Khufu is named after the ram-headed god Khunum whose home I visited in Elephantine Island in Aswan earlier in the trip. 

The Great Pyramid is 146 meters (481 feet) tall and has a volume of 2.6 million square meters. It was the tallest building in the world for 4,000 years. 

The main ticket to Giza does not include entrance into the pyramids. To enter the Great Pyramid, it cost an extra 400 Egyptian pounds per person ($25 USD). By Egyptian standards this is very expensive. However, Maisie and I felt that it would be a shame to not go into the Wonder of the World, so we went for it. Luckily, they accepted my student card so I was able to get a 50% discount (actually you can get a student discount at every site in Egypt but sometimes they required an International Student Card, which is a very specific form of student card that has to be preordered online. 

The Great Pyramid was considerably easier to climb than the Red Pyramid. The crawl passage was larger. Halfway up, the passage turned into a grand hallway that led all the way up to the burial chamber. 

Inside the Great Pyramid!!

In the chamber, the outer sarcophagus was there!

The burial chamber of Khufu

On the way down, we were slowed by a Russian tourist who was sobbing because she was claustrophobic. 

Once outside the Great Pyramid, we walked around the rest of the complex. Next door is the pyramid of Khafre, the son of Khufu. Khafre´s pyramid is slightly smaller than Khufu´s but is located on a hill so it appears to be taller. We did not go inside Khafre´s pyramid. 

There is also a third large pyramid that we did not visit. 

The final stop of the day was at the Sphinx. This world famous statue was built by Khafre and features his likeness. The Sphinx is also featured in Greek mythology but the Greek sphinxes are female. I was surprised by the size of the Sphinx of Giza.  

At the Sphinx of Giza

Exhausted from sightseeing on no sleep, we headed into Cairo and to our hotel for some rest and dinner with my IESE friends. 

Final Thoughts:

The Pyramids exceeded my expectation. Not only are they so old and so large, but the experience of climbing into them was fun and adventurous. If I had to rate the three sights, I would put Dashur as my favorite followed by Giza followed by Saqqara. That said, I thought that they were all wonderful and I would not have changed a thing about my day. Going to just Giza would be a shame because seeing the pyramids without crowds is very special. Also, it is cool to understand the story of how each pharaoh built upon the achievements of his predecessor. 

There is a reason the pyramids have been a major tourist attraction for over 2,000 years. The hype is real. No trip to Egypt would be complete without a visit to the Pyramids. 

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