There may be no other place on Earth that inspires more fantastical leaps of the human imagination than the Great Pyramids at Giza.
How did the builders of these massive tombs cut millions of stone bricks with such precision and then stack them just so? Were they humans or aliens? Angels or time travelers? And did the builders know that thousands of years later their monuments would keep National Geographic film editors gainfully employed trying to answer these very questions?
For my money, human beings really were this smart, this skilled, and this vain five thousand years ago. That’s what makes these structures so marvelous. Just look at what we humans can do. Archaeologists have found tools, schematics, quarries, and even instructions carved into tombs that tell us all we need to know about how they were built. Knowing how they did it won’t ruin the magic, I promise. I have been in awe of the pyramids since I was a kid, so finally getting to walk around (and inside!) them was a big check mark off a long-standing bucket list item.
Getting to the site was much easier than I thought it would be. Somehow I’d built up in my mind that we’d need to join a caravan into the deep desert. But no, Giza is on the other side of the Nile from Cairo. The most difficult part of the whole day was avoiding the horse and camel touts, who hounded us ceaselessly from the moment our taxi dropped us off at the front gates.
In fairness, tourism took a steep nosedive after the 2011 revolution and it’s only barely starting to pick up again. There were a few Chinese tour groups that shuffled through, but otherwise it was just a smattering of locals and us Americans wandering around. The touts are desperate for the business. If they tell you that it’s an hour walk from the taxi drop to the ticket office, feel free to laugh at them. It’s a very short walk.
In retrospect, we probably didn’t need to buy a ticket for every single structure (there’s a ticket to get into the complex and then separate tickets for each pyramid or tomb), but we don’t regret a thing. I mean, we were INSIDE the pyramids. Even when there wasn’t much to see it was still amazing. And, well, there isn’t much to see. Most of what was in the burial chambers was removed by grave robbers or museums. What remains are empty, featureless caverns.
If you’re on a budget, you might limit yourself to the Tomb of Mersy Ankh III and the Cheops Boat Museum. The tomb is dedicated to Queen Meresankh, who was the granddaughter of Khufu (he of the Great Pyramid) and the wife of Khafre (he of the second pyramid with the capstones still on it). The tomb is richly decorated. It’s everything we hoped would have greeted us inside the pyramids.
The Cheops Boat Museum (separate ticket purchased at the museum itself, not the main ticket counter) is where they’ve placed a restored sun boat that was buried next to the pyramid and was meant to carry the dead king through the underworld.
They’ve managed to restore one of the boats and it’s magnificent to see. The museum is three levels, so you can see the boat from beneath it as well as above.
Day Trips to Other Pyramid Sites
There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 pyramids scattered throughout Egypt. The earliest kings were buried in the ground with a “mastaba” capping the grave. The mastaba was a raised rectangular structure with slightly inward sloping sides and a flat roof. These were the basis for what would become the pyramids.
It wasn’t until the fabled (and eventually deified) engineer Imhotep came along that the first pyramid was built. King Zoser asked, and Imhotep delivered. The step pyramid was meant as a series of stacked mastabas, giving the appearance of a tomb that was ascending into the heavens.
There’s a lot more to see here, including some of the first inscriptions that would later become the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Mostly they take the form of “spells” that would protect the dead in the afterlife, but some of the inscriptions seemed more aligned with keeping the deceased comfortable:
Walking around the complex is an adventure in itself, and just the main entry ticket got us into what we wanted to see.
Whatever else you may see in your life, whatever you choose to believe about ancient civilizations, there is a lesson that we should all take to heart about the great works of the ancient Egyptians: they were very big into state sponsorship of the arts.