As we drove along the highway next to shopping malls, upscale condo buildings, and the construction site of a brand new Ikea, I caught my first glimpse of the Great Pyramids of Giza looming off in the distance. I must admit, I hadn’t quite expected to meet the pyramids in this manner. Though I had read that the city of Cairo butts up right against the site of the ancient ruins, I had still expected some sort of buffer between them and the city. And I certainly hadn’t anticipated the Ikea.
A few minutes later, we arrived at our hotel for the night (located directly across the street from the entrance to the pyramids and aptly named The Pyramid View Inn.) Seeing the pyramids up close, my first impression was completed as such: yep, those are pyramids all right. It was not the most enthralled response, I must admit, but to be completely honest, they didn’t seem all that awe-inspiring.
After settling into our room, John and I headed up to the rooftop terrace to enjoy the view of sunset over the site. This was the view from the hotel roof. You literally cannot stay any closer to the pyramids than this.
It seemed appropriate to enjoy a little happy hour with our pyramid view as we waited for our dinner to arrive. With a little beer in me, I began to rethink my first impression. Maybe the pyramids were stunning. I wondered if during our visit the following day we might be more impressed with the scale of the structures from up close. Though neither John nor I were convinced this would happen, we decided to give them the benefit of the doubt.
As we dined on hummus and bread salad, the sun set over the pyramids. It wasn’t the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen, but its hard not to find the silhouettes of three ancient pyramids emerging against the night sky at least novel.
After sunset each night, the light and sound show begins. Getting to see it for free was one of the perks of staying at this hotel, so we stuck around to watch. During the show, a loud voiceover (intended to be the voice of the Sphinx) explains the history of the pyramids while a laser and light show displays on the pyramids themselves. The show felt a bit over-the-top cheesy (not to mention historically inaccurate) for me, but again, it was novel.
The next morning, we crossed the street and entered the park just as it was opening. The hotel staff had tried to sell us on tours both on camel back and in an air conditioned car, mostly by lying to us. They claimed that walking on your own was too hard because it was 8/12/15 km (the figure varied depending on which staffer was trying to sell us) and that to walk was impossible. Even if those figures had been accurate, we are certainly capable of walking a few miles, and in fact welcomed the exercise. Clearly dismayed that we wouldn’t take them up on their expensive camel riding options, they pushed us to at least hire a guide for the day. While normally we avoid hiring guides at these types of sites because they are rather under-informed, I had read many accounts that hawkers within the site had gotten overly aggressive toward tourists over the last few months. Because tourism in Egypt has suffered considerably since the revolution, the hawkers have become more desperate to make money off the few tourists that are still coming to Egypt, and as such have become a rather substantial danger/annoyance to patrons of the site. I had read that having a guide with you helps cut back on this problem substantially, so we decided to hire someone to walk with us through the park, mostly as protection. Fortunately, we only thought of him as this – protection – rather than a guide, because he was woefully uninformed about the site itself and provided us with little to no information on our “tour.” He did keep most of the hawkers at bay, however, with a few annoying exceptions for some of his buddies.
Above is the largest pyramid, the Pyramid of Khufu which measures 481 feet tall. Below are the small pyramids for Kufu’s wives.
We went inside one of the queens’ pyramids, through the tiny hole you see below. Once you are inside, it’s practically a straight shot down into the tomb itself. The space is very small, a bit claustrophobic, and not all that interesting. Based on this visit, we decided not to go inside the larger pyramids, which have tunnels that are supposedly only 4 feet tall. John’s height notwithstanding, it did not seem like fun to crawl around inside that narrow of a passage.
The stones that comprise the pyramids are quite huge, with some of them weighing up to 3 tons each. Apparently they used to let people climb up the outside of the pyramids all the way to the top, but after too many toursits fell to their deaths they put an end to climbing. Seems like the right thing to do.
The second largest pyramid is Khafre’s pyramid, built by the son of Khufu. Though it is smaller in size, it was once covered in limestone, making it slightly more beautiful than the larger pyramid.
Several times during our tour, the guide insisted on taking the camera from my hands to take a photo of the two of us. While I appreciate having a few photos of the two of us, I can’t for the life of me understand why he couldn’t get the top of the pyramid in the photo. Out of seven images he took, five of them have the top of the pyramid cut off, and one has a bus in it. Really dude?!?!? You’d think if you work as a guide at the pyramids you would know that you should get the whole stupid pyramid in the photo…Sigh. Yet another reason why all of our photos look like this.
(You may be wondering what John is wearing on his head. It’s an arabic head scarf that he “purchased” the night before while walking back from the ATM in Giza. I put purchased in quotes because it was quite a shady transaction that led to him owning said head scarf. The story of how John got scammed by a small child in an alleyway is his to tell at a later date, but he wore the head scarf to keep his neck out of the sun, to try out the local fashion, and I think a bit in defiance of being sold something he didn’t really want. I made him take it off for one of our photos, but of course in that one our guide decided to only include about 1/3 of the pyramid we were standing in front of. )
The third and smallest pyramid is Menkaure’s Pyramid. Supposedly because it was the smallest, it was built with the most expensive materials, and was once covered in granite stones.
To one side of the pyramids there is a bit of Egyptian desert. But most of the views from the pyramids these days are of the massive, sprawling city of Cairo.
Last on our tour was the Sphinx. It was supposedly built in the resemblance of Khafre. If the light and sound show is to be believed, the Sphinx speaks in an English accent, and had its nose shot off by Napoleon (a story which is widely discredited as a myth.) In other words, don’t believe what you hear at the light and sound show.
At least our guide didn’t cut off the top of the Sphinx in this photo…
I had a difficult time feeling excited by the pyramids. To be honest, the pyramids just are not very impressive in real life. True, they are very, very old. But that wasn’t enough to make our experience there a remarkable one. Perhaps it was the combination of having to be on guard against hawkers, being annoyed with our tour guide, sweltering in the desert heat…I don’t know. All I can say is at the end of the day we felt like we just ticked off the box of “Seeing the Pyramids” without really enjoying the experience. On the list of great ruins we’ve seen this year, the pyramids slide easily into last place. (In case you are wondering, the current standings are as follows: 1) Petra 2) Machu Picchu 3) Angkor Wat 4) Tikal 5) Pyramids of Giza.)
At the end of our tour we left Giza for a nicer hotel closer to downtown Cairo. Based on the 20 minute cab ride alone, I wanted to hide in our hotel for the remainder of our time in Egypt. I’ll explain why next.