Journey Jotters

Bitten by the travel bug

As mentioned in the posts here and here, our journey to South Africa began with a long stopover in Cairo. And we took advantage of the eleven hours we had to take a day tour.

The Great Pyramid of Khufu

Our flight landed in Cairo almost an hour earlier than expected. We exited quickly and went to the arrivals hall where we met Mohamed Rashad from Memphis Tours. He gathered us and another family in the lobby. The other family was spending time in Egypt, so while they were getting their luggage sorted, Mohamed sold us on a trip to Cairo Tower and a felucca ride on the Nile that evening. We would be back at the airport at 8 pm sharp, just in time to complete check-in procedures for the flight out. The new itinerary cost us an extra $40 per person, but Mr. JJ felt it was better for us to be busy until boarding time rather than spend time at the airport. So, off we went.

Mohamed took us to the parking lot and introduced us to our driver for the day. He spoke basic English. The van was large and comfortable enough to seat all of us. We were given cold water bottles. And we set off, in the glaring afternoon sun!

Our first stop was to pick up Ahmed, our Egyptologist, and guide for the day. He spoke fluently and we could understand his diction well enough. As I mentioned in the prior post, the Pyramids are located about 45 minutes outside of Cairo. The Nile splits the area into the Eastern city of Cairo and the western Giza, which is where the pyramids are located. And they close at 4 pm, which meant we had about four hours to get there and tour them.

Visitor Guidelines at the Pyramids of Giza

As we drove along, Ahmad gave us a quick summary of the many kingdoms and periods in Egypt’s history. The Pyramids were built by the Pharaohs of the Old Kingdom. The Pharaoh was considered a representation of the Divine on earth, an emissary of sorts. So when the Pharaoh died, it was believed that his mummified body would embark on a journey to the afterlife, to become one of the eternal stars. For this afterlife journey, he would need items, both tangible like food, clothes, jewelry, furniture and intangibles, like prayers and spells. A Pyramid was built as a way to house the body and its belongings but also as a channel to reach the afterlife. The well being of the Pharaoh in the afterlife ensured peace and prosperity for his subjects here on Earth.

The earliest known Pyramid is the Step Pyramid of Djoser, built in Saqqara, in 2600 BCE. That’s a staggering 4600 years before our times! It was built as layers of six horizontal blocks or steps, with a wide base and a narrow apex. While it wasn’t a true pyramid in shape, it was an archeological breakthrough for its times and laid the groundwork for what was to come.

The first true pyramid was built during the time of Snefru at Dahshur. Its original sides were built at angles of 55 degrees but this steep incline along with a soft clay base resulted in cracks in the structure midway. The engineers then altered the angles to about 43 degrees and managed to complete the structure. With the change in the angles midway during construction, the Pyramid sides were bent or blunted and thus, the Pyramid bears the name Bent Pyramid.

The Pyramids that we went to see are called the Pyramids of Giza and there are three. Snefru’s son, Khufu (or Cheops, as he is known in Greek), built the first of the three, and it’s called the Great Pyramid. The other two are the Pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure, built for his son and grandson, respectively.

The Pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, from left to right

An everlasting archeological marvel, the Great Pyramid’s precision and skill have left engineers, Egyptologists, archeologists, and just about anyone who looks at them, in awe. First off, the Pyramids were built 4500 years ago when Egyptians did not know the existence of wheels. They had no real technology, like we do now. They had only soft metals like copper on hand. And yet, the Great Pyramid lines up perfectly with the four points on the compass, and its sides, each 755 feet, vary less than two inches on any given side. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, it stood tall at 481 feet (although it has lost some height now, over time). For several centuries after it was built, the Great Pyramid remained the tallest structure on Earth.

The Giza plateau was chosen for the massive plains, where a solid horizontal base could be laid. It’s said that channels were dug along the marked sides of the Pyramid and filled with water to obtain a horizontal level base. The true North was marked by watching the movement of the polar stars and then bisected. Scientific evidence proves that the engineers were off true North by less than 20th of a degree!! Quite remarkable!!

Limestone blocks form the majority of the structure of the Pyramid. Obtained from a nearby site in Tura, the rocks were quarried using copper-based chisels. It’s believed that massive ramps were built around the Pyramid site over which these stone blocks were hauled up. The Great Pyramid alone needed a mind-boggling 2.3 million stone blocks to build. Some weighed about 50 tons each. Workers were said to have hauled these stones on wooden sleds with rails, similar to our modern-day skis. The sand in front of the sled would have been watered to make it soft and slick, thus causing less friction. It’s said that ten workers could pull a ten-ton sled easily this way. Simple but so ingenious! An A-frame like instrument with a plumb line helped to maintain the horizontal level of the structure as it rose higher.

Close up view of the side of the Great Pyramid

The inner core blocks were built roughly with debris filling the spaces between. The outer layer of higher grade limestone was brought from further away and was fitted precisely, one block against another. Set on one side of the pyramid is the entrance to the tombs. The inner gallery that leads to the burial chambers is lined with the higher grade limestone and the chamber itself are built of hard granite. The granite was quarried and transported along the Nile from Aswan, a 600-mile journey!! It’s believed that the granite was cut using copper saw with sand acting as an abrasive, a tedious task, indeed! The granite blocks are laid so precisely together that not even a credit card can be passed in between!!

All of which begs the question, who built the Pyramids for the Pharaoh? Although originally thought to be slaves, it is now widely agreed that Egyptian laborers worked on the structure themselves. Skilled and unskilled laborers formed the teams that gave life to this monument. Entire townships have been traced where the 25,000 workers lived with their families and all other necessities were provided. The Pyramids seem to have been a labor of love and passion for these ancient Egyptians. Nothing else could explain the amount of precision and skill, with so little technology (as we know it), done over 23 years.

The precision of the stone building

It’s believed that the limestone outer casing was so brilliantly white under the Egyptian sun that is dazzled everyone who set eyes on it. The Pyramidal structure is said to represent the sun’s rays as it spreads out in a similar shape. What an amazing sight it must have been for ancient Egyptians!!

Back to our trip, we passed the Citadel of Salah El-din that afternoon, as our van raced towards the Pyramids. One of the medieval fortresses built in later years, this fortification is said to be very impressive on the inside. We could see the dome of the Alabaster Mosque or the Mohamed Ali Mosque, as it’s also called. The walls of this mosque are covered in alabaster and hence the name. The architecture is based on the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Ahmed urged us to visit the fortress and mosque on a more leisurely visit to Cairo.

We were excited as we came closer to the Pyramids. Large backpacks and bags are not allowed on the Pyramid site and neither are food and drinks, except small water bottles. Our driver asked us to leave all our belongings in the van while Ahmed went to get tickets. Although it had been over 24 hours since we left home, and as tired as we were, the sight of the Great Pyramid filled us with anticipation and excitement.

View of Giza from the Great Pyramid

Ahmed took us closer to the base of the Great Pyramid. To say that one feels small in front of such a mega creation would be an understatement. Not just in terms of height, but also the magnificence of the structure itself. We examined the stone blocks, the way they were put together. We walked along the lower levels, craning our necks to see the top. The area was crowded but not immensely so. There were some vendors trying to approach us but we were asked to say a firm La Shukran (No thanks) to dissuade them. From our perch on the side of the Pyramid, we looked over the monochromatic multistoried buildings of Giza.

We viewed the Pyramids from the base, from the side angles, and continued to marvel at its glory. We took in the Pyramid of Khafre from the side of the building, where it appeared taller than the Great Pyramid. There is an option to enter the Pyramid, to see the Grand Gallery and the burial chamber within. This requires a separate ticket and more time as well. A friend tells me that the visit is certainly worth it but can be a bit claustrophobic given the narrow and short passageways. Over generations, the Pyramids have been raided time and again. The burial chambers are now stripped of the sarcophagus as well as the riches, thanks to tomb raiders. The outer casing of white limestone have also been stripped away to build other temples and structures. And yet, this side trip to the core of the Pyramids remains one of the greatest attractions of this structure. Mohamed offered us the option to visit, but we decided to postpone it to our next trip.

The symmetry of the Great Pyramid

From the Great Pyramid, we traveled to the next one, Khafre’s Pyramid by van. There are well-paved roads that interlink all the three. Khafre’s Pyramid, was 471 feet tall but not quite as wide at just over 700 feet on the sides. The apex of the Pyramid still retains some of the original limestone casing. Khafre had the most elaborate complex of buildings surrounding his Pyramid, including many temples and the Great Sphinx.

We did not stop to explore this Pyramid but drove on to a large parking area where we could get a panoramic view of all three. The smallest of the Pyramids is Menkaure’s at 218 feet tall and 357 feet on each side. After admiring the three structures and taking some photos, Ahmed encouraged us to take a camel ride on the trails surrounding us. One, it’s a unique experience riding a camel and two, it’s a great way to capture the three larger pyramids and the six smaller ones, all in a row. We decided to forego this as well, as we were too tired and hungry by that point. My friend, who visited Cairo and Egypt at the same time, tells me that the camel ride was fun for the kids and the photo-op was indeed, great!

Next, we drove to see the Great Sphinx, the recumbent mythological creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion. Also made of limestone and standing 66 feet tall and 240 feet long, the Sphinx has a male face wearing a Pharaoh’s headdress. It’s said to resemble a portrait of Khafre himself.

The Great Sphinx, forefront with Khafre’s Pyramid, background

The large complex in front of the Sphinx is where the Sound and Light show occurs in the evenings. The Pyramids are lit up in a dazzling array of colors and the Sphinx narrates the history of the three Pharaohs and their achievements. This is yet another experience we hope to undertake at our next visit.

By this time, we were famished and ready for the lunch that was included with our tour. So Ahmed took us to the Abou Shakra restaurant, across from the Sphinx. We enjoyed a vegetarian platter with soup, hummus, mixed dip with tahini, yogurt and baba ganoush, vegetarian entree with salted rice, and the rice pudding that was light and just sweet enough. The service was good, and the views of the Sphinx and the Pyramids were fantastic. The kids were especially taken with the salted rice.

Vegetarian platter at Abou Shakra
Vegetarian platter at Abou Shakra
View from Abou Shakra restaurant

Driving away from the Pyramids, there was a sense of both happiness at having seen these ancient buildings but also some wistfulness at having to leave them behind. I know we will be back one day, to explore them in greater leisure.

Join us tomorrow for Part 2 of the day trip.

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