There are three major pyramids to see at Giza
that are named in honor of the pharaoh for whom they were built. The
largest and oldest pyramid is that of that Cheops (Khufu), also known
as the Great Pyramid. The youngest of the pyramids is that of the
Pharaoh Khafre, which sits next to the much larger pyramid of Menkaure. The pyramids are guarded by the Sphinx, the recumbent
statue of a creature that is half-lion and half man. In addition, this
area includes a number of minor tombs and temples associated with
pharaohs buried in the pyramids.
Click on the image above for a photo guide to the pyramids
The Giza pyramids were constructed of layered courses of limestone blocks
(some weighing several tons). Calculations indicate that the Great
Pyramid of Cheops required more than two million of these blocks, which were
of varying size and weight, laid in over 200 levels. To this day
archaeologists are unsure of the specific methods used to construct the
pyramids. All we are sure of is that it took the efforts of thousands
of workers over several decades.
exteriors of the Giza pyramids were originally sheathed with a polished
limestone facing, so that they were smooth sided. It is also thought that
the original capstones of these pyramids were sheathed in gold to increase
their reflectivity and sense of majesty. Unfortunately, the lure of the gold
caps and the
polished limestone sheathing proved irresistible. After the decline of
the pharaohs the Great Pyramids were
plundered to build structures in nearby areas.
The three major pyramids run along an imaginary line from southwest to northeast.
southeastern corners of the three pyramids are almost perfectly
aligned (varying only by a few inches) along the diagonal. The three
pyramids are positioned in terms of chronology and size with the youngest
and smallest pyramid, Menkaure, to the
southwest and the oldest and largest (Cheops) to the northeast.
The tallest, largest and most well-known of the three
pyramids is that of the Pharaoh Cheops, also known as
. It is also called the Great Pyramid. The royal tomb was constructed
over a twenty-year period during Cheop’s reign in the Fourth Dynasty and
dates from the 26th century BC. Cheop’s pyramid originally
topped-out at slightly over 480 feet and covers over 13 acres. Although its
top layers and capstone are missing, the height of the pyramid is shown by a
pole recently erected at its top for this purpose.
The middle pyramid of the three, was built for the
and is approximately 472 feet high and
slightly smaller in area that the pyramid of Cheops. Because it was built
on higher ground than Cheop's pyramid, it appears taller, although it is slightly shorter. However, Khafre’s pyramid, has retained most of
its top course of stone, as well as some of its smooth siding.
is significantly smaller than the others (both in terms of height
and area), although is funerary complex is larger and more comprehensive. It
is thought that by the time Menkaure started planning his pyramid that the
cost of building these monuments had become excessive, leading to the
construction of this last and smallest of the Giza pyramids.
Each of the pyramids has burial chambers that can be
visited, although the path into these is dark, dingy and not for the
claustrophobic. In addition, the burial chambers are largely empty. Note
that the availability of the burial chambers for touring varies and usually only two of
the pyramid interiors are open at a time, while the odd one out is refurbished,
usually over a multi-year period.
On the southern flank of Cheop’s pyramid, you will find
the functional, but unusual looking Solar Boat Museum. It is
here that you can examine the
solar boat thought to have been the funerary barge that transported the
body of Cheops across the Nile to his mausoleum. The museum is built above
the pit in which the remains of the boat were found in the mid-1950s. The
boat had been disassembled after its original use. The reconstruction of the pieces
of the 140-foot long boat required over a decade of effort.
Click the photo of the Sphinx above for a photo essay on this marvelous
The Great Sphinx
, approximately 260-feet long and nearly seventy-feet high,
is one of the
most popular attractions on the Giza Plateau. The combination of a human head and hands
the body of a lion was designed to show the authority and power of the
pharaoh Although the Sphinx has been repaired and restored several times
over the nearly five thousand years that it has been in existence, it remains a
During long periods the Sphinx was buried
by sand and lost to history, which aided in its preservation. The
Sphinx occupies its original enclosure that has been excavated and reinforced.
Constant renovations help maintain the Sphinx, so do not be surprised to see
scaffolding and workers attending the Sphinx during your visit.
The Sphinx is thought to have been created as part of
the funerary complex of the pharaoh known as Khafre and some say that the enigmatic face of the
Sphinx is that of Khafre himself, although there is great debate about this issue.
Carved from the original bedrock, parts of the monument have been
supplemented with other building materials to preserve and stabilize it.
The nose of the Sphinx has been lost to the ravages of time, although a
shard of what is believed to have been a beard that was reattached during one of the
many restorations is on display at the
British Museum in London.
There a numerous tombs of queens and minor nobles
scattered around the Giza plateau that might be of interest. Enlist a guide
for this exploration
or you will have no idea of what you are seeing. Fewer tourists visit
these tombs, as the pyramids and the Sphinx take quite a bit of time
to tour and are the preferred destinations
on the plateau.
There is a sound and light show at the Giza pyramids
that takes place shortly after dusk, although times vary by season (winter
and summer). The show is provided in a variety of languages, but the
times for each language is different and specific languages are not
available every day. The seating for the show is near the Sphinx, with
the pyramids in the background. For information on the Pyramid Sound
and Light Show (presented in an outdoor theater facing the
Sphinx) see this
Notes on Visiting
To better envision what you will see at Giza, take a look at this
360 degree tour from the air
, it is quite dramatic.
The ticket to see the Pyramids does not include the Solar Museum, or entering the pyramids whose burial chambers are open (extra fee).
Vendors - How to deal with the horde
The Giza pyramids attract large numbers of tourists and that means they also attract a crowd of vendors and con-men who either hope to sell you something, shame you into paying them something, or duping you out of your money in some other manner.
The number of vendors is overwhelming and they are not hesitant to greet
you as an old friend, place their wares in you hands and then demand to be paid for them. Ignore vendors
and do not speak to them if you do not want to buy
what they are selling.
We recommend that you do not talk to anyone you do not know. Wear dark glasses and ignore the touts, the people who ask where you are from and anyone else who approaches you. We know this sounds harsh, but if you give an inch, you will regret it.
In addition to the usual vendors of postcards, pens. books and statues you will be offered camel rides, donkey rides and horse rides. We suggest that you do not partake in these offers unless you are accompanied by a guide who has a preferred vendor for whom they will vouch.
It is not unusual for some vendors to load tourists on a donkey and take
them out on the plateau, then demanding a large payment to return them to
the pyramid area. We cannot overstate the importance of 1) have a
reliable guide who is looking out for your best interests, and 2) avoiding
any entanglement with any vendor that has not been recommended by your
While you are at the Giza Plateau, you will notice there are plenty of tourist police. We are not sure what service the tourist police actually provide,
but it has little to do with the protection of tourists. However, if they see you with a camera, they will suggest a specific location for you to take a photo and expect to be tipped for the service
We recommend that you ignore
vendors or your visit will be spent fending off competing offers for goods,
services and other opportunities that will invariably lead to a selling
opportunity for the vendor. If you do not buy, you may be insulted or
called names, again, this is where a good tour guide can help you to avoid
any of these issues.
About 9 miles southeast of the Giza Plateau is Saqqara,
an area of desert sand that is one of the largest of the necropolis sites
in Egypt. This active dig site is spread over 32 square miles (88
square kilometers) of desert.
Saqqara is known for the pyramid of Djoser,
which is considered to be the first attempt at pyramid building in Egypt. Construction was
started here between the 26th and 27th centuries BC
during the Third Age of the pharaohs. Imhotep, a counselor to Djoser,
who designed this unique step-pyramid is now considered to be the "da Vinci"
of his era, as his interests and accomplishments included art, medicine,
science and architecture. His design of the pyramid symbolized a set
of steps rising to the afterlife, or steps that were sent by the gods to assist the pharaoh
on his journey to the heavens.
Previous to the invention of Djoser's Step-Pyramid, the burial sites for kings and
the wealthy were underground chambers covered by a rectangular mud-block
slab commonly known as a mastaba. Imhotep decided that Djoser
deserved greater glory than was an ordinary mastaba.. He concluded that Djoser’s burial chamber should be
covered with multiple mastabas, each constructed of stone and slightly
smaller than the mastaba on which it rested.
In a sense, the design concept was that the steps of the
pyramid would provide a stairway reaching towards the heavens. Imhoptep's
final design was for a pyramidal shape approximately 200-feet in height
comprised of six stone tiers or layers. It is from this initial
stepped-design that all pyramids in Egypt evolved.
The Djoser Complex of buildings is surrounded by walls
with false doors, of which one was the actual entrance to the tombs. In
addition, there are a number of underground burial chambers and shafts
at the site, which is considered one of the most complex in all of Egypt.
much of the Saqqara complex has been rebuilt by archaeologists, the pyramid is original.
It is currently being renovated and large expanses of it are surrounded by
scaffolding. The entrance to the Djoser complex is through a hall of columns that
were rebuilt from original pieces, mixed with new constructions.
Click image above for more photos of Saqqara
On the south side of the site is an a gated but uncovered shaft
that extends far below the surface, as it was for access to the burial chamber. To the
east of the pyramid is the royal pavilion which leads to a modest courtyard
featuring a small statue of Djoser and a set of buildings that are
reconstructions using original materials. At the north end of the complex
is another small pyramid from a later dynasty that is small and badly
It has been reported that over a half a million mummified bodies
of the Ibis bird were found in the complex of temples and tunnels thought
to be offerings by ancient Egyptians asking for a return to good health.
Just so you know, the Ibis is no longer found in Egypt.
From the Djoser complex you can see other sections of
Saqqara and the large number of tombs and buildings that populate this
About three miles to the south are two
somewhat unusual pyramids attributed to the pharaoh Snerfu and these are among the
oldest pyramids in Egypt. Both pyramids have most of their original
limestone sheathing and appear smooth sided. The Red Pyramid
for its unusual color, is north of the Bent Pyramid
- so named
because it has a stunted look thought to have been the result of
originally building the lower course of the pyramid at a steep angle that
made the structure unstable. The higher layers were, then added at a
lower angle and the combination of the two slopes provides this pyramid
an unusual, non-symmetrical profile.
Carpet Weaving Schools
Giza has a number of schools where local youth are trained on how to
weave carpets. Many tours of Saqqara and the Pyramids at Giza involve a
short stop at one of the many schools where you will be treated with
tea, a short session on carpet design and construction. After you will
tour the showroom where the products of skilled weavers are on display and
for sale. Shipping is usually free and the schools claim a tax exempt
status to make a purchase even more appealing. Of course the
charitable nature of these schools is also touted during the tour. We
found many of the carpets of excellent craftsmanship, although the costs
seemed excessive. If you have the opportunity, take the tour as the
details of carpet construction are fascinating.
Click the above image to see more photos of rug making in Egypt.
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