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          Best Places to Visit in Egypt



The Pyramids  at Giza and Saqqara

The Great Pyramids and Sphinx at Giza are a must see

The Best Pyramids to Visit in Egypt

Few visitors to Cairo miss the opportunity to travel to the nearby Giza Plateau to see the Pyramids and the enigmatic Sphinx. Located to the south-southwest of Cairo, Giza is a crowded, densely populated suburb of the capital.  If you have time consider expanding your tour to include the Necropolis of Sakkara where you can see  Djoser’s Step-Pyramid that is the earliest prototype for  the pyramids of Giza.

The Pyramids at Giza

The Pyramids of the Giza Plateau date from the Fourth Dynasty (circa 2500 BC). These iconic pyramids are located on a stony plateau in Giza in an area near the Nile River and Memphis, the historic capital of ancient Egypt that is now ruins.

The Pyramids at Giza include the Great Pyramid of Cheops, which is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, still in existence. The Giza Plateau  is part of a desert area that the ancient Egyptian considered the "Land of the Dead."  It houses a number of  funerary complexes used to prepare the deceased pharaohs for their journeys to the afterlife, before being entombed in their chosen burial chamber.

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.

The 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.  The 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 Khufu . 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 Pharaoh Khafre   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. 

Menkaure’s pyramid 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 creation

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 with 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 stunning sight. 

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 official website.

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 guide.

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 (baksheesh again).

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.

Saqqara (Sakkara) 

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.

While 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 damaged.

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 area. 

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 , known 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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