Being one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the pyramids have a reputation that has drawn tourists for centuries. As the current American Ambassador to Egypt commented, they are “Egypt’s greatest infrastructure investment”, as they continue to provide for Egypt’s economy 4,000 years after their construction.
Millennia of tourism have also created an industry of guides, translators and hawkers selling everything from cheap pyramid and sphinx statues to camel and horse rides around the complex. Having heard a number of unfortunate stories of people being swindled in some fashion (such led out into the desert by camel for two hours and then asked to pay almost $500 for a ride they thought was going to last 30 minutes) we were on our guard as we got into the taxi for the short ride over.
Although one might romantically imagine the pyramids of Giza and the sphinx surrounded by an endless sea of dunes stretching far into the distance, that image is sadly a mirage. Cairo has gradually expanded right up to the edge of the pyramids themselves, with only a long wall barring continued building and preserving some of the “desert” feel for those visiting.
We had only just seen the top of the Great Pyramid of Cheops majestically rising up above the buildings in front of us when a man walked out of a group on the side of the road holding his hand out and crossed slowly in front of us. At first, I thought he was just trying to get himself killed crossing the street so slowly but then he stopped in front of our car and hit the windshield with his hand to make the driver stop. The driver cracked the window open and the man very loudly and insistently offered his translation services but at our urging the driver closed the window and continued onward.
We were accosted a second time just before the hill leading up to the entrance when a man forced the driver to stop and open the window. He told us that taxies were not permitted to enter the road ahead and we should rent horses to take us up to the top. We refused him a number of times and upon actually seeing other taxies drive up the “forbidden” road, we told the man we did not need horses and continued to the top.
We bought our entrance tickets but had not even made it out the door of the security building before a man in plain clothes asked us to see them. We were warned of such tricks however (our Arabic teacher even taught us phrases such as “show me your ID” and “you know I am a foreigner but how do I know you are an official?”) and proceeded right past him and up to the first pyramid.
The Great Pyramid of Cheops makes you simply stop and stare, imagining how in the world such a structure could have been built over 4,000 years ago! The author Max Rodenbeck describes it best:
“Imagine the builders’ panic when the heard the contract specifications: stack 2.3 million stone blocks of an average weight of 2.5 tons to a height of 480 feet upon a 13-acre base whose squareness and levelness must be accurate to within a thumb’s width.”
In fact, we still cannot figure out how the structure was completed in the 30 years of Cheops’ reign, a time span which means they had to lay one block every two minutes!
We climbed up to the entrance of the pyramid, marveling at how closely all the blocks fit together. At the base, one of our traveling companions, Shaheen, was stopped by someone selling small pyramid statues. When Shaheen did not respond to English, the man tried other languages: German, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian and a couple we could not identify. Shaheen then responded in Persian, which was apparently not one of the ten languages the man knew because he thought Shaheen was just speaking jibberish and responded by stringing random sounds together! We continued on to the next pyramid without a tiny statue, refusing camel rides along the way.
The second pyramid still has a smooth cap remaining from what must have been the outer covering and is almost as impressive as the first. Four or five men (none in uniforms) were standing at the entrance with a security guard lounging beside them. We had tickets to enter but were told that we were not permitted to take our cameras inside. We reluctantly left our large camera with the security guard and climbed down the cramped angular shaft for about fifty feet until we reached a corridor about ten feet tall with a few rooms that branched off from it. It was incredibly humid inside and the main burial room was empty except for a spot where the sarcophagus once was and one seemingly random Egyptian man.
We were at first hesitant to take pictures with the small cameras our friends had hidden in their pockets but then he motioned to us and said in a conspiratorial voice “pictures, pictures, quickly”, even motioning that we should take pictures of people posing inside the recessed stone pit that once held the sarcophagus! We took some pictures, but as we turned to leave he stuck out his hand, asking for baksheesh because he “let” us take the forbidden photographs. It was not hard to guess that he was probably working with the men at the entrance and they took turns inside the pyramid.
We crawled out and collected our camera, which was thankfully still with the guard, and headed down the road to the sphinx. It is an impressive statue even at a distance and may even be older than the pyramids themselves. The sphinx is also famously missing its nose, an act for which many people are blamed, including the Mamluks, Napolean and the Nazis. However, it seems that it was actually the work of a Sufi sheikh in the late 1300s, who attacked the statue in a fit of iconoclastic zeal. Even without the details of the face, the sphinx is incredible and a clear result the priorities of the ancient Egyptians, who ranked stonemasonry as important an invention as writing.
With the pyramids looming in the background, it is hard not to see the paved street filled with dusty cars, small shops and restaurants as evanescent, just one breath in the life of this city. Coming from the US where “historical buildings” can be 100 years old, Cairo redefines historical with thousands of years of successive dynasties filling the city with mosques, citadels and tombs. The list of places to visit when exploring these various layers of history is incredibly long, but the pyramids were a good place to start.