My girlfriend came to Cairo a couple of weeks ago for a short trip and provided me with an opportunity to go visit the numerous tourist attractions that expats living in Cairo often forget are so close by. We began her tour of Cairo’s gems with the biggest of them all, the Pyramids of Giza.
This is my second tour of duty here in Cairo and I had only seen the Pyramids once during my four months here; while at a rooftop party in Giza in which the giant shadows of these limestone beasts loomed over the festivities. My reason for not visiting otherwise was that I had done so four times before during my study-abroad semester at the American University in Cairo in 2009, one of which included a sweltering climb through the inner recesses of the Great Pyramid as I dragged my mother up the narrow chamber that leads to the final resting place of Khufu, an Egyptian pharaoh who had this not-so-subtle tomb constructed some 4,500 years ago.
Louise and I got an early start, hopped in a cab and headed out toward our destination. Our cab driver, a stern faced but pleasant older man, showed us how it’s done on the roads in Cairo as he avoided several accidents and filled any gaps in the suffocating traffic with the upmost speed.
You can begin to see the Pyramids through gaps in the urban sprawl from quite a distance. It serves as a nice appetizer so to speak for what is to come. As we made our final approach to the main gate, we witnessed first hand the desperation that is felt by the tourism industry in Egypt, an industry that has been devastated since unrest broke out on January 25th of last lear (tourism normally comprises 11% of Egypt’s GDP).
A shab, or youth, jumped in front of our moving taxi with both hands out in front of him, giving the universal sign for “stop the damn car”. We screeched to a halt. In an instant a second shab stood behind the taxi, completing the two-man trap. A third youth quickly jumped into the passenger seat of the taxi and began desperately repeating, “Must ride camel to Pyramid. Good price. Very good price. Gate closed, no taxi.” He was trying to con us into believing that it was a rule that you have to enter the grounds on camelback. This is of course nonsense and seeing that we had negative interest in riding a camel in the first place, I sternly explained we didn’t want his services. This was of course to no avail but our cab driver came to our rescue and yelled at the boy until he left the car and then basically called the kid standing from of the taxi’s bluff and drove right at him. The guy scrambled away. The driver later explained to me that we were his customers and that it was his duty to protect us (not super evident from his driving, but that can never be expected in Egypt). I thanked him for his help and paid him well.
Upon entering the grounds, only someone without a pulse can help from being absolutely astonished at what lays before them. It is quite difficult to explain how jaw-droppingly massive the Pyramids are with mere words and pictures. They are big. Really, really big.
The site is comprised of three pyramids; two seemingly equal in size giants and a significantly smaller one, as well as the infamous Great Sphinx. The original of the three pyramids, known as the Great Pyramid of Giza, dates back to approximately 2500 BC and is 455 feet high (it was originally 480 feet high but erosion has taken its toll) and each base length spans 755 feet. Khafu’s tomb is estimated to have taken 15-20 years to construct with tens of thousands of slaves doing the heavy lifting. Its volume is 2.5 million cubic meters and is made up of 2.3 million limestone blocks weighing in at over 5.5 million tons. There is an additional 8000 tons of granite that was mined and sailed up the Nile from Aswan, which is some 500 miles away in Upper Egypt (which is actually in the south of Egypt near the Sudan). During one of my trips to the Pyramids in 2009 I overheard a tour guide telling her clients that the blocks from the Great Pyramid could encircle the entire country of France with a 3 meter-high wall. This is unconfirmed but I like to repeat it to people anyway. She may have also meant the blocks from all three pyramids put together. Regardless, the nearly perfect precision of the Pyramids still baffles scientists and engineers today.
A few hundred yards away from the megastructures lays the Great Sphinx. I have been told that it was constructed because Khafre, the pharaoh who commissioned the building of the Second Pyramid of Giza, was unhappy with a massive piece of limestone was blocking the view of his future tomb. He ordered it to be destroyed. This proved to be a bit easier said than done, so it was sculpted into the image of the sphinx that we see today. In my opinion, after strolling around the Pyramids, the Sphinx is quite unimpressive. To me, the neatest aspect of the cat-with-a-man’s-face statue is that you can still see chinks in it’s face from where Napoleon’s troops opened fire upon it.
Our adventure to the only remaining “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” appropriately concluded with two Egyptian guys in their early 20’s asking me to take a picture of them with my camera. Only in the Middle East…