When I flew home from Ghana, my trip included a stopover in Cairo, Egypt’s capital. Thanks to EgyptAir, I managed to escape the airport and embark on a very speedy but brilliant tour of the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx at Giza, on Cairo’s outskirts.
So with just four hours I visited the oldest and only survivor of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – an absolutely incredible experience, and one anyone interested in history will love. Here are 10 things I learned…
#1 There’s still loads we don’t know about the 130 or so pyramids across Egypt, the most famous of which are the three pyramid complexes at Giza. For example, we don’t know why there are ‘mystery’ passageways inside the Great Pyramid at Giza: they’re too narrow to walk through, and were found blocked (so aren’t airways). They might have been for the Pharaoh Khufu to ascend to the afterlife. Much more exciting than living mummies or tomb curses – the mysteries around the pyramids feel like a vast unsolved Sphinx riddle.
#2 But we do know plenty, starting with the three kings for whom they were built, giving the pyramids their names: Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. The Great Pyramid is Khufu’s (pictured below), and is the oldest and the largest. Constructed as a tomb, it took 10-20 years to build and was completed around 2560 BC, Egyptologists think. The middle pyramid is that of Khufu’s son, Khafre, and the smallest is Menkaure’s, Khafre’s son. Sometimes the middle pyramid, Khafre’s, looks taller; but it’s just built on slightly higher ground.
#3 Most of what was originally inside the pyramids of Giza has long been lost. Grave goods were plundered over centuries, along with countless other ancient treasures around Egypt. But the internal structures sound amazing: Giza’s Great Pyramid is the only pyramid in Egypt to have both ascending and descending passageways to its burial chambers (I didn’t have time, very sadly, since I had to catch my flight home).
#4 Even the pyramids’ external limestone was stripped over the years, which means they’re shorter than originally. However, notice that on Khafre’s pyramid (Khufu’s son) you can still spot the original white limestone on its peak, which gives an idea of how they once looked.
#5 As usual in history, we know more about the ‘great men’ than the underdogs. We don’t know much about the people who actually built the pyramids. Contrary to common belief, they probably weren’t slaves, and there’s evidence that some lived permanently nearby with their families. The Greek historian Herodotus thought 100,000 labourers built the Great Pyramid, but archaeologists now estimate that only 20-25,000 were used. Workers were sub-divided into groups and gave themselves nicknames; graffiti tells us that some groups working on the third pyramid called themselves “Friends of Menkaure” or “Drunkards of Menkaure”.
#6 You can’t climb pyramids properly any more but you can climb up a little bit. Clamber up a few fairly big pieces of stone, which can be quite tricky despite some niches and ‘steps’ carved into the sides. The pictures below might give you an idea of how tall the pyramids really are.
#7 We don’t know what Egyptians originally named the Great Sphinx of Giza, but its face is thought to be that of Khafre, so the Sphinx is contemporary to his nearby pyramid (the one with the white tip). The Sphinx remained partially buried in sand for millennia after the Giza Necropolis fell into disuse. Excavation wasn’t completed until the 1930s. Famously, its nose and possibly a pharaonic beard are missing: no-one really knows why.
#8 It’s really, really hot if you’re travelling in the summer, like I was. It was around 45 degrees Celcius when I visited the pyramids in August, meaning that my original plan – to take a taxi there and ‘wander around’ – was a terrible idea. The individual pyramids are too far apart to walk between, especially in desert heat. I ended up taking a private air-conditioned car, which was well worth the extra money. If you aren’t already travelling with a tour group, I’d really recommend hiring a private guide and car.
#9 Camels are fun! I’m a big fan of a bumpy camel ride. I personally think they’re really quite cute. There are plenty of opportunities to do so around the pyramids, just hold on tight when the camel stands up!
#10 The traffic in Cairo is absolutely horrendous. I was getting fairly worried about missing my flight to London; and that was in the middle of the day, not what I thought would be ‘rush hour’. So make sure you plan for lots of extra time sitting in traffic. On the bright side, I managed to get glimpses of the rest of Cairo from the backseat of the taxi on the way back to the airport.
And an additional tip I always advocate… don’t forget your cheesy tourist photo!Sources & further detail: Discovering Egypt has some useful maps and graphs of the site, and Britannica has further historical detail. Read about the blocked passageways of the Great Pyramid on NatGeo, and about the mystery builders of the pyramids on the BBC.