Giza Pyramids, Memphis, and Saqqara

After a buffet breakfast at our hotel, we met our tour guide (normally, we travel fairly independently, but in Egypt, a private guide seemed to add a lot of value and be relatively inexpensive). We headed for the Giza Pyramids, built more than 4,000 years ago and located on the west bank of Cairo. During the time the pyramids were constructed, the people worshipped the sun god, Ra. Since the sun rose in the east, the east side of the Nile was for the living, where the west side was for the dead, and thus, the pyramids.

We started with the oldest pyramid in this area, the Great Pyramid of Khufu which was completed in 2570 B.C. and originally stood at 146 meters high, but is a bit shorter now that it has lost its tip. It was amazing to think about how tens of thousands of people spent many years constructing them with ancient tools.

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The inside was quite impressive, if also quite empty and plain. There was a steep passageway that took us to the top, but even John couldn’t stand up in some places, so you can imagine how difficult it was for Jeremy to navigate. Quite fun, and one of the highlights of the day.

We stopped at a nice picture point that allowed us to stand at the base of the Great Pyramid, and take pictures of the second pyramid, built for Khufu’s son, Khafre.

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To show respect for his father, Khafre made his tomb slightly shorter, just 136 meters high, but then he built it on a higher point on the hill to make it appear larger. It was just a short walk away, so we walked there, then hopped in the car and passed by the third pyramid.

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The Pyramid of Menkaure, Khufu’s grandson, is quite a bit smaller, originally only 66 meters.

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All three pyramids were built with limestone, then coated with a higher quality limestone that made each pyramid gleam in the sun and appear to be all one piece. Unfortunately, with the exception of the peak of the second pyramid, most of the coating has crumbled off in various earthquakes and has been used for other palaces and mosques. There are also three small pyramids along the east side of the Great Pyramid that are known as the Queens’ Pyramids. Apparently very few of the queens were mummified. I think only one of these three were. This process was usually reserved for someone who had actually ruled.

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After getting a few nice pictures, we went to one of the camel stand and picked up three camels to go out to a nice viewpoint of the pyramids.

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If we wouldn’t have had a driver, we probably would have considered taking a camel from the second pyramid up to this point, but the short camel ride was fun. Getting up and down was a little interesting, but as long as you lean really far back, it isn’t too bad.

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We then drove to the Cheops Boat Museum. Apparently wooden boats filled with supplies were also burried in various places around the pyramids. The believe was that the pharaoh’s soul would be transported to the afterlife in one of these. The museum contains the largest of these. It is quite amazing that wood, and even a pile of ropes, from 4,000 years ago is still intact.

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The Sphinx can be entered through Khafre’s Valley Temple, which had a man-made lake that was used to transport building materials from the Nile River via canals.

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The boys were surprised that the Sphinx is believed to be a carving of Khafre’s face, since they were sure that the Sphinx was a girl. Our guide assured us that the hairstyle was for a man.

It was lunchtime, but it is Ramadan here, which for us, mostly meant that the sites were going to be closing at 2:30. Since Ramadan for most of the local people means no eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset for an entire month, we convinced the boys that peanuts and water in the car would suffice until later in the day, and we continued sightseeing. I really can’t figure out how people can be out in the baking hot sun without water for this long, it makes the fasting part seem trivial. At one stop our driver spent some time splashing water on his face and said it really helped. Also, there is only a week and a half left, so he said that he is starting to get used to it.

Everyone was really happy with what we had seen, but were also very happy to get back into the air conditioned car. We drove about a half hour to Memphis, the capital of Egypt during the Pharaonic Period, and a prosperous city until about 7 A.D. We stopped by the Mit Rahina Museum, which had a gigantic statue of Ramses II, who may have been Pharaoh during Moses time.  Not sure I would go back, but the talk from our guide made it more interesting than it could have been.

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We also made a stop to see the second biggest sphinx in Egypt, which is made of alabaster.  There were some other nice statues there, one of which was marked with the symbol of Ramses II, but had facial features of another pharaoh, so was likely confiscated by him and rebranded.

Next up was Saqqara, Egypt’s largest archaeological site. We started with some columns that represented the union of Upper and Lower Egypt and the duality in leadership.  One side represented the 20 major Upper Egypt cities, the other side the 20 major Lower Egypt cities.

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There are 11 major tombs and hundreds of smaller tombs. Most of the tombs are underground and were mostly forgotten until they were rediscovered less than 100 years ago. Each year more and more discoveries are made.  The most famous tomb here is the Step Pyramid, which was built before the Great Pyramid and helped the Egyptians work out the engineering kinks in working with stone rather than clay.

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We went into two of the pyramids and wandered by a number of the other ones.  The cuts of the stones have been quite fascinating.  Similarly to the Machu Picchu, they stones fit perfectly without the use of mortar.

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One thing that surprised us was just how empty the sites were. With recent events, tourism in Egypt has been slower. Combine that with Ramadan, and with the approach of summer, and the result was that we mostly had the place to ourselves. Nice for us!

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We toured the inside of a couple of the tombs.  At first glance, they are a little boring, but once you start studying them, they come alive with interesting detail of daily life.

Finished with sightseeing, we were dragged to an obligatory shopping center that comes along with many tours. We had an introduction to how papyrus paper is made. It was really quite fascinating to see how a somewhat brittle, twig-like stem transforms into a soft, flexible rectangle, then into very sturdy paper. It was fun to see the artwork on the papyrus, but we had no interest in purchasing, so we left fairly quickly. That is one advantage of a private tour vs. a big bus tour. With the big bus tour, if there is one person on the bus who is interested in shopping, the whole group could be delayed for hours until they are finished. With a private tour, you can set the schedule.

Finally, we were ready for lunch!  (Roughly 3pm, our tour started at 7:30am) We stopped at a place that had amazing views of the pyramids.  The food was also quite tasty.  The set menu came with a mezze platter with tahini, a grilled eggplant dish, and a roasted and pureed eggplant dish.  This was followed by a plate of grilled beef, kofta, and grilled chicken, grilled veggies, and rice in the shape of a pyramid, all of which were quite tasty.

After our late lunch, we headed back to the hotel to rest until sunset. It was a great day and a great introduction to Egypt!  I confess that I was a little nervous about this trip, but am incredibly glad that I went along with it and came.

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