Camel and its driver offering rides to tourists

Camel and its driver offering rides to tourists

The last of the great seven wonders, an exclusive club of architectural might and splendour on a pre-biblical scale. Time and natural calamities have brought the others to their knees, toppled and crumbled into dust. Honoured by centuries of romantic prose, descriptive journals and heaving shelves stacked with devoted historical, archaeological and architectural works. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, The Temple of Artemis, The Statue of Zeus, The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, The Colossus of Rhodes and Alexandria’s Lighthouse may have been blown to the winds, but the Pyramids of Giza stand defiant. Having witnessed the rise and fall of their own creators, the coming of Christianity and Islam, endless empires from the Romans to the British, The first Olympics, the building of China’s Great wall, plagues and pestilence, the industrial revolution, two great wars and Trump, to name a few.

Visitors throughout the centuries, arriving by mule and camel through the hot Saharan winds have shared the overwhelming feeling of awe and wonder at these fabulous structures. Comprising millions of blocks rising over the nondescript plateau, their position in line with the belt of Orion. Ambitious tombs, befitting of God-Kings -a political and religious leader, rulers by divine ancestry known as Pharaohs. Sovereigns of such an advanced civilization that many have questioned their human origins.

Concentration of pyramids at Giza

Concentration of pyramids at Giza

Heading back over five millennia to 3100 BC, Egypt appointed its first true Pharaoh, Narmer (also known as Menes) who united both Lower and Upper Egypt. The first king of the first of twenty-one succeeding dynasties, broken into three kingdoms. Gradually fizzing out in the 9th century BC when Libyan settlers seized power and controlled the 22nd and 23rd dynasties—heralding a succession of foreign pharaohs including Alexander The Great, who confirmed his title from the Oracle at Siwa in 331BC.

It wasn’t until the fourth dynasty (2613BC – 2494 BC) that focus expanded from the standard mastaba (rock cut flat-roofed rectangular tombs) in honouring the dead Pharaoh, to igniting a structure more befitting of a king’s importance. Though by sight, it was architecturally simple, the size and the tonnage of each block made it ambitious and challenging. Before Giza claimed the mantle for superstructures, earlier pyramids existed at Saqqara, a huge cemetery in ancient Memphis. The final resting place for pharaohs, family members, administrators, generals and sacred animals. Taking its name from Sokar, the Memphite God of the Dead and patron of the labourers who carved out the necropolis.

Camel drivers alongside Mycerinus

Camel drivers alongside Mycerinus

The Step pyramid built around 2630BC for King Djoser (2667-2648BC) in the third dynasty was designed by Imhotep, the king’s chief architect, high priest and healer, who would eventually be recognized as the patron saint of physicians. The pyramid incorporated six stepped layers of stone, reaching a height of 62 metres, becoming the world’s earliest stone monument. Standing central to a vast funerary complex and enclosed by a limestone wall surpassing 1600m in length.

Wishing to expand on the Step pyramids initial advancement, the architects to King Sneferu (2613-2589BC) unleashed their plans to build a truer, entirely smooth, more aesthetically pleasing edifice. Commencing with an identical approach to the Step pyramid by employing steep angles and an inward leaning course of stone. However, halfway up its hundred-metre height, problems began to occur as the structure showed worrying signs of stress and instability. The current angle of 54 degrees had to be reduced to 43 degrees, changing the lay of the stones to horizontal which inevitably formed a mathematical irregularity at its apex. Known as the Bent pyramid, the architectural mistake led to substantial corrections to create the pyramid as we now know it. Taking stock of these design errors, the same team went onto build the nearby Red pyramid, in reference to the colour of the core’s limestone blocks. Staying with the 43-degree angle up to structures peak. Broken human remains found in the high burial chamber are believed to be King Sneferu himself.

Part of The Red Pyramid with the Bent Pyramid behind Dashur

Part of The Red Pyramid with the Bent Pyramid behind Dashur

Pyramids served the pharaohs during the Old and Middle Kingdoms. From 1500BC at the start of the New Kingdom, succeeding Pharaohs were transported to the Valley of the Kings at Thebes, and buried in rock-cut tombs. Religion was a complex affair, ruled over by a dizzying variety of Gods and Goddesses, many taking on an animal form, and each titled with a distinct duty. A ruler was just as much revered in death as he was honoured in life. Rituals were often long and complicated, no more so than on death where the Pharaoh’s journey was just about to begin. Believed to turn into Osiris, God of the Dead, while his successor, the new Pharaoh became Horus – the Falcon God, protector of Ra, the Sun God. His burial chamber painted with scenes to guide the deceased into the next world. Many of these reliefs were influenced by The Book of the Dead. A body of work including The Book of Amduat – concerned with the underworld, The Book of Gates and The Litany of Ra, written to declare the realm of Osiris, each hour passing into a separate region, patrolled by demigods. Imperative that Ra and those accompanying the Pharaoh knew the demigod’s names in order to pass. Great focus was given to the funerary texts knowledge of the underworld and what was to be expected.

Tombs were often designed with a false door known as Ka- referring to an element of the soul which was allowed to pass through them. Understood to grant the deceased in maintaining a link with the living, receiving sustenance from those habiting the earthly world.

Steps leading to burial chamber in the central vault of the Red Pyramid

Steps leading to burial chamber in the central vault of the Red Pyramid

Built during the fourth dynasty at the peak of the pyramid realm, the pyramids of Giza house the grand burial tombs of Khufu (Cheops), Khafre (Chephren) and Menkaure (Mycerinus), guarded by the Great Sphinx who Egyptologists believe is the head of Khafre. Smaller satellite pyramids, built for the queens, lie on the southern side on Menkaure and the east side of Khufu.

The pyramids have stood on the plateau for over 4000 years. Defiant at this length of time by their sheer bulk. Millions of blocks, each several tonnes in weight, brought by barque (boat) during the annual floods then transported using rollers and ramps by a workforce 10,000 strong. In the beginning, the pyramids were understood to be the work of slave labour. But this has since been refuted from excavations unearthing sizeable builders settlements, complete with kitchens and infirmaries. Accommodating a labour movement of farmers, redeployed outside the farming season.

The Sphinx and Chefren behind

The Sphinx and Chefren behind

But hauling the blocks up has divided opinion; encyclopedia illustrations conveyed a system of ropes and pulleys, lifting the block to the next level. The disagreements centre on the type of methods the blocks were subjected to, and their likeliness of success. Emphasis having been placed upon an idea that techniques were customized as they went along. Adapting to each problem as it materialized. The exposed blocks had to be precisely cut and stay uniformed. Equal in height and width to maintain the pyramids symmetry. Potentially, the external blocks could have been pre-marked, fitted, then trimmed to shave off excess bulk -ensuring perfect alignment. Scientists from Liverpool University are confident they have uncovered a ramp used to haul stone blocks up the pyramid in conjunction with a two-way pulley system. Archaeologists have remained unanimous that ramps were utilized, but how they worked, the higher one went, remains a source of debate. Until scientists, archaeologists, and architects agree on a single method, the mystery of the pyramids will continually enhance their appeal and feed into dozens of conspiracy theories.

Facts: Situated on a broad plateau on the west bank of the Nile 14km from the heart of Cairo, the pyramids can be reached by various forms of transport. By far the easiest is hailing a yellow metered taxi, common throughout the down-town area and Tahrir Square. Using a black & white cab is often a lot cheaper, but confirm the fare before departing as these do not operate by a meter system. Enquiring with hotel staff is a good way of knowing fare rates beforehand.

The well preserved solar barque originally buried alongside the pyramid

The well preserved solar barque originally buried alongside the pyramid

Buses: #355 & #357 can be flagged down as they pass the Egyptian museum on the northwest side of Tahrir square. -running from the airport or Heliopolis.

Metro: Line 2 from Sadat Station (beneath Tahrir Square) runs to El-Giza station. It is still a further 4 miles to Giza, but you drastically reduce the fare when alternating to a taxi, or you can hail down a microbus (white minibuses) for Haram. Female travellers can use women-only carriages on the metro.

Private tour: When tourism reaches a level resembling something akin to normality, it will be possible to join a guided tour, organized through your hotel or a tour operator, conducted in private air-con minibuses that include several hours at Giza.

Saqqara stands 25km south of Cairo with Dashur (The Bent & Red Pyramids) a further 10km south. Easiest to see as a combined visit (allow half a day minimum) by chartered taxi. Otherwise, you can take public transport to Saqqara Rd, alight at the microbus stop and transfer to the Saqqara site turn-off, from where it’s a 1.5km walk. Dashur is easier done by taxi for which you return to the Saqqara turn-off and try hailing one from there.

Entry Fees & Times: 8am – 4pm Winter, 8am – 6pm Summer.

Entry into each of the three main pyramids at Giza is possible, but they come with their own tariffs, along with the Cheops boat museum and Mers Ankh tomb. Purchase tickets from the kiosks at the main entrance. There doesn’t appear to be an official tourism website, so the price list below is the most up-to-date I could find.

Site                                                    Adult                                                   Student

Area ticket                                         200 LE                                                 100 LE

Great Pyramid                                   400 LE                                                 200 LE

Khafre Pyramid                                 100 LE                                                 50 LE

Menkaure                                          100 LE                                                  50 LE

Mers Ankh Tomb                                50 LE                                                  25LE

Cheops Boat Museum                       100 LE                                                  50 LE

(Boat Museum Camera fees)               50LE                                       Video 300LE

Sound & Light Show                         300LE

The Bent Pyramid -Dashur                  60LE

The Step Pyramid -Saqqara                120LE

Current exchange rates: £1 = 19.42LE, $1 = 15.84LE, 1 Euro = 17.44

Generally, only two of the three pyramids are open at any one time, rotating every few years. Accessing the interior is by a steep ramp down a long cramped tunnel. If you suffer from claustrophobia, this isn’t going to be the adventure you had in mind. The elderly and unfit should note the awkwardness of moving through the humid narrow confines of the tunnel. There isn’t much to see once inside the tombs, it’s more for the excitement of being deep inside a pyramid.

For disabled people, John Morris has written an in-depth review of his visit to the pyramids. Noting that closer proximity to Khufu and Khafre were possible by the partial accessibility of side-walks. Hiring a camel will allow for some excellent photo opportunities as well as the general thrill of witnessing such significant history by traditional means of transport. Wheelchair users take the front row at the nightly Sound & Light show, accessed by a ramp. www.wheelchairtravel.org/gia-pyramids-wheelchair-egypt/  www.londoncabegypt.com specializes in taxis that can accommodate wheelchair users.

Highly recommended both before and after your visit to Egypt and the Pyramids of Giza is the Cairo Museum. Exhibiting an array of treasures across the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms of the Pharaonic era. Highlights include the mummies room and the mask of Tutankhamun (though the latter is not related to the pyramids). Tickets for the museum cost 200 – 240 LE, the Mummies Room is an additional 180 LE.

The Grand Egyptian Museum, set to open next year, will be the largest archaeological museum in the world. Located 2km from the Pyramids, part of a new scheme to promote the plateau.