In the Royal Footsteps of the Ancients – the Pyramids around Cairo

“Walk like an Egyptian” is actually the effect of riding a camel, my guide, Mohammed, informed me.

Here we were in the baking hot Egyptian sun, clucking like chickens or making kissing noises, which apparently motivates my camel to pick up the pace, trudging through the rolling sand dunes of the Western Sahara desert to the famous ancient pyramids of the Giza Plateau. Camels are called the ships of the desert because of their survivability in the harsh landscape and their important role as transport across the vast seas of sand…or perhaps because they sway like boat. Well, my grumbling, spitting ship of the desert named Ramses was about to sit down.

Mohammed yells to me “Lean back!” In a split second, I went from holding onto the stirrup and leaning back to look at the sky to facing the sand below me, hanging on for dear life, as Ramses went down on his front two knees and moved his back (where I was sitting) perpendicular to the ground.

Camels are tall creatures.

Ramses the Camel and I with the Great Pyramids of Giza behind us

Ramses the Camel and I with the Great Pyramids of Giza behind us

The Pyramids of Giza dominated the horizon behind me. Constructed over 4000 years ago, the pyramids are giant structures named a wonder of world by the ancient Greeks. It’s incredible to think that this huge monument demonstrates the power of a single family through the ages. Grandfather Khufu has the biggest and once stood 146m tall when it was completed in 2570 BC making it the largest in Egypt and the oldest on the Giza Plateau. To put it in perspective, there are 2.3 million and each of the blocks weighs 2.5 tonnes (and they are tightly fitted together and the ancient Egyptians did not have iron tools!) and this pyramid has stood for the last 46 centuries of humanity! To the side are three smaller pyramids to Khufu’s sister, mother and wife. In the middle is the pyramid of Khafre, the son of Khufu, the only pyramid left with a tip of gleaming, smooth, white limestone that used to cover all of the pyramids. The smallest is the pyramid of Menkaure, grandson of Khufu, who died before the structure was finished. There is another set of three small queens pyramids beside Menkaure’s. The grandeur of the pyramids, giant mausoleums devoted to a single pharaoh, is juxtaposed with the non-descript tombs of the workers. Mohammed told me that over the years of construction, about 10,000 workers were buried in these tombs.

The Great Pyramids of Khufu and with workers tombs in front

The Great Pyramids of Khufu and Khafre with workers tombs in front

The Great Pyramids of Giza rising out of the Sahara sand is even more impressive as the modern city of Giza surrounds it. The modern concrete condominiums look like stacks of small blocks in contrast to the ancient wonders. Seeing the pyramids tower into the sky behind the modern cityscape for over a half hour as we drove closer brought into perspective just how big they were.

Bent Pyramid in Dashur ....not quite there yet

Bent Pyramid in Dashur ….not quite there yet

The Great Pyramids of Giza was the last of three stops on my adventure today. First, my driver Mussa drove us out for about an hour into the countryside, following the irrigation canals through lush date palm plantations heavy with their red and yellow fruit. Men trotted on donkeys at the edge of the road, always looking uncomfortably large for the size of the donkey and more of a trotting bounce than seems comfortable. The tall date palms dominated the two sides of the canal with houses and corn fields fitted into them. The first stop was the farthest, the Pyramids of Dahshur. Among a field of 4th to 12 dynasty pyramids is evidence of trial and error. Try one was the Bent Pyramid, which was heading in the right structural direction but didn’t get it completely right. It represented an important stage between the Stepped Pyramid at Saqqara and then the smooth sided pyramids like the ones at Giza On try two, the calculations were perfected and the Red Pyramid (named because it seems to glow red in the sunrise light) is the oldest true pyramid in Egypt. Both the Bent and Red Pyramids were built for Pharaoh Sneferu, Khufu (of the biggest Giza pyramid)’s father. I really enjoyed Dahshur because I was the only one there. There was my driver waiting for me in an air-conditioned car and a man who watched the opening to the tomb and that was it. I had the chance to climb down into the tomb in the middle of pyramid. Even though the outside looked crumbling, the tunnel down into the center of the pyramid and the walls that lined the interior chambers were made from sharply fitted stone blocks. The long tunnel down worked out my legs as I had to crouch and walk down the steep, narrow and dimly lit stone tunnel into the ancient tomb of the pharaoh. It opened up into three expansive chambers with step-peaked ceilings. The last chamber was tucked up into the back and unlike the first two, did not have a smooth floor but rather looked to be stone gouged into the ground. I had been in the Great Pyramid of Khufu before but the old Red Pyramid seemed even more impressive and haunting as I had the whole place to myself for as long as I wished. There was a sense of exploration and discovery that made the experience at Dahshur even more special.

It's a long way down into the tomb of the ancient Pharaoh at the Red Pyramid in Dashur

Looking up to the light and the end of the tunnel… It’s a long way down into the tomb of the ancient Pharaoh at the Red Pyramid in Dashur

Next after Dahshur was Saqqara. I had known about the Stepped Pyramid of Zoser, the world’s oldest stone monument and the first decent attempt at a pyramid. (c. 2675-2625 BCE). However, I was amazed by the huge necropolis covering 7sq kilometers of desert strewn with pyramids, temples and tombs older than both Dahshur and the Pyramids of Giza (and remember that the Great Pyramid of Khufu has witnessed 46 centuries!) While briefly warding off persistent young men determined to sell me coloured books on Saqqara and bookmarks, I had the whole place to explore and I didn’t know what I would find. Wandering through the scorching hot sand through strewn blocks with hieroglyphs faintly etched onto them after years of wind and sand, the ruins of columns and foundations of walls that hint at the grandeur of the place in the past, small tumbles of stone would reveal amazing tombs. The outside looked like a jumble of rocks but inside, a small rock tunnel led into stone chambers covered with intricate hieroglyphs and colourful paintings. One of the highlights was the Serapeum, catacomb tombs with sacred bulls painted on the walls. After exploring the amazing hidden gems of tombs under the exterior tumble of stones, I looked out onto the desert plain and immediately wondered about all of the jumble of rocks and pyramid shaped sand dunes. What remains hidden beneath the sands?

An Old Kingdom tomb ....outside looks like a mound of sand and rocks...

An old tomb at Saqqara ….outside looks like a mound of sand and rocks…

Inside though is this magnificent tomb!

Inside though, was this magnificent tomb!

After Dahshur and Saqqara, both which blew my expectations out of the water, coming to the Pyramids of Giza was even more impressive than when I only visited the Giza pyramids themselves. There was a sense of journey through thousands of years of human ingenuity, creativity and innovation. I walked the footsteps of ancient priests and workers, journeyed to the final resting places of ancient pharaohs whose individual lives is shadowed by the monumental structures of their death and saw the progression of architectural development from the small tumble of stones and then the Stepped Pyramid at Saqqara and then the Bent Pyramid and finally the first true pyramid at Dahshur. With the experience of all this, the massive Great Pyramids of Giza was even more amazing.

Ramses the Camel didn’t really agree. He just grumbled a bit more as he walked through the sand with our encouraging clucking sounds.

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