I kicked off my tour of the pyramids with Saqqara, a place 20 kilometres south of Cairo, where the first Egyptian pyramid was built. Saqqara was a necropolis attached to Memphis, the ancient capital, where a number of pharaohs and aristocrats were buried. Prior to the 27th century, the burial chambers were located in underground crypts over which mastabas (flat, rectangular platforms with sloping sides) were built. The first ever Pyramid built for interring the mortal remains of a Pharaoh was built for Zoser (also spelt Djoser) in ~ 2650 BC. To put its antiquity in perspective, this Pyramid was over 2,000 years old when the Buddha was born.
The architect of the Step Pyramid was a remarkable polymath called Imhotep, who was elevated to divine status 2,000 years after he died. In addition to being the high priest and grand vizier, he was the father of Egyptian medicine and an outstanding architect, probably the first to use columns to support structures. To construct this pyramid, Imhotep stacked a series of six, progressively smaller mastabas to form the step pyramid. It is the first stone building complex in history. Under the step pyramid is a labyrinth of tunnels almost 6 km long. In addition to royal tombs, the space is used for storage of goods and ritual offerings.
There is also a huge funerary complex with stone columns which were carved to look like a bunch of papyrus reeds. Other architectural innovations are false arches, stones carved to mimic wooden beams, fluted columns, etc. The entrance to the complex has 15 doors, but all but one of them are false, in the sense that they are carved to look like doors but are actually walls. These false doors were meant for the use of the spirits of the dead royals.
The Ancient capital of Egypt. Memphis, is located nearby. Centuries of plunder and neglect have ensured that little remains today of what was once a magnificent city. Later on, villagers sourced building materials from these ruins. A grand temple to the deity Ptah (Aegyptos in Greek) which gave Egypt its name does not exist any more; the site of this temple is today an open-air museum.
An alabaster Sphinx is one of the few to survive the pillage of centuries. A number of artifacts excavated here are on display in the open.
Two massive colossi of Ramesses II were unearthed here. One was kept on display in Cairo at an important square and has since been relocated to Giza for display outside the upcoming Great Egyptian Museum. The lower half of the other statue was found in a damaged state and a museum has been built around it.
We skipped a planned visit to nearby Dahshur, famous for its bent pyramid and opted to go to a restaurant. After a quick lunch, we set out for Giza, a limestone plateau located on the west bank of Nile. The ancient Egyptians believed that the region of the setting sun was the realm of the dead and hence, this site was chosen for building their grand sepulchres. The pyramidal shape is thought to be representative of the primordial mound from which the ancient Egyptians believed the earth was created.
The famous Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which, at about 480 feet, was the tallest building on earth for over 38 centuries, is visible from afar as it dominates the landscape around it. Beside it is the equally impressive Khafre (Cephren) Pyramid, built for his son and successor, Khafre. It has steeper sides and was built at a higher elevation and hence, looks taller but it is actually about 5 metres shorter than the Great Pyramid.
The sides of the Pyramids were originally clad with highly polished white limestone slabs and were topped by gold-plated capstones called pyramidions which picked up the first rays of the sun and these rays reflected off the cladding to make the entire pyramid glow with solar luminescence. The shape of the pyramid was considered to be symbolic of the descent of the sun’s rays to the earth.
To the south-west of the Pyramids of Khufu and his son Khafre, there is the much smaller 66 metre high pyramid for Menkaure, the son of Khafre. These three pyramids have been spatially oriented to match the alignment of the three stars that form the Orion constellation.
The pyramids were stripped of their cladding during the middle ages to build mosques and other buildings. There were several attempts to demolish these monuments by iconoclastic rulers as they were seen as symbols of idol worship, but thankfully, all these attempts were unsuccessful. They found that it was as difficult to destroy the Pyramids as it was for the Pharaohs to build them.
The Great Sphinx of Giza is the largest monolithic statue in the world 240 feet long and 66 feet high. Its origin is disputed but the consensus is that it was probably built by Khafre, whose pyramid is situated behind the Sphinx. Over the millennia, it has been subjected to severe corrosion by the elements and mindless vandalism by humans. Religious fanatics have destroyed its nose and beard and soldiers are rumoured to have used it for target practice.
Advice for those planning to tour these places:
- The pyramids are open from 8 AM to 5 PM though in winter, they close half an hour earlier.
- Climbing the pyramids is illegal. However, one can climb up the stone steps leading to the entrance of the Khufu Pyramid which is about 50 feet above the base.
- The entry fee is EGP 60 but entry fees are levied for visiting other places of interest within the complex; for example, the entry fee for going inside the Great Pyramid is EGP 100. (EGP stands for Egyptian Pounds, also mentioned as LE which is Livre Egyptienne). The Egyptians refer to it as Ginni (Guinea).
- The best time to visit is in the morning. It can get very hot as the day progresses.
- Do not buy anything from vendors here. The same souvenirs are available in Cairo for a much lower price.
- Ensure that you wear comfortable shoes, a cap or a hat, sunglasses and carry a flask of cold water with you. Also keep a pack of wet wipes handy. It can get awfully hot out there and there aren’t too many shady places to retreat to.
At the end of the day I was really tired but it was an absolutely amazing and unforgettable experience. I felt blessed and privileged to have walked on these ancient sands in the shadows of these magnificent monuments, the remnants left behind by of one of mankind’s earliest and most glorious civilisations. It was the high point of my Egyptian tour, a dream come true.