Pyramid Hopping in Egypt

Do you remember learning about ancient Egypt in elementary school?

I do. I recall images of Cleopatra, mummies, hieroglyphics, and women with black bobbed hair and men dressed in kilts, all strutting. I remember pyramids that seemed too big to be real, as if aliens must have been the ones to deposit them in the middle of the desert.

And I remember an episode of Asterix and Obelix, a favorite childhood comic book of mine, where Obelix climbs onto the Sphinx, hangs on the nose and breaks it off. In response, all the vendors chip the noses off their ceramic Sphinx replicas to be sure they’d match.

Then I had the chance to see it all – the pyramids and the Sphinx after the nose job — in real life.

Saqqara, The Original Pyramid

Our guide, Maha, told us: “If you want to understand the pyramids, it’s best to begin with the original one: Saqqara.

Guide Explains Saqqara Pyramid - Egypt
Our Guide Explains Saqqara Pyramid – Egypt

Dating back to 2,600 BC, Saqqara was the first pyramid built of its kind and the one from which all the other pyramids followed suit. However, Saqqara was built with steps, which later pyramid architects decided to exclude.

At the time of our visit to Saqqara in late December 2011, we virtually had the place to ourselves.

The Red Pyramid: Going Inside

Outside the neighboring village of Dahshur, not only did we also have the Red Pyramid to ourselves, but we could also actually go inside it.

Now this was cool. As in, “Wow, I feel like Indiana Jones” cool.

Red Pyramid, Up Close - Dahshur, Egypt
Red Pyramid, Up Close

From an entry portal about two-thirds up the pyramid we began our descent — crouched down in a sort of crab walk, taking deep squat strides a couple hundred feet into the depths of the pyramid. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for ancient tomb raiders who didn’t have the benefit of wooden steps, handrails and head lamps.

The deeper we went, the heavier and more acrid the air became, as if it were spiked with ammonia gas. Maybe it was something natural from within the confines of those rocks, or maybe a few interlopers decided to leave their mark. Beyond the odor, the first room featured high stepped ceilings. This was the fake burial chamber to confuse thieves. We climbed another set of stairs to arrive at the real burial chamber, one that like so many others had been looted long ago.

Pyramids were no longer just a bunch of enormous blocks mysteriously stacked in mesmerizing geometric mounds. They were, in fact, hollow structures built to keep safe all that the pharaohs needed for their time in heaven.

We couldn’t walk normally for days after plumbing the depths of the Red Pyramid, but we highly recommend it, so long as you are not claustrophobic.

Giza Pyramids

When just about anyone imagines Egyptian pyramids, the image of the Great Pyramids of Giza is the one that usually comes to mind. What surprised me was how close those pyramids were to the modern day city of Cairo.

Egyptian Camel with Cairo Skyline - Giza Pyramids, Egypt
Egyptian Camel with Cairo Skyline – Giza Pyramids, Egypt

The first pyramid you see upon arriving at the complex — the Great Pyramid of Khufu – is the biggest and most famous. It also happens to be the place where many of the touts — of the camel riding and cheap souvenir variety – hang out. Like the scene out of Asterix and Obelix, I imagined each of them chiseling off the noses of their Sphinx replicas.

If you grin and bear it beyond the first two pyramids and up the hill, you’ll be rewarded with an iconic overlook and another much better opportunity to ride a camel (about $10 for 15 minutes).

Camels at Great Pyramids of Giza - Egypt
Hopping on one of these camels for a ride.

The Great Sphinx

If our experience was any measure, late afternoon makes for a phenomenal time to visit the Great Sphinx. We were spoiled with soft light and a sky filled with feathery clouds. In this big sky context, the Sphinx seemed smaller than I expected, almost dwarfed by the size of the pyramids. But as I spent more time with it I became rather mesmerized by the magnificence and oddness of this ancient figure standing guard.

The Great Sphinx of Giza, Egypt
The Great Sphinx of Giza in late afternooon light.

One thing we didn’t realize is that the viewing area stops the flow of visitors into the Sphinx interior complex around 4:00 P.M., while they promptly kick everyone out at 4:30. So if you’d like to have more time to try and master your perspective photo trickery pose of kissing the Sphinx’s nose, be sure to arrive a bit earlier.

Egyptian Museum

Although it’s not a pyramid, the Egyptian Museum is still worth a visit, at the very least to absorb the contents of Tutankhamen’s tomb. The stash is vast and impressive, complete with the Tutankhamen gold funeral mask that we all know so well.

But what really makes this exhibit amazing is to think that all this was the burial stash of a relatively insignificant, small-fry king who died when he was only 19. I tried to picture what burial tombs must have been like for powerful kings who lived fuller, longer lives. This just about tapped our imaginations.

Egyptian pyramids. I completed a circle, a trip traced from childhood books and fantasy to a visit in today’s reality. And yes, it was cool.

And although I feel like I understand all these icons so much better with a firsthand visit as an adult, the song “Walk Like an Egyptian” echoes in my head, and every time I consider the Sphinx, I think about what Obelix did to its nose.

—–

Slideshow of Egyptian Pyramids Near Cairo

If you don’t have a high-speed connection or want to read the captions, you can view the Egyptian pyramids photo slideshow.

 

What places did you study or read about as a kid that you were able to visit later on? Were they what you expected?

Disclosure: We were in Egypt in December 2011 to speak at the 4th Annual IOETI Conference in Cairo. Our trip and three-day tour were paid for by the conference organizers. As always, all opinions here are entirely our own.

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Comments

  1. says

    Sometimes I also feel side when I see those pyramids given how it makes me believe that all those number of slaves worked to build that thing. How many people died and worked to death just to finish them.

  2. Robert says

    I think you don’t do tourism reporting a favour.

    This typr of “happy reporting” iks really what readers do NOT neeed.

  3. Sutapa says

    These are new photos from your current visit right! So impressive! I especially liked the nighttime photos of the pyramids…how long did you guys stay there?

  4. says

    I just want to stand next to one of those structures to understand how big they really are. It’s astounding that they were built so long ago, minus all the equipment and cranes we’d use today. Glad I wasn’t around to get tapped for hauling those rocks!

  5. says

    Great Post! I had a similar feelings when I was at the pyramids, but the place that really blew my mind was Machu Picchu! I had read about Machu Picchu in a book as child and became fascinated with the place! 15 years after reading the book, I was at Machu Picchu and was completely blown away! It was even better than what I expected! It it one of the great moments where you have a childhood dream come true!

  6. says

    @Jesse: You are right that in many of the great architectural work from ancient times people were used as slaves to build them. The lesson learned is not to do the same in the present.

    @Andi: Thanks! Hope you get to visit soon!

    @Robert: I would disagree that this is “happy reporting.” I am just sharing my experiences and emotions from visiting these places. I believe readers want to read about travel experiences to determine if they want to have the same one themselves.

    @Sutapa: These are photos from our last visit, but we figured it was appropriate to post now since we’re back in Egypt. We spent a couple of days visiting the pyramids, Sphinx and museum. I originally thought the nighttime show at the pyramids would be cheesy, but it was kind of fun.

    @Leslie: Glad this resonated with you! When you see something in person that you’ve read so much about as a kid it’s like all the childhood memories come flooding back. Makes the experience even more fun!

    @Ava: One really does feel like a small ant next to these pyramids. Really gives you perspective on how massive these structures are…and without any equipment.

  7. says

    This experience you have recorded right here is a dream of mine, and on my travel bucket list! I am envious of you, but also inspired! Gorgeous photography, by the way. One of these days, I hope to pyramid-hop too! ;)

    Check out my travel bucket list – feel free to leave your own comments!

  8. Jan says

    That was really a great post. I would like to visit all the pyramids and to experience a ride on the camels in the dessert.

  9. says

    @Wrabbit007: The great thing about bucket lists is that they serve as inspiration to become a reality one day. Hope to be reading about your pyramid hopping soon!

    @Jan: Glad you enjoyed this post! And, I have to say that these camels at the Giza pyramids were quite comfortable to ride!

  10. says

    @Tony: Sorry for not responding to your comment earlier – it got stuck in spam for a spell! I can imagine your experience at Machu Picchu exactly – it really is so great to be able to go full circle from something you’ve read about and studied to seeing it in person. And in my experience, the reality exceeds expectations and keeps one wanting to learn more.

  11. says

    Lovely article guys. I’ve been dreaming of heading to Egypt since I was young too, and that chipped off Sphinx’s nose has always intrigued me.

    Just wondering if you saw the plastic bags whirring through the air like some travellers have reported?

  12. says

    @Will: Thanks – glad you enjoyed this! Isn’t it funny how an image or place gets stuck in your head as a kid that carries through to adulthood?

    As for the plastic bags, we did see them blown around but unfortunately this has become such a common site around the world that I didn’t make particular note of them. The plastic bags are disposed of in urban areas and then the wind blows them out to the outskirts where they usually get stuck on branches or shrubs. We used to call it “plastic bag bushes.”

    What we need are more countries like Bangladesh who have effectively implemented plastic bag bans and use paper and recycled newspaper instead. Really makes a difference!

  13. says

    Your pictures make me want to go to Egypt so bad. I bet the pyramids were any impressive sight, and make you feel so small. How cool to finally travel somewhere we spent so much time learning about as children. Now the question is, where do people in Egypt travel to for fascinating constructions and landscapes?

    Thanks for the post,

    Ryan

  14. says

    That’s so cute, i really like your intro,
    I have the same feeling when i visited Egypt for the 1st time, Your pictures remain me about Egypt and make me want to go to Egypt so bad

  15. says

    @Ryan: It is very cool to finally visit a place that studied so often in schoolbooks. People usually are looking for places and cultures different than their own when traveling, so maybe Egyptians would be interested in rainforest landscapes and temples like at Angkor Wat?

    @Ken: Glad you liked the intro linking my pyramid experience with childhood comic book memories. Hope you make it to Egypt one day to visit!

  16. says

    I enjoyed reading your story of visiting the pyramids. However, I have to confess that just reading about your crawling through the interior made my claustrophobic skin crawl.

  17. says

    @Alanc: One of the people in our group ended up turning around when we were climbing inside the pyramid as the claustrophobia was just too much. So, maybe best for you to just enjoy the pyramid from the outside :)

  18. says

    I read Robert’s accusations about ‘happy reporting’ and couldn’t disagree more. I thought the article was both informative and entertaining. If you have an enjoyable trip, that’s what you write about. Usually, people who enjoy reading travel stories are looking for inspiration to venture out themselves. I’m now inspired to venture beyond Giza.

  19. says

    @Rick: Thanks, glad you enjoyed the piece.

    @Thegrumpster: Very glad to hear that you are now inspired to go beyond Giza – you won’t regret it! And, thanks for your comment about how this is not “happy reporting” but just sharing an experience that I hope inspire others to visit.

  20. says

    Lot’s of places to see in Cairo and near it. Will be only one day in Cairo soon ( hope another revolution won’t start) and I already fell sorry for not being able to see all the wonders of Egypt. So probably only Giza for me…

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