Pros:Breath-taking, reasonably priced, rich history, amazing accomplishment.
Cons:Desert is littered with debris.
The Bottom Line: The Pyramids of Giza date back 4500 years and provide a breath-taking glimpse back through history.
No trip to Egypt would be complete without a visit to the Pyramids of Giza. When I planned my travel to Egypt, I avoided an organized trip in favor of an unstructured adventure where my wife and I could decide when and where we wanted to go. Because Giza was the highlight of our trip, I hired professionals once I arrived in Egypt. Working through my concierge, I contracted with Thomas Cook to provide a car and driver as well as an Egyptologist for an entire day.
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The driver arrived at my hotel at 7:00 am sharp to take us to Giza. The ticket booth opens at 8:00 AM for tickets into the Great Pyramid of Khufu. We arrived in line with less than a dozen visitors in front of us about fifteen minutes before the window opened. The Great Pyramid tickets are only available to the first 250 visitors and sell for 100 LE (Egyptian Pounds) each, which worked out to about 18 dollars per ticket during my visit. There are two admission charges at Giza, one for the general grounds and the other for The Great Pyramid. The general grounds admission was included in the tour I purchased. Those tickets cost 60 LE (around twelve dollars) if purchased from the ticket booth. Prices are far less expensive for Egyptians.
The gates for general admission open at 7 AM and remain open until 7 PM daily for the plateau. The Pyramids are open 8:00 AM until 4 PM. After passing through a mild security check-point, we joined our historian inside the gate to begin learning the fascinating history of the pyramids. Our Guide was a wealth of knowledge, spouting off names, dimensions and dates as if he were reading from an Encyclopedia. He provided a wealth of information before instructing us to head into The Great Pyramid, which we did unaccompanied.
The Great Pyramid of Khufu (who the Greeks called Cheops) was built in the 25th Century BC. The pyramid has a 52 degree angle and was originally over 150 meters tall. The capstone and other stones were removed, bringing the height down to 143 meters. There is a steel structure visible at the top of the pyramid today that stabilizes the upper stones as well as marking the original height. The pyramid was once covered in a layer of white polished Tura limestone to a thickness of five feet. The pyramids were stripped away by various leaders of Egypt and was almost completely dismantled by Mohammad Ali in the 19th Century in order to move the stones to build a dam. The stones average over two tons each.
The original entrance to the pyramid is twenty feet or so above the current entrance which was tunneled after the fact. The new tunnel joins with the original entrance once you work your way down the first hallway. A small set of stairs goes down to the left and leads to the narrow hallway up to the original entrance. Another set of stairs leads forward into the tight climb up to the tomb. Another hallway is gated off directly ahead. Two steel ladders on either side of the hallway lead up to side ramps which join together to a middle ramp ten or fifteen feet higher. This middle ramp serves both as an entrance and an exit for visitors and often gets congested. The otherwise slippery ramp contains crossbeams that provide adequate footing for visitors to work their way up toward the tomb. A low ceiling requires some duck-walking before opening into the large room that houses Khufu's sarcophagus. The experience of entering this ancient structure that dates back 45 centuries is mind-numbing. Although a journey to reach, the pyramid was a memorable visit that left an impression on me. I guess I was (and still am) in awe at the magnitude of the under-taking so long ago. The fit of the huge quarried stones, the design, the sheer skill and sweat that went into this building that has withstood the test of time is something special to behold. Three of Khufu's wives have small pyramids nearby.
The next pyramid was built by Khufu's son, Khefre. The pyramid is built on a rise, giving it the appearance of being taller than Khufu's. The pyramids used to include a capstone that was plated in precious metals to reflect the rays of the sun. They are missing today, but Khefre's pyramid is nearly the original height and still has a large section of the limestone covering, to allow visitors to get an idea of what the pyramids must have looked like when they were complete. They are currently stepped, but were smooth top to bottom when the limestone outer layer was still intact. This pyramid also included the famous Sphinx, which is located on the back side of the pyramid and is supposed to represent the face of the King. The sphinx was not built, but rather sculpted from existing stone. My historian advised that it was the largest historic sculpture ever created. It is currently heavily damaged from rising water tables and is being restored from the legs up. The brick-work on the legs has been carefully crafted but seem an odd contrast to the time worn body (which was once protected by sand).
The final major pyramid at Giza belonged to Menkaure, the son of Khefre. He died before it was completed, but his own son, Shepseskaf. This pyramid was hastily finished. There are three smaller pyramids for Menkuare's wives located around the pyramid. In total, there are nine pyramids at Giza, which are said to form a representation of Orion's Belt.
Beyond the pyramids is an overlook, where tourists can go to get a broader view of the pyramids. There are plenty of vendors as well as camel rides located at this point. My guide negotiated a camel ride for my wife and I for 28 dollars each. During my return trip I talked to some other travelers who rode the camels and found that my price was pretty good. One couple that I met afterward indicated they had traveled on their own to Giza and negotiated their own price for the camel ride. Not only did they pay more, but they were taken out into the desert where more money was demanded from them for the return trip. They ended up shelling out an additional fifty dollars. This type of treachery was common in Egypt, so expect to be taken by a "game" at some point during your journey.
Our camel ride took us behind the pyramids on the desert, where no cars or tour buses are allowed. The desert itself was littered by inconsiderate locals who have absolutely no idea what a treasure they have. It is a very sad state that may change with time. Aside from the debris, the trip was serene and breath-taking. From the desert vantage point, all nine pyramids are visible. This is where our camel boy stopped in order to take our pictures. We continued on a ride of 45 minutes or so, until we traveled alongside a Muslim graveyard on the far side of the pyramids, coming up behind the Sphinx. There, we met back up with our guide, who explained to us the history of this giant sculpture. If I recall correctly, the beard was broken off and may be at a museum in London. The face used as target practice by French Artillery causing the present damage.
If you are fortunate enough to visit Egypt and can only spend one day taking a tour, I would recommend a visit to Giza. If you have time that same day, I would recommend also visiting Saqqarah, where the first pyramid was built as well (that is the topic of yet another travel review). The cost of visiting Giza runs about thirty-two dollars per person if you intend to go inside The Great Pyramid (which I highly recommend). If you want to go inside the pyramid, make sure you arrive early so you can be sure to get tickets. Once the tour buses start arriving, the tickets go fast. There is also a night time light show which also requires tickets, but that entire concept baffles me. I'm not quite sure what a light show has to do with a tomb that is 4500 years old...so I took a pass on that one. The pyramids are something special to be experienced first-hand.
The Citadel in Cairo
Coptic Musuem in Cairo
Egyptian Musuem in Cairo
Radisson Blu, Cairo (Heliopolis)
Pyramids at Saqqarah, Egypt
Khan Al-Khalili Bazaar
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