The Giza Plateau

The Sphinx and Pyramids

Site of one of the remaining seven wonders of the world - the Giza Plateau is to say the least an intense experience in so many ways positive and negative. Our first visit to Giza was on our second day in Cairo, and it was our first real experience with Egyptian people.

Islam emphatically expounds hospitality, especially to travellers. This is immediately obvious from people that greet you regularly on the street welcoming you to Egypt. Unfortunately, many also use it as the introduction to their schtick. This is what happened to us on the bus ride to the pyramids; a man cruising the buses, supposedly going the same way as us, latched onto us forcibly offering his aid. He was in fact very helpful in getting us there, and provided a plethora of information that was mostly incomprehensible, en route. Of course, your natural inclination is to be very polite and accepting since this person is going quite out of their way to help, but when we finally arrive at the bus-drop-off point, his real intent became clear as he led us into a stable and tried to get us onto horses. We had to fight our way out. This was a mere foreshadowing to the rest of the day.

Helpful Caireans aside, one of the most startling things we discovered is that the pyramids literally loom over the city and are clearly visible above the buildings even from kilometers away. It was so thrilling to catch our first, so unexpected glimpse in that way. In the picture below, Cairo as seen from Giza, you can see just how high the plateau, and thus the pyramids themselves, are above the city:

View of Cairo from Giza

There are two main tourist entrances to the Giza Plateau - near the Great Pyramid and near the Sphinx. We opted for the lesser used Sphinx entrance based again on John Anthony West's suggestion:

"Instead of taking the Pyramid Road directly up to the Giza plateau, detour through Mena village, the jumble of bazaars, shops and private houses north and east of the Great Sphinx. Traveling through the crowded streets, both Sphinx and pyramids are hidden from view. Towards the southern end of the village, the road widens into a broad plaza where the tourist buses park. There is a long gap between buildings and without any warning the Great Sphinx suddenly appears, its timeless gaze directed far overhead into the eastern horizon. The pyramids, half a mile to the west, loom several hundred feet higher atop the plateau, framed against the sky."1

It's exceedingly simple to get swept away in the romance of this vision, especially when you are personally presented with it. The sad fact of the matter however, is that the "timeless gaze" of the sphinx stares directly into the 3rd floor window of the Pizza Hut that managed to get prime real estate opposite.

Our first stop was the Valley Temple and the Sphinx which are described in the next chapter.

We headed up the steep road from the Sphinx to the Great Pyramid and at the top were immediately accosted by a very officious, self important man with an ID claiming to be an official guide of the plateau and informing us that our tickets also allowed us entry to the tomb of Hetepheres. After trying to get rid of him unsuccessfully, we vaguely followed in the same direction trying to explore the mastaba field in front of the Great Pyramid. Finally we relented and saw the tomb, because, well, in the end we really did want to see the tomb.

This was the first of an unending stream of guides, hawkers, and owners of camels and horses flogging rides. It is literally impossible to get a moment's peace anywhere near either of the two larger pyramids and you have to fight for it at Menkaure's.* It invariably begins, "Welcome to Egypt." "Thank you." "Where are you from?" "Canada." "Oh! Canada Dry!" I swear to god, after the 6 thousandth time we heard "Canada Dry" that day, it was enough to put us off ginger ale for the rest of our lives. It was a running joke the entire month, but it never reached the peak that it did that day on the plateau.

I found this news bulletin - better late than never:

Giza Plateau Bans Camels, Horses

By Eileen Alt Powell
Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 1998; 8:46 a.m. EDT

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- The days of tourists having their pictures taken atop camels and horses beside the Great Pyramids are numbered: Antiquities authorities are banning the beasts from the Giza plateau.

Copyright 1998 The Associated Press

Full Bulletin

Woohoo! S'about time!

Alright, the negativity aside, everything that you've heard about the magnificence of the pyramids doesn't come close to the power of actually being there.

Pyramids at Sunset
Pyramids in Silhouette
Pyramids stacked
The Great Pyramid and Sphinx

I should make it clear that right away that none of the above pictures contain all of the three great pyramids of Giza. It's not widely known, but there are in fact a total of nine pyramids on the plateau - the three largest are of course the most famous. Unfortunately, the vantage points from which it's possible to get the three into a single picture are way out in the desert, and we weren't up for that kind of hike. Thus, the two large pyramids in the above pictures are Chefren's* and Menkaure's* pyramids with lesser pyramids except the bottom right hand picture which is Cheops'* - The Great Pyramid.

The plateau houses an extensive number of ruins - not only the nine pyramids, the Sphinx, but also temples and countless mastabas and rock tombs. Some of the rock formations that the tombs are cut into are exquisitely beautiful. These ones are to the east of Chefren and Menkaure's* Pyramids.

Rock Tombs and Chefren's Pyramid
Rock Tombs
Rock Tombs and Chefren's Pyramid

In fact, the rock tombs offer probably your best opportunity for privacy at Giza. They are rarely visited and consequently the hawkers concentrate their efforts closer to the major attractions. Of course, they aren't that popular because for the most part they are just holes in the the rock with the occasional roughly carved door. But for Pam and I, having been so harassed all day, it was immensely exciting to be off on our own and it was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.

Our friend Mr. West has this to say:

"They are in an excellent state of preservation, yet little frequented, and a few short strides will take you out of the hustle-bustle into the eerie quiet and majesty of the ancient necropolis.

"Though diminutive compared to the three great pyramids of the plateau, the mastabas are nevertheless impressive constructions in their own right. It is in these that the royal family and the high dignitaries of the king were buried.

"That the mastabas were tombs and nothing but tombs is undisputed." 2

Most of the tombs are open, but the larger, more important ones have had doors installed and are typically locked. When we ran across one of these that was unlocked... we couldn't resist. So keeping an eye out for guards we snuck into this unnamed tomb, the thrill of exploration and recklessness urging us on. We found ourselves in a large, unlit chamber - a narrow shaft extending downwards into darkness. Of course, we couldn't resist the temptation to further explore the shaft either, so we scrambled down and discovered a low, flat chamber with a humanoid pit that obviously once housed a sarcophagus. Empty, yes, but exciting nonetheless.

There is so much to see on the plateau, you could easily spend several exhausting days there - it is really essential to spend time on your own exploring in order to allow the full impact of the environment and to gain an appreciation of the magnitude of the place.

* There are two sets of names commonly used for the pharaohs to whom the pyramids are attributed: Cheops / Khufu - the Great Pyramid; Chefren / Khafre - the second largest of the three; and Mycerinus / Menkaure - the smallest. They are the Greek / Egyptian names respectively - throughout these pages I will use Cheops, Chefren, and Menkaure. I don't care about consistency - they're the names that I like, so there.

1. West, John Anthony (1995), The Traveler's Key to Ancient Egypt, Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, pp. 111.

2. West, John Anthony (1995), The Traveler's Key to Ancient Egypt, Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, pp. 133-134.

Next Page
Return to Table of Contents
Return to "Upon My Shore"