Since childhood, words like pyramids and mummies always used to enthrall us. All the story books written on and films made on Egypt, even those boring text books of History used to declare that nothing in our planet is as old, as big and as mysterious as the great pyramids of Giza, and needless to say, we had been dying to visit them.
So, we could not wait more than a day (half a day precisely as we landed in Egypt in the evening) to go there & hired a car from Cairo to visit the pyramids & tombs of Saqqara, Dahsur and Giza in same day, which was an impractical plan for us as we tend to observe & click everything meticulously. As a result, after visiting Saqqara and Dahsur, we arrived at Giza just 2.5 hours prior to sundown. It was always our childhood dream to see the Great Pyramids of Giza and this place deserves more time. The only option left was planning for a repeat visit on next morning.
Though it did cost us twice the entry fee, this mis-planning actually led us to something good. Before our trip we dug into several travel forums to find which time of the day is the most appropriate for visiting Giza and got no satisfying answer. But, as we visited twice, once in the afternoon and once in the morning, we found that both times were unique in some aspects and for the best experience one may consciously opt for double visits.(I am going to explain it later)
Day 1 : Afternoon Visit
Hiring horses to cover almost 11 km to encircle all three pyramids was a right decision, but the wrong decision was to hire them from outside of the pyramid premises, as later we found there was a fixed rate chart for hiring horse, camel and horse-cart inside the premises and what we paid, even after ‘successful’ (as we assumed) bargaining was 1.5 times of the price inside.
The main gate, which opens to the mortuary temple of Sphinx is usually not taken by the horses hired from outside, so we were carried through a bushy, uneven and less populous path which seemed like a backdoor and tickets were arranged by those who provided us the horses. I often used to think how I would feel after getting the first glimpse of the Great Pyramid, but in reality the romance of the first sight was spoiled by the scary thoughts of falling down from the horseback, due to the extremely bumpy road, reckless horses and a very casual horse-guy who was supposed to control the horses but was more keen to teach us independent horse-riding!
Our constant perseverance of grappling with all those difficulties and distractions was slowly leading us to some mental peace, and with time, we started to enjoy everything, even the horse-riding lesson, which in front of the greatest ancient wonder of the world was itself a prestigious experience
The entrance was far away from the pyramids and we had no idea how far it was. The endless desert and the absence of any familiar structure in proximity made an optical illusion. The great pyramids appeared not so big at first sight! But as we kept proceeding towards them, the perception started to change, pyramids started to grow and finally when the horse stopped in front of the pyramid of Pharaoh Khafre, it seemed like a huge mountain, a man-made mountain, taken shape by endless manual labour and ingenious ancient engineering, four and half thousands years earlier!!!
Khafre’s pyramid is as high as a fifty storied building (height 136 mts). His father Khufu’s pyramid, seen behind, though smaller looking, is actually 10 mts taller than the Khafre’s one. The top of Khufu’s pyramid is actually flat and three iron rods were placed to indicate what the apex would be if finished. The pyramid of Pharaoh Menkaure, situated on the opposite side of his father Khafre’s pyramid was smallest in size (61 mts), less than half of his ancestors’ memorials.
Our guide cum horse-handler took us to some special points from where all those photographs like placing one’s palm over the pyramid or hanging two pyramids from both hands were taken by most of the visitors (which by the way we felt quite cliché). Our prime goal for hiring horses was to reach panorama view point before sundown, which is far away and difficult to access by foot. This is a special zone in Giza complex from where one can view pyramids of Pharaoh Menkaure, Khafre and Khufu one behind another in one straight line along with three small pyramids of queens. Though they are distant neighbours of each other, but a perception of proximity occurs from here and Menkaure’s pyramid looks almost as big as Khafre’s one. Some moving colorful dots were seen near Menkaure’s pyramid. They were depicting how nanoscopic the human’s existence is compared to the greatest ancient wonders!
There was a higher point behind that panorama view point, from where better view may be available. But, as per our guide’s opinion, that point is only accessible by camels.
The best advantage of visiting Giza complex during afternoon, as we found, is this panorama view point. The soft orange light of the setting sun gently touches the angular walls of the pyramids. But in morning, pyramids are seen against the sun from this point. On the contrary, the morning sun illuminates the face of Sphinx along with the front sides of the pyramids. Therefore, our plan for the next morning was to enter through the front gate.
That evening, we came out from the premises through that front gate and although the Sphinx, facing against the light looked quite unimpressive, nevertheless the silhouette of three pyramids with the setting sun between Khafre and Menkaure’s ones offered a picturesque memory to cherish forever. That would be definitely another justification for one’s visit during afternoon.
Day 2 : Morning Visit
On our 2nd visit, we did not hire a car and arrived at Giza by using public transports. It was another long story, which has been written in a separate blog. (Click here Pyramids of Giza : How We Came?)
Unlike other tourists coming with different tour operators, on the next morning, we started from Cairo as early as possible and arrived there just after opening. Nobody was there apart from us. Just two of us! And those gigantic wonders!
We continued to get absorbed in that very personal togetherness with the pyramids until the owners of the horses, camels and carriages rushed to us with the hope of making the day’s 1st profit. But, our plan for that day was exploring the area on foot. So we paid no attention to them, even after their enormous persuasive efforts like mentioning the names of Bollywood actors to impress us as our Indian-ness was very apparent!
We bought tickets and set foot into the pyramid complex through the main gate, from where the road was bifurcated and we took the road of our left hand which led us through the mortuary temple of Sphinx, a ruined building made of huge stone blocks.
Seeing the face of Sphinx flooded by the morning sunlight was on our agenda for this morning and it was great to see what we longed for.
After pyramid, Sphinx, the mysterious limestone statue with the head of human and body of lion, was the most appealing structure in the complex of Giza. Later we noticed small statues of Sphinx in different ancient temples of Egypt, but this one is the biggest and the oldest among all. Though, Khafre’s pyramid, seen behind the Sphinx looked almost of same size, but actually the pyramid is 10 times bigger than the Sphinx.
On previous afternoon when we entered through the backdoor and went directly near the pyramid of Khafre, we initially could not see where the Sphinx was and later found it situated far away. The back side of it’s head looked like a small ball from there, though the Sphinx is actually as tall as a five storied building.
We could not reach close to the Sphinx, as a boundary was there encircling the statue. We started to stroll towards Khafre’s pyramid. Even at this early morning sun was absorbing each drop of water from our bodies. Thankfully we had plenty of water with us but at the end of 3 hours all of that got exhausted.
The pyramids were covered by limestone plaster, which had been destroyed by the invaders of following eras, who snatched those plasters to use in their own castles. Only outer casing on the top of Khafre’s pyramid was left unchanged. But, thankfully, they failed to remove even a single stone from any of the great pyramids and that is the magic of this wonder.
Just like three queens’ pyramids near Menkaure’s pyramid, there are also three pyramids of queens in front of Khufu’s one. One of them was made in the memory of Khufu’s queen-mother Hetepheres I.Being smaller in size, those subsidiary pyramids were easy to be destroyed by the attackers. Their plasters, along with the stone blocks were looted and now they looked like stones piled up haphazardly!
Before being there, I assumed that there was nothing except the pyramids and the Sphinx in this Giza complex.But actually this area, specially the area between the pyramids of Khufu and Khafre is full of tombs (called mastaba) of noble people and boat pits. They are so tiny compared to the pyramids that they remain unnoticed in any photograph of this premises.
To provide support needed in afterlife numerous items of utility and amusements were kept with the mummies in the pyramids and tombs, but due to inadequacy of space for placing any boat there, they dug five pits outside the pyramids to bury the boats.
A huge ship, sealed into a boat pit was excavated in intact form at the foot of Khufu’s pyramid. It was made with the intention of carrying the resurrected Pharaoh Khufu along with The Sun-God ‘Ra’ across the heaven, so this is called solar boat. It was identified as one of the largest, oldest and intact vessels of antiquity. In modern days, that ship has been reconstructed and exhibited in a museum made beside Khufu’s pyramid. There we found the original boat pit protected by the stone blocks. This ship was a perfect demonstration of how the royal ship of 2500 BC looked like. Redundant remnants like wooden pieces and cords from the original boat were displayed along with the photographs of the excavation and reconstruction.
There are two common misconceptions about pyramids. First, mummies can be seen still now inside the pyramids and second, the presence of hieroglyphics, the ancient Egyptian inscription, on the inner walls of the pyramids. All mummies found inside the tombs and pyramids of Egypt had been removed and kept in the museums for proper preservation. And the inner walls of the pyramids were formed by stone blocks having smooth surface, but without any engraved picture or writing, unlike other ancient tombs. There exist a number of mastabas, the flat-roofed rectangular shaped Egyptian tombs with underground burial chambers in the complex of Giza, especially on the eastern and western sides of Khufu’s pyramid. High officials and minor royalty of the Old Kingdom had the privilege to be buried here, near pharaoh’s gigantic memorials. A very few of those were open to the visitors, and there were some ‘unofficially’ open tombs, that means whenever we approached to any of them, a guard with a key appeared and said he would unlock the tomb in return of ‘baksheesh'(tips). We did not let ourselves get trapped and visited only three open to all tombs. These were decorated with painted reliefs, hieroglyphics and rock cut statues of the deceased ones with their family members. We got idea about the life of common men of that era from the engraved scenes like funeral procession, hunting, preparation of food and drink, presentation of offerings, musicians and dancers on the walls.
We saw visitors making queue in front of the pyramids to enter inside, but we did not joined them. We have already experienced the inner chambers of the red pyramid of Dahsur on the previous morning, and since all the pyramids have almost similar inner structures, therefore, there was no need for a repeat venture.
The base of the pyramids have four sides and we discovered this fact while encircling Khufu’s pyramid. I went close to those huge stone blocks, touched them and felt thrilled. They were of my height. I stretched my hands on both sides to hold one of them, but could not, as it was wider.
Almost 2.3 millions blocks, each weighing an average of 2.3 ton(did not count or weigh; Wikipedia said) went into the building of Khufu’s pyramid. History preserves the facts of royal sponsorship, but the Herculean effort of the common men (may be slaves) remain unrecognized who had carried those huge stone blocks, placed one over another following all logistics so accurately and connected them so firmly, that they have been able to endure all natural forces for 4500 years. These ageless homes for dead, which are alive so long, are the proud evidence of human’s collective superpower and it’s our pride to be a part, however insignificant may be, of this mysteriously endless journey of the pyramids!
Wander with Reshmi & Saikat