It was a bizarre juxtaposition.
Outside my hotel window was the Pyramid of Khafre. In between was the hotel swimming pool, highway, trailers and a swath of the Sahara Desert. Khafre was only a mile away, as the crow flies. What might’ve been a beeline millennia ago is now an obstacle course to reach what ancient Egyptians left for posterity on the Giza Plateau. In the thousands of years since, over 20 million people in metro Cairo, along with traffic gridlock, choking air pollution and urban sprawl, have encroached on the monuments.
I’ve wanted to go to Egypt for a long time. I wondered if I ever would.
Then my wife and I were here. If that sounds sudden, it was. Only in November, the chance came up to go on a tour, organized by Travel the Unknown. Having enough reward miles for airfare made the decision easier. The holidays of November, December and January kept my wife and me busy and little time to think about pyramids, temples and the Nile. We only had the rest of January to get ready, physically and mentally. In early February, we’d be off and running. Never before have we made a decision to go far away so quickly. It would be our second trip to Africa in two years.
Our plane landed in Cairo Airport at almost midnight. We were so grateful the local tour company (Lady Egypt) representative whisked us through the airport and got us to the Giza hotel in an hour, much faster than if we’d arrived in midday during Cairo’s legendary traffic jams.
We would have almost a full day to recover from the jet lag before meeting the rest of the tour group and our hosts.
On the tour’s first official day, we had two unique experiences, which I’ll never forget. They were privately allotted times at the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid. You read that right, our group was the only one at these sites. These visits had to be done ‘off hours,’ the Sphinx before dawn, Khufu’s pyramid after official closing time (5pm). But what special opportunities they were!
The Great Sphinx
Hopping on the tour bus at 4am, we got to the Sphinx while still dark outside. We needed warm jackets to keep out the chill in the air. In front of the Sphinx’s paws, we listened to commentaries by the tour’s special guest (writer and researcher Andrew Collins) and Waleed Kamouna, our tour’s incomparable guide, and to walk around the monument thanks to mobile flashlights. It thrilled me that not many get this close to the Sphinx.
We would wait two hours before the sun would rise to light up the Sphinx’s head. If the face is supposed to be Khafre’s, curiously it doesn’t look much like the one on his statue in the Cairo Museum.
Some suggest that the head of the Sphinx was re-carved from the head of a lion. It’s been pointed out that the head seems proportionally smaller than the rest of the body. Archaeology dates the Sphinx to the time of Khafre (c. 2575–2465 BCE) who is associated with the closest pyramid. Could it be more ancient? The weathering patterns on the enclosure wall and Sphinx implied to some researchers that heavy rainfall, which Egypt hasn’t experienced since 3000 BC before desertifying, dates the monument’s construction to well before then because of the extent of erosion. Around 10,500 BC, it would have pointed directly west to the constellation Leo, insinuating some kind of celestial time connection. Can the Sphinx possibly be that old? (Due to an astronomical phenomenon known as precession, the house of Leo would not be due west of the Sphinx for another 26,000 years from 10,500 BC. Many ancient societies kept track of precessional cycles.)
Judging from the image above, you’d think the Sphinx had very little sign of civilization around it. If only that were the case. By turning around to face west, you’d see the edge of Giza City. Cell phone towers poke up above the horizon. It was a regretful and dismaying sight. So was the litter. New construction is going on to this day, but city officials have established a buffer zone on the Giza plateau on which it’s forbidden to build.
After the Sphinx, we were treated to a grand view of all three pyramids from an observation point. The air was thick with haze and pollution and the parking lot was full of hawkers who typically beset tourists at all popular sites.
The Great Pyramid (Pyramid of Khufu)
The Great Pyramid has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. What started out as a youngster’s obsession with things ancient became a curiosity about the incredible feat of technology, craftsmanship and genius that it took to build it. It’s rightfully one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the only one left standing. So it was a great privilege for me to be here.
To finally see the pyramid up close was humbling. What an immense structure! It looks like a series of stacked and tapering stone rows, 210 courses in all, comprising 2.3 million stones at an average weight of 2.5 tons each, a tremendous feat of architectural engineering that may last for thousands more years.
The surface used to be encased in Tura limestone, which are long gone, removed over time for Cairo building projects. Though the Giza limestone core blocks have a rough appearance, incredibly the casing stones were cut on the underside as inverted surfaces to match the contours of underlying core blocks and on the outward side as flat diagonal surfaces. The Khafre pyramid still has its casing stones at its top relatively intact. Unlike today, these stones gave the pyramid a smooth look. It’s said that the brilliant gleam (Tura limestone is white) could be seen from miles away.
Seeing the outside of the pyramid was incredible enough. More special still, our tour group had the inside of the Great Pyramid (Pyramid of Khufu) all to itself. Imagine, just the twelve of us.
We arrived after public hours, security guards everywhere. There was a bit of ceremony when Andrew Collins was given the key to open the gate. From the entrance, we made our way down the Descending Passage, stooped over awkwardly to wiggle down a tunnel only 3.5ft (1m) high. Despite the Giza plateau’s arid climate, the breaths and sweat of earlier visitors made the passageway dank. We eventually reached the entrance to the Grand Gallery.
Compared to the Descending Passage, the Grand Gallery soars, roughly 28ft overhead. Looking up, I stared in amazement at the high ceiling that narrows (corbels) like inverted steps. Why were these gigantic rows of granite, some weighing 50 tons, finished so smoothly and elegantly if merely to relieve the massive weight above? Modern additions make climbing easier along its 150ft length. With bannisters and ridges on the wood floorboards, I felt like a kid ready to bound up stairs. (At my age, bounding no longer describes my movements.) If it weren’t for artificial lighting, we would have been in total darkness, making me wonder how the ancients found their way with no visible soots marks on the walls or ceiling.
Though not nearly as brutal as in summertime, the humidity was still high when we entered the King’s Chamber, even with a ventilation system. The room is stark and undecorated, brooding. The walls and floor consist of massive, squarely cut granite blocks.
The room contains nothing more than a stone ‘sarcophagus’ along one end. Since no remains or lid were ever found, coffer is probably a better word. One corner is heavily damaged. In the dim artificial lighting, it was hard to tell that it and the entire room is made of Aswan red granite, different from the limestone used almost everywhere else.
Shining a smart phone light into the interior, I was amazed to see flat, machined-like surfaces and straight, sharp corners. Other visitors have reported seeing saw marks and drill holes. I cursed that I didn’t bring along a proper flashlight (and carpenter’s square?).
The other chambers were less dramatic. The smaller Queen’s Chamber features a vaulted ceiling and a corbelled niche. The floor is roughly surfaced. The room doesn’t have the cavernous, foreboding feel of the King’s Chamber. There are also two small rectangular portals on the north and south walls that lead to upwardly slanting ducts. These have been labeled ‘air shafts,’ thought originally to relieve chamber air pressure but in fact dead-end before reaching the outside. Why do two similar shafts in the King’s Chamber exit the pyramid? For the sophisticated engineering and work it took to incorporate such narrow shafts in the pyramid’s design, one can’t help but wonder what possible purpose they served. They’re said to “point” to certain stars (Beta of Ursa Minor, Sirius, Thuban, Orion’s belt) on particular astronomical dates important to ancient Egyptians and therefore symbolically represent the king’s afterlife journey to the stars.
The strangest room of all was the Subterranean Chamber, bigger than the King’s Chamber. To get there, I had to go down backwards over 340ft (a continuation of the Descending Passage), longer than an American football field’s length. It’s mind-boggling that it was excavated out of the limestone bedrock approximately 100ft below ground.
Most of the chamber’s space is taken up by a back section divided by two strange fin-like rock structures. There is a pit in the floor near the entrance and a gated shaft on the south wall that extends for about 50ft before dead-ending.
This room is anomalous because it’s rough hewn unlike the pyramid’s other masterful features, giving the impression that it was left unfinished. This is hard to believe in light of the obvious fact that the entire pyramid was built according to some grand plan.
My long-time wish to see the Giza Plateau’s marvels was fulfilled. It happened at the beginning of our trip, which made me wonder if the rest of the tour would be anticlimactic. (It wasn’t.)
Many of us ask why the Great Pyramid was built. As pyramid-building goes, it is far and away the crowning achievement of the Egyptians, unlike any built before or since. There are several esoteric theories regarding its purpose, prompted by the pyramid’s measurements that appear to encode the earth’s dimensions in scale and the solar year, and the arrangement of the three pyramids on the plateau that apparently places importance on the constellations Orion and (as Andrew Collins argues) Cygnus. Some have even ascribed a more utilitarian purpose, a gigantic civil engineering project, such as a gigantic water pump or energy source, requiring the Nile to power it.
Its construction wasn’t the mere stacking of blocks either because of the three chambers, passageways and shafts, not to mention other complexities I didn’t mention, the very existence of which appear to go against the burial chamber theory. Scientists have also discovered another large, possibly inaccessible “void” above the King’s Chamber using a cosmic radiation measurement technique known as muography.
What the pyramid’s purpose was, we may never know. It could very well be a combination of a symbolic pharaonic pathway to the Duat, an ingenious representation of the Earth in code, a wondrous machine or something else entirely. Regardless, it’s the crowning achievement of the brilliant architect and genius Imhotep who designed it.
For me to be here on the Giza Plateau was not only a chance to see and be in awe of some of the world’s oldest monuments but again to question what we think we know about ancient civilizations. It happened for me in Peru and now, in Egypt.