Wonderment on the Giza Plateau (Great Sphinx)


The view was a bizarre juxtaposition.

Outside my hotel window was the Pyramid of Khafre, easily 4,500 years old. In between was the hotel swimming pool, traffic roaring on the highway, trailers and a swath of the Sahara Desert. It was enough to do a double-take if I didn’t know where I was. Khafre was a mile away, as the crow flies. What was a beeline millennia ago is now a circuitous obstacle course of tangled streets. In the thousands of years since, over 25 million people in metro Cairo, along with traffic gridlock, air pollution and urban sprawl, have encroached on the monument like the sands of the Sahara.

View from my hotel room, Le Meridien Pyramids

This is modern Egypt. I’ve wanted to come here for a long time to experience its ancient treasures. Only a few months ago, 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, sponsored by Ancient Origins and booked through 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 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 arrived in midday during Cairo’s legendary traffic jams.

We would have almost a full day to recover from jet lag before meeting the rest of the tour group and our hosts, Alicia McDermott from Ancient Origins; special guest, writer and researcher Andrew Collins; and our extraordinary tour guide Waleed Kamouna. All of us who signed up had our own reasons for going on this tour but enrollment through Ancient Origins tied us together by our high interest in the ancient world.

On the tour’s first official day, we had two thrilling 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 groggily 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 talks by Andrew and Waleed, and walked around the monument with mobile flashlights in hand. The limestone enclosure surrounding the Sphinx made it seem like a vast sunken room. It was exciting to realize that not many get this close to the Sphinx.

We waited two hours before the sun rose to light up the Sphinx. I couldn’t help but notice what others have pointed out. The Sphinx’s head is grossly undersized in relation to its body. It’s probable that it was re-carved from the head of an animal that would appear more proportional to the rest of its body. The popular candidate has been a lion.

Facing the Facts

At dawn, the strong, square features of the face was silhouetted in shadow. If the face is Khafre’s, it doesn’t look much like the one on his statue in the Cairo Museum.

Khafre’s face?
Statue of Khafre in the Cairo Museum

Whose might it be? Robert Temple makes a convincing case for its being that of Amenemhet II of the 12th dynasty, which would imply the head was re-carved during the Middle Kingdom. Amenemhet could not have seen what else was lying buried underneath. The Sphinx’s body had been buried in sand until it was uncovered by Thutmosis IV five hundred years later.

Amenemhet II sphinx, Louvre Museum (image from wikipedia)
Thutmosis IV affirms unearthing the Sphinx on the Dream Stela, erected between the Sphinx’s paws

An Age-Old Dilemma

Even in the light of day, the Sphinx looks to be very old. Dating the Sphinx has been controversial. Archaeology dates the Sphinx to the time of Khafre (c. 2570 BCE) who is associated with the closest pyramid. But, the severe water erosion patterns on the enclosure wall and Sphinx indicate to some researchers that heavy rainfall, which Egypt hasn’t experienced for 12,000 years, did the damage and dates the monument’s construction to well before the beginnings of Egyptian civilization.

Severe water erosion on the Sphinx and its enclosure

Other researchers point to a earth-sky connection between a leonine Sphinx and the constellation Leo around 10,500 BCE when the Sphinx would have been gazing directly at Leo on the night sky horizon on the spring equinox due to an astronomical phenomenon known as the precession of the equinox. (Many ancient societies were aware of precessional cycles.)

But 10,500 BCE seems like an impossibly long time ago—antediluvian, in fact. I’m more convinced by Robert Temple’s theory that the recumbent figure, instead of being a lion, was the god Anubis in the form of a jackal. At least, the timeline is more in line with dynastic, or even pre-dynastic, Egypt. The Sphinx’s body seems more dog-like than leonine. Its large paws are a Roman ‘restoration,’ hiding original ones that must have been heavily damaged, likely from water erosion. Interestingly, Anubis has always been regarded as the guardian of necropolises.

Water, Water, Everywhere

If not heavy rains 12,000 years ago, then what caused the erosion? Temple also makes a case for the Sphinx enclosure having been a moat during the Old Kingdom when inundation of the Nile brought water to its doorstep. He proposes that the moat was called Jackal Lake in many ancient texts. The Sphinx thus became an ‘island’ during these seasonal times. Regulated by a sluice gate, water was admitted into the moat by way of the channel between the Sphinx Temple and Valley Temple. The channel itself shows horizontal erosion lines, which along with those of the Sphinx and its enclosure resulted from centuries of standing water. The vertical fissures along the enclosure walls, Temple suggests, were the result of countless dredging operations to remove the moat’s constant threat: desert sand.

The Sphinx Temple lies in front of the Sphinx to the east. The Valley Temple is south of it, to the right.

Final Notes

Just before leaving the Sphinx, we got a surprise arrival of Zahi Hawass, Egyptian archaeologist and former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs and Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. He seemed to know Andrew.

Judging from the images above, you’d think the Sphinx had very little sign of civilization around it. If only that were true. By turning around to face east, you’d see the edge of the city of Nazlet el-Samman. Cell phone towers, building silhouettes and Cairo’s infamous haze poke up above the horizon. It was a depressing sight. So was the litter. New construction is going on to this day, but in 1982 city officials established buffer zones on the Giza plateau on which it’s forbidden to build.

Nazlet el-Samman on the horizon east of the Sphinx

The group left the Sphinx as the sun was rising. I felt the same sense of wonder and mystery as anyone who’s been fortunate enough to get close to it. Afterward, we were treated to a stunning view of all three pyramids from an observation area a short bus ride away, the Sphinx nowhere in sight. Though still early in the morning, the air was already thick with pollution and the parking lot full of hawkers who were setting up shop.

Wonderment on the Giza Plateau (Great Pyramid)


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 rightfully is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the only one left standing. So I was excited and happy to be on the Giza plateau.

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.

In ancient times, it must have been breathtaking to see the pyramid with perfectly flat sides. The surface would have been encased in Tura limestone. Though the Giza limestone core blocks produce a rough appearance, incredibly the casing stones were cut on the undersides to match the contours of underlying core blocks and on the outward sides as flat surfaces. It’s said that the brilliant gleam of the white Tura limestone could be seen from miles away. What a sight it would have been. The shell is long gone, removed over time for Cairo building projects. I could see that the top of the Khafre pyramid still has its casing stones relatively intact.

Though discolored over time, the Bent Pyramid at Dashur shows what casing stones would have looked like on the Great Pyramid

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 were everywhere. We climbed the stairs to the entrance. There was a bit of ceremony when Andrew was given the key to open the gate. We first 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.

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 load of the massive weight above? They certainly weren’t meant to be seen or admired; the pyramid’s entrance was blocked before looters found their way in. Modern additions make climbing the gallery easier along its 150ft length. With bannisters and foothold strips 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.

Grand Gallery

King’s Chamber

Though not nearly as brutal as in summertime, the humidity was still noticeable when we entered the King’s Chamber, even with a ventilation system that produces a low-frequency hum. The room was stark and undecorated, brooding. Some visitors feel very uncomfortable here, others energized. The walls and floor consist of massive, squarely cut granite blocks smoothly finished.

King’s Chamber

The room contains nothing more than a stone ‘sarcophagus’ along one end, no inscriptions or decoration. Since remains or lid were never found, coffer is a word more often used. One corner is heavily damaged. In the dim artificial lighting, it was hard to tell that it and the entire room is made of hard Aswan red granite, different from the limestone used mostly everywhere else.

Coffer in the King’s Chamber

Shining a smart phone light into the interior, I was amazed to see flat, surfaces and straight, sharp corners, as if machined. Other visitors have reported seeing saw marks and drill holes. I should have thought of bringing along a proper flashlight and carpenter’s square.

Straight corners

With the lights turned off, our group experienced the chamber in total darkness during which Andrew led us in a meditation. My back against the coffer, I was amazed how totally black it became with only Andrew’s voice echoing in the room and sounding distant at the same time.

Queen’s Chamber

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, made of limestone, 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 called ‘air shafts,’ thought originally to relieve chamber air pressure but they 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 to incorporate the shafts in the pyramid’s design, I couldn’t help but wonder what possible purpose they served. They’re said to “point” to certain circumpolar stars (Beta of Ursa Minor, Sirius, Thuban, Orion’s belt) as they would have aligned in 2450 BC and therefore symbolically point to a region of the Milky Way where the pharaoh would complete his afterlife journey to the heavens.

Queen’s Chamber

Subterranean Chamber

The strangest room of all was the Subterranean Chamber. To get there, I had to clamber 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 at an angle out of the limestone bedrock over 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.

Subterranean Chamber

This room is curious because it’s rough-hewn (except for the flat roof) 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.

Thoughts

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. It is the only pyramid ever built that has an ascending passage and upper chambers. There are several esoteric theories regarding its purpose, prompted by the pyramid’s measurements that appear to encode sacred numbers and mathematical constants, the Northern Hemisphere’s dimensions in scale and the solar year; the electromagnetic properties of granite whose vibrations produce in sensitives altered states of consciousness; and the arrangement of the three pyramids on the Giza plateau that apparently places importance on the constellations Orion and (as Andrew Collins argues) Cygnus. Some have even ascribed a more utilitarian purpose, an enormous civil engineering project, such as a gigantic water pump or energy source, requiring the Nile to power it.

Its construction wasn’t just stacking blocks either because of the three chambers, passageways, shafts and casing stones, not to mention other incredible complexities. 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 true purpose was, we may never know. It could very well be a combination of a symbolic pharaonic pathway to the stars, an ingenious representation of the Earth and precessional cycles in code, a mental exercise for numerologists, a concentrator of telluric currents, a wondrous machine or something else entirely.

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.