So you’re planning a trip to Egypt? You’ll certainly want to see Egypt’s famed temples and tombs – and who can blame you? Spending time soaking in an atmosphere that you will share with folks from five or six thousand years ago is certainly an enticing prospect. And Egypt clearly has enough great archeological attractions to impress even the most blasé of travelers. There is, however, a bit of a problem. After the fifteenth – or even tenth – temple/tomb, there is the clear danger that they will all begin to blend together into a steamy Egyptian soup. After all, most of us are not Egyptologists – and our eyes, ears, tour guides, and travel books/pamphlets/ tomes will quickly become hazy in the baking sun of a true Egyptian day. With that in mind, I developed a handy-dandy guide to help you appreciate Giza.
In consultation with my own eyes, ears, and brain made keener by dipping into a couple of travel guide books – and the inestimable help of superior tour guide Sameh Ali Ibrahim, a Bedouin with the soul of a pharaoh and a photographic memory for itsy-bitsy details to boot – I have devised the perfect quick and easy guide to some of the top temples and tombs clustered around Egypt’s capital.
Let’s start where most airlines deposit you after a typically long flight – Cairo, the home to multiple fascinating tourist attractions – and, most especially, a center to some of the most famous sites marking the very long Egyptian history. Almost every visitor to Egypt has enjoyed a stopover in the Cairo suburb of Giza, home to the ancient resting grounds of many rulers of times past. This article will supply you with all of the most important information you’ll need to enjoy your tour.
First, however, a very speedy review of Egyptian history to help keep the archeological sites straight. In other words, three thousand years in far fewer sentences. The first humans in the area dated about 8,000 years ago – but let’s not count cave dwellers and stone chippers. The first signs of the Egyptian civilization as we know it surfaced around 3,000 years ago, give or take a few hundred years. That’s when the Old Kingdom saw its first pharaohs, created its impressive bureaucracy, and built its first pyramids with Memphis as the capital. In fact, the oldest tombs date from 2650 BC, a Golden Age of sorts.
After a mere thousand years, a vacuum in powerful leadership developed; and the carefully sculpted Egyptian Empire began to crumble. Following bloody unrest and civil war, the country finally assumed some semblance of unity again; and earlier advances resumed under the Middle Kingdom. Over the ensuing 600 years, the country continued to divide and unify many times over until a warrior king finally arose and reunited North and South Egypt.
Thus, around 1550 BC, the New Kingdom emerged with Thebes as the capital. For over 1500 years, magnificent temples and tombs covered the landscape until the days of Roman conquest and the famed Cleopatra VII, the last queen of Egypt, who managed to develop fruitful relationships with two Roman generals, Caesar and Marc Antony, before the Egyptian dynasty ended with a final (g)asp as BC morphed into AD. And what of Cleopatra’s children, her oldest son by Julius Caesar and her three younger children by Marc Antony? There are many hypotheses about the fates of her three sons, with murder and fading into obscurity leading the pack. Only her daughter did well. Selene was raised by Marc Antony’s widow, the sister of the Roman emperor, and became a powerful queen herself. The females in Cleo’s line seem to have fared better than the males.
First stop: the Pyramids of Giza. Nearly 5,000 years ago, Giza became the royal burial ground for Memphis. Just at the point where the desert begins to encroach on the urban, three pyramids come into view. These three pyramids, final resting places for multiple pharaohs, are dominated by the 4,500 year-old Great Pyramid of Khufu, which was the world’s tallest man-made structure for more than 4,000 years. The Great Pyramid of Khufu is the only survivor of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Constructed from over two million blocks of stone (average weight – two to three tons), the structure still triggers awe in the people who come to see it. What a monumental task – especially given the technology of Egypt over 5,000 years ago. Today, engineers hypothesize that the huge boulders were actually set atop enormous mounds of sand which were later swept away to allow placement of lower rocks in a continuing downward spiral. Archeologists also speculate that the concept of the unique pyramid shape emanated from similarly shaped mounds of earth often seen in the South of the country.
So how did this funerary thing work? After a pharaoh died, his body was brought to the Giza plateau by boat, prepared for burial, transported to the Great Pyramid, and buried under (and sometimes inside) the pyramid. Mortuary temples were maintained for years by priests who made daily offerings to the dead god-king. In the days of the pharaohs, pyramids were topped with gold capstones which captured and held the sun’s light from dawn to dusk. Sad to say, looters long ago made off with anything even resembling gold. Some airshafts also pointed towards important constellations, suggesting ritualistic underpinnings in Egypt’s funerary customs. It has also been suggested that at least one airshaft served as an escape route for the workers. Deep inside the three-sided monument lies the King’s Chamber – probably looted 600 years after being built. Even though the room now holds only a lidless sarcophagus, it was still broken into by treasure hunters for millennia. And inside the room is the only evidence of graffiti from the time of construction, a reference to “the great White Crown of Khufu.”
If you’ve a mind to enter the Great Pyramid, there is a specially created entry allowing you to wander hither and yon. The original entrance was blocked in AD 820, courtesy of Caliph Maamun, with the current entrance lower. Sad to say, there isn’t much to see – but it’s good exercise. Just remember: that the temperature inside is many degrees hotter than the outside temperature and keeps getting hotter the deeper you go, so dress accordingly. The entire Giza plateau is dotted with stone tombs and baby pyramids for the king’s relatives and royal court members who hoped to bask in the glory of their dead monarch. By the way, it’s now against the law to climb this archeological gem.
Nearby, there’s a little structure called the Sphinx, which embraces the Sphinx Temple (closed to the public) in its leonine paws. An imperial head (perhaps fashioned after one of the kings buried in a nearby pyramid) stares regally ahead from an elongated lion’s body. Built around 2500 BC, the Sphinx was carved from an outcropping of rock supplemented by mammoth carved stones at its base. Unfortunately time has taken its toll on the Sphinx, which lost both its nose and its regal beard at least 700 years ago. This is probably the biggest and the best Sphinx in Egypt. Nearby is the Khafre Temple, one of the oldest surviving temples in the country. It’s hard to believe that these ancient engineering wonders are mere feet from modern urban buildings. For a special treat, you might like to hire an Arab stallion to gallop across the desert around the pyramids and Sphinx by moonlight. Giza, with its archeological marvels, is certainly worth the trip.
Unless otherwise specified, all photos are by Elaine L. Mura