No other planned destination has thrilled me as much as the prospect of visiting the Pyramids of Giza. With mounting excitement, I traveled, together with a small group of Canadians, by minibus, through Cairo across the Nile River to Giza, intent on seeing the world-famous Pyramids. We were told that Giza was the old city where the workmen lived while the pyramids were being built.
The city ends abruptly and the endless sands of the desert begin in a vast panorama of undulating beige powder. There just beyond the city, breaking the monotony of the sea of sand, sit the spectacular mounds of rock, known as The Pyramids of Giza. The mystery and majesty of these magnificent structures is well known throughout the world, however pictures and words do not do justice to these massive architectural triumphs of ancient Egypt. These man-made wonders defy explanation. How did they get there? Without the aid of modern technology or modern machines, men built them. So much for presuming the superior intellect and miracles of modern man.
The Great Pyramid or Cheops, is approximately 137 metres high, down from 147 metres, having been worn down by time and man. The base is square, each side being equal to the height of the triangle, 247 metres. It was built of white limestone in the fourth dynasty, by the Pharaoh Cheops. Each limestone block is no less that 9 metres long. Centuries ago, the Arabs took away the outer casing to build some of their mosques, such as the Mosque of Sultan Hassan in Cairo. The north side of the pyramid has two entrances. One entrance, that looks like a niche in the body of the pyramid, is now closed. It was the original entrance, built by the ancient Egyptians. The lower entrance, which looks like a hole in the body of the pyramid, dates back to the ninth century AD. It was made by an Arab in search of treasures. On reaching his goal, he found that the treasures had already been taken. At the time of my visit, repair work and air exchange was being done in Cheops, therefore visitors were not allowed in it. I was disappointed when I heard this.
We drove on to the second pyramid, Chephren. This is the only one of the three pyramids which has, at least at the top, the smooth external facing. Originally not as high as Cheops, today it is the same height, not having lost that facing at the top. I was elated when we were offered the opportunity to enter Chephren. We were warned anyone should not to go in who has claustrophobia, because space is very limited. Also, we were told that anyone who could not cope with a shortage of oxygen could be in trouble. Further, back problems are another deterrent, due to the contortions required to execute the journey along the cramped passage. Well, I was not to be deterred. This lady did not come halfway around the world, only to chicken out on the doorstep!
Some of the men in our group also decided to tackle the tunnel. Together with my friends, Glynn and Bert, I set out across the sand intent on reaching the heart of Chephren. My adrenalin was pumping; my heart seemed to be racing in nervous anticipation. We were told that the entrance to this pyramid's sanctuary is reached after a climb of about 76 metres. Initially, we descended into the bowels of the pyramid. The decent is steep, down a ramp with crosspieces for steps. Almost immediately, we found the height of the tunnel reduced to a level that required us to bend over nearly double, in a somewhat crouched position. This position was very difficult to maintain. We entered the tunnel single file and I was soon thinking how cramped and crowded we were. There was a surprise in store for us. We had to come out by the same route. Soon our cramped tunnel was being shared by a steady succession of puffing individuals, anxiously plying their way to the surface. I must admit to really wondering if I was not dreaming the impossible dream. I told myself that I was not going to give up no matter what! Down, down we went. There was a little dull light, but much of the way was dark, with only a glimmer of light or the shadow of the person ahead to go by. I had an eerie feeling coursing through me. Someone produced a little flashlight. Thank goodness. We finally bottomed out into a landing, where we were able to stand up. It felt good to straighten up, but the pleasure was short lived, as we again had to move on. This time we were climbing. People were talking, as if to reassure themselves. Glynn made the comment that the people who robbed this tomb must have been hard rock miners! Up, up, I wondered how much further we would have to go? Finally, we reached our goal, the crypt where the King had been entombed.
I was both relieved and elated. I gazed around the room that we had entered. This room, made of stone blocks, contains only a stone sarcophagus. The mummy it was built to contain and the coffin are no longer here. The only ones known to have been found in a pyramid were taken and put on a ship sailing to England. The ship sunk off the coast of Spain many years ago.
The air was dank, heavy and hot. We were told that this chamber looks exactly like it's counterpart in Cheops; a plain, gray stone-walled room with no original wall decoration. Travelers have not changed in the last two hundred years. I noticed graffiti high up on one wall.
"2 March 1818.....J. Belzoni"
was written in large print. (I have since learned that Belzoni was the name of an Egyptology enthusiast, who came here to this pyramid in the sand in 1818. He became known as "The Collector" because he traded in mummies, sending dozens of them back to Europe. His research methods were very destructive. He is said to have used a battering ram to break down tomb walls. Fortunately for us, more cautious researchers succeeded him.)
Heading out was not as intimidating as it had been going in. We followed the same tunnel. I commented that I was glad that I did not eat more lunch. "Thank God, they've got this handrail on the side," Bert remarked. "I wonder which King varnished it!" I replied. You could tell our mood had lightened. I was really out of breath and puffing as we climbed up the last ramp. Bert encouraged me with, "Each step is one less to go." Three more steps to go. The fresh air smelled good.
As we emerged and caught our breath, we were anxious to take pictures. We had not been allowed to take our cameras into the pyramid. This had been an exhilarating and unforgettable experience.
As we got back on our bus, we were driven to a sand hill view point, where we got a panoramic view of the whole fascinating complex of pyramids, here on the desert. The complex includes three large pyramids and also the Sphinx, which was not visible from the sandy plateau. It was hidden from our view by Chephren. Of the three pyramids, Mycerinus is the smallest. This pyramid has three much smaller mini-pyramids. These were thought to be the burial chambers of the wives of the Pharaoh, Mycerinus. The plateau of the hill was swarming with camels and their drivers, who mill around offering rides and pictures for a sum. Our guide suggested that we wait and get one at Cheops then ride to the Sphinx.
Of the group on our bus, my friend, Margaret and I were the only ones willing to venture to ride a camel. The driver of my camel, told me that he was a good photographer, so he took my picture, while I held the reins and wondered what I would do if the camel took off. Part way down the hill, he suggested that I have my picture taken, "like an Arab." Unaware of what he was about to do, I agreed. At that, he gestured and the camel suddenly dropped down to his knees. With the sudden jolt I expected to be pitched over the saddle horn. Hanging on desperately this "Nervous Nelly" retained her seat as the camel finished lying down. The driver came back and took something out of the saddlebag behind me. Next thing I knew, he popped a colourful Arab headdress over my head, dropping a headband onto my forehead, to hold it in place. (The thought drifted though my mind that, I once read a curse written on a little card to be given to inconsiderate drivers saying, "May the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits!" What had I gotten myself into?) Reaching the area of the Sphinx we dismounted. Margaret and I agreed that it was great fun and well worth the E£3. that it cost us. Getting back on the bus, we were greeted by a round of applause from our fellow tourists.
Our last stop was to see the Sphinx, which has guarded the Pyramids throughout most of the many centuries of recorded time. We had to go through a stone building, in order to reach a good area from which to view it. From the vantage point behind the building we discovered that the Sphinx is truly a colossal statue. With the body of a lion, lying reposing on the desert, this giant statue is 73 metres long. The statue has eroded badly over the centuries by the effects of nature and man. Napoleon's troops are reputed to have used it for target practice. The toes of the lion body have worn down, as have many other details. From here we are able to observe the human face, believed to be that of Chephren, the builder of the second pyramid. This famous face, worn by the ravages of time and the constant assault of the desert sand, is five metres high. Many years ago the nose was found, in the sand, by an archaeologist and is now in a European museum. We were told that negotiations for it's return bogged down when the current keepers, unwilling to donate it towards the restoration of this magnificent piece of antiquity, demanded an important statue in exchange for the nose. The Egyptians chose not to continue negotiation. There was scaffolding surrounding portions of the desert beast, as the restoration was in progress.
Our tour came to an end, leaving me hoping the day will come when I can again visit this ancient enigma here on the sands of the desert, so close to the bustling city of Cairo.
Article and pictures by M. Maxine George
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Last Updated on January 29, 2006 by M. Maxine George editor. © 2003 Magic Carpet Journals. All rights reserved