THIRD IN A 10-PART SPECIAL SERIES: EGYPT, LAND OF ETERNAL REBIRTH
CAIRO – No touristic visit to Egypt would be complete without the requisite trek to the pyramids of Giza, technically just 20 kilometers southwest of the capital’s city limits along the West bank of the Nile and essentially an extension of the overcrowded metropolis that now is home to a full third of the country’s burgeoning population.
Indeed, these three majestic monuments — the last surviving vestiges of the original Seven Wonders of the World — are well worth the hour or so (depending on traffic) it can take to get there.
Be warned, though, whether you go by cab or drive yourself (a true feat of extreme tourism for the uninitiated), maneuvering through the labyrinth of bumper-to-bumper, battle-scarred Mercedes Benzes, rickety trucks carrying everything from mile-high piles of sugarcane to live chickens in precariously balanced cages, colorfully painted, three-wheeled tuk-tuk automotive rickshaws with over-zealous drivers who are as copious in their use of their horns as they are with their accelerators, and dusty, horse-drawn carriages that seem oblivious to the more advanced means of transportation that surround them, can be a tedious endeavor.
But once you get through the muddled jumble of Cairo’s snarled traffic and come face-to-face with the Great Pyramid of Khufu and its lesser sidekicks, the Pyramid of Khafre and the unfinished Pyramid of Menkaure — all graciously flanked by what remains of the Great Sphinx after Napoleon Bonaparte and his men allegedly used it for target practice — any doubts you might have had about embarking on the seemingly death-defying odyssey to Giza quickly disappear as you are awed by the pure majestic magnificence of these Old Kingdom monuments.
And while you may initially be jarred by the unabashed juxtapositioning of these ancient edifices with the modern sprawl that has encroached its way along the border of the site to practically absorb the pyramids into Giza’s straggly municipal landscape, as you approach the colossal structures, the surrounding metropolis seems to fade from view.
Constructed between 2680 and 2560 BC, the Great Pyramid of Khufu, towering over the other two at a height of more than 138 meters (it was originally 146 meters high, but time and neglect have taken a toll over the centuries), was the first of the stately trio to be built.
The Fourth Dynasty pharaoh Khufu considered himself the incarnate spawn of Re, the sun god, and felt obliged to leave a tangible and very visible tomb for all his people to remember him, as well as to ensure that his heavenly father would be able to locate his remains in the afterlife and restore his earthly status.
The mammoth structure, built out of more than 2.2 million quarried stone blocks weighing an average 2.5 tons each and covered with a white limestone casing to create a smooth outer surface, has three known chambers inside its core where Khufu was buried, along with a bounty of accumulated wealth that he was determined to take with him. (No such luck, though, since the tomb was apparently pillaged and plundered by pharaonic carpetbaggers shortly after the funeral ceremony was over.)
Local tour guides are more than anxious to provide a wealth of misinformation about the Khufu pyramid in exchange for a few hundred Egyptian pounds, but they have a tendency to embellish facts, such as proclaiming that the Pyramid of Khufu is the largest pyramid on Earth. But don’t believe them. According to the “Guinness Book of Records,” that distinction goes to Mexico’s own Quetzalcoatl pyramid in Cholula.
Next in line to the throne was Khufu’s son Khafre, who built his masonry monument next to the Grand Pyramid in the same style as his father, but on a smaller scale, perhaps in deference to and respect for his dad or perhaps because Daddy sacked the family coffers to furbish his own shrine.
The Pyramid of Khafre is only 136 meters high and is more sloped than the Great Pyramid, registering a 53-degree angle as opposed to Khufu’s 51-degree angle.
It also sits on a solid plateau of bedrock that is 10 meters higher than the Khufu pyramid base, making it appear taller when viewed from below, which might have been Khafre’s stealthy revenge against his father for squandering the family fortune on his tomb.
There are two passageways leading into Khafre’s burial chamber, one from the side and one from the top that goes straight to the zenith of the pyramid (perchance intended as a fast track to the sacred world of Re and the afterlife).
Poor little Menkaure, son of Khafre and grandson of Khufu, seemingly got the worst deal when it came to making his pyramid, a measly 65 meters in stature (a pitiful 10th of the size of grandpa’s) and with a red granite core instead of a limestone center.
The granite was much harder than limestone so it was more difficult to cut and polish, which meant that the craftsmanship suffered somewhat, but on the up side, it was more durable.
Like Khufu’s pyramid, Menkaure’s tomb has a 51-degree slant and is cased with white Tura limestone.
Although he ruled for at least two decades, Menkaure died unexpectedly before his pyramid could be completed, so his son and heir Shepseskaf took it upon himself to finish the job with a quick and haphazard laying of mud blocks, which, unlike the granite, did not endure well over the course of the next four and a half millenniums.
Little is known about Menkaure and there is some scholarly debate as to whether the third pyramid at Giza is even his, but while he may have made less of an impression for eternity in terms of his relatively paltry pyramid, he seems to have been a real player in his earthly life.
Egyptologists believe he had at least two wives and a considerable harem of sweet young things to keep him occupied in this world and to conceivably compensate for any shortcomings he might have faced when it came to pyramid-building.
And then there is the Sphinx.
Part human, part lion, this mythical statue — among the largest in the world — was built in place from solid limestone in front of Khafre’s tomb.
It straddles the Giza Plateau and is generally believed to represent the face of Khafre, standing 20 meters high, with a length of nearly 74 meters and 19 meters wide.
The Great Sphinx was disfigured sometime in the last millennium, but probably not by Napoleon, as is commonly believed.
Although the Little Corporal may have taken the rap for the maiming of the emblemic statue, the real culprit most likely was an eighth century Sufi priest who considered it a blasphemous idol.
Then again, there are any number of other accounts as to how the Sphinx lost its nose, so you can take your choice or create your own legend.
The Sphinx has always been a lodestone for legends.
Even the reason for its creation is a mystery.
Some researchers believe that it was built to be a guardian of Khafre, while others insist that it was really a portrait of the great king, a kind of mega pharaonic selfie.
Since it aligns with the rising sun every morning, Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom Egyptian rulers often associated it with the sun god and paid appropriate homage.
Whatever the original purpose of the Sphinx might have been, and no matter who was responsible for making it a candidate for a serious nip-and-tuck nose job, today it has become an iconic symbol of Egypt’s pharaonic glory and modern national pride.
So take your time and enjoy your visit to the pyramids of Giza, because after you do, you still have another hair-raising trek back to Cairo.
For more information about Cairo and other destinations in Egypt, visit the Egyptian Tourist Authority official website at http://en.egypt.travel.com.
There is no shortage of quality hotels in Cairo, as well as affordable budgets inns for the less affluent traveler. On the high-end scale, the luxurious Four Seasons Nile Plaza, overlooking the great river, is a breathtakingly beautiful 30-story property with 365 rooms and suites and five restaurants, plus its own designer department store. The Nile Plaza’s Graffiti Bar is the in place for Cairo’s elite to take in the ambience and dance the night away. Located at 1089 Corniche el Nil in Cairo’s bustling Garden City (www.fourseasons.com/caironp).
Just across the river is the equally elegant but far more traditional 20-story Four Seasons at the First Residence, with 269 rooms and suites. The First Residence has two restaurants, including a magnificent Syrian restaurant, and its own luxury shopping mall. Be sure to stop by the Library Bar for a drink in an Old World elegant setting. Located at 35 Giza Street (www.fourseasons.com/cairofr).
Next to the airport and away from the lively commotion of downtown Cairo is the Fairmont Heliopolis, a sprawling 540-room, ultra-modern complex with 10 restaurants. The hotel has sweeping panoramic views of the Nile, but no local charm like the two Four Seasons. Located at 2005B Corniche el Nil in the Ramlet Beaulac district (www.fairmont.com/nile-city-cairo).