Journal: Sunday 17 December 1995
On our second day in Cairo we arranged for a taxi to take us on a tour of the monuments at Giza and Saqqara. The day was bright and clear – the smog mysteriously disappearing as we travelled westwards away from the city. The driver, whose name was Hassan, took us first to Giza, famous for three pyramids.
The Dynasty IV king Khufu (Greek, Cheops) was the first to construct his pyramid at Giza. His monument, which is known as the ‘Great Pyramid’, is the only surviving structure of the seven ancient wonders of the world. Khufu’s pyramid was the tallest building in the world until the early part of the 20th century AD. Khufu’s son, Khafre (Greek, Chephren) also constructed a pyramid next to his father’s monument. From a distance Khafre’s pyramid looks higher than Khufu’s, but this illusion is due to the structure being built on rising ground. The third pyramid belongs to Menkaure (Greek, Mycerinus) and is the smallest of the three.When they were built the pyramids were encased in thousands of blocks of white limestone from the Tura quarries across the river and must have presented an imposing sight, shining from a great distance in the scorching sunlight of the desert. Now most of the casing stones have gone, robbed in ancient times, but some can still be seen on the apex of Khafre’s pyramid. The pyramids of Giza have always fascinated mankind and a great many mysteries have been built around them. Napoleon Bonaparte himself was greatly impressed by the structures when he conquered Egypt in 1798, at the time when they were truly out in the desert. They have been given many names – the ‘Granaries of Joseph’, the ‘Mountains of the Pharaohs’ – and there are numerous theories about their origins, including their construction by long-lost civilisations such as Atlanteans or even extra-terrestrials. There is great speculation on exactly how they were built, using the primitive construction methods of the time and whether their orientation was cosmic or religious. The pyramid complexes are surrounded by vast cemeteries of mastaba tombs, similar in size and originally laid out in street-like rows. Mastaba is the name given to a large rectangular superstructure built over a deep burial shaft and comes from the Arabic word for ‘bench’. There are hundreds of mastaba tombs at Giza where the Old Kingdom elite were buried close to their pharaohs.
The Giza Plateau’s other claim to fame is for the Great Sphinx, which is situated next to Khafre’s causeway and valley temple. One of the world’s greatest monuments and the first colossal royal statue of ancient Egypt, the Sphinx was known as ‘Abu Hol’ (Father of Terror) to the Arabic people. It is fashioned out of a natural limestone outcrop left over from the quarrying of stone by the builders of the Great Pyramid. We do not know who first shaped the statue, completing it with mudbrick. Some say the original face was that of Khafre, others claim it has the features of Djedefre, Khafre’s predecessor, who may have used the quarry for his pyramid at Abu Rawash. The Sphinx is carved in the shape of a crouching lion with a human head. Many enigmas surround the Sphinx, including the legend of a lost Hall of Records which is supposed to be hidden beneath the statue, although there is no evidence at all for this, and its true purpose remains a mystery.
My first impression of the pyramids was the shock of how close they were to Cairo. I had expected desert, but here they were, somewhat diminished by the ever-encroaching skyscrapers of the city. When we left the taxi we were instantly besieged by hawkers selling postcards and trinkets or touts insistently offering horse or camel rides around the plateau. Standing up close to the Great Pyramid the structure was quite overwhelming, towering 140m above us and constructed with massive blocks of stone, each one a metre high. Every visitor to Egypt should have the experience of going into the Great Pyramid at least once, and I was no exception. Its low-ceilinged passageways and vast ascending stairways were awe-inspiring. I had recently been reading the sci-fi books of Arthur C Clark and as I ascended the great stairway inside Khufu’s pyramid I was certain that this was the inspiration behind some of his stories. By the time I reached the King’s Chamber in the centre of the pyramid I was hot and breathless and found it difficult not to think of those thousands of tons of stone bearing down on me. But then I was distracted by the acoustics. The slightest noise seemed to be amplified in this empty chamber and to echo round and round the walls producing harmonics and vibrations so that I couldn’t tell where the sounds were coming from. The King’s Chamber was completely empty and I was alone, except for a huge granite sarcophagus. Eventually, aware of time passing, I went back down the wooden ramp of the great gallery and found myself once more outside in the blinding sunlight.
It is impossible to visit the Giza plateau in a short time. I have since returned many times, seen its different moods and visited all of its other monuments but it would realistically take weeks to see everything. On that first visit we saw Khufu’s stately Solar Boat, reconstructed in its own museum and looking like it would sail as well today as when it was built around four and a half thousand years ago. We then took a quick look at the other pyramids before stopping briefly by the sphinx, which was closed for restoration. I was not reluctant to leave Giza. I felt that what I had seen here had been enough of an introduction to the plateau and I wanted a little time to absorb and savour the experience of the Great Pyramid before moving on to our next site.