My hotels’s bed-side phone interrupted my deep sleep at 3:30 a.m. one August morning in 2012. I had requested the call so that I might get myself to a suburb of Cairo called Giza to watch the sunrise framed by one of the seven wonders of the ancient world – the only one still in existence.
Having heard stories about the horrendous traffic snarls that plague Cairo, my plan was to allow at least 90 minutes to make this 15-mile journey. Even at this ungodly hour, traffic was chaotic as drivers seemed to make their own “lanes” along unmarked roads that were choked with way more cars than they could reasonably accommodate. Horn blowing is a way of life here, if not a required ritual, for all who brave the streets of the city which, including it suburbs, is home to 23 million people. Few of the traffic signals were working, and the few cops stationed at intersections mostly stood around and waved their white-gloved hands while drivers ignored them. My taxi was hit by another car in what turned out to be nothing more than a “fender bender,” and happily we soon resumed the drive to Giza. I began to notice that virtually every car had at least some minor damage to its body! Some were so beat up they seemed to be held together with glue and body compound. Cairo hits you around the head like a sock full of sand. It’s big, it’s busy, it’s dirty, it’s crazy, but it is absolutely amazing.
These ancient pyramid-shaped masonry structures are found throughout Egypt; more than 80 remain today. They were built as tombs for the country’s pharaohs and their consorts several millennia ago. Easily the most famous of these are the three Pyramids of Giza located on the outskirts of Cairo, the oldest and largest is called “The Great Pyramid.” It stands as a monument to the engineering achievements of the ancient world.
After about 50 minutes, the taxi put me out in Giza, a small city on the west bank of the Nile which includes a site known as a “necropolis” (“city of the dead”). It consists of a complex of three large pyramids, as well as the Great Sphinx. This World Heritage site is number five on the Smithsonian Institute’s list of “28 Places to See before You Die.”
When I exited the taxi, I found myself at a spot where several tourists had already gathered at just a few minutes before 5 a.m. This area afforded a view toward the East so that the rising sun would first appear behind the Pyramids. A couple from California had researched the official time of sunrise that morning – 5:22 a.m. they said – and they provided a “countdown” as to the number of minutes remaining before the morning sun would become visible.
As the sky began to show just a hint of the coming light, the outline of the Pyramids started to emerge out of the darkness against a brightening sky. The Pyramids of Egypt had been on my wish list of places to visit since my boyhood when my sisters danced with their boyfriends to the old song “You Belong to Me” which contained the line “see the pyramids along the Nile.” I was in the fifth grade at the time, but I was old enough to dream about far-away places though my prospects of ever getting there were bleak! I clearly remember looking in the family encyclopedia about the “pyramids” and the “Nile.” More than 60 years later I am here anxiously awaiting the morning sun to illumine a sight too breathtaking to describe.
Witnessing the world awake to a bright sun with a backdrop that includes the Pyramids of Egypt is something that pulled at my heart strings and reminded me afresh of my own mortality. There were audible expressions of amazement among the onlookers. Soon the morning sun ignited her daily gift of light and warmth, causing shadows from the Pyramids to dance across the desert sands before me. What a moment!
There is certainly no shortage of facts and figures about the pyramids, although some of these numbers tend to be so huge that they border on the incomprehensible, even when you actually stand in the shadow of these gigantic structures. These facts, indeed, give credence to the massive size and scope of these magnificent structures.
The Great Pyramid of Khufu, the largest of the three, stands 481 feet high – as tall as a 35 or 40 story office building but many times more massive – its base is 750 feet square. It was the tallest man-made structure in the world for thousands of years – until it was eclipsed by Lincoln Cathedral in England in 1311 AD. And if that weren’t enough, a second and third pyramid, only a few feet shorter in height, were later constructed adjacent to the Great Pyramid.
The Great Pyramid was constructed about 4,500 years ago, making it one of the oldest surviving structures from the ancient world. It took more than 20 years to construct and required the work of approximately 100,000 people. Approximately 2.3 million stone blocks were used in its construction, each weighing an average of about 2.5 tons, making the total estimated weigh of the Great Pyramid over 6 million tons. Much of the required stone came from a quarry about 3,000 feet from the building site while other stones were mined in Aswan about 525 miles up the Nile from Giza. For these stones, the Nile River became a “highway” for their delivery. After these gigantic stones arrived at the port of Giza, they had to moved six miles across the desert to the building site – a much shorter distance when the Nile River was at flood stage. Some researchers suggest that this was accomplished by wetting the desert sand in front of a contraption built to pull the heavy objects long distances with much less resistance. Once these stones arrived at the building site, a wooden ramp of some sort enabled them to be pulled up and set in place. Most researchers conclude, however, we will probably never know exactly how this feat was accomplished.
Sometimes the majesty of the Great Pyramid causes us to forget that, at the end of the day, this gigantic structure is just a burial chamber – the largest of all the tombs built in the ancient world. For the young and strong-willed, it is possible to go inside the Great Pyramid and actually enter the burial chamber. Tourists who buy the extra ticket and endure the tiny passage ways to reach the actual burial chamber are often disappointed to find only an empty room. Grave robbers have long ago removed everything, including the mummified body of the Pharaoh.
Researchers believe that the Great Pyramid was originally, completely covered in white casing stones, creating a smooth surface which reflected the sun’s rays. Today only a tiny section of these stones remains near its apex because almost all of this highly polished white limestone was removed long ago to build mosques and fortresses. I stood transfixed as I tried to imagine how the gleaming white limestone would have made the pyramids an even more dazzling spectacle in ancient times than they are today. In ancient times, people would journey from miles around just to have a look at these gigantic structures that sat, immovable, reflecting the bright rays of the sun.
I’ve done a fair amount of traveling during my life and have been fortunate enough to see famous landmarks like the Sydney Opera House, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall, Victoria Falls, and the Sahara Desert outside Timbuktu, but the pyramids at Giza are in a class by themselves. Why? Because they are so uniquely established in popular culture that virtually everybody knows about them from childhood. As I walked around the enormous base of the Great Pyramid and seeing this man-made mountain slope up close, reaffirmed my decision to travel here. There is simply no denying that this is a place I would have gladly come regardless of the effort and expense required. This awareness makes for a unique sensation if you are ever fortunate enough to make it to Giza. What you have heard about this famous, far-away place coupled with the actual first-hand experience of seeing their enormity and grandeur, drives home their important place in human history. A photo just does not do it because it is virtually impossible to appreciate their immensity with only a desert backdrop and nothing else against which to measure their size. I count my visits to the pyramids among the greatest experiences of my life. Should you ever get there, I wager you will too.
Next time: “The Taj Mahal”