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  • Brian Johnson

Egypt: The Giza Plateau and Sakkara Necropolis, February 9-10, 2023

Updated: Apr 27

February 9, 2023

On a lazy Sunday afternoon last winter, Lynn and I sat around and contemplated the fact that we are both turning 60 this year. The conversation soon turned to how we would mark the occasion. Me being, well, me, my thought was that we should mark the twin occasions with a big adventure. I lamented the fact that my birthday is in February, and I said I wish my birthday was in July, like hers. Then we noted the irony that her big bucket list trip was not practical in July and would be best done in my birthday month. Well, one thing lead to another, and we came up with the idea that we should trade birthdays, or at least birthday trips. So we agreed to do her birthday adventure in February for my birthday, and in July I would get to choose our adventure for her trip.

Accordingly, after a long night and day of traveling, we are sitting here in our room in the Steigenberger Pyramids Hotel, looking out our balcony across the Giza plateau, with the faint outline of the Great Pyramid faintly visible in the darkness about a mile away. The morning view promises to be spectacular. We plan on spending the day wandering among the pyramids, exploring  the interiors, taking silly pictures with the Sphinx, riding camels, and otherwise being thoroughly goofy tourists. Saturday morning we are flying to Luxor, where we will tour the Valley of the Kings before boarding our Dahabiya for a 5 night cruise down the Nile to Aswan. A Dahabiya is a traditional style Egyptian sailing boat. Ours only has eight passenger cabins and a small crew. An Egyptologist will guide us as we tour temples and ancient ruins along the river. From Aswan we’ll catch a plane back to Cairo for three nights to explore the old city and more nearby temples and tombs. On my birthday next Tuesday we’ll get to visit Kom Ombo and the double temple of Sobek the Crocodile and Haroeris the Falcon. Is that a big enough adventure? I think so…

February 10, 2023:

Have you ever looked forward to something for a long time, maybe your entire life, and when the moment came, it didn’t live up to to your expectations? Well, today was not one of those days. Exactly the opposite.

On a last minute whim we booked a tour of the Giza Plateau through our hotel instead of going it alone. It seemed like a great offer, and it turned out that way. St. Christopher continues to smile on me. When we got to the entrance to the pyramids we found utter chaos. Even though the pyramids are spread out over a huge desert area that can swallow up thousands of visitors, in typical Egyptian fashion the entry was bottlenecked to a single door into a security screening area, and hundreds of people were pushing, shoving, and shouting to get through. Today is Friday, the Muslim holy day like our Sunday, and many locals were taking advantage of the time off to experience the pyramids. With the help of our guide we forced our way through to the other side and found our transportation waiting for us; a camel for Lynn and a horse for me, although we traded off on the way back. Our first stop was the “third” pyramid, the pyramid of Mekaure, grandson of Cheops, the smallest of the three, and one I looked forward to because I wanted to see “The Gash”. Apparently in the 12th Century an Arab invader decided he wanted to dismantle the whole thing. After eight months of labor his men were only able to inflict a large vertical scar on the north side, so they gave it up as a bad job. I know, it’s a little weird, but I’m fascinated by the little historical details. After some goofy pictures of us and Bob, the camel, and Madonna, the horse, we headed for the main attraction, the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

Completed around 2570 BCE as the burial chamber for the great pharaoh Khufu, at a height of almost 500 feet, the Great Pyramid was the tallest structure in the world until the 19th century. This particular pyramid is unique in ancient Egyptian history in that it is the only known example of a royal tomb existing above ground, as all other tombs were built below ground, even if they have massive pyramids above them. It is comprised of 2.3 million stone blocks, weighing on average 2.5 tons each, and is, in my humble opinion, the greatest architectural achievement in human history. Despite being built over 4,500 years ago, without modern building equipment, the greatest difference in length between the four 756 feet long sides is less than two inches. I know, I know, this is Facebook, and you’re not supposed to get bogged down in history and details, but this is my post, so if you don’t like historical facts you’re in the wrong place.

We climbed up to the entrance and proceeded into the interior. What an experience. The passages are very narrow, claustrophobic even, and you have to negotiate long stretches where you have to hunch over to keep from banging your head before reaching the King’s Chamber. Of course there’s nothing there anymore, having been looted about 600 years after being built, and the air is close and it’s very hot inside, but the experience was worth it. How many people do you who who can say they’ve climbed around inside the Great Pyramid? If you’re reading this, now you can say you know two.

Our next stop was the second pyramid, in terms of size and age, built by Khafre, the son of Khufu. We didn’t get to go inside, but the views from outside were impressive. It is distinct because it is the only one of the three that still has some of the original polished limestone casing at the top. It’s base is only about 50 feet shorter than the great pyramid, and the height is only about 10 feet less, and from a distance can actually appear slightly taller because it was built on a higher section of bedrock, but architecturally it’s not as perfect as the Great Pyramid. The sides of the base are not as accurate so that when completed the sides did not perfectly match up at the top and the builders had to fudge a little. Apparently Khafre’s architect didn’t quite measure up to Khufu’s.

Our last stop in Giza was the famous Sphinx, with the body of a lion and the head of a man. Contrary to myth it was built by Khafre and the face is almost certainly his. We didn’t linger here as we still had things to do, so we took our obligatory photos and moved on.

Our dessert for the day was a visit to the necropolis of Saqquara and the step pyramid of Djoser, built about a hundred years before the Great Pyramid and which was a prototype for all the pyramids to follow. In fact it is believed to be the first large scale stone monument ever built. After arriving on site we started to walk toward it but decided to detour a few hundred yards into the desert to check out some New Kingdom tombs, “only” about 3300 years old. Another example of the value of getting off the beaten path. Across the desert we could see the Bent Pyramid, which as the name would imply was the first, unsuccessful attempt at building a perfect pyramid, and the Red Pyramid, the first successful attempt. Then we explored some amazing tombs that were elaborately decorated with carvings and hieroglyphs. In some cases the original colors were not only still visible, but vibrant even. And the best part? We saw not a single other person besides the young Egyptian who unlocked the tombs for us. Eventually we did make it back to the Step Pyramid and after a little persuasion of the security guard were able to make it inside just before closing.

On the way back to our hotel our driver took us to an authentic Egyptian restaurant where we feasted like, well, pharaohs. Stuffed cabbage leaves, kafka, pita, hummus, grilled chicken, cinnamon rice, and a couple of items we never did know the names of left us feeling well sated, although not too full for a couple of cocktails back at the hotel bar. Tomorrow, if you’re still following along after this boring day, we’re off to Karnak and Luxor.

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