Egypt part 1 - Cairo

The captain had prepared the aircraft for landing and I could feel the Etihad large wide bodied jet gradually descending over the desert below. I glanced out the window and through the glare of the sun could make out the rocky outcrops jutting above that stark sandy wasteland, low lying buildings began to appear and then I saw it glistening like a ribbon of mercury, the river Nile. The captain announced that if we looked out the left side of the aircraft we may capture a glimpse of the famed pyramids. I really didn't know where to look and all I could see was the approaching mass of the sprawling metropolis of Cairo. I turned to my companions and they also seemed to have missed any sighting of these wonders of the world, we would have to wait 24 hours for a personal encounter with the great pyramids of Egypt.

We were a group of ten New Zealand travellers involved in the travel industry and had been invited to Egypt to explore this ancient land by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism in association with Robyn Galloway and her company Innovative Travel. This trip was for me the culmination of a failed attempt to get to Egypt twenty years earlier when my plans were thwarted by illness and I was abandoned by my traveling companions in Greece as they made their way to Egypt. I had high expectations of Egypt and my dream was about to be realised.

We were greeted on arrival at Cairo Airport by the local tour operator and provided with our Egyptian visas which are included with the Innovative Travel, Ancient Kingdoms Holidays “warm welcome” service. We met our wonderful guide Nihal who would remain with us for the entire trip. Nihal was an Egyptologist and a very professional guide who would also become a valued member of our small travelling “family”. 

On our way to Giza on the outskirts of Cairo, where we would be based for the next two nights at the iconic hotel the Mena House, traffic crawled, beat up vehicles blasted their horns, rubbish lay strewn on the roadside and piled up under motorway overpasses. Half completed concrete and earthen brown buildings dotted with satellite dishes ruled the cityscape. An occasional donkey pulling a cart would trot by driven by young men or boys. Roadside hawkers would be standing amongst the traffic chaos peddling freshly made bread or bagels. The sun was setting as we traveled this road and the golden light cast a glorious display across the city picking out the minarets and domes of the many mosques.

It was at this time that we passed The City of the Dead and for this brief moment the sun seemed to bring life to this forlorn place. The excitement on our bus was evident as someone let out a gasp as they caught a glimpse of a pyramid between a gap of the low rise buildings in front of us. We rounded a corner and there it was The Great Pyramid of Giza (also known as the Pyramid of Khufu or the Pyramid of Cheops).

I was startled that the pyramids were on the edge of the city as all the images that I had seen had them placed in the desert. Their appearance is slightly deceptive as they are in fact slightly separated from the city on one side and the other side is the desert. The approach road to our hotel which was just below the pyramids was really the first sign that I had seen of tightened security. There was of course security at Cairo Airport but this was an open display of shielded guard posts with machine guns trained at approaching vehicles. The gated hotel perimeter had armed guards and dogs checking for explosive devices at each vehicle. Our entry to the hotel reception was through a metal detector and our bags were put through x ray machines. This was an extreme security measure and was the only hotel that we visited that had security to this extent. Other hotels had metal detectors and some X-ray for bags.

The pyramids were getting lost in the dusk as we made our way to our rooms however we would see them again that evening when we attended the Pyramids Sound and Light Show.The sound and light show tells the story of the pyramids using laser lighting and visual projections accompanied by dramatic music and narration, the duration is one hour. This was interesting but I have a distaste for the way they have used these ancient monuments in a Las Vegas like spectacle.

My room promised a spectacular view of the pyramids and I was determined to wake early and let the dawn light create a light display far better than this evening’s effort. Mena House hotel is a beautiful 5 star resort property in Giza and the best hotel in this area. The hotel began as a royal lodge in 1869. The main dining room of today was once the entire lodge, but in 1869 with the opening of the Suez Canal, the lodge was enlarged. The hotel opened officially as Mena House Hotel in 1886.

I lay awake thinking of the mystery of the pyramids and that I was about to embark on a journey of discovery of these ancient monuments. After a few hours sleep I woke early as I had intended and made camp on the balcony to wait for the sunrise. The night slowly gave way to the day and the silhouette of the great pyramid loomed spectacularly before me. The sunlight crept slowly up the pyramids stone walls, the hues of the morning sun making this massive structure glow in the golden dawn. This was a moment that I will always remember. I noticed that although it was early in the day the heat was already intense and for this time of year was unexpected. Later in the trip we would experience temperatures in the high 40’s. However I didn’t find it an uncomfortable heat as humidity was low.

Our itinerary today took in the sights of Memphis, Sakkara and lastly the Pyramids and Sphinx. We visited Memphis first which served as the capital of Upper and Lower Egypt some 5000 years ago during the First Dynasty. Artifacts found at Memphis include The Sphinx of Memphis which is a stone sphinx, the alabaster Sphinx of Memphis is the largest calcite statue ever discovered. The ruins of ancient Memphis have yielded a large number of sculptures representing Pharaoh Rameses II. Within the museum in Memphis is a giant statue of the pharaoh carved of monumental limestone, about 10 metres in length. It was discovered in 1820 near the southern gate of the temple of Ptah by Italian archaeologist Giovanni Caviglia.

We continued to Sakkara one of the most exciting historical and archaeological areas in all of Egypt. Dominated by the famous Step Pyramid of King Zoser this was the first pyramid to be built in ancient Egypt preceding those at Giza by many centuries. It is also here where you will find the Funerary complex of Djoser.

Our last stop for the day was the much anticipated visit to The Great Pyramids of Giza, let my personal encounter begin. My first impression was the scale of the Great Pyramid, it was much larger than I expected and the structure was built from large stone blocks resembling steps. It is estimated that 5.5 million tonnes of limestone, 8,000 tonnes of granite (imported from Aswan), and 500,000 tonnes of mortar were used in the construction of the Great Pyramid. Initially at 146.5 metres (481 feet), the Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure in the world for more than 3,800 years but with erosion and absence of its pyramidion (capstone or upper most piece usually covered in gold leaf to reflect the rays of the sun) its present height is 138.8 metres (455.4 ft). 

We didn’t enter the Great Pyramid as it was closed off during our visit however I had the opportunity to enter the chamber of one of the smaller pyramids. I was a bit apprehensive as I have an aversion to confined spaces however I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. The height of the entrance meant that I had to bend down to enter and we had to stay in this position as we descended the shaft to the interior underground chamber. The incline of the shaft was steep and the humidity increased as we went deeper into the interior. It was a relief to be able to stand up once we reached the first chamber. The keeper of the tomb greeted us and guided us to narrow stairs that lead down another passageway to the actual burial chamber where the sarcophagus would have been. The walls of the chambers did have faded paintings and carved hieroglyphics but these were not as extensive or beautiful as later temples we would see. 

Once back on the surface and after negotiating my way through the persistent hawkers we continued up the hill for a panoramic view of the pyramids and the obligatory photograph in front of these amazing structures. There was an opportunity to go camel riding in the desert if anyone had the inclination. The sun was now low in the sky and I could see camel trains kicking up dust in the distance as we made our way downhill to view the iconic Great Sphinx of Giza. The Sphinx, bronzed by the fading light stood majestically against the silhouettes of the pyramids as the last rays of the sun disappeared below the horizon, what a perfect way to end what had been a memorable day.