A trip to Egypt without the Pyramids of Giza is like a stand-up routine without jokes. Nothing can really justify a holiday in this crazy country and the long haul necessary to get here without the experience of these colossal humblers. As the world’s oldest continuously-visited tourist attractions, the Pyramids have withstood four millennia of concerted sandblasting and opportunistic looting to keep humans stroking their chins in wonder. And the sight of these glorified tombstones is enough to make a moderner stop and ponder with envy: why can’t I have my own army of drafted laborers build a man-made mountain for me?
It’s frankly amazing that something built two thousand years before the ancient Roman Empire, something that was already an antiquity in Antiquity, can still inspire a tremor of alien fascination in the hyper-stimulated mind of today. In the Era of Glowing Rectangle Love, every bit of larger-than-life entertainment we could possibly want is coming at us at blinding speeds through the internet and the myriad of electronic gizmos that surround us, and within this bubble it’s possible to encapsulate yourself in a fantastical dream-state of never-ending artificial enjoyment. As a victim of this, I can attest that it doesn’t take long before reality begins to shrink in its grandeur. CGI effects and intricate video game graphics inure us to mind-blowing scenes that would shatter the perceptual worlds of our forebears, and watching New York get ripped apart by cosmo-robots wielding skyscrapers for truncheons is something we don’t even blink at. Because of this, perhaps the most awe-inspiring fact of the Pyramids is not that they are simply enormous or venerable, but that they can still cause us, We the Attention-Deficited of the Future, to say, “Wow!”
Okay, some of you may want that inevitable grain of salt about it all. It’s not all perfect, sure—nowadays the Pyramids are being encroached on by the bacterial urban sprawl that Cairo has vomited all over its western bank, and the pollution can occasionally make them invisible. And that’s just the beginning; while you are struggling to reconcile the city’s proximity to the Pyramids (right up to the eastern lip of the complex, in fact), you will assaulted by hordes of souvenir and camel ride touts whose shameless brazenness will leave you speechless as they clean out your too-polite pockets. My story, told from the perspective of a lone backpacker, will illustrate the struggles quite clearly for you, but I can’t iterate enough that the Pyramids are 100% worth a solid visit.
First Stop Dahshur: The Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid
The day I visited the monolithic trio, I began by taking a taxi (225 Egyptian Pounds) down to the pyramid field of Dahshur. This place was my primer for the real deal and I’ll remember it as one of my journey’s definite highlights. It’s located about 35km southward from Cairo and features two excellent examples of pre-Giza pyramids that stand as benchmarks in the development of pyramid architecture. As a refresher for all you who just started reading, Egyptian funerary monuments developed from mastabas—designed as underground burial chambers overheaded by rectangular mud edifices—to pyramids in the course of a few hundred years during the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom periods (3100 BCE – 2181 BCE). Both of the pyramids at Dahshur—the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid—are in pristine condition and have the smooth sides that we all know and love. Plus, they are totally out in the empty desert, permitting you a much more authentic and tourist-free setting than what you’ll find at Giza.
I first hopped up a wooden staircase on the Red Pyramid’s north face and got in by descending a tiny diagonal chamber that takes some sturdy legs to move up and down quickly. The interior of the pyramid has about three chambers, two of them high-ceilinged corbel vaults, and the last one being the half-caved in burial chamber. I would say it’s all in great condition and worth a peek, but it is breathtaking how insufferable the smell is that permeates the structure—literally. Be warned: the Red Pyramid has the odor of an ancient piss-trap, splashed over by gallons of tourists and localites’ urine with no drainage system of cleaning apparatus to deal with it all. I saw one suave-looking European fellow and his guide spend approximately two minutes glancing around before fleeing back to the surface for fresh air. However, I suppose that if you can deal with the reek of urea, the inside is just as charming as any other pyramid’s!
After a few photos of me and the red-colored outside, I hit up the Bent Pyramid and walked a counter-clockwise circle around its huge base. This pyramid is named for its sides, which don’t stay straight but break to an odd lower angle about halfway up the structure. Along the way, some bored police officers toting rusty AK-47s on patrol caught up with me and helped take some photos. One of the wildest things on my holiday happened when I was posing for a shot in the doorway of a queen’s pyramid, and right as the officer was taking the photo, the mother-flipping door I was leaning on broke open and I tumbled down the pyramid shaft. In a matter of seconds I was sliding into inky darkness, luckily on my back facing forward, and I tried to gain control of slide using the soles of my feet. As I quickly flew downward, I caught a glimpse of the sand and rubbish at the bottom of the shaft and thereafter crashed into it with a huge plume of dust. The alarmed police officer called down to me, and after coughing up a pound of mummy particles I notified him of my good health and thanked my lucky stars I was okay. A few minutes later and I had climbed out of the shaft by positioning my feet on the opposite walls to slowly wedge my body upward. When I reached daylight, the officer, still standing there with my camera, chuckled at the sight of me and helped me dust off. Eventually he and his partner wanted a tip for their invaluable contributions to maintaining my safety and their photo-taking, but they kindly let me depart without paying up!
Having survived the isolated plain of Dahshur, I was ready for the real deal at Giza. My taxi got me there after an hour-and-a-half of traffic jams northward and I recall taking a pleasant short nap in my reclined passenger seat. But when I awoke, I was unprepared for the incomparable onslaught that is entering the Pyramids. You see, the moment your taxi gets around the illogical traffic circles and their accompanying legions of automobiles into the 400 meter road leading to the northern entrance of the complex, the gauntlet of hawker doom begins. This is what happens. All around you, sprinklings of men, who at first are just standing on the curb looking idle, suddenly come to life at the sight of your taxi—fresh blood—and run towards your car like the starving undead. Then, they nearly collide with the vehicle and run along its sides screaming:
While you are recoiling in horror from the dirty fingers that are slapping against your window, their masters hungering for your attention, you push the door lock down as fast as you fucking can. But it’s too late: one of them, an extra pushy undead fellow with a hat and greasy black hair, has thrown himself into the backseat and proceeds to tap on your shoulder with a “’SCUZEME ‘SCUZEME ‘SCUZEME”. If you’re like me, you first tell your cab driver to drive past all these bastards, and when he does a shit job of it and now the hawkers have blocked your cab’s way, you simply have to ignore the guy tapping on your shoulder in the back seat trying to get your attention and repeat “LA SHUKRAN” (No thank you) until it becomes as familiar as your first name. To add to the ridiculousness, the fellow pretends to act insulted when you don’t acknowledge his presence past this and says “HELLO I AM HERE”. It’s a surreal game to be a part of. Meanwhile, other hawkers have gotten into fights with each other outside the car and are yelling at each other with accentuated finger-jabbing for unknown reasons.
Anyway, this process repeated itself between 2-3 times more, I lost track, before we got to the parking lot where my taxi dropped me off to buy my ticket. Within a second of getting out, a man had confronted me professing to be an employee of the site, wearing a tattered shirt and a head-wrap, and I brushed him off like all the others. More got in my way but I got to the ticket booth and entered the site without much else happening except for a security officer pushing away the head-wrap guy who was still after me. Once in, on the north side of Khufu’s Pyramid, the chaos of camel ride vendors harassing me for rides started right back up, and at one point I simply snapped and said to one man, “No, fuck off.” The bespectacled fellow got surly and shot back, “Do not say bad things to me or I will say some bad things to you!!!” Whatever, dude. I received more angry comments from those I ignored, some mounted on camels and somewhat hard to get away from, until after about five minutes I had safely reached the eastern side of Khufu’s Pyramid and away from the main cadre of vicious touts. Whew!
Sauntering Round the Pyramids and a Conversation with a Sex Tourist
The complex around the first pyramid, known as the Great Pyramid because it is the highest of the three, was teeming with visitors and it didn’t suit me much; especially after seeing Egyptians illegally climbing on the blocks of the slowly-eroding base, which is now darkened from the grubby hands of millions of visitors every year (A huge threat to virtually every worthwhile monument in the country). So, I took off southward toward the seemingly-bigger and more isolated Pyramid of Khufu. And during my saunter across the emptying sands, the feeling hit me—that wonderful, goosebumpy, and somewhat frightening sense of being dwarfed by the majesty of a colossus. It happens on hikes in high-elevation mountains, it happens when you are on a breaker gazing out over the ocean, and it happened right when I found myself between the two pyramids. With this sensation, I got a huge rush of adrenaline and I was compelled to see the entire site in the measly hour that I had left before closing time at 5PM. My destination was the super-famous picture spot in the southern desert where the most quintessential photos of the Pyramids are taken from.
I trekked and trekked over the beige land, into the setting sun past the ruins of funerary temples, straggling Egyptian tourists and a few touts before getting to the smaller pyramid of Menkaure, famous for being the unlikely victim of Islamic fanaticism when Al-Malik Al-Aziz Osman bin Salahadin Yusuf, a 12th-century sultan and pipe-dreamed religious nut, tried to tear the pyramid down. He only succeeded in leaving a vertical cut in the north face, more blemishment than an accomplishment. I hopped an enclosure wall surrounding it all and hit the desert proper, happily heading out to the sands that flow into the desert south of the complex. Feeling oh-so-fine, I summited a hill and got my own postcard-worthy pics of myself and the three biggies with the smaller ones of their queens out in front. Heading out there is a must for any intrepid visitor with a good set of legs (or the patience to endure a tout and his camel ride there for an hour). Up on the hill, I encountered a strange Norwegian fellow in his fifties or so with a petite Egyptian girl, maybe 12-15, on a camel ride. The girl was definitely with the white guy as no family members were present, she was uncovered, and she had the same awkward demeanor I’d seen a boy prostitute have at dinner with a fat white guy in Laos a few years back. “Sex tourist alert!” I thought.
Then, the man and I commenced a conversation, in which he revealed he was an active adventurer who had kayaked from Norway to Israel or something crazy like that, and had motorcycled all the way from Alaska to Argentina at one point in his life. Of course, these are definitely amazing accomplishments, but then he went on to disparage America’s “close-mindedness” and delivered a lecture about the evils of the Midwest. Yea, so America is evil and bad and stupid and what not, and you’re just a paragon of European enlightenment by sticking your prick in an adolescent Arab girl driven to desperation for cash by poverty in a country where she could risk her life and future for such an act? Pardon my crudeness, but sex tourists really ought to be more charming to make up for their creepiness, don’t you think?
Still, that time on the hill was glorious, and I felt like a total boss heading back towards the main site. I ran virtually the entire way, past rock-cut tombs looming eerily in the sunset, as the complex was beginning to ring with klaxons signaling closing time. Fortunately, I managed to take some sweaty-ass photos at the Sphinx on my way out. Running through sand certainly gets those pores open. Then, I had to vault up the modern road that bisects the area and convince a group of security officers to let me through a closed road to the north parking lot. They listened to me pant for a minute and then waved me through, and I got back to the taxi all right.
Totaling up Two Days of Ancient Fun:
The day was a total success—I saw the cream of the pyramid crop that Egypt has to offer, and I got some great exercise walking and running around it all in the process. Breaking it all down:
- Financially, it set me back 450 Egyptian pounds for two days of travelling by private taxi and 110 pounds for tickets (Saqqara=30, Dahshur=20, Giza=60). So, around 80 USD—for any enthusiast of large-scale history it’s a fair price, although splitting the cab costs with someone is advisable.
- Experientially, backpacking solo there was a good choice. I was able to see everything on my own at my own speed, and that allowed me a great deal of comfort and enjoyment with the three pyramid sites. Tours risk being far too fast and stressful for those who want to really feel the vastness of the places that the pharaohs originally intended.
- Serenity-wise, Giza is a bit of a mess for its hawkers and Saqarra suffers a little from this as well. Dahshur was the best here by far, although I would still recommend checking out Giza despite the partial madness of getting in.
- Final result: Dahshur and Giza are Musts, although I’d put off Saqarra if you don’t have time to stop there on your way to Dahshur or if you don’t want to be let down by the restoration. Two days is plenty of time, and if you are a real marathoner and can start at 7AM and go till 5PM, all three sites are doable in one day (though I’d avoid it personally).
To all travelers heading to Egypt soon – Have fun going pyramid crazy. I certainly did!