The Pyramids of Giza are some of the most iconic and fascinating man-made architectural achievements in the world. They are also overrun with tourists, fake security guards, aggressive camel drivers, and vendors selling cheap and chintzy souvenirs.
But don’t let those drawbacks stop you from seeing these engineering marvels. They’re worth visiting, even if the environment isn’t the most ideal. I have a few tips that may help enhance your experience.
Know Some History
To really appreciate this site, it helps to have a bit of background knowledge.
Giza is actually a suburb of Cairo, and the third-largest city in Egypt. The Giza pyramid complex consists of several monuments, including three primary pyramids and a handful of satellite or subsidiary pyramids, temples, and of course, the Great Sphinx. There’s also the worker’s village and industrial complex, as well as cemeteries for the workers who built these massive structures.
The pyramids were purpose-built as the final resting places for Egyptian pharaohs. The pyramids at Giza were built sometime in the 26th Century BC for Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, ancient rulers of Egypt. (Although they may be much older than that, according to some recent research!) Contrary to popular belief, slaves did not build the pyramids – they were built by thousands of paid labourers.
The Pyramid of Khufu
Also known as the Great Pyramid, this monument was built for Khufu, the second ruler of the 4th Dynasty. It’s widely assumed that he had it commissioned for himself. The base of the pyramid stretches 750×750 feet, and is approximately 455.2 feet tall. It used to be taller, but the limestone casing stones were removed over the years.
Approximately 2,300,000 limestone bricks were used, some weighing as much as 16 tons! Smooth limestone once encased the exterior, but it was stripped for use in modern building projects in Cairo.
This is one of the smaller subsidiary pyramids in front of Khufu’s pyramid. These are the pyramids of Khufu’s wives and sisters.
Note the even smaller pyramid in the foreground. This is a pyramidion, or Benben stone. This is a reconstruction of the capstone for a pyramid. In ancient times, the capstone may have been gilded to capture and reflect the sun’s rays. This capstone (also known as pyramid G1-d) was discovered in 1993 during work to remove a road near the Great Pyramid.
This is one of the entrance passages into the Great Pyramid.
The Pyramid of Khafre
Khafre’s pyramid is the second largest at Giza. It appears to be larger than his father Khufu’s pyramid, but it’s actually just at a higher elevation. This pyramid is special because of its remaining casing stones at the top of the peak.
Due to structural similarities, it’s believed that Khafre also built the Sphinx as part of this pyramid complex.
The Pyramid of Menkaure
This is the third and smallest pyramid at Giza, built for Khafre’s son Menkaure. This pyramid also has three small satellite pyramids accompanying it, which you can see to the right.
Menkaure died before his mortuary and temples were complete. His successor, most likely his son, had the pyramid complex completed after Menkaure’s death.
During the 12th Century, the second Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt, al-Malek al-Aziz, son of Saladin, tried to demolish the pyramids at Giza. He started with this one, but didn’t get very far. The blocks were so heavy to move that very little progress was made, and he eventually gave up.
The Great Sphinx
The Sphinx is a limestone statue of a mythical creature sporting the body of a lion and a human face. The face might represent Khafre, but it’s not completely known. It’s also the oldest known monumental sculpture in Egypt. The full body of the Sphinx was hidden under the sand until 1905.
The Sphinx suffered a lot of damage over the centuries. In 1926, part of the headdress fell off due to erosion. The nose is also missing. Evidence shows that at some point in its history, rods were hammered into the nose to try and pry it off.
An Arab historian also wrote of an attack by a Sufi Muslim named Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr. He became enraged over local peasants making offerings to the Sphinx to ensure a good harvest. Supposedly, he destroyed the nose in anger. Other tales of vandalism include Napoleon’s army blasting off the nose via cannonballs, and the British army using the nose for target practice.
As with the pyramids, recent research indicates that the Sphinx might be much older than previously thought. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any symbols or writing anywhere on the body of the Sphinx to suggest who might have built it, when, or why. If you walk around to the back of it the structure, however, you might be lucky enough to get a glimpse of the sphinxter.
Sorry. That was the running joke in our tour group when we were there. I just couldn’t keep that to myself.
Remember to Bring Water
Egypt is often hot and dry. I mean, here in western Canada we joke about our winters by saying, “at least it’s a dry cold”. But dry heat will suck the moisture right out of you, especially when you’re fully exposed to the elements with no shade.
Cairo’s temperature ranges from a comfortable 14 degrees Celsius in January to a toasty 28 degrees Celsius in July (on average). 28 doesn’t sound so bad, but when you’re out in the desert with the sun beating down and the heat radiating up from the sand, you can get overheated fast. So bring water, or purchase some once you’re there. Just make sure you stay well hydrated. Sunscreen and a hat might be good ideas as well.
Skip the Camel Ride
You might be tempted to take a camel ride around the pyramids, but you’re better off avoiding this tourist trap. There are a lot of scams that can come with the desire to hop onto a camel and view the pyramids from atop these noble beasts.
In some cases, the cost can “suddenly” change from Egyptian dollars to US, for example. One scam we heard about (but didn’t witness ourselves) started with the offer of free camel rides. What’s so bad about that, you may ask? Well, it’s free to get on the camel – but if you want to get off the camel, that will cost you! (We actually thought this one was pretty clever.)
If you do decide that you want to take a camel ride around Giza, here are a few quick tips.
Make sure that you haggle for a better price than what they first quote you. You should be able to get the price down to around 50% of their initial quote if you’re patient. Also, determine the price clearly with the camel driver beforehand, including the type of currency quoted. Even if they try to shake you down for more money afterward, don’t be afraid to stick to your agreed-upon price.
Numerous factors are at play which determine the price. Do you want a half hour ride or an hour? How many people are in your party? Are you going during high season or shoulder season? If it’s high tourist season, for example, you’ll probably pay more.
Another thing to note is that not all camel drivers treat their animals well. So take a good hard look at the animals beforehand. If they look tired, hot, old, or are being mistreated in any way, it’s best to forgo the ride.
Since Mark and I had the opportunity to ride camels in Jordan when we stayed at a Bedouin camp, we didn’t feel the need to ride them at Giza. One jerky-lurchy ride was enough for me!
Take in a Show
The Sound and Light Show takes place 7 nights a week. This is a fun, dramatic way to learn a little history right in the heart of the Giza pyramid complex.
You can find the timetable for the Sound and Light Show here.
Times and Prices
The typical opening hours for the pyramids is 9am to 5pm.
Current admission prices (as of May 2018):
Regular: 60 EGP, Student: 30 EGP
Cheops(Khufu) Pyramid: Regular: 100 EGP, Student: 50 EGP
Khafre’s Pyramid: Regular: 30 EGP, Student: 15 EGP
Menkaure’s Pyramid: Regular: 25 EGP Student: 15 EGP
You can find the most up to date information on the Egyptian Tourism Authority website.
If you’re travelling with a tour group or booking your own guided tour, you don’t need to worry about how to get to Giza. If you’re travelling on your own, you’ll need to rent a car (really don’t recommend this option unless you have an iron will or a death wish. Traffic in Cairo is beyond intense and very chaotic!) or use public transportation.
Public transportation is cheap and relatively easy. If you’re staying in Cairo, find the nearest metro station and take a train to El Giza station (Line 2). The downtown metro stations of Sadat, Md.Naguib and Attaba are all on Line 2, but if you enter from Naseer Metro Station (Line 1), you’ll have to change over at Sadat Metro Station.
Once you get off at El Giza station, you’ll see several waiting mini vans heading west toward the pyramids. Alternatively, you can take a micro bus, regular bus or taxi from here the rest of the way.
Taking a taxi is a good alternative, as cab fare is reasonable. Just make sure you use a metered taxi or agree to a set price before you get in. Don’t be afraid to haggle either. There are three types of taxis in Cairo; black, white and yellow. The black taxis are older, so they don’t have air conditioning, and often don’t have meters. The white taxis are newer and do have air conditioning and meters, so these are your better option. The yellow taxis are more expensive and are professionally run. They also have air conditioning and meters.
Uber has become quite popular in Egypt. Just download the Uber app on your phone and sign up for an account with your payment info. Rates are predetermined, which makes it a bit easier than taking a taxi. It’s also a good option if you don’t want to haggle. Once you have the app set up, just request your Uber with Giza Pyramids as your destination. You can also call for an Uber to take you back to your hotel after you’ve completed your visit to the pyramids.
This blog post is now available on GPSmyCity: What to Know Before You Visit the Pyramids of Giza