Yesterday, I toured three ancient Egyptian sites – the famous Giza Pyramids, Saqqara, and Memphis. The Giza complex houses Egypt’s two largest pyramids; Sakkara is home to the oldest pyramid; and Memphis is Ancient Egypt’s original capital. My full-day private tour was intense and included Egyptologist guide, Essam, and our driver, Mohamoud. Egyptian history and extensive details of these three locations is incredibly complicated and something only Egyptologists could completely grasp. Essam provided a massive amount of information.
We went inside mastabas at Saqqara, instead of the larger, more physically challenging tombs in the Giza Complex. The steep descent into tombs is like being inside a cave. The walkways are narrow with dim lighting. Along portions of the entrance, you waddle forward in a bended squatting position for 5 to 10 minutes. It’s undoubtedly claustrophobic! The higher tombs are easier to access.
Meticulous details explaining the how and why of Egyptian pyramid layout seem convoluted. The Egyptians paid close attention to minute details, including the position of the sun, and many other factors. Nothing was left to chance, and everything is symbolic. The mastabas contain false doors, secret messages in hieroglyphics, and cartouche symbols etched into the stone walls. Understanding how the pyramids were constructed is a study of its own. It’s also helpful to understand the gods and goddesses that played a key role in Egyptian life and history.
I won’t attempt to discuss Egyptian history in this post except to oversimplify things by noting that there were over 30 pharaonic dynasties, and three main periods when the Pharaohs built pyramids. According to Essam, pyramids built during the Ancient Kingdom are thought to have the highest-quality construction:
- Ancient Kingdom 2,700-2,200 B.C.E.
- Middle Kingdom 2,050-1,800 B.C.E.
- New Kingdom 1,550-1,100 B.C.E.
Egypt’s pharaonic period spans 3,000 years when kings ruled. The first dynasty started in 3000 B.C. with the reign of King Menes (aka Narmer). The pharaonic period was followed by Greek conqueror Alexander the Great and Graeco-Roman rule – 332 B.C. – A.D. 395. Today, Egypt is the largest Arab country in the world, linking northeast Africa and the Middle East.
King Menes’ name means “The One Who Endures” and his reign lasted sixty-two years. He married Princess Neithhotep to consolidate his power. Many believe Menes inherited the throne from Horus, the Egyptian god of victory and protection.
“King Menes unified upper and lower Egypt. The two areas were distinguished based on higher and lower elevations. not geographic positioning.” Egyptian Tours Portal
The history of the pharaohs is complicated – at least to me. The need to understand hieroglyphics and details of the pyramids aside, it was a fantastic day! Just looking at the stunning pyramids and remarkable, astounding images takes your breath away. I “ooyed and aayed” my way through the day.
Unfortunately, not all photos came through. Photography for a solo traveler is challenging, and has been a reoccurring theme during my travels. Since I don’t need to see my face in every place visited, losing selfies isn’t upsetting, but it’s sad to lose once-in-a-lifetime photos of mastabas. The guide used the iPhone to take my photo. Somehow, the settings got changed – either by him or me – and except for a few, most photos didn’t turn out well.
“Ancient Egyptians believed that when they died, their spiritual body continued to exist in an afterlife similar to their living world. However, entry into the afterlife was not guaranteed. The dead had to negotiate a dangerous underworld journey and face a final judgment before they were granted access.”
Getting your photo taken at the pyramids is popular with tourists, and guides have become creative and clever at it. Tours can be difficult while you’re exploring the awe-inspiring area, listening to the guide, and trying to take photos with distractions happening all around you – often with a glaring sun. Things are constantly moving, so you don’t stop in one place long enough to scope out a photo. The terrain is uneven and riddled with potholes, steps, and other obstacles, so you must pay close attention to where you’re walking. A few photos were good, but with all the action going on, you need a second visit to focus on photography.
Giza Pyramid Complex
The Giza Pyramid Complex, aka the Giza Necropolis or Giza Pyramids Plateau was our first stop. The world-famous complex is home to the:
- Great Pyramid of Giza King Khufu
- Pyramid of King Khafre, a few hundred metres southwest
- Pyramid of King Menkaure, modest-sized a hundred metres southwest
- Great Sphinx of Giza, on the east side and thought to be the head of King Khafre
The pyramids were built during the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt’s Ancient Kingdom. The Giza site also includes temples, cemeteries, and the remains of a workers’ village. It’s located at the edge of the Western Sahara, near the Nile River, and on the outskirts of Giza and Cairo. In its entirety, it forms the northern part of the 16,000-hectare (40,000-acre) Pyramid Fields of Memphis. The site has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. Egypt’s pyramid fields include the Abu Sir and Dahshur complexes near Memphis. We didn’t visit those.
“The Great Pyramid of Giza and the Pyramid of Khafre are the two largest pyramids built in ancient Egypt. Historically, they have been emblems of Ancient Egypt in Western imagination.”
The Giza complex was popularized in Hellenistic times, when Greek writer, Antipater of Sidon, listed the Great Pyramid as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It’s the oldest of the wonders, and the only one still in existence.
Along with the major Giza monuments listed above, there are a number of smaller “satellite edifices,” known as “queens’ pyramids,” valley pyramids, and causeways linking pyramids to other buildings. Valley pyramids were built to connect valley and mortuary temples constructed near royal tombs. They were “dedicated to the Pharaoh and built by his followers”.
Great Pyramid of King Khufu
The Khufu complex valley temple is now buried beneath the village of Nazlet el-Samman. The temple was connected to a causeway, largely destroyed when the village was built. The causeway led to the Mortuary Temple of Khufu. The only thing that remains of this temple is its basalt pavement. The mortuary temple was completed in 2560 BC and is connected to the king’s pyramid. It’s associated with three smaller queens’ pyramids and three boat pits. When excavated, the boat pits contained intact ships. One of the ships, the Khufu, was restored and originally displayed at the Giza Solar Boat Museum. It was moved to the Grand Egyptian Museum.
King Khafre Complex
King Khafre’s complex consists of a valley temple, sphinx temple, causeway, mortuary temple, and the king’s pyramid. It retains a “prominent display of casing stones at its apex”. The valley temple contains several statues of Khafre found in an underground well. More statues were found during successive archaeological excavations. Khafre’s complex contained five boat-pits and a subsidiary pyramid with a serdab, a statue where the Ka – life force or spiritual double of the deceased – resides. Khafre’s pyramid is smaller than Khufu in height and volume. Sometimes Khafre appears the larger pyramid, because of its “elevated construction at a steeper angle of inclination”.
King Menkaure Complex
The Menkaure’s Complex consists of a valley temple, causeway, mortuary temple, and the king’s pyramid. The valley temple once contained several statues of King Menkaure. During the 5th Dynasty, a smaller ante-temple was added. The mortuary temple contained several statues of Menkaure. The king’s pyramid has three subsidiary or queen’s pyramids. Of the four major monuments, “only Menkaure’s Pyramid exists today without its original limestone casings”.
The Sphinx dates back to the reign of King Khafre. During the New Kingdom, Amenhotep II 1427–1401 BC, dedicated a temple to Hauron-Haremakhet. Later, more pharaohs embellished the structure. As Horemakhet (Harmakhet, Harmachis) or “Horus in the horizon,” the god represented the dawn and early morning sun. He was often depicted as a sphinx with the head of a man, lion, or ram. Horus provided a link to Khepri, the god of creation, movement of the sun, and rebirth.
Tomb of Queen Khentkaus I
Queen Khentkaus I, the Second Queen to rule Egypt independently, was buried at Giza. Her tomb is located in the Central Field, near the valley temple of King Menkaure. The pyramid complex of Queen Khentkaus includes: her pyramid, a boat pit, a valley temple, and a pyramid town.
Saqqara Pyramid Complex and Memphis
The Saqqara Complex is part of Memphis, the “original” capital city of Egypt, and the necropolis burial site of Egyptian Nobles. The complex was dedicated to King Djoser – 3rd dynasty. It houses Step Pyramid, the first pyramid built in Egypt, a colossal statue of Pharoah Ramses II, and the remains of Hathor Temple.
Saqqara is located 40 km southwest of Cairo. It’s one of the most important cemeteries of Memphis, in one of the preeminent cities in ancient Egyptian history. The name derives from Sokar, Memphite God of the Dead. The fascinating royal Saqqara tombs of vizier Inefrt V, Pharaoh Unas-Ankh, and Princess Idut provide insight into the lives of ancient Egyptians. The tombs at Memphis include Serapeum, Irukaptah, and Queen Nebt-Het – one of King Unas wives. Saqqara was our last stop during a long day, and I wish we’d been able to spend more time there.
“Saqqara is truly an open-air museum, displaying ancient Egyptian history. Kings and noblemen from the first two pharaonic dynasties were buried there, and it’s the location of the Step Pyramid of Djoser.”
Next in Egypt
I’ll be moving from Giza to central Cairo tomorrow to a more comfortable accommodation. There’s no desk in the Giza hotel, so with a slip of the hand, I accidentally published this post early in draft form :( – it’s hard using the bed as a desk.
After a few days exploring Cairo, I’m heading south to Luxor. Formerly known as Thebes, “Ancient Egypt’s most important city”. The weather in Luxor is warmer than Cairo – yeah! There will be opportunities for desert camping, sailing the Nile on a felucca (small sailboat), and touring interesting temples. Egypt tourist visas are good for one month max, so still thinking about my next stop in March.