I’ve now been to Egypt twice in the last 6 months and not written a word about it, so I think it is time to start unpacking my adventures in my beloved country. Egypt holds a special place in my heart, and each time I go, I find myself wanting more, already looking forward to the next time I get to visit this beautiful country before I’ve even departed. Steeped with history, culture, and a bit of magic, contemporary Egypt is like an oil painting. It is a country coated with layers and layers of peoples and kingdoms, spanning 7,000 years of civilization. Egypt is made of its ancient kingdoms whose remnants are visible all around, its centuries of foreign occupation which left behind architecture and customs still clung to today, and its buzzing and complex contemporary globalized society. The most famous, and grandest, remnant of Egypt’s ancient pharonic dynasties are the Great Pyramids of Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It seems an apt place to start with my stories of Egypt before delving into some of the lesser known places to go and see.
Having spent a good part of my life coming to and from Egypt, the Pyramids, those three distinctive shapes emerging on the horizon from the dust of the Saharan sands is a sight that never gets old. They take my breath away every single time. Visiting the Pyramids and seeing them up close is a life changing experience. Their sheer size and the preciseness of their design boggles the mind. There are a few ways to experience the Great Pyramids of Giza, and a couple I like better than others, after having visited dozens of times.
If you are not going with a pre-arranged tour and are an independent traveller, it is a good idea to have a firm picture of what you would like to do at the Pyramids before you arrive. There will be touts approaching you while you are there and trying to sell you tours, camel rides, pyramid tourist trinkets, etc. It’s unfortunately an annoying part of going to the sites, and is similar to what I’ve experienced at tourist sites in a couple other of developing countries. After the 2011 revolution when economic circumstances were especially dire, the touting reached levels of persistence that made the experience very uncomfortable, but nowadays it seems to have calmed down. People will still approach you, but a firm, “no thank you, I don’t want it”, sometimes having to be repeated several times, will usually get people to stop bothering you. The tourist sites in Egypt at the moment are still fairly quiet, which has its pros and cons, but one of the cons is that business is sparse, and touts are keen to sell their wares. Knowing what you want and being able to say, “no, I certainly do not want a camel ride, etc” can help minimize going on wild goose chases with various touts. Here’s the breakdown of your basic options. These can be combined, supplemented, or done on their own.
Going Inside the Pyramids and General Admission to the Site:
Every person who enters the Pyramid site needs to buy a ticket and go through the metal detectors first. The entrance area reminds me a little of the lift ticket booths at a ski resort. It is a small building set in the middle of the sand. There are two different prices for Egyptians, and tourists, as the government gives Egyptians access to their national treasures at a significantly discounted rate in comparison to the tourist prices; sorry that’s just how it is. You will see it at every monument, temple, and museum across the country. That being said, if you are travelling as a Westerner, the tourist prices are still pretty cheap when the exchange rate is factored in. Remember, you are seeing a world wonder here. General admission comes to about 80 Egyptian pounds (~$8USD). This admission price will allow you to enter the site and walk around as much as your heart desires. However, although the Pyramids look like they are sat right next to one another from afar, they are so massive that the site is surprisingly large, so they require lots of walking to get up close with all three. The entire site area probably encompasses at least 10 acres, and the Saharan, as can probably be expected, is quite hot in most months.
If you want to go inside the actual Pyramids, you’ll have to decide at the ticket counter, and pay for a ticket in advance. Admission to go inside a pyramid is a bit pricier, about 200 EGP, for the Pyramid of Khufu (the largest). Still that comes out to only ~$20USD. Going inside is a once in a life time experience, but it is not for the faint of heart. The entrance to go inside the Pyramid is cut into the face of the Pyramid about 50 feet off of the ground, and there are staircases built into the side to allow access.The stone cut passages are narrow, steep, and dim. I’ve done it in flip flops but sneakers would be advisable if you want to be sure of your footing. My younger sister discovered in the middle of the ascent that she is claustrophobic and had a full blown panic attack-meltdown inside the Pyramid. However, with a tour group of 30 people on our tails and a stretch of tunnel only passable by one person at a time, she had to keep pressing forward and then wait in the burial chamber at the top for them to pass before she could begin the descent back out. Being the good sister that I am, I thought that she was overreacting and laughed at her. Oops.
The steep narrow tunnels lead into the pyramid’s core, ending in the burial chamber. The sarcophagus and jewels have been removed by a combination of tomb raiders and the Egyptian Museum, leaving a tall cavernous room cut into the stone for visitors to enter and catch their breath before making the descent back down into the outside air. I personally would recommend making the trek, as standing inside the Great Pyramid’s center is a pretty unbelievable feeling, but like I said, the climb is steep, and the passageway is narrow (at 5’3″ I had to stoop in parts), so if you are claustrophobic this is definitely not for you. The climb isn’t short, but there were people both young and old, both fit and unfit, making the climb, so don’t let the physicality of it dissuade you.
Riding Horses, Camels, or Carriages:
I absolutely recommend riding horses or camels through Giza. As I said, Egypt is hot, and the Pyramids’ site is large. Riding through the Sahara with the wind whipping in your hair while you view one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world is pretty damn unforgettable. Everyone has their preferences, for mode of travel. I prefer camels to horses, because I think their footing is a little more sure in the sands, and I like that their backs are so high up for a better view. Getting on a horse is fairly easy, but the camel is more of an experience! One must swing their leg over the side and climb up onto the saddle while the camel is leaning down, and then prepare for the ascent. The camel will lurch all the way forward and then all the way back before evening out at full standing position. The trick is to move your body in the opposite direction they’re going, both to keep your own balance, and the camel’s. Once you’re up there, the camel just plods along through the sand, although don’t be fooled by the lazy camel image. They can run, and run rather fast! During the tour of Giza, you’ll be in a riding party with a guide. Between being on horseback and their minimal English, don’t expect them to regale you with stories of ancient Egypt. They are not historians, and they usually know enough English to negotiate your riding time and exchange niceties, but not enough to give you the history of Khufu’s reign. They will however, stop several times to allow you to take photos of the sites, get down and pose with your fingers holding the tip of the Great Pyramid, and fulfill whatever your touristy dreams may be. The ride may last a half hour, an hour, or two, depending on what you negotiate. The last time I went, three of us rode on an hour long jaunt through the area, for 200 LE, or a little over $20, plus tip.
A few things about negotiating your ride. When you get to the pyramids, the stable boys and men will approach you, sometimes repeatedly, about taking a horse or camel ride. They can pester you to the point where it’s actually quite annoying, especially if you are not interested in a ride at all. However, if you are interested, you can agree to speak with them about a ride. They will likely bring the horses or camels from the stables out to where you are. For me, it is important that they at least from what I can see, treat the animals with kindness and the animals are healthy. I do not like to put money into the operations that mistreat their animals. Animals that look far too skinny, are covered with whip marks, or where the stable hands are shouting abuse at before the tour even begins, will not make for a pleasant experience for you, or for the animal. This has happened to me only once or twice over the span of maybe 20 years of going to Cairo on a semi-regular basis, but if this happens, feel free to say no and walk away. There will be another tout from a different stable equally eager to take your business. Also, make sure you negotiate your price for the trip before you climb onto the horse or camel, with the understanding that they will ask you for more money and/or a tip near the end of the ride, before they take you back to the stables. This is obnoxious, but it is what’s done. Bargain on the price with the knowledge that you will be expected to top it off with more money at the end, and when you’re on the top of a camel that won’t kneel down until they tell it to, you’re going to have to give them a tip. I say this not to scare, as it really isn’t a big ordeal and the overall experience is amazing, but just to make you aware.
A word on the carriages. I hate them. We used to go on them when I was young and I had younger siblings who were too little to ride in the saddle. I hate them for one reason. The ride itself is lovely and leisurely and takes you back to a day of old, where refined people of the day must have sent for their carriages for a ride around the pyramids before tea. or whatever it is people did during the heyday of exploration of ancient Egypt. However, in today’s world, the paved stretch between the stables and the Pyramids, is a very long, gradually steep hill. To walk it, is easy. However, the horses with their carriages loaded up with people really struggle. The way up is just sad to watch, but horses are work animals, I suppose, and they can manage the muscle. It is the way down that upsets me. Between the weight of the carriage on their backs and the just steep enough descent, the horses often loose their footing, slipping and sliding their feet while the carriage drivers continue to urge them on. Not only must it be horrible for the horse, but all the slipping and lurching can be scary for the passenger too. I recall one time when I was young my father stopped the carriage and we all got out and walked down the hill because my younger brother and I were so upset (we were maybe five and seven years old). If the carriage makes the most sense for your walking or riding physical limitations, asking to be dropped off a the top of the slope might be an option to consider. You have been warned.
The Sound and Light Show:
What can I say about the Sound and Light show? It is both amazingly cheesy and too unique to miss (in a, they have similar shows at several other ancient monuments throughout Egypt, sort of way). Taking place in the evening, the Sound and Light Show has a timetable which offers the program in a variety of different languages. With prerecorded narration and flashing light projections, it is as touristy as can be, but viewing the Pyramids at night lit up offers a unique view of the Ancient Wonder, and the history they present is actually very informative and interesting. The Sound and Light Show also focuses on the Great Sphinx in a unique way. I’m completely fascinated by the Sphinx and the various conspiracy theories as to its origins and age, so this is a big draw for me. Usually when you do a camel ride around Giza, the Sphinx is inexplicably somewhat of a quick pit-stop, and you have to walk over to it after the ride, so seeing it as part of the show is great. When I last checked, the English show tickets will run you about 100 EGP ($10) per person.
A Viewing from the Mena House Cafe:
Unarguably the most refined (and least adventurous) way to take in the Pyramids, this is my favorite ways. In fact, I love the Mena House so much I’ll be writing an entire post on it soon (or not so soon with the rate I seem to be publishing posts these days). The Mena House Hotel sits at the base of the Pyramids and was originally a hunting lodge for King Ismail Pasha in the 1860’s, but by 1886 it had changed owners several times and opened its doors as a hotel, which it remains to this day. I’ll save the rest of the hotel’s interesting history for another time, but will say that the hotel is absolutely stunning, and a piece of history in and of itself. The hotel has several dining options, but your best choice for enjoying a light lunch or afternoon tea while taking in the view, is the Khan El Khalili restaurant, which features casual Middle Eastern fare and a beautiful afternoon tea, all in the shadow of the Pyramid of Khufu. It’s not a bad deal. Prices at Khan El Khalili will be closer to western prices for casual dining, because it’s a 5-star hotel with an international clientele. There are cheaper Cairo eats, but it’s worth the splurge for the view, and to soak up a bit of the hotel’s magic. Lots more on the Mena House in a later post.
Well, there you have it. Happy exploring!