The Pyramids at Giza were built at the very beginning of recorded human history, and for nearly five millennia they have stood on the edge of the desert plateau in magnificent communion with the sky.
Today they sit on the edge of the city, and it must be a strange experience indeed to look out of the windows of the nearby tower blocks to a view like this. The closest, the Great Pyramid, contains the tomb of Cheops, the Fourth Dynasty pharaoh who ruled Egypt during the Old Kingdom. This is the oldest of the group, built around 2570 BC, and the largest – in fact it’s the most massive single monument on the face of the Earth today. The others, built by Cheops’ son Chephren and his grandson Mycerinus, stand in descending order of age and size along a southwest axis; when built they were probably aligned precisely with the North Star, with their entrance corridors pointing straight at it.
You enter the Great Pyramid through a hole hacked into its north face in the ninth century AD by the caliph Mamun who was hunting for buried treasure. Crouching along narrow passages you arrive at the Great Gallery, which ascends through the heart of the pyramid to Chephren’s burial chamber. Chances are you’ll have the chamber to yourself, as claustrophobia and inadequate oxygen mean that few people venture this far. Occasionally visitors are accidentally locked in overnight.
The overwhelming impression made by the pyramids is due not only to the magnitude of their age and size but also to their elemental form, their simple but compelling triangular silhouettes against the sky. The best way to enjoy this is to hire a horse or camel and ride about the desert, observing them from different angles, close up and looming, or far off and standing lonely but defiantly on the open sands. Seen at prime times – dawn, sunset and night – they form as much a part of the natural order as the sun, the moon and the stars.
The Pyramids are 11km west of Cairo and can be reached by bus or taxi. The site is open daily: summer 6.30am–midnight; winter 7am–8pm.
Top image © Raimonds Romans raymoonds/Shutterstock