I Cannot Believe I'm Seeing The Pyramids!

Trip Start Oct 21, 2009
Trip End Jan 12, 2010

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Overnight Train to Luxor!

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Monday, November 9, 2009

11.9.09                  I Can't Believe I’m Seeing The Pyramids!  Cairo, Egypt

After another lavish hotel breakfast, we checked out of our rooms and jumped back on what has quickly become our second home – the tour bus!   As we rode for over half an hour through the busy, crowded city of Cairo to reach our first destination, Romani explained to us the cheaply and quickly built apartment buildings that LINE Cairo’s streets.  Many of these buildings are thrown up unfinished – no windows and no interior work.  They’re also built with unfinished roofs so that floors can be added on in the future, if needed.  When a person buys a unit in one of the thousands of these buildings located throughout Cairo, they have to add their own windows and doors and complete their own interior work (plastering and painting the walls, putting in floors, etc.).  You have to see this housing to believe it – it is everywhere, and it is stark and eerie in its half-built, half-empty state

Our first stop of today was the Great Pyramids of Giza.  As we drove through Cairo, we started to see the peaks of these pyramids in the distance.  When we arrived to the Giza Plateau about half an hour later, I could not believe that these pyramids were in the middle of a congested, crazy suburb of the city!  It was a shock to come upon these infamous, wondrous structures just around the bend.  All my life, I had envisioned them in the middle of a dry, dusty, deserted desert – yet here they were.

[The other shock to the system was the massive crowds of people congregated around the pyramids – tourists from every corner of the world, as well as the battalions of strolling Egyptian vendors selling postcards, books, tourist crap, and camel rides!  (The latter we now have encountered at most places we’ve visited in Egypt…)]

As one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pyramids of Giza are the oldest wonder of them all, sitting in Egypt for over 4,000 years.  Their extraordinary shape, exact geometry, and sheer size are mind-blowing.  And they illicit the age-old questions – who built them, and why?

As we learned from Romani, centuries of research have given us parts of answers to these questions, but not all the answers.  We do know that the pyramids were built as massive tombs by order of the pharaohs, and constructed by Egyptians tens-of-thousands strong.  We also know now that they weren’t built by Egyptian slaves – rather, the builders were a well-organized force of Egyptian farmers who were paid by the government for their labors!

(Of course, there are pyramidologists – an actual profession – who have turned the study of pyramids into its own science, and some believe that the pyramids were constructed by angels, or demons, or even visitors from another planet!  It may be easy to laugh this off, but once I saw the pyramids with my own eyes, I understood why so much awe, and controversy, and so many questions still surrounded them.  They are unbelievable – a must-see sight!!!)     

The Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops, or The Great Pyramid) was our first stop off the bus.  Built around 2750 BC, it is over 140m high.  Roughly 2.3 million limestone blocks, estimated to weigh about 2.5 tons each, were used in its construction!  As I said earlier, this pyramid was awe-inspiring – I couldn’t believe I was actually in front of it – seeing it, touching it, walking up and around it.  I was overwhelmed by its magnanimity – so much so that I even surprised myself.

From Cheops, we got back on the bus and drove the short distance to the Pyramid of Khafre (Chepren).  While this pyramid looks even taller than The Great Pyramid, it’s not – it’s built on higher ground, and its top still contains a limestone cap, both making it appear taller than it actually is.  It’s still impressive, however, and still awe-inspiring. 

We did not stop at the third pyramid of Giza, the Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus) (and the smallest of the trio).  Instead, from the second pyramid, we drove a few kilometers away to a look-out point for all three pyramids  Viewing the landscape of pyramids all at once also was (surprise!) breath-taking. 

At this stop, many in our group paid a few dollars to sit on one of fifty available camels for a picture with the three pyramids as backdrop.  However, I have an extremely rational and well-founded fear of camels, going back to when I was eight or so and got spit (or shall I say, vomit-y bits of chewed-up hay?) blasted into my scalp and every crevice of my face from a llama at a petting zoo.  If camels can spit, which, I understand, they can (and do!), I want no part of them – end of story!

After viewing the Great Pyramids of Giza and being on that high, we got back on the bus and drove another very short distance to The Sphinx (you know – that face with half the nose fallen off?).   Viewed in history and nature books my whole life – seen on postcards and in the movies – once again, it was crazy and awesome to be standing in front of this monumental, world-famous  structure.  (In an interesting way, too, it was like meeting a famous TV personality or even the President for the first time – it was smaller than I imagined it would be…!)

This feline man was named The Sphinx by the ancient Greeks because it resembled the mythical winged-monster with a woman’s head and a lion’s body, said to rattle off riddles and kill anyone unable to answer them!  The Sphinx is believed to be a causeway to The Great Pyramid.  At one point, of course, it did have an intact nose, but sometime between the 11th and 15th centuries, the nose was hammered off.  (Many people still like to blame Napoleon for that vandalism, but that might just be the anti-French crowd talking…)

After The Great Pyramid and The Sphinx, I could’ve died a happy woman.  But… I decided to go to lunch with the group instead.  We had yet another delicious Moroccan lunch, starting with pita and various dips and enjoying beef with vegetables for our entrées.  Afterward, we stopped by a major jewelry store so that the group could order custom-made cartouches (nameplates with one’s name written on it in the Egyptian hieroglyphic alphabet) engraved on jewelry, to be delivered to us later in the day.  I continued as the happy traveler as we visited our next destinations, Sakkara and the Step Pyramid!

The Tomb at Sakkara (also spelled "Saqqara") covers a 7km stretch of the Western Desert outside of Cairo.  It is the huge cemetery of ancient Memphis, and it was an active burial ground for 3,500 years!  Saqqqara’s name is most likely derived from Sokar, the Memphite god of the dead.

Sakkara remains Egypt’s largest archaeological site.  The necropolis is situated high above the Nile Valley’s cultivation area, and it is the final resting place for many deceased pharaohs and their families, administrators, generals, and even for some sacred animals.  These Old Kingdom pharaohs were buried within Saqqara’s eleven major pyramids, while their subjects were buried in the hundreds of smaller tombs found throughout the great necropolis.  It was fascinating to walk through this vast area of tombs and tunnels and colonnades, and to learn more about its history.

Interestingly, most of Sakkara was buried under the sand until the mid-19th century, except the Step Pyramid – our next visit.  The Step Pyramid of King Zoser, from the 27th century BC, is Egypt’s (and the world’s!) earliest STONE-built monument, so its significance is, well, monumental.  Hah.  The Step Pyramid is called such because of the large graduated steps that ring its perimeter.  It is surrounded by a vast funerary complex, enclosed by a long paneled limestone wall, and covers 15 hectares total!

Nearby, the Titi (or Teti) Pyramid was also built in step form and cased in limestone (Teti was the first pharaoh of the 6th dynasty).  The pyramid has been looted several times (common story with these pyramids and tombs), and today only a modest mound remains.  However, we were able to go deep inside this pyramid, and the inside of the pyramid fared much better than the outside.  We saw the intact burial chamber and Teti’s basalt sarcophagus, covered in inscriptions.  (The climb into the bowels of the pyramid was pretty easy, too – although hard on the back at times to stoop and walk at the same time!)

By late afternoon, after we had visited all of these pyramids and tombs, Romani took us on a visit to a local carpet school (The Oriental Carpet School) that teaches Egyptian children ages 8-12 the craft of hand-weaving carpets.  These kids go to regular school in the mornings, and in the afternoons, they head to the carpet school.  We visited with numerous kids as they worked on their carpets – sometimes five or six kids to one loom, if the carpet was large – and watched in amazement as their nimble fingers flew through their weaving.  These kids are paid for their labors, in addition to them learning the craft – but I couldn’t shake the feeling that inappropriate child labor was going on here…

After the carpet school visit, we had time to kill before catching the overnight train to Luxor – so Romani brought us to a local Moroccan mall to absorb some culture on that level.  It was LOUD in the mall (music blasting from every store at top volume), and smelly, and one woman even refused me entrance to her shop (because I wasn’t wearing a head scarf?  Because it was right before another call to prayer??  All she said as I tried to enter was, “No, no!”  That didn’t feel very good...)  So, the mall visit was less than successful... at least for me! 

When we re-boarded the bus to leave for the train station, Romani distributed our cartouches, ordered previously in the day from the jewelry store and now completed!  Mom and Dad got me a beautiful silver cartouche necklace of my name for Christmas (and I got it today, since I won’t see them at Christmastime this year) – I’ve been wearing it ever since!

The train station was loud and bustling, and our train was late.  We waited about an hour for it to arrive, but it was a beautiful evening out and we had a fun time visiting.  When our train finally did arrive, mass chaos ensued – everyone on the platform was trying to board the train at once, porters were running around with luggage… it was loud and crazy.  In all the commotion, I looked up to see a kid taking my day bag right from under my feet!  What the…?!  Fortunately, it only took a few seconds for me to react – I reached out and was able to grab the strap of my bag as he was walking away – and yanked my bag back (very lucky, as it contained both our passports and all my credit cards).  When I confronted the kid, he claimed to be “helping me” with my luggage, but we had seen him earlier that evening on the station platform, skulking around and eyeing up other peoples’ luggage, so we knew better.  Romani’s assistant at the station, Mohammed, reported him to the tourist police, who have a huge presence everywhere we go in Egypt.  I wonder if anything came of it?

Anyway, bag back in hand, Murray told Mom and me to get on board and find our cabins while he and Dad assisted the porters with the group’s baggage.  As we found out several minutes later, Dad and Murray literally had to throw the remaining luggage up onto the train as it began moving, and then jump onto the moving train afterward!  (Very Indiana Jones of them, don’t you think?)  Of course, there was more chaos once on board the train – trying to find our cabins, porters running to deposit luggage and then jump off moving train as it left the station…

Our sleeper cabins were very small, and tres 1980s!  They contained three large bucket seats, the middle of which converted into a desk/drinks tray; a small “hall” area; and a tiny sink with mirror.  I wanted it to be a romantic, mysterious “Orient Express-type” experience, but “delightfully tacky” might be the better way to describe it!  My cabin with Murray opened up to Mom and Dad’s cabin, so Dad busted out the boxed wine (brought especially from North Dakota!) for a post-boarding toast.  Shortly after we were settled in, our train attendant served us dinner (again, think 1980s airline tray – although Murray did get his Egyptian beer!), and I just kept thinking: “Am I going to sleep at all tonight?!” 

After dinner, Murray went to the cabin car with a few others from the group for some (what else?) beer, but apparently, they all found the cabin car too smoky to hang out in (what a surprise!).  So, Murray was back before too long.  In short time, we called for the train attendant to set up the sleeping beds within our cabin – he was a master of hooks and ladders.  Two bunk beds appeared, and we gratefully slipped into them by 10:30pm.  Tired!
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jenny on

amazing pics. :)

ششش on


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