The Pyramids and the Great Sphinx of Egypt

The Pyramids of the Giza Plateau in Egypt

For many, Egypt’s pyramids and the Great Sphinx represent the ultimate travel bucket list item. Shrouded in mystery and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the pyramids are synonymous with Egypt. Likewise, their human-headed, lion-bodied neighbor is one of the first landmarks that comes to mind when you think about the Land of the Pharaohs.

I had dreamed of visiting Egypt for years just to stand in the shadow of some of the oldest, most recognized structures on the planet. Their history—both known and unknown—has fascinated Adam and me and lead to plenty of discussions about what it would be like to visit the pyramid complex in person. For me, the pyramids and the Sphinx were on par with standing before the moai of Easter Island, on the Great Wall of China, or on the ice in Antarctica. Those experiences were overwhelming in their personal significance for me, and I knew my visit to Giza would feel the same way. Additionally, in 2011 I just missed a chance to see them; weeks before I was set to depart for Cairo to attend a conference the event was cancelled after the country’s revolution made travel to the region undesirable. Since then, visiting has been a significant goal and a chance to reclaim an experience that took a long time to come back to me.

Did the pyramids and the Great Sphinx live up to the hype I created over the years? Here is an overview of what we saw, what we learned, and what we thought about our day visiting Giza’s famous sites—and how you can make the most of your visit!

The Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

The pyramids of Giza are among the oldest manmade buildings in existence. Built around 2500 BC, they are located just to the south of bustling Cairo and about five miles (nine kilometers) west of the Nile River; today, like all those centuries ago, 95 percent of Egypt’s population lives close to the Nile. The pyramids are built on the Giza Plateau, and while most people know of the three largest pyramids—including the Great Pyramid—there are six other structures that are part of the complex and were built around the same time. Construction likely took close to 100 years, which meant five different pharaohs oversaw the work and between 15,000 and 40,000 workers were actively engaged on the project at any given time.

The Great Pyramid
The Great Pyramid
There are still many questions about how the pyramids were designed, the construction techniques necessary to build them, and how the materials were sourced. While there are some questions to which we may never have answers, we do know more about the origin of the pyramids thanks to records that have been found throughout the country. Most notably, in 2013 archaeologists discovered several papyrus scrolls hundreds of miles away that detailed how the Ancient Egyptians built the pyramids. Written primarily in hieroglyphics and now known as the Diary of Merer, the scrolls document how 200 workers journeyed more than 500 miles (850 meters) to Aswan in the southern part of the country to get red granite, which was then floated up the Nile and used to build the Great Pyramid.

Astronomy played a big role in Ancient Egypt, and the pyramids of Giza may also be rooted in a somewhat religious worship of the sky. Each of the three pyramids—Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure—are precisely oriented to the north, south, east, and west, as if the workers had used a compass to position them. The three pyramids are also closely aligned to the three stars that are found in the Orion constellation, specifically in his belt. Orion is linked to the Egyptian god Osiris, the god of the afterlife and rebirth, which may tie into the purpose of the pyramid complex.

The pyramids of Giza are interesting in comparison to other structures found throughout the country. While pyramids were often used as tombs for Egypt’s kings and queens, no tombs, mummies, or human remains were found in Giza’s pyramid complex. Additionally, the interior is almost devoid of hieroglyphics that decorate tombs in Luxor, Aswan, and other locations in Egypt. Some theories suggest the tombs were raided centuries ago, and the bodies and valuables were removed at that time, and others note that the pyramids were once encased in limestone that bore hieroglyphics but have long since been removed. With well over 4,000 years between their initial construction and today’s theories, these mysteries may remain for quite some time.

Beyond the pyramids of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure are six additional pyramids. Three of them are known as the Queen’s Pyramids, which belonged to Khufu’s mother, Khafre’s mother, and Khufu’s wife. The others served as temples or tombs. The pyramid complex also includes two extensive cemeteries to the east and west of the Pyramid of Khufu where a number of royalty were buried.

The Sphinx

The Sphinx
The Sphinx
The Giza plateau is also home to the Great Sphinx, the pyramids’ famous neighbor.

Although the Sphinx looms large even next to the enormous pyramids just a few hundred yards away, the questions about how and why it came into existence feel even bigger. The most widely believed theory suggests the Sphinx was built at the same time as the pyramids and boasts the face of Pharaoh Khafre. Many other theories exist, though, with some stating the face might be Khufu’s instead and some suggesting the head isn’t intended to be human but rather a dog or Anubis, which was the Egyptian god of the dead.

At one point the Sphinx had both a nose and a beard, but today both are missing. Although a favorite theory proposes that Napoleon’s army shot a cannonball into the Sphinx’s nose (a theory that has been disproven thanks to noseless descriptions that predate Napoleon’s time in Egypt), a more accepted theory recounts how the nose was destroyed in the 1370s by an Egyptian who was dismayed by people bringing offerings to the Sphinx and worshiping as if it might be a god. There may be some truth to that idea; the Sphinx has the body of a lion, which is connected to sun worship and the Leo constellation.

Napoleon at the Sphinx painting from the 1800s
Napoleon at the Sphinx painting from the 1800s
Between the Sphinx’s paws is a more modern addition: the Dream Stele. The Dream Stele is a large stone tablet installed by Ancient Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose IV. The inscription has not been completely translated, but through prose it tells a story that suggests the sun god Ra bestowed the pharaohship upon him. According to the Dream Stele, prince Thutmose went to the Sphinx at midday and fell asleep while resting in the shadow of the Sphinx. The Sphinx then spoke directly to him and promised him kingship over the land if he would unearth the body of the Sphinx by removing the sand that had buried it up to the neck for generations.

While it isn’t possible to approach the Dream Stele to see it up close, it is clearly visible from any viewing platform where you can see the Sphinx.

If you’re interested in learning more about the potential tie-in to the constellation Leo, this short video from the Smithsonian Institution provides more information.


The Step Pyramid of Memphis

Not far from Giza in the Ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis is the ancient burial ground Saqqara (or Sakkara). Among some of the oldest tombs in the country is the oldest pyramid of record in Egypt: the Pyramid of Djoser, or the Step Pyramid. Built in the 27th century BC, it’s about 2,000 years older than they pyramids of Giza. The pyramid was truly innovative for its time, and it was the first Egyptian pyramid that used mastabas in this way. Mastaba translates to eternal house in Ancient Egyptian, and they were typically rectangular structures with flat roofs composed of mud. The Step Pyramid, which is made of stone, layered six mastabas on top of one another with the smallest mastaba on top. The significance of this structure is clear: with multiple “eternal houses,” Pharaoh Djoser constructed his path to eternal rebirth and a reunion with the sun god Ra.

The Pyramid of Sakkara (or Saqqara)
The Pyramid of Sakkara (or Saqqara)
The Step Pyramid of Sakkara is an impressive structure to visit. The entrance has forty limestone columns and a limestone roof which open into the South Court, which overlooks both the South Tomb and the Step Pyramid. The South Tomb was likely finished before the pyramid, and while it’s not possible to go inside either structure the South Tomb is reported to share similar colors and markings. Also of note is that the architect of the Step Pyramid of Sakkara was Imhotep, a chancellor to Pharaoh Djoser and likely the first person to use stone columns in the construction and support of a building.

Knowing that step pyramids can be found throughout the world—including places we’ve visited like Chichen Itza in Mexico and Borobudur in Indonesia—it was especially impressive for us to see the oldest of these constructions with our own eyes.

Visiting the Pyramids and the Sphinx: Tips for Your Visit

Prepare for the weather

Our visit took place on an extremely warm day in Giza, when temperatures soared over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius). We each took two bottles of water and drank most of them; don’t underestimate how dehydrated you can become after just a short time in sunny, hot weather! We both wore long, breathable pants and short-sleeved shirts as well, which kept us fairly comfortable and reasonably well protected from the sun. Sun screen and a hat are also must-haves when you prepare to spend any amount of time outside exploring.

Expect crowds, but not tourists

Egypt has been struggling to rebuild its tourist numbers since the 2011 revolution, but we were surprised by the low number of travelers we saw at what is arguably the most popular tourist attraction in the country. Still, we were often surrounded by people, most typically men thrusting souvenirs in our direction or begging us to buy something from them. This occasionally impacted our experience because it was hard to stand quietly and immerse ourselves in the grandeur of the moment when we were constantly being offered products to purchase. Saying “no” was enough for most of the sales force, but some were more persistent and would walk along with us for quite a way in hopes we could be swayed to buy something.

Consider- and reconsider- a carriage ride
The Pyramids of the Giza Plateau
The Pyramids of the Giza Plateau
There is an incredible viewpoint of the entire Giza Plateau from a collection of sandy dunes just beyond them, and our guide recommended we take the opportunity to go there for some great pictures. We were offered the chance to ride a camel or take a shuttle to get there. Remembering my less than stellar performance on camels in Morocco, we opted to take the shuttle. Unfortunately, the shuttle wasn’t a vehicle like our guide described; it was a horse and carriage. We have some serious concerns about animal welfare and treatment at tourist sites such as this, and we made the decision to take the carriage ride only because the horse we were assigned looked to be in good condition at the time. While we were happy with the photos we got, we both have some regrets over taking the carriage ride and supporting the industry. There are numerous reports about animals receiving poor care and treatment, and we both wish we had better information about what the “shuttle” was before committing to the ride—verbally or financially. Any animal transportation is not included in the entrance fee, and we recommend negotiating with the locals who provide the service directly if you plan to visit the viewpoint. We allowed our guide to give us a price, and we discovered later we paid much more per person than we would have if we negotiated directly with the locals.

You’ll only need a few hours

The pyramids and the Sphinx are incredible, but they are primarily appreciated from the outside and don’t require a whole lot of time. We spent about two hours in Giza and another hour at the Step Pyramid, and that felt like enough time for us. We did not go inside any of the structures; there is an extra fee to enter the Great Pyramid, and our guide dissuaded us from entering because there isn’t much to see (something we don’t mind missing, as the Valley of the Kings in Luxor satisfied everything we wanted out of that type of experience). It is possible to enter one of the Queen’s Pyramids as part of the admission fee, but the entrance is very small and very steep. It requires you to crouch down and walk backwards down a narrow ladder-type tunnel, and when we investigated it we discovered many nails sticking out of the wood. We decided to skip it. You may want to do the same.

There are two entrances
Two of the smaller Queen's Pyramids in Giza
Two of the smaller Queen’s Pyramids in Giza
If you visit the pyramids without a guide, ask your taxi driver to take you to the vehicle entrance rather than the pedestrian entrance near the Sphinx. The ride will be a bit longer, but there were incredible numbers of hawkers and people trying to sell products at the pedestrian entrance. There are far fewer people at the vehicle entrance, and you can enter on foot from there. You can typically hire a guide (there were many available) or secure a camel ride if that is your intent as well. We entered at the vehicle entrance and found it to be much quieter than the pedestrian entrance, which we drove by on our way back from Giza.

Consider a guide

While we typically prefer to visit sites on our own, we used a guided service throughout our visit to Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. This meant we didn’t need to worry about transportation, and we were able to benefit from some information and explanation about what we were seeing. Guides can be arranged in advance- either before you arrive in Egypt or through most hotels- and it’s possible to find a qualified guide right at the entrance. If your plans will take you to both Giza and the Step Pyramid in Memphis you may want to consider a half day or full day tour.

Where to Stay

While most visitors find a hotel in Cairo, we stayed at the Barceló in Giza. Overall, we were satisfied with our stay there; we had a nice, spacious room and felt comfortable and safe while we were there. Giza, like Cairo, is noisy, and we listened to traffic outside our window for both of the nights we were there, but we were otherwise happy with all aspects of our stay. The big buffet breakfast spread was great before a full day of exploring, and we really enjoyed our dinner at the hotel restaurant. The lounge on the top floor of the hotel had some great views of the city as well. One of the surprises we encountered was the Aten Bazar, a gift shop, which offered the best quality souvenirs we found in Giza at really competitive prices. We were equally happy to meet its owner, a great guy with tons of historical knowledge about his homeland. We enjoyed our conversation with him and are thrilled to have some great souvenirs in our home to remember our trip.

More Information:

Are you looking for more places to stay near the Pyramids and Sphinx? Cairo has plenty of hotel options for your trip. Here are some deals to consider.

Enjoy the Pyramids and the Sphinx!

Visiting the Pyramids and the Great Sphinx was an unbelievable experience and one we won’t forget. To stand before these huge structures and think about the manpower and planning they required, long before modern technology could assist, is baffling and humbling. If seeing the pyramids and the Sphinx are on your bucket list—or if you are ready to immerse yourself in an incredible culture—this will be the vacation of a lifetime. Let us know if Giza is in your travel plans, and let us know about the tips you have to share!

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Visiting the Pyramids and the Great Sphinx of Egypt