The Giza Plateau
By T. Dietz
In the planning stages for a trip to St. Moritz to give a talk on “How to Feed the World in 2050”, I pulled out my trusty world atlas. I knew where I was headed but was rather looking for an interesting place I could divert to for a short adventure before returning to the States. My itinerary had me flying through Istanbul on Egypt Air. This route I’ve traveled before and have used it to spend some time in Istanbul which I wrote about in “Exploratory Mission – Istanbul”. As I stared at the map it hit me like a ton of bricks. Egypt. How could I have only now noticed how close I had been when in Turkey to the North African desert country of antiquity fame. I immediately applied for a visitor’s visa and figured out the gritty details of safe transportation, a university-trained guide, and accommodations close to the Giza Plateau.
I packed sparingly despite the need for clothes to accommodate a business meeting, skiing, and an outdoor desert adventure. St. Moritz could hardly hold my attention as I constantly anticipated my visit to Cairo and the Giza Necropolis. Finally on my way, I landed in Athens, the midway point of the journey from Zurich to Cairo. As I taxied to the Athens Eleftherios Venizelos Airport I picked up that the US State Department had just issued an Avoid Area in Cairo due to a train crash. Details came later of this disaster - two arguing conductors ignored their speeding train as it entered Cairo’s Ramses Station ending the lives of 25 and seriously injuring dozens more.
Back in the air for the short flight from Athens to Cairo I pinned my eyes to the window as we crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Egypt. Clear skies provided excellent visibility on approach into the desert city of Cairo with prominent displays of tanks concentrated at and near the airport. After some serious difficulty in finding my driver and a not so insignificant negotiation of an upfront tip, I departed for the 15-mile /1-hour long drive to Giza acutely aware of the manned machine gun bunkers leading out from the airport. Although the gun bunkers were a new experience, unfortunately the slow traffic was not. My extremely limited view of Cairo, from the highway to Giza, gave me the impression of a cross between an extremely tired version of older Dubai with strong hints of Baja, Mexico. Cars constantly drifted out of lanes (4 lanes driven at times as 7!), lots of honking, a mix of higher end cars, beaters, and donkey pulled carts. We passed a few larger well-kept homes and newer communities amongst windowless concrete inhabited structures, as we watched folks get out of their cars to talk and at times prepare hot food on and along the highway.
Arriving at my motel just 3 blocks from the desert sands of the Giza Plateau, I navigated camel and horse droppings and a few folks interested in my bags, to enter a clean but threadbare establishment. Giza was an assault on my olfactory senses, but I adapted quickly. Following check-in (an experience in itself) I headed up to my room, dropped my bags, and double-timed it up to the rooftop viewing area and bar. As soon as I turned the corner at the top of the steps, I heard a booming voice over a loud speaker and then just stopped as I gazed upon the three main Giza Pyramids lit up in Kelly Green and the Great Sphinx spot-lit in white. The evening light show was in full effect. I grabbed a seat, lit up a Davidoff I had brought from Zurich, ordered a Stella lager, and sat in awe at what I was finally seeing with my own eyes.
A couple of hours later I pulled myself away from the view knowing I had a long day coming up and would be rewarded with an up-close encounter with these manmade wonders. The next morning, I was transported a short distance to another pick up that introduced me to my university professor guide and armed security van driver. The guide spoke perfect English and after talking through our itinerary, we headed off to the Plateau to pick up my entry tickets. As we drove closer and closer to the Pyramids I was dumbfounded as to their size, grandeur and close proximity to
the City on one side and the vastness of the Sahara Desert on the other. I was not however taken with the enormous numbers of dirty egrets and machine gun stations. What I didn’t notice at first was the lack of people. A confluence of declining tourism due to security concerns from numerous incidents and a lack of an aligned global holiday among other things led to my only encountering a couple of buses full of tourists visiting an area approximately 1.2 square miles in size. An average day on the Plateau has 10’s of thousands of people. Having these storied structures basically to myself was incredible and added significantly to the experience.
My adventure bones were on fire as I felt teleported back in time. I walked toward the largest of the pyramids, the Pyramid of Khufu or Cheops, built over 4,500 years ago and of 2.3 million limestone blocks each weighing roughly 2.5 tons. The precision achieved and effort taken to create these structures was astonishing. I would later continue a more in-depth inquiry into the pyramids’ detailed history but for the moment I was transported back to my readings of the British archaeological expeditions of Egypt and the excitement of discovery. My guide was incredibly knowledgeable and never buckled under my constant barrage of questions.
The first order of business was accessing the Robber’s tunnel which provides access into Khufu and although not alone in the journey inside the pyramid to reach the King’s chamber there were only a few folks entering or exiting. Despite the few other people and knowing millions have gone before me, I entered with that exploration mindset and an indescribable feeling of personal discovery. My journey was about to take me into the Ascending Passage to the Grand Gallery and then into the low tunnel to the King’s Chamber. Following a climb up stairs cut into the pyramid’s stones, a rough-cut entrance starts at standing height. Several turns through the blasted chamber brought me to the low ceiling of the Ascending Passage where I needed to hunch over to clear the ceiling while walking on a battened wooden overlay floor with well-worn wooden handrails all polished smooth from the millions of hands and feet that
have used them. At almost 130 feet long, the Ascending Passage gives you plenty of time to feel the depth of your exploration into the pyramid. The air and sounds are very still while the further you access the Pyramid’s interior the higher the temperature rises. Probably stifling under normal tourist masses. Despite having read a lot and studied pictures before the trip, it was exciting and only more impressive. I could imagine the pull it had on the first discoverers post the pyramid’s closing to push deeper and deeper into its passages.
As I approached the ladder bridging the Ascending Passage to the Grand Gallery, I came upon several glass-enclosed scientific observing stations that measured humidity and other parameters that were not so obvious. I also came across a number of Japanese researchers conducting inquiry at positions off the passageway. And then I’m in the Grand Gallery. An architectural wonder. With its ceiling rising to almost 30 feet, the corbelled vaulted chamber runs over 150 feet in length. The slanted walls feel ominous especially with the limited available lighting. There was no pressure to rush through the Gallery and I stepped aside for folks to pass as I took in the key passage to the King’s burial chamber. A few other folks stopped as I did to marvel at this ancient structure. As you depart the Gallery you enter the Antechamber by squatting low under a massive stone. The Chamber has large grooves cut for the portcullis blocks (vertical passage blocking stones). Here I stopped to admire and feel the grooved cuts. A few short steps more and I ducked low again, feeling the weight of the stone above you, to enter the King’s Chamber.
The King’s or Burial Chamber was poorly lit and about 6 or so folks were milling around with their phone flashlights inspecting the large sarcophagus and walls. The crudely cut sarcophagus is damaged in one corner and well-worn from centuries of hands and bodies rubbing it and climbing in it. The only markings in the Chamber are scratched initials and graffiti from tourists, there are no Egyptian inscriptions or hieroglyphs of any kind. It did not appear to be a burial chamber fit for a Pharaoh and there are many different theories about whether Khufu was ever buried in this room, a different as yet undiscovered chamber, or not at all in this pyramid. I spent about 20 minutes scanning the walls with my flashlight and inspecting the sarcophagus. It
was then time to make my way back to daylight and fresh air. I would have liked to speak to the researchers in the Ascending Passage to find out what work they were doing but they were gone by the time I retraced my path lingering in the Grand Gallery as folks ascended and descended past me.
The Giza Pyramids have been visited for millennia and subject to much looting and damage. The tombs in the Valley of the Kings have only more recently been discovered and are significantly better preserved. There are many more pyramids that are not visible from Giza. In fact, over 100 more are in a line that stretch well into the Sahara.
The wind started kicking up to about 15 kts as I exited Khufu. I could taste the Sahara sands in the air. After a visit to the Solar Boat my guide and I trekked around to a site overlooking some active digs followed by a drive to an area on the Sahara side of the Pyramids where I was able to capture some great photos. A popular spot unusually quiet. As we headed back to the City side of the plateau, we stopped at Khafre. And with a guard’s permission encouraged by a small token of my appreciation, I climbed several large blocks up the pyramid posing for my guide to capture the moment.
The Great Sphinx. Appearing to guard the pyramid complex this mythical creature is incredibly alluring. I remember looking at paintings and pictures taken of the Sphinx when the sands engulfed it up to its shoulders. Not only has the full extent of the creature been revealed now but extensive preservation work is being performed. These man-made wonders have been subject to extensive writings and photography. But to see them up close is astounding. Again, there were few folks about and I wandered unimpeded twice around this amongst the oldest of monumental Egyptian sculptures.
Although difficult to tear myself away, it was time to travel to Saqqara, famous for the Step Pyramid of Djoser and being the burial site for the once capital of Egypt, Memphis. At the entrance we were stopped by armed guards and overlooked by machine gun bunkers to make sure we had our paperwork. Djoser is among scores of other pyramids at Saqqara, the oldest complete stone building complex discovered on earth. Here, my guide was able to bring me to an active dig site. Several new entrances to under sand structures had been discovered and timber lined shafts which looked right out of the 1800s had me ready to descend. Unfortunately, that was not going to happen. An armed guard was there to make sure of that.
Saqqara is entered through the Funerary complex of Djoser, an imposing structure that feels ancient and foreboding as you approach it across the sand. Immediately inside the complex we encountered a roped off area that held the entrance shaft to a 2018 discovery of a 4,400 year-old priest’s tomb. This sat near the remnants of a building adorned with cobra heads. Imagine coming upon these structures for the first time without prior knowledge. The vastness of the Sarah desert was all around.
Further south from Giza is Memphis, the original capital of Egypt. What remains is akin to a small park lined with ruins from the area. Exploration of the grounds is highlighted by the second largest sphinx while the remarkable Ramses II colossus is housed in its own building. Lying on its back, the Ramses II statue was discovered in 1821 and successfully raised from its muddy marsh resting place for display in 1887. A truly magnificent limestone structure. The only objects I observed with hieroglyphics on them was during my brief visit to Memphis.
Back at the hotel’s rooftop deck following my incredible and long day exploring the Giza Plateau, I grabbed a beer and gazed out over the pyramids and sphinx reflecting on my brief adventure. I took what seemed like dozens of “last looks”. I always consciously take last looks at places I visit as I never know if I’ll pass that way again. As I turned one last time before heading down for my airport transportation, I looked at the pyramids and thought what new discoveries lie awaiting under the desert sands.