Pyramids ... and more

Son et lumière - pyramids and sphinx

The pyramids and the Sphinx during the "son et lumière" show

The history of pyramids, indeed, the history of stone monuments in general, begins with the step pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, built by the architect Imhotep about -2650. The pyramid is part of a funerary complex which one reaches by first walking through a beautiful hypostyle hall (supported by columns). According to our guide, Nahla, the idea was new and the architect, not trusting the columns to support the roof, erected superfluous walls for this purpose.

Saqqara salle hypostyle Saqqara salle hypostyle
Saqqara, hypostyle hall
Pyramide à dégrés Pyramide à dégrés et mur des cobras
Djoser's step pyramid Step pyramid and wall of cobras

In fact, the pyramid is a series of mastabas, or funerary chapels in the form of banks (mastaba, in arab), each one built on top of the preceding one. Thus was built the first pyramid.

After Saqqara, other architects tried to build "real" pyramids, with smooth surfaces, with greater or lesser  success. The largest one built before those of Giza, two of which are larger, is the red pyramid at Dahshur, which we did not visit. After that, the construction of other pyramids was transferred to Giza.

The largest pyramid in Egypt and the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World which still survives is the Great Pyramid of Cheops (or Khufu) at Giza. Giza is a strange place, on a desert plateau dominating the modern city of Cairo. It's like a desert surrounded by a city. The day of our visit (in fact, most of our days in Egypt), there was a mist which at first hid all but the outline of the pyramids as seen from the viewpoint where the bus stopped "to take some pictures". Mark Twain saw something similar, as he wrote in The Innocents Abroad:

At the distance of a few miles the Pyramids rising above the palms, looked very clean-cut, very grand and imposing, and very soft and filmy, as well. They swam in a rich haze that took from them all suggestions of unfeeling stone, and made them seem only the airy nothings of a dream-- structures which might blossom into tiers of vague arches, or ornate colonnades, may be, and change and change again, into all graceful forms of architecture, while we looked, and then melt deliciously away and blend with the tremulous atmosphere.

But as we approached the monuments, the sun broke through some and the stones took on a luminous color. In any case, it was a real thrill to be right there in front of these mythical monuments!

Pyramides dans le brume La pyramide de Chéops
Pyramids in the mist The Great Pyramid of Cheops
Siv se fait photographier John devant la pyramide de Chephren
Siv being photographed/ripped off, duly equipped with turban and cane.   John, don't climb on the pyramid of Chephren (Khafre)
Siv and John and pyramid of Mykerinos
Tourists in front of the pyramid of Menkaure Walk around the pyramid of Chephren. In the back, the pyramid of Menkaure
Chefren's pyramid
Dromadary and native with the pyramid of Menkaure The stones of the pyramid of Chephren
Sphinx Sphinx
The Sphinx of Giza and the pyramid of Cheops
The Sphinx and the pyramid of Chephren

Everywhere, one is hassled by "natives" who want to take your picture or have you take theirs in exchange for baksheesh. They can be quite charming while they're at it.

Access to the famous Sphinx, about 300 meters from the pyramid of Cheops, is worse than bizarre. The place where tourists may stand to view the monument is very small, which increases the density of people. Worse yet, access to the viewpoint is via a narrow staircase only wide enough to allow two or three people abreast. Traffic jam guaranteed. Flaubert, who visited Giza during his Voyage en Egypte, wouldn't have recognized it. In any case,  we shared at least some of his emotion.

Close to three thirty we are almost touching the desert where the three pyramids stand -- I can wait no longer and start my horse galloping and slipping in the marsh. Maxime [Ducamp], two minutes afterwards, imitates me -- furious race -- I can't help yelling -- we climb in a cyclone up to the Sphinx. At first our Arabs followed us, yelling ... -- He loomed larger, larger, rose up from the earth like a dog standing up.

Abou-el-Houl ["the father of terror", the arab name for the Sphinx] -- sand, pyramids, the Sphinx, everything is grey and drowned in a great pink color -- the sky is all blue -- eagles turn and glide slowly around the peak of the pyramids -- we stop in front of the Sphinx -- it looks at us in a terrifying way. Maxime is quite pale. I am afraid I'm getting dizzy, and I try to control my emotion. We start out again at full speed, madmen, carried away in the middle of the stones. We ride all around the pyramids right at their base, slowly. Our luggage is late coming -- night falls.

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