In a seemingly empty desert setting on the Giza plateau, sits the only remaining structure of the original Seven Wonders of the World, the Great Pyramid of Giza. The Giza Necropolis, however, comprises not only the Great Pyramid (the Pyramid of Khufu), but also the Pyramid of Khafre and the Pyramid of Menkaure, as well as the Great Sphinx, numerous ancient cemeteries, as well as a more recently discovered workers’ village, which housed the labourers employed to build the pyramids. What’s more, though depicted as such in most postcards and Western representations of the site, the Giza Necropolis is not in a remote desert location at all, but in fact just on the outskirts of Cairo, just 15 miles from the city centre.
The Giza Necropolis is the most well-known and striking reminder of the magnificent culture of ancient Egypt, where grand kingdoms were ruled by powerful pharaohs. The pyramids and the Great Sphinx were constructed between 2550-2490 BCE, with the Great Pyramid being the oldest, and the Pyramid of Menkaure the most recent addition. The marvellous structures are considered to have been built to house the earthly remains of the pharaohs, as well as the myriad possessions that these rulers would take with them to the afterlife, which, according to ancient Egyptian beliefs, began after life on earth was over. The smaller constructs found around the pyramids, called mastabas, were built to serve the same purpose for the wives, daughters, and sons of the pharaohs. Though seemingly built to be a solemn and remote place, the Giza Necropolis would most likely have been bustling with activity in its day with its many buildings, some of which may even have housed shops at the time.
When entering the site, one immediately feels dwarfed and overpowered by the sheer size of the Giza pyramids. The Great Pyramid, also called the Pyramid of Khufu, is the tallest at 147 metres. The Pyramid of Khafre is only slightly smaller at 144 metres, and the Pyramid of Menkaure, though still incredibly impressive, is a relatively meagre 65 metres tall. The interior of the pyramids, which is what is mostly seen today as the exterior layer has eroded, was made of massive stones which were quarried near the building site – the Great Pyramid’s base is made up of 2,300,000 stone blocks and covers a surface area of 13 acres!
The exterior part of the pyramids was made of white limestone, which ancient writers described as shining brilliantly in the sunlight. The exterior posed an even greater engineering challenge than the interior, as the limestone was quarried along the Nile, brought in by boats, dragged up with the help of ramps, and cut with extreme care to be of equal size, in order to ensure that the pyramid stayed symmetrical. Very little of the original limestone cover remains today: some parts are left on the Great Pyramid’s base and at the top of the Pyramid of Khafre.
The Great Sphinx also remains an astounding and mysterious sight. The structure, located to the east of the pyramids, is an amazing 73 metres long, and rises to a height of 20 metres. It depicts a couchant lion with a man’s head. The sphinx wears a Nemes, the headdress of the pharaohs, and most Egyptologists agree that the face depicted is that of the pharaoh Khafre. Many theories exist about the origin and purpose of the Great Sphinx, but as of yet, no conclusive explanation for the monument has been agreed upon by scholars.
Though many depictions in popular culture have spread the idea that the pyramids were built by slaves, no undisputed evidence has been found to support these claims. To the contrary, research has shown that the workers were mostly paid labourers from poor families – it has been estimated by some that approximately 10,000 labourers would have been involved in building one pyramid. Specialists were also hired for the task, including architects, carpenters, and masons.
To get to the Giza Necropolis, you can board a direct flight from London-Heathrow to Cairo. You can then hire a car from Cairo International Airport, from where the drive to the site takes only about an hour. You can either use the Ring Road the whole way, or first drive via Salah Salem Street or Airport Road before going onto the Ring Road.