FORTY-THREE YEARS is a significant portion of my life, though it barely registers on the timescale of the Pyramids of Giza. They loomed solidly above the surrounding desert for 4,500 years before I first stood next to them, as a boy, in 1976.
I traveled there from Cairo by taxi with my family, driving through fields and open desert. The Yom Kippur War between Israel and Egypt raged briefly less than three years earlier, and tourists still had not returned to the region. At the pyramids, local guides, souvenir hawkers and camels vastly outnumbered us.
On my next visit, in 2008, I had no impression of leaving Cairo when I took a coach trip from my downtown hotel out to Giza. The urban sprawl of Africa’s largest city now lapped to the boundary of the pyramid complex. We parked among dozens of other coaches, and I joined the tourist hordes on the walk to the base of the nearest pyramid. The Saharan sun blazed down. Hawkers were doing brisk business selling cold drinks as well as souvenirs.
That tourism boom ended with the Egyptian revolution of 2011. In the immediate aftermath, the pyramids were as deserted as they had been in 1976. Gradually, visitor numbers increased, with a greater proportion of tour groups now coming from China and other parts of Asia, but they remain significantly lower than 10 years ago.
The promise of a new tourist boom looms on the horizon, quite literally. Just a mile and a quarter from the pyramid complex, the Grand Egyptian Museum is taking shape, finally providing a suitable venue for Egypt’s priceless ancient treasures.
Until recently, most of the artifacts were displayed in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum in downtown Cairo, housed in oldfashioned glass cases in fusty exhibition halls. Panes of glass were missing from the museum’s upper windows, and plaster crumbled from the walls. It had a certain Indiana Jones ambience, but there was no doubt the collection needed a more fitting — and more secure — home.
Last year, the long and delicate process of transferring the exhibits from the old museum to the new one at Giza began. There is no firm opening date for the Grand Egyptian Museum. The original target was 2012, but logistical problems — not to mention a fire at the construction site — caused delays. Currently, estimates call for a partial opening in 2020 (returning to public display the famous treasures of Tutankhamun, among the first items transferred). Once open, this new facility will prove a world-class tourist attraction, a worthy counterpart to the nearby pyramids and Sphinx.
For now, the pyramid complex offers ample justification for a bucket-list trip to Giza. Your first glimpse of the incredible stone structures is like discovering something you thought was just a myth is actually real. From a distance, glimpsed between apartment blocks, their sloping sides appear smooth, but up close the ragged truth is revealed. The Great Pyramid alone is composed of 2.3 million huge, time-eroded limestone blocks, each weighing three tons or more. Rising to 481 feet high, it was the world’s tallest manmade structure for 3,800 years, until Lincoln Cathedral in England exceeded it in 1311.
There are three main pyramids at Giza, along with six much smaller ones; several tombs and temples; and, on the eastern side, the Great Sphinx. In every direction you’re faced with iconic views.
The hawkers can at times be a little overbearing; and if you time your visit to the Sphinx badly, you may find yourself jostling with coach-loads of tourists. But with patience you can benefit from the ebb and flow of the visiting groups and enjoy precious minutes practically alone. All the more so if you choose to stay in one of the hotels in Giza, giving you the opportunity to be on site before the coaches arrive from downtown Cairo in the morning and after they’ve left in the late afternoon.
History becomes immediate. Stand in the right place in the right light, and you could be in the present or 4,500 years ago. Few places in the modern world enable you to bridge millennia as vividly. That is why the Pyramids of Giza should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Giza Info to Go
International flights arrive at Cairo International Airport, nine miles northeast of downtown Cairo and 18 miles northeast of the pyramid complex at Giza. As the downtown Egyptian Antiquities Museum transfers its treasures to the new Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza, there is perhaps less reason to be based in one of the downtown hotels. Most of the Giza hotels offer airport shuttle services for around $70 one way, while private transport companies based at the airport charge around $30 return.
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