“If bliss can be described as an exalted state of wishing not to be anywhere else, then this had been bliss.”

~Paul Theroux, Fresh Air Fiend: Travel Writings

Car horns were beeping, and morning traffic was in full swing as we headed out on Ring Road to the Giza pyramid complex. It wasn’t Cairo’s traffic that surprised me. It was how pedestrians wove in and out, crossing busy roads as if there were traffic signals and actual lanes. They just kept walking and somehow seemed to make it safely across.

It’s about a half-hour drive to this city on the west bank of the Nile. Although it is a separate city and Egypt’s third largest, in many ways Giza feels like an extension of Cairo. It’s difficult to tell where one leaves off and the other begins, but when the familiar-looking shapes of pyramids begin popping up in the distance, you know you’re not in Cairo anymore.

Pedestrians on the roadway and pyramids in the distance.
Passing Giza’s Grand Egyptian Museum, scheduled to open this year.

The Great Pyramid of Giza

Herb and I waited outside the visitor center while our tour guide Marwa secured our tickets. The site opens at 8 a.m., and Marwa was confident that our early arrival would insure some crowd-free moments. The Giza pyramid complex, also called the Giza Necropolis, includes three pyramids, various “satellite” pyramids, the Great Sphinx, several cemeteries and a workers’ village.

The biggest attraction is the glorious symbol of ancient Egypt: The Great Pyramid. Also known as the Pyramid of Khufu or the Pyramid of Cheops, it is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the World and the only one still in existence. It is believed the Great Pyramid was completed around 2560 B.C. and was built over a 10- to 20-year period. Egyptologists have identified three chambers – a King’s Chamber, Queen’s Chamber and Grand Gallery.

To say I was in awe of this remarkable site is an understatement of the greatest magnitude. I’m not convinced that even the most eloquent words can begin to describe the experience of standing in its presence. And after visiting the rock tombs in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings – wonders in their own right – it felt as if our Egyptian pharaoh tomb tour had come full circle in the most extraordinary way.

First view in the early morning hazy sun.
Looking up at the Great Pyramid entrance.
Standing at the corner spot where a marker in the ground demonstrates the perfect line that can be drawn all the way to the top.
We headed inside, but decided not to continue on…
…It’s a bit claustrophobic and requires walking in a crouched stance to make it through the tunnels!

Giza’s Panorama Point & A Camel Ride

And now for my full confession. My dream of seeing The Great Pyramid also included something a little more specific: I wanted to ride a camel by the pyramids. Not just sit on a camel for a photo op, but actually take a camel ride across the desert sands. I was a little nervous to reveal my heart’s desire to our tour guide, but it turned out that Marwa knew a camel guy.

“I don’t want you to ride here,” she explained as we were walking around The Great Pyramid. “It’s too rocky. We will go to the viewing spot where it’s sandy and smooth.” A short drive from the visitor center, Panorama Point was not only Marwa’s choice for camel riding, but also a fantastic place to overlook the Giza plateau. We stopped to take a few photos as well as take in the scope of the incredible view before meeting our camels.

Giza’s Panorama Point.
At the Panorama Point lookout.
The Panorama Point camel oasis.
With Marwa’s friend the camel owner.

“Hi Ho Silver!”

We were assigned a camel guide, who introduced us to Michael and Moses, our rides for the outing. My camel Michael lowered himself so I could climb aboard. I placed my left foot in the stirrup and grabbed hold of the saddle. The trick for staying on, I learned, is to lean back while the camel stands up. It’s a jerky moment, but an incredible view once you’re accustomed to the height!

Our guide handed me a rope to attach from Michael’s saddle to Moses’ saddle, forming our caravan of two. He smiled at us, made a thumbs up sign in the air and shouted, “Hi Ho Silver!” We were off!

Our camel guide with Michael and Moses.
The view from my seat.
Camel riders in the distance.

About halfway through the ride, our guide stopped and offered to take our photo. He released the caravan rope and moved our camels side by side. I had no idea how the photos would turn out, but was thrilled to have a memento. He had us wave our arms in silly “we made it” poses and seemed to hold Herb’s iPhone at a crooked angle. But when I saw this shot, it looked as if it had been taken by a professional photographer who happened to have an extraordinary backdrop. The camel guide’s photo is now enlarged, framed and displayed proudly in our home, a souvenir from a favorite travel experience I will never forget.

The ride ended much too quickly, but I don’t think any amount of time would have been enough. Marwa and her driver were waiting for us, ready to head to the next destination. I lingered for a minute, petting Michael’s coarse fur, saying goodbye to this grand animal who had so carefully carried me across the Egyptian desert.

Michael and me.

The Great Sphinx of Giza

A short distance away on the Giza plateau stands the Great Sphinx, the iconic mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head of a human. The oldest known monumental sculpture in Egypt, it is believed to represent the face of pharaoh Khafre and likely was constructed during his reign between 2558 and 2532 B.C.

With the Great Pyramid as a backdrop, the Great Sphinx rises out of the desert with an air of mystery and majesty. A barricade surrounds the site, but there is viewing access along the front and right sides.

Two “Greats” – the Sphinx and the Pyramid.
With our lovely tour guide Marwa.
View from the side…
…and a closeup of his head and famously missing nose.

Sakkara Restaurant

The Middle Eastern food we had enjoyed on this trip had been a delight, and our lunch stop outside of Giza was no exception. Marwa had chosen Sakkara Restaurant, where she knew the owner – Marwa seemed to know people wherever we went – as well as the woman who makes bread in a nook near the cafe’s entrance.

One of the treats of touring with local guides is that you venture off the beaten path, exploring places you might not otherwise have discovered. Our lunch at Sakkara was a favorite of the trip, and when I tried my hand at tossing one of the fabulous bread rounds into the oven, I quickly learned that the baker made it look easier than it was!

The bread baker and her pita rounds.
Sakkara Restaurant near the Saqqara Pyramids.

Ancient Memphis 

After lunch we headed to Memphis, Ancient Egypt’s first capital. Founded at the mouth of the Nile Delta around 3200 B.C, the city was abandoned in the 7th century A.D. What remains today are ruins and statuary displayed in an open-air museum. The most impressive statues are of Rameses II, who ruled from 1279 to 1213 B.C. It is believed that more statues of Rameses II exist than any other pharaoh.

Like the typewritten signage at the Egyptian Museum, I thought this “tote board” entry sign was a charming throwback to an earlier time.
Relics are displayed in various spots on the grounds – even under a peaceful-looking shade tree.
The alabaster sphinx.
A Statue of Rameses II anchors the courtyard.
The colossus of Rameses II was found lying half-buried in marshy ground. The head and upper torso are in tact, but part of the legs were destroyed.

Saqqara & The Step Pyramid

Saqqara – also spelled Sakkara – was the burial ground that served as the necropolis for ancient Memphis. The site’s most famous attraction is the Step Pyramid of Djoser. Built in the 27th century B.C. for the burial of Pharaoh Djoser, the Step Pyramid is a six-tier, four-sided structure. It is considered to be the world’s oldest complete stone building complex.

After extensive restoration, the Step Pyramid of Djoser is scheduled to open to the public sometime this year.
The funerary complex of Djoser features a limestone wall, with only one entrance functional for the living. The remaining doors were meant for the pharaoh’s use in the afterlife.
A covered colonnade leads into the complex, with stone pillars carved to resemble bundled plant stems.
The Saqqara Necropolis complex spreads out over a vast area.
The faint outlines of the Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid in the distance.

The End of the Road

It was about an hour’s drive back to Cairo, as we retraced our route through the countryside, past Giza and finally across the Nile. We said goodbye to Marwa at our hotel, finished packing and had our final dinner of the trip. Marwa’s driver would be returning at 11:30 p.m. to take us to the airport for our 2 a.m. flight. Most of the international flights leave Cairo in the middle of the night, and we had kept our hotel room so we’d have a place to wait out the evening before heading to the airport.

I fell asleep on the plane before takeoff and awakened a couple of hours later. The plane was quiet, lights dimmed, shades down.

“We missed the meal service,” Herb told me.

“I’m guessing there was also a safety demonstration and a pilot’s announcement,” I replied. We both laughed.

In two hours we would be landing in Frankfurt, and then later that morning we’d be on our flight to San Diego. Twenty-eight days. This was the longest we’d ever been away. I knew it was time to come home, but I also knew that the sights and sounds and smells of the past weeks would be spinning in my mind for a long time.

And I had a feeling that in some way, no matter how much time has passed, they will always be there.

8 Comments

  • What a fabulous conclusion to your trip, Mary. I love the camel photograph and am in awe of your courage to ride – I have always viewed these creatures with great suspicion!! Your posts have increased our anticipation of our next cruise immensely and we are keeping everything crossed that all will go according to plan. We are counting the days 😉 Thank you so much for taking us along with you and Herb!

    • I’ve enjoyed having you along, GIll 🙂 Thanks so much for your delightful comments along the way! I’m not sure the camel ride took much courage, but it was an incredible amount of fun! Wishing you a wonderful trip to the Middle East. I look forward to reading all about it!

  • Fabulous report. We will be there in May. We are taking a LONG Regent excursion from Alexandria. I’m not sure if a camel ride is in the cards but you have inspired me to try!

    • Thank you, Jennifer! I’m glad to have provided a bit of camel riding inspiration 🙂 You’re sure to have a wonderful time in Giza and Cairo. There is so much to see that even a long day will fly by. It’s truly an adventure. Happy travels!

  • Mary,
    Hard to say which I enjoyed most–experiencing your adventure, or savoring your expression of it. You are an extraordinary writer! Your journey will help us plan ours. But we may wait a while to book a cruise. 🧐

    xo
    Sue

    • That is so kind of you, Sue…many thanks! If I can help in any way when you are ready to plan your journey to the Middle East, please let me know. This was truly a treasure of a trip!

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