“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.
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.
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.
“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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.