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The Pyramids.

Giza, Egypt

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Great Pyramid of Cheops The pyramids at Giza stick in the imagination. Everyone seems familiar with them – even people who have never been within five thousand miles of Egypt. The Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing. All the others – the hanging gardens, the Colossus of Rhodes and the rest have crumbled and gone. Not a photo remains. Yet the Great Pyramid must be one of the most photographed buildings in the world, as well as being the most visited tourist destination on earth over the past few thousand years – or so says the Egyptian government.

Yet the pyramids at Giza – the Great Pyramid is only the biggest of several – are not at all what you expect when you first seem them up close. That’s not to say they’re a disappointment: far from it. It’s just that the every-lying camera has led us to expect something very different from what is actually there.

This is most evident when you work out exactly where Giza is. Look at the photos, and you would think it’s in the middle of mile upon mile of empty desert, and that the pyramids rise up out of nowhere, majestic and solitary. Actually Giza is pretty much a suburb of modern Cairo, so the Great Pyramid is about as far away from home for Cairenes as the Statue of Liberty is from New Yorkers. Professional photographers, chasing a dramatic shot, tend to take from an angle which misses out the buildings of the modern city. As the Giza site is built on a plateau at the edge of the city this isn’t too much of a challenge. The pyramids aren’t remote at all. They’re a quick and easy taxi or bus journey from central Cairo.

The other thing that the Great Pyramid in particular has in common with the Statue of Liberty is that it looms larger in the imagination than in life. That’s not to say that it’s not mind-bogglingly huge, at 153m high – it’s just that the real thing probably isn’t quite as huge as the pyramid in your head. The Great Pyramid, like the Statue of Liberty, has become a symbol as much as a real structure. One represents the freedom offered by America, the other of the mystery of the ancient world. So they’re bigger in our imagination. If you stand next to either a small part of you will be disappointed that they’re not stupendously huge.

Pyramids of Giza But after you’ve got over the initial pang of disappointment you’ll begin to notice the things the glossy brochure photos don’t really give you a sense of. The color of the things, for example. The surfaces of the three major Giza pyramids – Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure – was originally covered in smooth, polished limestone slabs, which would have shone under the light of the sun and the moon, giving the monuments an eerie, otherworldly appearance. Most of this cladding has been stripped away over the centuries by local builder who knew a good bit of quality building material when they saw it, so on large parts of the pyramids’ faces only the rough under-surface remains. But in one or two spots, particularly higher up on the sides of Khufu and Khafre, the limestone blocks are still in position, so you can see in your mind’s eye what the structures originally looked like. That’s when you start to be impressed by the guys who built these things.

The Great Pyramid contains an estimated 2.3 million stone blocks, each weighing two-and-a-half tons. Scholars think it took 48,000 people twenty years to build the thing. The wheel hadn’t been invented, so every single block had to be dragged or moved on rollers.

It’s when you consider the human scale of the effort involved that you get a real sense of the scale of the Giza pyramids. We’re used to skyscrapers three or four times as tall, thrown up in a year or two. But the people who put up these things had nothing more than a barges, rollers, ropes, ingenuity and sheer, bloody-minded effort. No cranes or cement-mixers. And definitely no hard hats.

Sphinx and Pyramids When you’ve finished rediscovering your wonder for the pyramids, make sure you look at the Sphinx, which is on the same site. It was a massive effort of a different type – a huge statue carved out of a natural rock outcrop, it guards the pyramids and the bodies of the occupants – reminding us that the great structures were once tombs. Although the sphinx failed in its task, the mummies having been removed by ancient robbers or more recent archaeologists, it remains an impressive structure in itself.

Enjoy Giza, but as you raise your camera, say to yourself: is it really worth it? Will any picture I take really capture what this place is about? Or shall I put the camera down and keep the pictures in my head?