How do you see a new side to the oldest and most visited tourist attraction in the world? Travel with an archaeologist.
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People have been visiting otherworldly monuments like the Great Pyramids of Giza for thousands of years and as a result they have been massively photographed, studied and speculated upon. How can a visitor see such a well-documented attraction in a new light? On a trip to Egypt last November, I visited Giza in the company of a true pyramid pro: world-renowned archaeologist Dr. Mark Lehner, whose research and excavation projects in Egypt s span nearly 40 years. On rare occasions, he offers private tours of the pyramids and historical sites of Egypt to such figures as Bill and Melinda Gates, among other donors (past and present) to his organization, Ancient Egypt Research Associates, Inc (AERA).
I myself had made a pilgrimage to see the famous Egyptian stonework almost exactly 10 years ago (a few days before the start of the Arab Spring). This time, with the encyclopedic knowledge and colorful commentary of Dr. Lehner and a rare rainstorm (the pyramid zone receives barely an inch of rain each year), my return to one of the great wonders of the world was an experience much richer.
Giza tour with a pyramid pro
Dr Lehner is as much a must-see here as the Great Sphinx of Giza. Throughout the day, we were warmly welcomed by an array of government officials, fellow Egyptologists, and guides, and occasionally granted special access to the historical sites we visited.
I met Dr. Lehner through Your Private Africa, an Africa-focused travel agency he often works with. The company also offers private tours of the Cheops Pyramid (Great Pyramid of Khufu) and the inner legs of the Sphinx, as well as dinners, light shows and exclusive access to the tombs. In Luxor, private hot air balloon flights can also be arranged near the Valley of the Queens, an unforgettable experience.
During our visit, I asked Dr. Lehner why the ancient pharaohs built their tombs with the square base and four triangular sides that make up a pyramid, as opposed to some other shape.
“One idea is that the Egyptians designed the pyramid as a petrification of the sun’s rays showing ‘pyramidically’ through a break in the clouds,” he said. “We know from the Pyramid Texts, the oldest religious literature in the world and the earliest form of writing that developed in the Book of the Dead, that they contained the image of a stepped ascent to the heavens. With highly reflective white outer shells, the pyramids could be seen as stone models of sunlight or gigantic reflectors.
Photography is not allowed inside the pyramids, so I was able to relax and admire the sacred space. At one point, as we reached the King’s Chamber, Dr. Lehner spontaneously started a chant.
“A thousand loaves of bread, a thousand jars of beer, a thousand folds of linen,” he sang.
He referred to ancient texts on stelae (plaques) showing the deceased before an offering table and a list of offerings. The pharaohs placed such stelae in their tombs above the “false doors”, the symbolic entrances to the afterlife; they added a slab at the bottom of the false door in the shape of the hieroglyph of the “offering” (a loaf on a mat). These offerings were meant to support the deceased in the afterlife.
New for 2020: a lounge with pyramids
It’s hard to resist hiring a camel for even a few minutes to get an iconic shot with the pyramids in the background. My top tip: be careful when selecting your camel vendor and make sure to clearly agree on fares, times and tips before climbing atop your new humpback friend.
Lunch time at 9 Pyramids Lounge, the first restaurant on the Egyptian Giza Pyramid Plateau which opened in October 2020, offers incredible views of the pyramid complex. The restaurant serves the typical Egyptian dishes: kebabs, hummus and pita, as well as plates of fresh mezze vegetables. The best part is that you no longer need to spend more than two hours driving round trip in and out of the pyramids for a delicious lunch. Because the space is entirely outdoors, it is possible to maintain social distancing even though the living room can get very busy during meals.
From the pyramids of Giza, we traveled to Darshur, about 25 miles south of Cairo, to visit the bent pyramid. At this time, a storm was brewing and the sky was darkening.
The Bent Pyramid was the second pyramid commissioned by Sneferu, the founding pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt during the Old Kingdom. Sneferu’s son Khufu later built the Great Pyramid of Giza, so some Egyptologists believe the curved pyramid may have been a “test run” for the eventual ancient wonder of the world.
Meanwhile, a dust storm raged at the step pyramid of Djoser, which is part of the Saqqara necropolis, about 30 km from Cairo. The season for sandstorms and the winds that cause them are known as khamasiin-the Arabic word for “fifty” for the 50 days of potential storms.
If anything, these moments only added to the drama and dread of seeing these magnificent structures in person again.
>>Next: Go out to Luxor, Egypt to walk among the kings