The first day of my Essential Egypt tour was undoubtedly the big highlight of any trip to Egypt: exploring the fascinating pyramids. Our visit started in Sakkara, the first capital of Egypt and famous for the unique Step Pyramid built by King Zoser.
After visiting what is considered to be the first pyramids ever constructed, we headed to the only remaining wonder of the ancient world: the Great Pyramids of Giza (Cheops, Chephren and Mycrenos). But, what is it really like to explore one of the most notorious world heritage sites?
How to visit the pyramids
The visit to Sakkara and the Great Pyramids of Giza were the very beginning of my Essential Egypt tour with Travel Talk Tours, which lasted for a total of 9 days and covered the main highlights of Egypt from north to south. You can find the entire itinerary in my post Essential Egypt in 9 days: itinerary, arrival and first impressions of Cairo.
If you’re visiting on your own, which I don’t really recommend as the experience with a guide is unequalled, the best option to visit both Sakkara and the Great Pyramids is to hire a taxi, as public transport isn’t ideal at all in Egypt. Taxis are pretty cheap though, and the concierges at your hotel will be happy to arrange one for you that can include both Sakkara and Giza on the same day.
The entrance fee to visit Sakkara is 150 Egyptian pounds (approx. €8), while the Giza complex costs 160 Egyptian pounds (around the same price). If you want to access the Great Pyramid, that has an additional very inflated fee of 360 Egyptian pounds (approx. €18). I highly recommend accessing one of the smaller pyramids in Sakkara instead, which have a much more impressive decoration and only costs 80 Egyptian pounds (approx. €4).
After an opulent breakfast in the Oasis Hotel Pyramids in Cairo, we boarded our bus for a short 50 minutes drive to Sakkara.
Our first visit would be the Step Pyramid of Sakkara, known to be the very first pyramid ever constructed in Egypt. To my rejoice, the complex was completely empty; our group were the only visitors that we encountered that morning.
The Step Pyramid complex was built around 2700 BC by the King Netjerikhet, also known as Zoser.
The complex is the largest funerary pyramid in the city of Sakkara, the first capital of Ancient Egypt. It is considered an essential phase in the evolution of the royal tombs until they reached the famous pyramid shape that we can see in Giza.
An external 10m high stone wall surrounds the entire complex. It includes an entry courtyard with the Court of Columns, composed of forty columns in two separate rows. It also has an open courtyard with the 60m high Step Pyramid in the middle, the Southern Tomb, the House of the South and the House of the North. Finally, the courtyard of the Heb Sed and its chapels, with the Funerary Temple and the shaft room.
The Step Pyramid of Sakkara is the first ever built pyramid. It was accessed for the first time by Heinrich von Minutoli in 1821, and it was later excavated until 1935.
The purpose of the pyramid went beyond being just a tomb, it was built to allow the king to have a successful afterlife. Its particular step shape, which didn’t survive the 3rd Dynasty, is said to represent a crown in a shape that would enable the ascension of the king to the sky.
One of the highlights of Sakkara is visiting the interior of a very richly decorated tomb in one of the smaller pyramids.
This complex, known as the Funerary Complex of King Unas, was built for the last king of the Fifth Dynasty around 2350 BC. It is formed by all the components of the royal funerary complex: a pyramid, the mortuary temple, the ascending passage and the Valley Temple.
While many tourists prefer accessing the interior of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the truth is that there’s not much to see inside. The pyramid in Sakkara is a much better option if you want to see what a tomb and the interior of a pyramid really looked like.
The interior of the pyramid is accessed from a very narrow descending corridor. The interior is divided into three sections: a hall in the middle, three small stores and the burial or funerary chamber.
The inside of just breathtaking, with walls completely covered in hieroglyphs and rich paintings that have remained intact for thousands of years. These are religious texts that help the deceased King in his resurrection, guiding him to reach the sun god Ra in the sky.
Some sections of the walls have been carved so delicately that the drawings can’t be seen by the naked eye. You will need a torch to create an effect of shadows that will allow you to view the gently carved shapes. An incredible effect that can’t be really understood until you see it by yourself.
Technically, photography is forbidden inside. However, the guards inside will encourage you to take photographs (sometimes hoping to get a tip), so I did take a couple of sneaky pictures, always with no flash, of course.
Great Pyramids of Giza
After plenty of free time to enjoy Sakkara without any other tourists around, we headed back to Cairo for a visit to the most famous monument of Ancient Egypt: the Three Pyramids of Giza.
A 50 minutes ride would bring us to the main entrance of the complex, which already offered an incredible view of the Great Pyramid.
The Giza pyramid complex is an archaeological site composed by three different pyramids built as the necropolis of the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. It includes the three Great Pyramids: Cheops, Chephren and Mykerinos, as well as the famous Great Sphinx and several other cemeteries.
The pyramids were built to keep the remains of the deceased Pharaohs that ruled Ancient Egypt over 4,500 years ago. The pyramids also served as storage of multiple items that the Pharaohs would need in the afterlife, allowing them to reach the new world.
The pyramids have always been surrounded by an aura of mystery, as up until today it isn’t completely certain how they were constructed.
Some very eccentric theories assure that they were built by aliens, but these theories were obviously quickly denied by our guide. According to him, the stones were moved and pilled one on top of the other using large sledges pulled by gangs of workers.
Some other theories believe that the upper stones were put in place with the use of sand and slides. They would create a mountain of sand that would allow them to slide the stones up to that height, once the base of the pyramid had been constructed. The sand would later be removed, leaving the structure to stand on its own. Fascinating, right?
The Three Pyramids of Giza are the only standing monument of the 7 Ancient Wonders of the World, which included the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia (Greece), the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (Turkey), the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (Turkey), the Colossus of Rhodes (Greece) and the Lighthouse of Alexandria, also in Egypt.
After the election of the New 7 Wonders of the Wold in 2014, the Three Pyramids of Giza were granted honorary status. Up until today, they are one of the oldest standing constructions, built over 4,500 years ago.
Being next to such huge and old constructions was a breathtaking experience. Everybody has dreamed at some point of their life of visiting the Great Pyramids of Egypt, and finally seeing them with my own eyes was definitely a dream come true.
However, as it happens with most famous monuments, it also comes with some disappointment. Contrary to Sakkara, the Pyramids of Giza were completely overcrowded by visitors. My trip was at the end of the Ramadan celebrations, so thousands of families and big school groups had also decided to visit the pyramids that day.
While the crowds do not always bother me, it was extremely upsetting to see many tourists climbing the pyramids, even though it is strictly forbidden. Nobody from security seemed to care, as with most things in Egypt, you can do whatever you want as long as you leave a tip to whoever is taking care of the complex.
But if something surprised me about the Pyramids of Giza is that they are located pretty much in the middle of the city. While centuries ago this may have been an isolated spot, nowadays the ever-growing city of Cairo has engulfed the pyramids. If you go to a highpoint, it is possible to see the entire skyline of Cairo without much difficulty.
Our visit gave us plenty of time to wander around the pyramids. The truth is that interesting as they are, they don’t have that much to offer apart from taking great photographs. Our guide gave us the option to access the interior of the Great Pyramid, however, I decided not to join.
From what I heard, the interior of the pyramid is quite disappointing as it is pretty much empty. The pyramid in Sakkara offers a better-decorated interior, so I was happy enough with that. Also, I preferred using the limited time that I had to enjoy the pyramids and taking some photographs instead of spending most of the time queuing up to access the interior. The exorbitant price of 360 Egyptian pounds (approx. €18), three times more expensive than the actual complex of Giza also didn’t help.
After our entire group had gathered together, we were transferred to a viewpoint that offered great views of all 3 pyramids.
One of the most entertaining parts of our visit was the camel ride. Our guide arranged a 20m descent from the viewpoint back to the pyramids and although I was a bit hesitant at first, I ended up joining.
I generally avoid any kind of activities that involve animals for obvious reasons, however, camels in Egypt are in most cases the living fortune of their carers. They are highly valued and, overall, very well treated, at least in Giza.
Riding a camel is definitely not a comfortable experience, but pretty fun nonetheless. The views of the pyramids from the top of the camel were incredible.
If you decide to ride a camel, make sure that you agree on a price in advance. Also ensure whether they’re quoting Egyptian pounds or British pounds, as they may give you what seems a very low value and at the end of the ride say that they were quoting British pounds instead, costing you 20 times more expensive.
The Great Sphinx of Giza
Our last stop in Giza was its famous Sphinx.
Built in limestone, this 20m high statue represents the mythical creature with human head and the body of a lion. The Great Sphinx of Giza is the oldest monumental sculpture in Egypt, and it is believed that its face represents Pharaoh Khafre.
Although greatly restored along the years, the statue is also famous for its missing nose. There are many stories that explain how the nose might have gone missing, including that it was destroyed by cannon balls fired by Napoleon Bonaparte, while some other stories blame the Mamluks or the Arabs.
Not many people know, but the Sphinx is missing a ceremonial pharaonic beard as well that is believed was added years after its construction.
The Great Sphinx of Giza is an iconic symbol of Egypt, and as such, the crowds during my visit were unbearable. The viewing area is quite small for such an important monument, and the hundreds of people screaming pushing and trying to take the famous photo kissing the Sphinx kind of ruined the experience.
Fortunately, this was the only busy place during my entire visit to Egypt!
After visiting the pyramids and the Sphinx, we headed back to our bus and departed to our next destination: Luxor.
Distances in Egypt are immense, and this leg of the trip was especially long: over 8 hours south until we reached the former capital of the country. Don’t forget to bring a good book or otherwise buy mobile data, either at the airport as I did or from your tour guide/Travel Talk representative. You’ll be thankful during the long rides that you’ll encounter pretty much every day!
We finally reached the luxury Steigenberger Nile Palace hotel well past midnight. Next day, we’d explore the West Bank of Luxor, including the spectacular Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, the first female Pharaoh of Egypt.
Travel Talk Tours were kind enough to sponsor part of my trip, but as usual, all opinions are my own.