Giza: The Mysteries of The Pyramids & The Sphinx

Last Updated on: 21st March 2023, 02:37 am

So many aspects of the Giza Plateau are shrouded in mystery. The 4th Dynasty pyramids represent the apex of Egyptian engineering. But they were built quite early on in Egypt’s history. For the next few thousand years, no successive Egyptian dynasty would ever be able to match them.

The question of how the 4th Dynasty Egyptians were able to construct these perfect pyramids remains far from settled. As does the question of how all three were supposedly built in such a short span of time. Unsurprisingly, all sorts of outlandish theories have been concocted to explain the pyramids’ existence. But are the official explanations any more plausible?

In the following guide to the Giza Plateau, we’ll cover the basics of making your way around the site and the main highlights to see. And along the way, we’ll be going over both the conventional theories about the pyramids and the Sphinx in addition to some noteworthy alternative ones. (And no, we won’t be talking about aliens!)

Visiting Giza

Giza needs at least a full day to fully appreciate. For some reason, many visitors only spend half a day here as part of a guided tour. But this is what you came all the way to Egypt for, right? In fact, even a full day isn’t enough. Yet another visit is recommended to see the hidden gems spread throughout the plateau, which you can read more about here.

TICKETS: Entry to the Giza Plateau costs 200 EGP. Entering inside the Great Pyramid of Khufu costs 400, while entry to the Pyramid of Khafre (or Menkaure – whichever is open) costs 100 EGP. The Solar Boat Mueseum costs 100 EGP and the tomb of Meresankh costs 50 EGP. 

Buying a Cairo Pass is highly recommended, as it grants you access to all the sites on the Giza Plateau along with everything else in the Greater Cairo Area (learn more below).

RECOMMENDED ROUTE: There are two entrances at Giza – one to the north and one to the east by the Sphinx. The following route begins at the entrance near the Sphinx.

Entering by the Sphinx, be sure to walk around to the left to get to the Valley Temple. You can ONLY get to the Sphinx viewing platform through the Valley Temple of Khafre.

Next, head over to the Great Pyramid. Admire the pyramid and if you have the ticket, enter inside (highly recommended). Visit the adjacent Queens’ Pyramids along with some nearby tombs. Then visit the Solar Boat Museum.

When finished, walk over to the Pyramid of Khafre. Explore the mortuary temple and enter inside if you have the ticket (also highly recommended).

Then walk over to the Pyramid of Menkaure, exploring the nearby mortuary temple. From there, it’s an easy walk to the pyramid alignment viewpoint in the middle of the desert. When finished, head back to the entrance, enjoying some of the southern tombs along the way.

GENERAL TIPS: The site is open from 8:00 – 16:00 in the winter and from 7:00 – 17:00 in warmer months. I recommend staying as close as possible to the pyramids and getting there right as they open. That way, you’ll have a couple of hours to explore before the tour groups arrive. Check below for tips on getting to Giza and where to stay.

If at all possible, avoid the Egyptian weekend (Friday and Saturday). I visited twice, on a Friday and a Sunday, and they were vastly different experiences. Thousands of local families show up on the weekends, making the pyramid complex feel more like a raucous amusement park.

Also, be sure to bring plenty of snacks and water, as there are no food vendors on site.

The Valley Temple of Khafre

For many, the so-called ‘Valley Temple of Khafre’ is the very first Egyptian monument they’ll visit. Yet in a number of ways, it’s quite unlike anything else in Egypt.

The temple is unique for the massive size of its core blocks. While huge blocks were later used for statues, obelisks and columns, they weren’t used again for ordinary temple walls. And despite the blocks being so huge, they seem to form a complicated jigsaw pattern.

Valley Temple of Khafre Giza
Valley Temple of Khafre Giza

The stones were quarried from the bedrock surrounding the Sphinx and show obvious signs of weathering. Not only are the blocks huge, but the weathering patterns are unique to Giza.

Before entering the temple, take a walk along the temple’s eastern side. You’ll pass by the adjacent ‘Sphinx Temple’ which has long been inaccessible to the public. 

Peaking through the metal bars, you can get an excellent view of the Sphinx. Notice here too the massive size of the weathered limestone blocks.  

Sphinx Giza
Valley Temple of Khafre Giza

Originally, this temple would’ve had oblong colonnades with an alabaster floor. The Sphinx was perhaps intended to be viewed from this temple. And remarkably, red granite was discovered as far as 16.5 m below the temple surface.

And speaking of granite, take note of the curvy blocks of granite on the ground outside. What purpose did they serve? And how did the ancient Egyptians effortlessly carve these shapes from one of the hardest stones? 

Valley Temple of Khafre Giza

Back over on the south side of the Valley Temple of Khafre, you can find a couple more of these mysterious contoured blocks. Engineer Christopher Dunn, author of Lost Technology of Ancient Egypt, examined one of the blocks and found remarkable consistency along the radius.

‘This presents a bit of a conundrum,’ he writes, ‘for there are no tools whatsoever in the ancient Egyptians’ toolbox that can be used to replicate what has been crafted in igneous rock, and which imposes its majesty on our consciousness.’

Valley Temple of Khafre Giza
Valley Temple of Khafre Giza

Near the temple entrance, you’ll see how the rough limestone of the temple core has been partially dressed with blocks of red granite. Interestingly, it seems like some of the granite casing blocks were shaped to fit the erosion patterns on the limestone!

Valley Temple of Khafre Giza

Inside the temple, the rough limestone disappears. The interior has been entirely lined with smooth red granite.

Notice how the joints of the massive blocks curve around the corners. This was possibly done for symbolic reasons. It may be due to the fact that there are no right angle joints found in nature. And the Egyptians viewed their temples as something organic or alive

It was around here that 19th-century Egyptologist Auguste Mariette discovered the famous diorite statue of Pharaoh Khafre, strangely buried upside down (pictured further down below).

Valley Temple of Khafre Giza
Valley Temple of Khafre Giza

In the main T-shaped hall, there are around thirteen smooth granite pillars weighing between 10 and 18 tons. This would’ve only been the first floor of a two-story temple.

Yet again, these massive blocks, entirely void of carvings or inscriptions, are unlike anything you’ll encounter in Egypt. One exception would be the Osireion at Abydos. Though often attributed to the New Kingdom ruler Seti I or his son, many believe it was built around the same time as this Valley Temple.

Valley Temple of Khafre Giza

As you walk around, notice the irregularity of the granite blocks. Despite their varying size and shape, they somehow manage to fit perfectly in place. Strangely, one of the large blocks happens to be black diorite – but why?

In contrast to the granite, the floor is entirely comprised of alabaster – a stone commonly used for temple floors in Egypt. As alabaster is a softer stone, we can surmise that the Egyptians chose which stones to use and where for symbolic rather than practical reasons.

When finished, you’ll exit out a long narrow passage. The ramp will take you right beside the enclosure of the Sphinx

The Sphinx

It’s quite the experience to exit out the Valley Temple and come face to face with such an iconic image. The Sphinx has captured the world’s imagination for millennia, with some calling it the largest and greatest sculpture ever made.

While the true significance of the Sphinx remains a mystery, it’s long been believed to be a solar symbol. Throughout the remainder of Egyptian civilization, it was commonplace for pharaohs to carve sphinx sculptures of themselves. But something on the scale of the original would never be attempted again.

Sphinx Giza

The Sphinx was carved out of a single ridge of limestone that’s 73 m long and 20 m high. It varies in hardness, especially around the head, which is harder than the rest of the rock. 

As such, the head has a different texture from the body and shows less erosion. Sadly, the face was damaged due to Mamluk soldiers using it as target practice.

Sphinx Giza
Khafre Statue
The statue of Khafre found at the Valley Temple

But who carved the Sphinx, and who is the face supposed to represent? According to most Egyptologists, the Sphinx was the work of Khafre, the pharaoh behind the middle and second-largest pyramid of the Giza Plateau. As mentioned above, the nearby Valley Temple is attributed to Khafre as well.

But how do we know this? First of all, there was the Khafre statue discovered in the Valley Temple, along with an additional Sphinx statue of him.

Additionally, the ‘Dream Stele,’ placed in front of the Sphinx much later by Thutmosis IV, supposedly mentions Khafre. But we only have the first hieroglyph of his name. The rest of the sentence has flaked away, leaving us without any context.

Lastly, Egyptologists claim that the face of the Sphinx resembles Khafre, though this is a hotly debated issue. Many feel it hardly resembles him at all, but the lack of a nose on the Sphinx makes this a tough one to judge.

Weathering on the side of the Sphinx - along with some shoddy restoration work

Notably, however, an inscription called ‘The Inventory Stele‘ mentions Khafre’s predecessor, Khufu, ordering a temple to be built alongside the Sphinx. This clearly indicates that the Sphinx was there before Khafre. The stele, however, dates to the 26th Dynasty, thousands of years after the 4th Dynasty. 

It was fairly common among later Egyptian dynasties to faithfully reproduce much more ancient texts, such as the Famine Stele at Aswan. Nevertheless, many Egyptologists accuse the 26th Dynasty scribes of embellishing the truth.

Sphinx Giza

In the early days of Egytology, the Sphinx was presumed to be older than the pyramids because of the simple fact that it looks much older.

The erosion patterns of the Sphinx cannot be found at any other temple or structure in Egypt. In fact, the patterns on the Sphinx itself, along with the rock face around it, very much resemble erosion patterns caused by water. Geologists such as Robert Schoch argue that this is the case, but not without tremendous controversy.

If the Sphinx was eroded by water, it would need to be placed in a period of history which long predates Egyptian civilization. Or any other civilization that we know of, for that matter.

Sphinx Giza
A view of the Sphinx Temple from the other side

Given the last time rainfall was a regular occurrence in Egypt, the Sphinx would need to be at least 10,000 years old for it to have been weathered by falling water. 

But the Sphinx having been weathered by wind and sand is no more plausible an idea. If that were the case, why don’t we see similar weathering patterns at 3rd Dynasty monuments in Saqqara, for example?

Furthermore, the Sphinx was buried under sand throughout much of its history, protecting it from the wind. It’s estimated that if left unattended, the entire enclosure would get filled up with sand in a couple of decades. 

As such, the Sphinx enclosure needed to be cleared away on multiple occasions throughout Egyptian history.

The temple of Amenhotep III

One notable excavation was carried out by Thutmosis IV in the 14th century BC. This action largely helped him legitimize his claim to the throne following the death of his father, Amenhotep II. 

During your visit, you’ll see another temple over on the opposite (northern) end. The temple was finished by Thutmosis’s son, Amenhotep III, possibly in dedication to his father. Thutmosis IV’s ‘Dream Stele’ is still there in front of the Sphinx, but the area is off-limits to the general public.

One wonders that if the Khafre statue had never been found, would Egyptologists be attributing the Sphinx to Thutmosis IV? Clearly, the ancient Egyptians had a long tradition of renovating much older monuments. Could this also have been the case with Khafre?

Exiting the Sphinx enclosure, the mysteries and wonder of the Giza Plateau are only just beginning.

The Great Pyramid of Khufu

The Great Pyramid is arguably the world’s most famous man-made structure. At over 4,500 years old, it’s the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and it’s also the only one still intact. Standing at 147 meters high, it was the world’s tallest structure up until the Lincoln Cathedral was completed in 1311. 

It’s comprised of around 2.3 million limestone blocks, each weighing around 2.5 tons. The inner chambers, however, are made of granite shipped all the way from Aswan.

Great Pyramid of Giza
Great Pyramid of Giza
Great Pyramid of Giza

The intensive planning and labor required to carry out such a project are difficult to wrap one’s head around. Even with our modern technology, it’s highly doubtful that we’d be able to replicate the Great Pyramid today. And judging from what survives in the archaeological record, the Egyptians had little more than ropes, pulleys and copper chisels to work with.

If a civilization managed to build such a massive and precise monument with only primitive tools, it must’ve taken them centuries of continuous work to pull off, right? Well, not quite, according to prominent Egyptologists like Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass.

The official explanation is that construction was entirely carried out within the reign of Pharaoh Khufu, which may have been as short as 24 years (2589–2566 BC)!

Danish civili engineer P. Garde-Hanson calculated that for such a project to have been carried out within Khufu’s reign, blocks would have to be set at a rate of 6.67 per minute!

Numerous researchers have proposed theories about how the Great Pyramid and its neighboring pyramids were built. Many of these theories involve ramps – either straight or spiral ramps which wrap around the structure. However, it’s been estimated that the ramps necessary to do the job would be just as cumbersome as the pyramid itself. Furthermore, no evidence of such a ramp exists on site.

Great Pyramid of Giza
Khufu Statue
Ironically, despite being credited with the ancient world's largest monument, nothing but a miniature statuette of Khufu has ever been found. And it wasn't discovered at Giza, but at Abydos.

Over 4,500 years later, we still don’t know how the Great Pyramid was built. And the question of why is also up for serious debate. The Great Pyramid of Giza is claimed by Egyptologists to be a tomb. Yet unlike the pyramids of the 3rd, 5th, 6th and later dynasties, the 4th Dynasty pyramids lack writing or inscriptions of any kind, a feature so typical of Egyptian tombs.

Herodotus (albeit 2,000 years later) wrote that Khufu was a tyrannical megalomaniac. This is a theory echoed by many Egyptologists today. But if so, why didn’t Khufu leave his name all over the project? 

Only some crude graffiti in one of the hidden upper ‘relief’ chambers containing Khufu’s name was found. But as evidenced by the recent finding of the Diary of Merer, which documents the transport of limestone blocks between Tura and Giza during Khufu’s reign, there’s no doubt that he was involved in construction on the Giza plateau.

But again, if the pyramid was simply a tomb or a monument to the pharaoh’s ego, why did he leave it so anonymous?

Great Pyramid of Giza

While we don’t have any conclusive answers to the above questions, there’s one aspect of the Great Pyramid that cannot be disputed: its measurements.

Some fascinating discoveries have been made regarding the dimensions of the Great Pyramid that can’t be brushed off as mere coincidence. One of the earliest remarks we have about this in writing comes from the Ptolemaic period. 

In the 2nd century BC, Greek historian and geographer Agatharchides noted the geodesic qualities (the science of measuring the Earth’s size and shape) of the Great Pyramid. He noted that the length of one side of the pyramid’s base was 1/8 minute of degree of latitude of the earth at the equator. Meanwhile, the pyramid’s height represented 1/10 of a degree.

During the early 20th century, at the height of the pyramid craze in the West, many scientists and researchers were eager to test these findings for themselves. But first, much of the debris and sand around the pyramid needed to be cleared away before accurate measurements could be taken.

In 1926, American engineer J.H. Cole finally managed to take accurate measurements of the Great Pyramid after much of the debris had been cleared. And thanks to his survey, numerous other researchers could make use of the numbers to dig deeper into the pyramid’s secrets. 

Notable among them was professor Livio Stecchini. Amazingly, he found the Great Pyramid to be an accurate representation of the Northern Hemisphere of the Earth at a scale of 1:43,200!

This proves that the ancient Egyptians were aware of the exact measurements of the Earth from the very beginning of their civilization. Stecchini also argues that the placement of the pyramid demonstrates that the Egyptians had intimate knowledge of the procession of the equinoxes.

Though the pyramid today appears rough from up close, it exterior was once perfectly smooth and white. It was covered in around 115,000 casing stones. Each weighed at least ten tons, but they were set so close to one another that a piece of paper couldn’t fit between the cracks.

During your visit, be sure to walk around the pyramid and look down to see some of the surviving casing stones. Notice the extreme precision with which they were placed. Again, we must ask, if blocks were being set at such a dizzying pace (over 6 per minute!), how was such accuracy achieved?

Until we can create a replica of the pyramid – even on a smaller scale – these questions are nowhere close to being answered.

Great Pyramid of Giza

On the east side of the pyramid, you can see a large platform entirely made of basalt. The igneous rock, which likely symbolized the fiery aspect of nature, was commonly used as the flooring for Egyptian funerary temples.

Meanwhile, on the southern side is Khufu’s Solar Boat Museum, which we’ll cover down below. But for now, let’s head to the north side and into the pyramid itself.

(Note: Entry to the Great Pyramid costs 400 EGP and the ticket must be purchased upon entry to the Giza Plateau. If you already have the Cairo Pass, simply show it to the guards and they will let you in.)

Inside the Great Pyramid

The current entrance used by visitors isn’t the pyramid’s original entrance. It’s the one that was forced open by Al Mamun, Caliph of Cairo. The original entrance is higher up and over to the left.

(While cellphone photography is fine, the Great Pyramid has a very strict ‘no camera’ policy. This is the only place in Egypt where they searched my bag and made me leave my camera at the entrance.)

After walking through Al Mamun’s roughly carved tunnel, you’ll arrive at an ascending passageway set at an angle of 26 degrees. The ceiling is too low to stand up in, and you’ll need to crouch down on your way up. All the 4th Dynasty pyramids, in fact, are like this.

This makes them distinct from known pyramid tombs, which had ample space for moving a sarcophagus/coffin as well as for funerary rites. There’s no way a proper funeral could’ve taken place within such a narrow passage. 

Continuing the ascent, you’ll eventually enter what’s known as the Grand Gallery – arguably the most controversial section of the Great Pyramid’s interior.

The Grand Gallery is 48 m long and rises up around 8.5 m. And it gradually shrinks from 1.6 m wide at the bottom to 1 m wide at top. A ramp now helps visitors make their way up the floor, which is otherwise completely smooth.

One especially peculiar aspect of the gallery is the series of 14 notches on either side. Nobody’s quite sure what their purpose was.

Inside Great Pyramid
Inside Great Pyramid
Inside Great Pyramid

For centuries, many have speculated that the Great Pyramid originally functioned as some kind of astronomical observatory. In the 4th century AD, Neoplatonic philosopher Proclus wrote that the pyramid was an observatory before it was eventually completed.

Had this been the case, some speculate that the Grand Gallery would’ve been where ancient stargazers looked up at the sky. Supposedly, the narrow corbelled walls would’ve played a role in marking astronomical phenomenon, and perhaps the notches marked something as well. Of course, such a theory is impossible to prove.

Moving on, just before the main King’s Chamber, you’ll have to pass through a small passageway. Notably, the passageway is too small for the sarcophagus within the chamber to fit. This means the sarcophagus had to be placed in the chamber before the pyramid was completed. 

Behind you in the passageway is a small nub protruding from the granite rock. The builders would’ve had to painstakingly carve all around it, so it was definitely created with some purpose in mind. We’re still not quite sure what it means, yet similar protuberances can be spotted at ancient stone monuments all throughout the world.

The King’s Chamber was constructed entirely from granite brought from Aswan, over 900 km away. The walls are formed from exactly 100 blocks, each of which has a different dimension. The ceiling, meanwhile, is made up of 9 huge blocks, some of which weigh up to 50 tons.

The floor measures 10.5 x 5.2 meters, or 20 x 10 Egyptian cubits, while the ceiling is 5.8 m high. The diagonal of the floor is equivalent to √5, and the room’s height is one half the length of the floor’s diagonal. Notably, the formula the Golden Section, or Phi (Φ), is ½ (1 + √5). 

The measurements of the King’s Chamber tell us that the Egyptians were well aware of Phi, a ratio which appears all throughout nature. Nevertheless, it’s the ancient Greeks who often get the credit for being the first to study it.

Sitting at the edge of the room is the granite sarcophagus. One corner of it is badly damaged while no traces of a lid have ever been found. And as is the case with the other 4th Dynasty pyramids, there’s no evidence of a burial here, either.

Given the pyramid’s popularity, there’s a seemingly endless flow of tourists coming in and out of the chamber at all hours. But by sheer luck, I somehow managed to experience a full minute or two in the chamber entirely alone. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

Inside Great Pyramid
Inside Great Pyramid
Inside Great Pyramid

Also within the chamber, on the north and south walls, notice the ventilation holes which extend all the way to the outside. The pyramid, therefore, seems to have been designed with the idea of people staying inside it for long periods of time. 

It’s unknown, however, if the vents would’ve pierced through the original casing stones. It’s also possible they were placed for purely symbolic reasons.

Inside Great Pyramid
Inside Great Pyramid

There’s plenty more within the Great Pyramid which is currently off-limits to visitors. Above the King’s Chamber are a series of chambers that may have been implemented to ease stress on the roof. As mentioned earlier, the uppermost level contains graffiti of Khufu’s name in a cartouche.

Back at the point where the ascending passageway links with the Grand Gallery is the locked entrance to the so-called Queen’s Chamber. In contrast to the King’s Chamber, the Queen’s Chamber is made of limestone and has a gabled roof. 

Also nearby is a grotto which connects with a subterranean chamber located well beneath the pyramid’s base. And to this day, research is being carried out to see whether there are even more chambers or passageways that we’ve somehow missed.

The Queens' Pyramids

To the east are three smaller pyramids, collectively referred to as the Queens’ Pyramids. When Herodotus visited the site, locals told him a legend that Khufu’s daughter prostituted herself to help fund the pyramid project, collecting a block of stone from each customer. 

Supposedly, the collected stone was used to build one of these pyramids. It’s more than likely, however, that this was just an old wive’s tale that circulated during Ptolemaic times. By then, the pyramids were already quite ancient.

Nowadays, two of the three pyramids can be entered by visitors, though there isn’t a whole lot to see inside. As I wasn’t asked to show a ticket, I presume that entry to these smaller pyramids is free.

Casing stones on the Pyramid of Henutsen
The ruins of the Isis temple where the Inventory Stele was discovered

The southernmost of them is the only one that can’t be entered, but it’s the best preserved from the outside. It’s attributed to one of Khufu’s wives Henutsen, about whom we know little. Remarkably, much of the casing stone remains intact.

Pyramid of Queen Meritites
Pyramid of Queen Meritites

The middle pyramid belongs to another wife of Khufu, Meritites. The pyramid looks rough from the outside but the original limestone pyramidion  has been reassembled and is on display out front.

The interior of the chamber consists of undecorated limestone. While there’s not a lot to see inside, it makes for an interesting visit nonetheless.

Pyramid of Queen Hetepheres
Pyramid of Queen Hetepheres
Queen Hetepheres Tomb
The alabaster sarcophagus of Queen Hetepheres

The most notable of the three, at least historically speaking, is the pyramid of Hetepheres to the north. Hetepheres was the mother of Khufu and the wife of Sneferu, builder of no less than three pyramids at Meidum and Dahshur.

While there’s little to see inside today, the Queen’s funerary assemblage was found here intact in the 1920s. It’s now on display at the Cairo Museum. The collection also includes the queen’s throne and a beautiful alabaster sarcophagus. It was discovered empty, but the queen’s intestinal organs were found in canopic jars, suggesting a double burial.

Also found was a collection of everyday items and jewelry. (Sadly, the lights were completely turned off in the display case during my trip to the museum.)

The Solar Boat Museum

Over on the south side of the pyramid is a museum entirely dedicated to a complete, 37-meter long boat that was found in a pit next to the pyramid. But what was a boat doing buried in the desert?

There was likely an intricate canal system linking Giza with the Nile in those times, and it may have been the boat Khufu used while he was alive. Nevertheless, boats played an important symbolic role in ancient Egypt.

It was believed, at least metaphorically, that the soul of the resurrected king would sail on a solar barque up to the heavens to be unified with Re. As you’ll see in Luxor, boats were a common motif all throughout the royal tombs of later dynasties.

Giza Solar Boat Museum
Great Pyramid of Giza
A 'boat pit' nearby the pyramid

Before arriving at the boat itself, you’ll pass by original pieces of rope discovered in the pit. The boat was comprised of various pieces of wood that were shaped together like a jigsaw puzzle and held together by internally sewn rope. The wet wood would swell and the wet rope would shrink, resulting in a very tight fit.

The museum was built over the original pit where the boat was found. But you can also see many more such pits outside during your explorations of the Giza Plateau.

Giza Solar Boat Museum
Giza Solar Boat Museum
Giza Solar Boat Museum

Eventually, you’ll arrive in the room containing the reassembled boat itself. It’s amazing to think that it dates back to over 4,500 years ago. In fact, this is widely considered to be the oldest intact ship ever found.

Great Pyramid of Giza

The Pyramid of Khafre

Pharaoh Khafre (also known as Chephren), who reigned from 2520-2494 BC, is credited with Giza’s central and second-largest pyramid. As mentioned above, he’s also believed by many to have carved the Sphinx. (Notably, Khafre’s older brother, Djedefere, was the one to directly succeed Khufu. But he built at nearby Abu Rowash instead of at Giza.)

At 136 meters, the pyramid is just 3 meters shorter than the Great Pyramid. However, it looks even taller, having been built on a higher plateau.

The pyramid is angled at 53°10′, forming a perfect 3:4:5 triangle. But the dimensions and potential geodesic significance of Khafre’s pyramid haven’t been scrutinized nearly as closely as those of the Great Pyramid. 

Pyramid of Khafre
Pyramid of Khafre

What’s unique about the pyramid is that many of the casing stones at the top remain in place. As with the Great Pyramid, you can still find some of the original casing stones around the base as well. Most were made of limestone, but some were even made of granite.

Khafre Statue
Khafre accompanied by Horus
Pyramid of Khafre

On the pyramid’s south side you’ll find the ruins of Khafre’s mortuary temple. References to Khafre have been found at this funerary complex, while Herodotus also credits Khafre with this pyramid. But otherwise, the pyramid is largely anonymous. 

The temple is linked with the Sphinx and the Valley Temple by a long causeway. The huge blocks here also resemble parts of the Valley Temple in terms of their size and weathering patterns. It was originally two stories, and there are even parts where you can climb up to the second floor. 

On my second visit to the Giza Plateau, I arrived early in the morning before the tour groups arrived. I had this whole temple area all to myself for a good while, and it turned out to be one of my most memorable experiences in Egypt. 

If you have time to take things slowly, be sure to walk around the rubble nearby the temple ruins where you’ll surely make some interesting finds. 

One of the remarkable aspects of Khafre’s pyramid that often gets overlooked is the fact that it sits in an enclosure entirely dug out of the bedrock. 

Furthermore, the whole complex sits on a flooring of platform made of countless gigantic paving blocks – an amazing engineering accomplishment in itself.

Pyramid of Khafre
Pyramid of Khafre

While the western area of the pyramid is, for some reason, technically off-limits, head over and explore if no guards are around. There are tombs and caverns carved into the bedrock while there are plenty more interesting stones lying around the enclosure space.

Inside the Pyramid of Khafre

The pyramid has two entrances (both original), with one having been placed directly above the other. The entrance visitors use today is the upper one. You will descend at a gentle slope into a horizontal passageway, taking you directly into the main chamber. 

As similar as the Great Pyramid and the Pyramid of Khafre appear from the outside, their interiors have a remarkably different layout as well as atmosphere.

Inside Pyramid of Khafre
Inside Pyramid of Khafre

The inner chamber is lined with limestone and sits under a gabled roof. One of the first things you’ll notice is the graffiti left by Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni, who entered the chamber in 1818. The graffiti itself is now something of a relic.

Inside Pyramid of Khafre
Inside Pyramid of Khafre

Unlike the sarcaphogus of the Great Pyramid, this one is largely undamaged and it even has its lid intact. But no body or any trace of a burial was ever found inside.

When Christopher Dunn got the chance to examine the inside of the sarcophagus, he was astounded by what he discovered. Using his precision-grade tools, he found the sides of the box’s interior to be perfectly flat and square – carved to the same level of accuracy one would expect from a modern manufacturing company.

During my visit, I didn’t get the alone time I experienced at the Great Pyramid. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to hang out inside for as long as possible. This chamber certainly has a power to it that can’t be clearly described in words. Only the sudden arrival of a large group of schoolchildren prompted me to head back outside!

The Pyramid of Menkaure

The Pyramid of Menkaure (also known as Mycerinus), who ruled from 2490-2472 BC, is often seen as the runt of the group. It’s just half as high as the other two pyramids. And being further out in the desert means it gets fewer visitors.

But there are some interesting and unique features to this pyramid that make it well worth checking out. (The interior of the the pyramid was closed during my visit. It supposedly only opens up for months out of the year, alternating with Khafre’s pyramid.)

Menkaure Statue
The triad statues of Menkaure

Menkaure was the son of Khafre and the grandon of Khufu. As with the other two, we know relatively little about his life and reign.

During your visit to the Cairo Museum, be sure to look for the outstanding statues of him carved from schist. Four have been found, all of which show Menkaure accompanied by Hathor and a local goddess of the Bat nome in Middle Egypt. Menkaure wears the crown of Upper Egypt in each.

Pyramid of Menkaure

Getting up close to the pyramid, you’ll immediately notice something that sets it apart from others. The bottom of its exterior is entirely lined with red granite casing stones, while the (now) bare upper half was supposedly dressed in limestone.

Pyramid of Menkaure

What’s especially peculiar is that some parts have been smoothed down while other sections remain rough. In some areas, you can see a striking transition between the two phases, as if the workers suddenly walked off the job one day.

Pyramid of Menkaure
Pyramid of Menkaure
Pyramid of Menkaure

Menkaure’s mortuary complex is also well worth exploring and it could be considered a hidden gem of the Giza Plateau. As with Khafre’s temple and the structures near the Sphinx, it’s largely comprised of huge and weathered limestone blocks.

But some parts were also lined with granite blocks, much like Khafre’s Valley Temple. There are also some pillared corridors in addition to a wide open courtyard.

Pyramid of Menkaure
Pyramid of Menkaure
Pyramid of Menkaure

To the south of the pyramid are three small pyramids, unfinished, supposedly belonging to Menkaure’s queens. Unlike those nearby the Great Pyramid, these cannot be entered by tourists.

Pyramid of Menkaure
Pyramid of Menkaure

Southeast of Menkaure’s pyramid complex are a number of tombs. While probably not officially open to the public, you can head inside some of them for a peak if no staff are around. Just don’t expect to find any treasures.

After exploring the Menkaure pyramid, you can walk over to the famous pyramid alignment viewpoint in the middle of the desert.

The Giza Pyramid Viewpoint

The place to see the three pyramids in alignment is about a ten minute walk south, and slightly west, of Menkaure’s pyramid. Notice the three pyramids of Menkaure’s queens in the photo below to get a good idea of where to stand. 

You should see a crowd of people (and camels) already there in the distance, so just walk over and join them.

Giza Pyramid Viewpoint

All throughout your time at Giza, you’ll be approached by countless camel and horse riders offering to take you to this ‘secret’ viewpoint. Be careful, as they’re notorious for scamming unsuspecting tourists.

It’s quite common for them to change the original price, claiming that that price you agreed on was just for one way. They may even suddenly change the price from Egyptian pounds to dollars! 

If you refuse to pay, they might also refuse to let you down, and I even saw this happen in person as I explored the plateau. Not wanting to deal with these people, I walked all the way to the viewpoint on foot which turned out to be no problem at all.

Additionally, you can get a great view of the pyramids at an equal distance from one another from Gebel Ghibli hill, nearby the modern cemetery to the southeast of the pyramids.

Giza Pyramid Viewpoint
Giza Pyramid Viewpoint

Additional Info

I highly recommend staying as close as possible to the Giza pyramids and getting there just as the site opens in the morning. There are plenty of hotel options accessible from the entrance on foot (see below).

But if you’re coming from Cairo, you have a couple of options.

The most hassle-free way would be to take an Uber. I had no problems taking Uber in Cairo (other than horrible traffic and drivers sometimes getting lost). As the price is determined by the app, there’s no haggling or scams you need to be worried about. Just be sure to leave your hotel very early so you don’t get stuck in traffic.

You can also take the metro to Giza Station. But bear in mind that this station is still around a 30-minute drive from the pyramids. So you’ll need to take either a taxi or an Uber from the station. You also need to be on your guard here, as all sorts of ‘friendly’ locals hang out waiting for tourists to scam.

You can also take a public CTA bus. Buses 355 or 357 can take you directly to the pyramids from outside the Abdel Menem Riyad Station near the Egyptian Museum (often just called the Cairo Museum) in Tahrir Square. They leave every 20 minutes or so.

At the time of writing, entry to the Giza Plateau costs 200 EGP. Entry to the Great Pyramid of Khufu costs 400, while entry to the Pyramid of Khafre (or Menkaure – whichever is open) costs 100 EGP.

The Solar Boat Mueseum costs 100 EGP and the Tomb of Meresankh (not covered above) costs 50 EGP. 

Note that if you change your mind while out in the desert, you’ll have to return all the way to the ticket gate at the entrance to purchase new tickets. It’s also unclear if all the different tickets are available at both entrances. Be sure to confirm this at your hotel.

If you plan to visit many ancient sites around Cairo, I recommend buying the Cairo Pass for $100 USD. This allows access to every site in Saqqara, Giza (including everything mentioned above), Dahshur and Memphis. It also allows entry to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and its mummy room, not to mention the sites of Islamic and Coptic Cairo. (Learn more HERE)

As the pass is only valid for 5 consecutive days, there’s no way you can see everything in the greater Cairo area with it. But you’ll likely still save some money after just 3 or 4 days. After my trip, I did the math and found that with everything I saw, I saved around $50 with the Cairo Pass.

Even better is that if you get the Cairo Pass, you can get 50% off the Luxor Pass. This includes the ‘PREMIUM’ Luxor Pass (which allows entry to the Seti I and Nefertari tombs) which normally costs $200. But with the Cairo Pass, you can buy this same ticket for $100!

I visited just about every attraction in Luxor and ended up saving around $200 thanks to having bought the Cairo Pass. That means that with both passes, I saved over $250 in Cairo and Luxor!

Note that the Cairo Pass can only be purchased at Giza and at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (be sure to ask them about it, as signage is nonexistent). Therefore, plan your itinerary accordingly if you want the pass.

To get the Cairo Pass, you’ll need to bring your original passport, a copy of your passport, a passport photo (exact size isn’t so important) and $100 USD in cash. You also need the same for the Luxor Pass which, at the time of writing, can only be purchased in Luxor at Karnak Temple and near the Luxor Museum.

The Greater Cairo Area is home to many of Egypt’s, and the world’s, most impressive sites. The city of Cairo itself, on the other hand, is overwhelming in terms of both traffic and pollution, yet rather underwhelming in regards to tourist attractions. Therefore, I recommend that people stay in Giza and not in Cairo.

I find it puzzling that so many travelers decide to stay in central Cairo and then commute multiple times to reach Giza and Saqqara. For archaeology enthusiasts, it makes much more sense to stay in or near Giza and dedicate 3 or 4 full days to exploring the various pyramid sites. As Saqqara and Dahshur are both south of Giza, which itself is southwest of central Cairo, staying in Giza gives you a big head start for those excursions.

You will want to commute to central Cairo at least once, however, to visit the Egyptian Museum and maybe an additional day for Islamic Cairo.

In regards to where to stay in Giza, you’ll want to stay as close to the entrance as possible so you can arrive right when the site opens. Giza has two entrances: the North Entrance and the Sphinx Entrance. Staying near either one would be fine.

If budget is not a major concern, consider one of Giza’s most prestigious hotels, the Marriott Mena House.

You can also find some excellent mid-range hotels which offer clear views of the plateau. The Hayat Pyramids View Hotel and the Great Pyramid Inn are highly-rated hotels that offer spectacular views while also being right near the ticket gate.

Those on a tighter budget should consider the Abo Stait Pyramid View Homestay. While the bathroom is shared, you’ll stay in a spacious private room with the Sphinx Gate just a few minutes away on foot.

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