The Pyramids Sphinx at Giza

Built on a desert plateau encroached upon by the modern city of Cairo, the pyramids here are the last remaining wonder of the ancient world. They were built as the mausoleums of Pharaohs to help their souls on the path to heaven. Representing more a celebration of life (and a desire for life to continue) than a preoccupation with death, they were constructed by thousands of artisans (not slaves as previously imagined) mindful of their part in the creation of something extraordinary.

Completed around 2600 BC, the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) is the oldest pyramid at Giza, and the largest (146.5m high). Although there isn't much to see inside, climbing the steep, narrow passage to the heart of the pyramid is an unforgettable, if intensely claustrophobic, experience. The neighbouring Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren) was built by Khufu's son. In deference to his father, he built a slightly smaller pyramid but located it on higher ground, giving the impression of greater size. Part of the original smooth limestone cladding, which once covered the entire structure, still remains. At a height of 62m, the Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus) is the smallest of the three pyramids; it was built by Khafre's son, Menkaure, from blocks of granite floated along the Nile from Aswan.

Known in Arabic as Abu al-Hol (Father of Terror) and guarding the Pyramid of Khafre, the Sphinx is carved from a single piece of wind-eroded limestone. It has the face of a man - perhaps that of Khafre - and the body of a lion. It was buried by sand several times since it was built in 2500 BC, and Napoleon's army shot off its nose (now in the British


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The pyramids of Giza are so iconic as to defy description. They have been puzzled over and plundered, visited and studied for 4000 years and yet their attraction continues unabated. Not that all spectators have been equally admiring of them. 'Just compare', wrote Frontinus, superintendent of Roman aqueducts, 'this vital aqueduct network [with] those useless pyramids.'

If the Romans were bemused by the apparent redundancy of the pyramids, 16th-century Islamic caliphs understood their spiritual power...and tried to tear them down. Napoleon two centuries later understood their political power...and used them for target practice. The renowned 19th-century traveller, Clarke, understood their aesthetic power, declaring that 'no-one ever approached them under other emotions than those of terror'...and then raced his friend to the top of Cheops.

The changing and dynamic relationship of spectator and pyramid over the centuries - the theories about why and wherefore, the speculations of divine intervention and apocalyptic foreboding - ensure that the pyramids fulfil their function of keeping alive the names of a father (Khufu), his son (Kahfre) and grandson (Menkaure). This is the real wonder of these remarkable mausoleums.

Museum) in the 19th century. Despite these 'mishaps', it remains one of the most evocative monuments of the ancient world.

The necropolis of Giza, which includes valley temples, causeways and satellite pyramids, is open from 7am to 7.30pm daily. There's a general admission fee of E£60/30 per adult/ student, and extra charges to enter each of the three pyramids. Entry to the Great Pyramid costs E£150/75 per adult/student, payable in Egyptian pounds. Only 300 tickets are sold per day. These go on sale at 8am and 1pm at the ticket box in front of the pyramid and the queue forms early. Entry to the other two pyramids costs, respectively, E£30/15 and E£25/15 per adult/student, and tickets are obtained from the booth in front of each pyramid. Useful background information is available at, an official antiquities website.

Horses, donkeys or camels are available for rides near the pyramids. Rates range from E£10 per hour for a donkey to E£30 for a carriage. Aggressive attempts for your custom can spoil the moment and baksheesh is expected for any animal photos, whether you want a camel in your composition or not.

Beside the Great Pyramid are five pits that once contained the Pharaoh's funerary barques. One of these wooden vessels was unearthed in 1954 and forms the centrepiece of the Solar Barque Museum (adult/student E£35/20; ® 9am-4pm).

The nightly sound-and-lightshow (s 3863469;; adult/child E£60/30; S 6.30pm, 7.30pm & 8.30pm) provides a magical introduction to the pyramids, despite the crowds. Three performances in a variety of languages take place nightly below the sphinx. Check the website for the schedule.

Bus 355/357, marked 'CTA', runs from Heli-opolis to the Pyramids via Midan Tahrir every 20 minutes. It costs E£2 and takes 45 minutes. For the return journey, buses and minibuses pick up from the junction of Pyramids Rd and the desert road to Alexandria, about 100m east of the Oberoi Mena House Hotel.

It costs about E£20 one way for a taxi if you bargain hard.

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