Everything You NEED to Know About Visiting the Pyramids & SphinxJun 22, 2020
The Pyramids of Giza in Egypt are the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World to survive into the modern era. Everything else has vanished or crumbled or been destroyed by man or nature, yet these massive monuments have stood the test of time and are still standing today.
And take my word on this – these structures are truly awe-inspiring when you’re actually there standing before them in person. No photograph or image can do them justice. Honestly! You really do have to go there and see them for yourself to really understand what people are talking about when they say that Egypt’s Pyramids are incredible.
So in this article I’ll break down talking about the Pyramids and visiting them into several different parts for easier digestion. I’ll start out with some basics, as usual. Then we’ll switch gears and dive into some history. Then we’ll jump back to the present and I’ll walk you through a day trip out to the Pyramids from a logistical and insider perspective.
It’s in this last part where I’ll also get into what to watch out for and tell you about some very common and notorious, albeit very sneaky and cleaver, scams and ripoffs at the Pyramids. But don’t worry – I’ll tell you how to avoid them and make sure you have an amazing time, whether you’re with a group or, God help you, on your own.
Ok let’s start with the basics. It’s important to know right off the bat that when people talk about the Pyramids in Egypt they’re almost always talking about the Pyramids at Giza. Sometimes you might hear people say the Great Pyramids, plural, but they’re really getting that wrong.
Technically there’s just one Great Pyramid and that’s the largest pyramid at Giza known as the Pyramid of Khufu or Cheops, depending on whether you use the ancient Egyptian names or the ancient Greek names. You may hear both and they’re both correct, but I usually prefer to use the ancient Egyptian names for the Pharaohs because, well, those were their real names in their own language.
So Khufu’s pyramid is the oldest and largest of the Pyramids at Giza, and it’s therefore known as the Great Pyramid. But here’s something that might trip you up a little – it doesn’t look like the largest one. The second oldest and second largest is the Pyramid of Khafre – or Chefren as the Greeks later called him – and it actually looks larger both in person and in photographs, but it’s actually 7 feet shorter than the Great Pyramid. That’s because Khafre’s pyramid, the middle one, was built on terrain that was 33 feet higher than the nearby ground on which his father Khufu’s pyramid was built.
Now, originally Khufu’s pyramid (the great one) was 481 feet high, but the capstone on it’s top has been lost so it only sits at a height of 455 feet today. But that’s still 7 feet higher than Khafre’s pyramid, even though, as I said, Khafre’s pyramid sits on a piece of land that’s 33 feet higher, which makes Khafre’s pyramid appear bigger to the eye. It was a kind of clever trick that Khafre played to make his pyramid more prominent without dishonoring his father. Sneaky, huh?
The third primary pyramid you’ll see at Giza is the Pyramid of Menkaure. This one was only built to a height of 215 feet, although it’s down to 204 feet today. The ancient Egyptians evidently had a thing about not showing up their forefathers, but Menkaure also had his own clever way of making his smaller pyramid stand out. He encased much of his pyramid in red granite instead of all white limestone.
So you have these two much more massive structures beside his, but his was mostly red so it still stood out as the most unique. Most of that beautiful red granite was stripped off Menkaure’s pyramid long ago, but there are a few spots on the pyramid where you can still see the original red polished granite preserved and it’s quite amazing to look at.
Now, notice how I said the third “primary” pyramid at Giza. In addition to the three Pharaohs’ pyramids, there are also six additional Queens’ Pyramids at Giza. Three are beside Menkaure’s pyramid and 3 are beside Khufu’s pyramid.
So at Giza there are a grand total of nine pyramids, although you can’t always see all of them in most shots people take of the Pyramids. Later when we talk about the logistics of visiting the Pyramids, I’ll tell you where you can go to get photos of the Pyramids that show all nine in the same shot.
It’s also important to know that the nine pyramids at Giza are not all of the pyramids still standing in Egypt, by far. There are over a hundred pyramids still standing in Egypt today, and many more that did not survive because they either fell apart or were torn down so that their stones could be reused for other building projects over the millennia. But there are a couple more really neat and historically important pyramids that you can visit near the most famous ones at Giza if you have extra time.
If you only have or only want to spend half a day exploring pyramids when you’re in Egypt, then you’ll probably only be able to explore the Pyramids at Giza, which is perfectly ok. If you spend a few hours out at the Giza plateau and see the Pyramids of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure and then call it quits on pyramids so you can move on to other stuff, you’ve done what probably 90-95% of tourists to Egypt do and you’ve seen the biggest and best of the Pyramids of Egypt.
If you have a full day to explore pyramids, though, then after you explore Giza you can head a little further south to two additional areas known as Saqqara and Dashur and see some more unique pyramids. Each of these sites is about a half-hour or so from the other, and they’re usually pretty empty of other tourists, which sometimes means that you have these older pyramids all to yourself when you take the time to visit them.
Now that we’ve broached the topic of pyramids even older than the famous Pyramids of Giza, let’s transition into talking about the history of Egypt’s pyramids and how they came about to begin with.
The beginnings of pyramid tombs are sourced in earlier burial structures in ancient Egypt known as mastabas. The word comes from the Arabic word for bench because they looked like big benches perched out in the desert. They were usually two levels, so imagine a rectangular wedding cake with only two layers to get an idea of what these mastabas looked like.
Then along came a Pharaoh named Djoser in the Third Dynasty who had a brilliant advisor named Imhotep. Imhotep functioned as Djoser’s Prime Minister but he also moonlighted as his architect, chief scientist, and all around court genius.
Imhotep had the novel idea to add even more layers to his boss Djoser’s mastaba. So now imagine a square wedding cake with 5 or 6 layers getting smaller and smaller as they go up. That was what Imhotep constructed for Djoser’s tomb at the site of Saqqara and when finished it became what we know today as the Step Pyramid.
To be sure, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara was much more beautiful in Imhotep’s and Djoser’s day than it is today. Back then it was covered in white limestone so that it sparkled brilliantly under the bright Sahara sun. It was also surrounded by temples and tombs for other royal and noble figures. Today all of that is gone, but the Step Pyramid itself remains and is quite an amazing site to go visit, especially since so few tourists do.
A little later came along a Pharaoh named Sneferu. He tried building another step pyramid then changed course and tried turning it into a true pyramid. But his construction was off and it couldn’t be finished. This is the partial pyramid down at Meidum, but it’s not much to see.
His next try was at the site called Dashur, where he started building another pyramid but his architects got the angle too steep and it wasn’t working out either. But instead of abandoning this one, they simply changed the angle halfway up and finished it. The result was that this pyramid looked bent on all four sides, so it’s known today as the Bent Pyramid.
But for Sneferu, the third time was a charm. On this third attempt at pyramid building, his team got the geometry right. He also used red limestone blocks to build this third one, so today this one is known as the Red Pyramid. The Red Pyramid was the first successful real pyramid in ancient Egypt.
Now for context, the Red Pyramid is about a third of the height of the Shard skyscraper building in London, which was built in 2012, or a little less than half the height of the TransAmerica skyscraper in San Francisco, which was built in 1972. Except the Red Pyramid was built some time around about 2580 BC, so in other words about 4600 years ago, give or take a few decades.
But even the Red Pyramid doesn’t have anything on the Great Pyramid of Khufu, which as built a few decades later further up north in Giza and was about one and a half times as large as Sneferu’s Red Pyramid. The Great Pyramid of Khufu is somewhere between a half and a third the height of the Empire State Building in New York City, and it’s almost as wide on each of its 4 sides.
So now you can get an idea of just how massive this monument is, and how mind-blowingly impressive it is that it was built over 4500 years ago around 2560 BC, give or take.
Not much is known about Khufu these days, despite his chief building project being the most famous ancient monument in the world. His father, Sneferu, who built the Bent and Red Pyramids at Dashur, founded Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty, so Khufu was the second king of the Fourth Dynasty. Historical sources give us conflicting information on how long exactly he reigned as Pharaoh of Egypt, but we tend to think it was somewhere between 25-35 years after the death of his father.
One interesting note about how we figure out how long Pharaohs reigned back then is the references we find in inscriptions to the national cattle counts. Back in Khufu’s day, cattle counts were done for the purposes of tax collection every two years. Much later they became an annual event, but back then it was every two years. So a few inscriptions have survived referring to the 13th and 17th cattle counts of Khufu’s reign. So if those are accurate, then we just double that and we know those counts were going on in the 26th and 34th years of Khufu’s reign.
In addition to a pyramid for himself, Khufu also built three smaller Queens Pyramids beside his that are about a fifth the size of his. There are also three more Queens Pyramids beside Menkaure’s pyramid, for a grand total of six Queens Pyramids at Giza. These were for both the Queen Mothers and the favorite wives of these kings.
Eventually, as we all do (even Pharaoh god-kings), Khufu died and his son Djedefre took over and began building his pyramid up at a site called Abu Rawash. Unfortunately, Djedefre’s pyramid was destroyed long ago, so we don’t know much about it other than what we can tell from examining its ruins. When Djedefre died, his brother Khafre took over as Pharaoh and he returned to the site of their father’s pyramid at Giza to start building his own.
Not a lot is known about the reign of Khafre either, although the ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote that Khafre was a mean and despotic ruler. However, we don’t know how Herodotus would have known this since he lived in the 400s BC, more than two thousand years after Kafre was around. Herodotus said this about Khafre’s father Khufu too, so maybe he was just picturing them forcing tens of thousands of slaves to lift those heavy stones in the searing heat for decades to build these new massive pyramid contraptions, like in the movies.
It wasn’t quite like this though. While there were indeed slaves in ancient Egypt, mainly captured during wars and brought back enslaved as punishment, a lot of evidence suggests that the workers who built the Pyramids were decently provided for and even possibly paid wages of some sort. Excavations of worker villages around the Pyramids Complex show that the workers were fed beef, lamb, and goat and that those who died were buried nearby with bread and beer for nourishment in the afterlife.
Now, there’s just no way that slaves back then would have been fed prime rib and t-bones and allowed to be buried with provisions anywhere near the mighty Pharaohs’ tombs. You might then say that perhaps the thousands of people dining well in life and being honored in death could have been the overseers of the pyramid builders instead of the builders themselves. But analysis of the bones of those buried in the workers’ cemetery near the Pyramids show signs of severe arthritis and lower vertebral fusion and decay, meaning these individuals were literally engaged in a life of back-breaking work.
The talk about a hundred thousand slaves building the Pyramids came from the Greek historian Herodotus two thousand years later, who seems to have had an agenda in portraying the ancient Pharaohs in a negative light. If 100,000 people toiled for years or decades on the Giza plateau, there would have been plenty of archaeological evidence of them being housed, fed, tended to, etc. But the evidence being dug up from Giza’s sands point to only 10-20,000 relatively (for the time) well-treated laborers.
Now on to Menkaure, most likely the son of Khafre, grandson of Khufu, and the third Pharaoh to build a pyramid for himself at Giza. For what it’s worth, Herodotus wrote that Menkaure was a much kinder and gentler Pharaoh than his father and grandfather, but we have no evidence of this either. Herodotus may have just been writing down legends told to him by locals when he visited Egypt.
Herodotus visited the area during the occupation of Egypt by the Persians, who probably had a self-serving interest in portraying an image of the conquered and vanquished dynasties of Pharaohs in a negative light for PR purposes. But interestingly, Herodotus would have had no way of knowing that the Macedonian Greeks would very soon be conquering the Persians, kicking them out of Egypt, and eventually establishing a new dynasty of Pharaohs to rule Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great.
While Pharaohs before Khufu had no problem one-upping each other in building their pyramids, Khufu’s immediate successors showed more reverence for their predecessors by upstaging them in more discrete ways. As mentioned earlier, Khufu built the largest and greatest pyramid, but Khafre’s pyramid looks taller from most angles because he built it on higher ground. So in the afterlife he can deny trying to upstage his father.
The same goes for Menkaure. He built the smallest of the Kings Pyramids at Giza, but he wrapped it in a sheath of bright red granite so that it would catch the onlooker’s eye more so than the others. (I guess trying to figure out how to outshine your dad without upstaging him could be labeled “hashtag ancient first world problems.”)
There is a LOT more than can be said about the history of the Pyramids, like what happened to all stuff that was put in them (hint: it was stolen because grave robbers in antiquity knew precisely where to look because of the gigantic markers saying “Pharoah’s Stuff Here”), what the mummification and funeral ceremonies were like, what all the other random structures are around the Pyramids, where all the stones came from, how they got them up on top of the plateau, how they stacked them on top of one another, and so on and so on.
You get he point – there is SO much to talk about when it comes to ancient Egypt, which is why the entire academic specialization of Egyptology exists to study and explain all of this, and why zillions of books on ancient Egypt have been written. But we can’t possibly cover all of that here. Instead I’ve endeavored to give you an introduction to where the Pyramids came from and when they were built.
Next, we’ll move into the present and talk about what it’s like to visit the Pyramids today. Whether you’re staying in a hotel right by the pyramids or staying downtown, you’ll still have to get to the Pyramids by vehicle. If you’re with a tour group and you’re in a van or bus, you’ll be driven right up to the ticket office entrance. But if you’re going via taxi either by yourself or with others, you need to be really careful about what I call the “Taxi Jumpers” as you approach the Pyramids area in western Giza.
These guys are so-named because as your taxi is meandering through the streets and turns when you get near the gates, young men who are enterprising but very aggressive may open the door of your taxi as it is stuck in traffic or slows for a turn and literally jump in with you. This can be a scary experience, but if it happens to you at least know that they’re not there to hurt anyone or prevent you from entering the Pyramids site.
They start off by asking you if you want a donkey, camel, or horse ride to the Pyramids. When you say no, they tell you that you have to take one because you cannot go any further by car and the Pyramids are still many miles away, even though you can see them as big as daylight right there in front of you.
They will be persistent and annoying and your taxi driver may start trying to shoo them away at this point. They will yell at him in Arabic and return to trying to convince you that you have to buy a donkey or horse or camel ride from them if you want to see the Pyramids. As you grow more frustrated and even angry and insist you’re not interested (because you’re informed about this BS from listening to the Egypt Travel Blog Podcast, of course!), you realize they’re just not going to back down.
To be honest, I don’t know how ordinary people shake these scamsters off. This didn’t use to happen 10 years ago, but since the Revolutions after tourism dropped and they started getting either more desperate or more creative or both, every time I’ve gone out to the Pyramids via taxi I’ve had the taxi jumpers attempt to do this.
Now with me, I know what’s up and I get very aggressive back. I yell at them in Arabic to get out of the car, which shocks them, but even still I have been surprised to see them persist as if I’m an ordinary tourist. I can’t imagine how persistent they must be with tourists who are still excited about Egypt and who want to be polite and who won’t be as aggressive back as I am when these suckers strike.
Again they’ve never shown signs of violence or physical aggression around me, but they’re just very very very annoying. The really sad thing is that experiences like this, especially at the outset of your trip and before you even get to the Pyramids, can really ruin your day at best, and sour you on the whole trip at worst. I’ve seen this happen so many times and it’s such a shame. It really pisses me off too!
Some people in Egypt get mad at me for telling future visitors about things like this to watch out for and how to avoid being scammed, but I’d much rather tell you and let them be pissy than you have something like this happen and it ruin a trip you’ve waited a lifetime for and spent a Pharaoh’s fortune on.
Ok, so back to the Pyramids. Whether you arrive by private driver, by tour bus, or by taxi, you’ll most likely be dropped off at the ticket gate. Go to up to the window and grab your ticket at an outside window before you go inside the structure and go through the “security” and metal detectors.
Note that if you want to go inside of one of the Pyramids, you also need to get your separate ticket for that here at the ticket window too. Ticket sales for going inside the Pyramids are usually limited to a certain number per day, and when it’s busy they often run out by mid-day. I don’t think many have to worry about this these days with the still-depressed tourist numbers, but just be aware that I’ve always generally considered it a good idea to go in the morning if you want to go inside of a Pyramid to make sure there are no issues.
The Great Pyramid is usually open for going inside with the extra ticket and the other two Pyramids usually rotate openings. Out of the three Kings Pyramids at Giza, there are usually two open at any given time. On top of those, at least one or two of the Queens Pyramids are usually open too and don’t require a ticket, although the dude watching the entrance will expect a small tip.
So all that’s to say that you should get your ticket for entrance to the Pyramids complex and the extra one if you want it for going inside one or two of the Kings Pyramids at the ticket window before you go through security. Then you go through pseudo-security, give them your ticket to tear, and then emerge on the ramp up to the Pyramids.
Now, note that I’ve been describing the main entrance. There’s also another entrance down by the Sphinx. That one is not always open and sometimes just functions as an exit, but if it’s open and you find yourself at that one instead, the same procedures and advice apply.
If you’re with a guide or group, you’ll carry on your merry way once you enter the complex. But if you’re on your own – and believe me the scamsters know if you’re on your own or not – then this is another choke point for sheisters to approach you and try another scam.
For this one, what they do is approach you as you’re walking up the ramp (after you’re already inside) and ask to see your ticket. If you try to shoo them off, they’ll insist they work there and they need to see your ticket. Trust me – they don’t work there and they don’t need to see your ticket again. These are low quality predatory guides who either have a license to do tour guiding at the Pyramids and are showing you that license to convince you that they’re “official” in some capacity or they’re just showing you some fake credential.
There are real freelance tour guides that wander around inside of the sites like the Pyramids Complex or the Museum, but the sincere guides will just politely ask you if you’d like a guide and then smile and back way if you say no thank you. The fake ones or predatory ones will try to pull this scam where they pretend to be site staff and ask to see your ticket again after you’re already in, then when they have taken it away from you they’ll hold onto it while they try to talk you into taking some kind of service from them, whether it be a guided tour or a camel ride or whatever.
The worst of them will even just straight up ask you for money to give you your ticket back and tell you that you’ll be arrested if you’re caught inside without a ticket. Bottom line here is that you will only have to show your ticket on the way into the main entrance door before the metal detectors where they tear it. Then after that the only other place you may have to show it again is IF you go into the the Sphinx Temple Complex. But that’ll be a very nice old man and not some predatory-acting younger guy right after you come in the entrance to the main complex. So just beware if you’re on your own.
One urge you’re going to have when you approach the Pyramids – and by approach I mean both by vehicle and on foot once you’re in the complex – is to immediately start taking pictures. Trust me on this point – resist this urge! You’re going to have plenty of time to take pictures. And you’re going to be able to take amazing pictures – wide-view, selfies, goofy ones, ones with camels, up close, far away, any kind you can imagine. But you are going to want to take them from the other side of the pyramids, the desert side, not the side you’ll approach from at first.
But even if you do have a burning desire to take photos from the approach side, do it after you circle the monuments first and have savored the experience of approaching them and taking them in. And here’s why – you’ve waited your whole life to see the Pyramids. You’ve heard about them, read about them, studied them, dreamt about them. You’ve spent a lot of time and money getting here, and these are the last remaining Wonders of the Ancient World. They’ve been there for over 4500 years and this is the first – and for many the only – time you’ll ever see them.
Trust me on this – forget the camera in the beginning and soak it in. Experience it. Live it. Be in the moment. Don’t clog your view with a piece of modern technology like a camera or iPhone and rob yourself of the opportunity to experience the approach to the Pyramids the same way that explorers have experienced it for four thousand years. Please don’t rob yourself of that moment and experience.
As your vehicle comes into view of the Pyramids, just look at them. Don’t start snapping crappy photos from the car that you’ll just skip over later. Just marvel. And as you first approach them on foot, don’t waste your initial impressions time with cameras when you’re going to spend ample time later photographing the ever-living crap out of them shortly.
Take it from someone who has literally taken hundreds and hundreds of people to the Pyramids for the first time. Take it slow. Soak it in. Marvel at them. Appreciate them on first-sight. Ponder their history.
Forgive me if I sound like I’m romanticizing the experience, but if there’s any experience in the world that you should romanticize, surely it’s your first time coming into the presence of the last remaining Wonder of the Ancient World.
Most people enter the Pyramids Complex these days by the gate that’s right up beside the Great Pyramid and not the gate that’s further down the plateau by the Sphinx. If you do enter at the Sphinx Gate, that’s ok. You’ll just probably start out marveling at the Sphinx first and then you’ll have to walk uphill to get to the Pyramids. I always recommend starting at the higher gate on the north side of the complex beside the Great Pyramid and ending up down by the Sphinx and exiting through the Sphinx Gate.
So assuming you’re starting by the Great Pyramid and you’ve followed my advice to not start snapping and tapping away at cameras on your initial approach, once you get up to them you’re probably going to want to start taking some pictures of the enormous stones and looking upwards at the base and so on. That’s ok by this point, if you can’t resist the temptation. But remember what I said – your best pictures are going to come later. Trust me.
You shouldn’t climb on the stones of the Pyramids, even if you see others doing it. You’ll get yelled at by guards if you do. The only place you can climb on a pyramid is where the steps are to go up to the entrance to go inside of the Great Pyramid. Feel free to climb up there even if you didn’t get a ticket to go inside. Being up there makes for a great photo by someone on the ground.
If you did get a ticket to go one of the Kings Pyramids, there will be a person or two at the opening to tear the ticket for you. If you have trouble with climbing steep stairs for long distances or hunching over or if you’re claustrophobic, I wouldn’t recommend going inside of one of the Kings Pyramids because it can be somewhat physically challenging in there to climb the passageway.
If you’re deciding whether to go in or not, just know that the main thing you get out of it is being able to say you were inside of a pyramid. There’s no wall art inside and no mummies or anything in there really. It’s just a tight rough climb to an empty chamber. But it’s neat if you’re up for it and don’t mind shelling out the extra ten bucks or so to say you’ve done it.
Photos inside the Pyramids are not allowed, so if you do try to sneak one you’re likely to get caught and they can do anything from tell you no, to ask for a bribe, to take your camera and demand money to give it back to you. Just be warned.