Pyramids Everywhere, But Just One Sphinx!

When I think of our recent trip to Egypt, - my predominant memories are of the enormous temple pillars shaped like bundled papyrus stalks stretching up to the sky, the colorfully painted tombs and the beautifully incised temple walls decorated with images of battle scenes,  offerings, gods and pharaohs. But despite these images it seems I should start with the pyramids. Why? Because the pyramids are the iconic image, the cultural shorthand for Egypt and it's history. 

We all know the pyramids, and of course the sphinx, but what  is nice about starting here is that you are going all the way back to the Old Kingdom and in this sense you're starting near the beginning. But the story doesn't start with the iconic Great Pyramid, the one we all know -  constructed between 2560-2540 BCIt starts, more modestly, with small oblong mud structures (known as mastabas) built over burial sites. Innovatively  they began to build mastabas on top of mastabas, starting with a larger one on the bottom and smaller ones on top , eventually creating what came to be known  as step pyramids. Below you can see Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara, built by the famous architect (later a god!) Imhotep. Clad in polished limestone it must have been dazzling when it was completed around 2700BC. 
After the step pyramid, the Egyptians continued their architectural innovation with the Pharaoh, Sneferu who  tried to build a solid pyramid. However, the  weight made this much more complicated and resulted in a number of failed attempts- including the bent pyramid. Yes, these are all literal names, and indeed the Bent Pyramid tilts in at the top - as you can see below. It has a squat feeling and lacks the  precision and glamour of the the Great Pyramid but by Sneferu's grandson Khufu, or Cheops as he was known to the Greek.
Despite the fact that the Bent Pyramid was a failure I loved it. We started our day here and it was magical. Situated out on its own in the desert this was the perfect place to begin our exploration because there was nobody here. Here we could have a pyramid, and the armed guard stationed out there, to ourselves! Here you can see Hoda (our Djed guide) explaining the history to D.. Sneferu's Red Pyramid is in the background. 
Hoda smiled knowingly when we asked if she would be going into the red pyramid with us. When we came out we understood why one of her professors said, "Everyone want to go into a pyramid once!" Ok, I've ticked that off my list! It was humid and horribly claustrophobic. You climbed up to the  entrance, high on the side of the pyramid and then climb down a steep, narrow channel which takes you into a series of plain chambers in the heart of the structure. It was incredibly hot and this was at the coolest time of the year. It was interesting to see the way it was engineered inside, because we had learnt about it in our history course. But after this I had no interest in going inside the Great Pyramid along with all the crowd.
At all of the pyramid sites you will see smaller (often later pyramids) clustered around the larger structures, see above. Many of these were built for family members including wives or children and others were built by ancestors seeking to reclaim the glory of the Old Kingdom. There are lots and lots of pyramids, so many that the World Heritage designation describes it as, "the Pyramid Fields from Giza to Dashur."
You can also visit several tombs at these sites including the beautiful Tomb of the Princess Idut at Saqqara, images above and below. It's hard to believe these colors remain from  circa 2360BC. The images still have such resonance and movement.
I highly recommend going out to Saqqara if you're interested in Pharaonic or architectural history. Additionally, though it takes a while to get out there (it takes an age to get anywhere in the Cairo traffic) it is a fascinating trip and the surrounding area is quite beautiful, and well known for date production. This is the very edge of the city.
When we arrived in Giza we weren't interested in a camel ride or in  going into another  burial chamber. However, after walking around the Great Pyramid of Cheops we visited  the extraordinary Solar Boat Museum. Despite all the tourists outside, the  museum was empty. This is something you shouldn't miss. You go there to see one thing, a complete, life-sized ceremonial boat which was buried in pieces next to the pyramid. It's extraordinary, an exquisite solar barge designed to take the Pharaoh into the afterlife. That a wooden structure survives from 2500BC is breathtaking. Equally breathtaking is that they built the museum only steps from the Great Pyramid, completely obscuring the view of the monument from one side. In the 1980's Prince Charles infamously decried a modern addition to the National Gallery in London as,  "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved friend". I can't imagine what he would make of the Solar Boat Museum. We were appalled by its situation,  no matter how lovely the artifacts are it's a travesty that this was allowed to be built in such proximity to the pyramid. 
You can see the elegant sweep of the  boat's design. there are a series of walkways that let you see the ship from above and below. A couple on the right (in the photo below) where the only other people we saw in the museum and give you a sense of how large the barge  is.
There were more tourists at the pyramids at Giza than we saw anywhere else in Egypt, though Hoda said it was very quiet. The number of people was in stark contrast to our earlier experience at the bent pyramid where we started our day in complete isolation. If the pictures above give an impression of the pyramids sitting in a vast sand desert they are somewhat deceptive - though the iconography is always presented this way. In fact, the   Great Pyramid was right behind me as I took the picture below. The pyramids stand on the edge a desert plateau at Giza, overlooking the entire city. Now the city stretches to the edge of the plateau. When I was a child, Giza and Cairo were two distinct cities but now it's all one megalopolis, sitting in a cloud of smog.
I was determined to follow the historic development of the pyramids and it was too much for one day. Mr Simman had warned me it would be difficult to fit it all in and he was right. There is a lot to see at each of these sites, including the Imhotep Museum at Saqqara and I wished we had more time. But we had a magnificent day, ending with us racing hysterically towards the Sphinx trying to make  it before it closed. Foolishly  we'd left our all important tickets in the  minibus, but the guard  was kind enough to wave us through, shukran.
A day of pyramids, tombs, architectural innovation, a great guide and a sunset at the sphinx, we couldn't have asked for more.