When people think about the pyramids in Egypt, I assume they’re mostly thinking about the pyramids of Giza. This cluster of about a dozen pyramids includes the two most famous: the Pyramid of Kufu and the Pyramid of Khafre. The site also has many interesting tombs and, of course, the famous Sphinx. When I first started reading about Egypt before moving here, I was surprised to discover how close the Pyramids of Giza were to downtown Cairo—only a 20 minute Uber ride away (without traffic)! On a clear day, you can see the two largest pyramids from office buildings in downtown Cairo.
Unfortunately, the Giza Pyramids hustle can easily detract from the impressive monuments. First your car gets literally attacked by people selling fake tickets and guided tours (they will jump on or, if the door is unlocked, in your car), then there’s the chaos at the actual ticket booth, then there’s the people hassling for horse and camel rides, then there’s the guards asking for baksheesh (tips) at the entrance to the pyramids… It can be a little bit much.
Thankfully, Egypt has over 100 pyramids (or so Wikipedia tells me), the ones at Giza being only the largest and most popular (read: accessible) with tourists, so there are other places to get your fix for large triangular stone structures.
We actually didn’t get a chance to see that many of the “other” pyramids, but there are some just south of Cairo that we found were worth the drive, if only because there were almost no tourists there when we visited.
The first site is Saqqara, where you can see the oldest pyramid: Djoser’s step pyramid. Basically, Ancient Egyptian kings used to have large mudbrick structures called mastabas (large, flat-roofed buildings with sloping walls) built above their tombs. Djoser’s architect Imhotep had the idea of stacking mastabas of decreasing sizes one on top of the other, creating the first pyramid. Although it is historically significant, the structure itself isn’t that impressive—but there are many interesting tombs and monuments in the surrounding area, including several small pyramids that now look like heaps of rubble, as well as a very good museum devoted to Imhotep and his revolutionary architectural designs.
The second site is Dahshur, about 10 km south of Saqqara. The so-called Red Pyramid, found here, is the first true pyramid (with smooth sides) and it really is a majestic site—especially because you can actually take the time to admire it without getting elbowed by other tourists or approached by men with camels. The way inside is frightening—up steep steps outside, and then down an angled shaft to the three chambers deep in its heart. The engineering and craft it took to carve and align those giant slabs of stone is awe-inspiring.
Nearby is our favourite pyramid, the so-called bent pyramid. I found this one interesting for two reasons: number 1 is the obvious fact they messed up on the angle when they built it, and when they realized that the structure was unstable, they changed the angle halfway up. It gives it a funny shape. Number 2 is that the limestone casing on this pyramid is more intact than on any other pyramid, which means you can get a decent idea of what the pyramids looked like when they were gleaming white in the desert sun.
Looking east from there, a crumbling mass of weathered mud bricks is all the remains of the so-called black pyramid, whose foundations were unstable because they were built too close to the Nile.
For all their massiveness, one thing you come to understand about pyramids when you visit Egypt is how fragile they actually are. And for all the skill and engineering prowess the Ancient Egyptians demonstrated, a lot of what they made was a result of trial and error.