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Pyramid of Giza

The Great Pyramid of Giza outside Cairo, is probably the most famous tourist attraction on earth. More than 4,000 years old, this tomb of the Pharaoh Cheops is the last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Consequently, there's been no shortage of commentary throughout the centuries on the structure's magnificence. As part of our series on Cairo through the eyes of history's tourists, The Savvy Traveler's Tom Verde takes us along on a visit to the Great Pyramid.

The Great Pyramid of Giza
by by Tom Verde

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My first reaction to the great pyramid of Cheops, as well as the neighboring pyramids of Chefren and Mycerinus, was disappointment. They weren't quite as big as I thought they'd be, but then again, some people feel the same way about the Mona Lisa. It's just that the monumental, popular image of the pyramids has been so burned into our collective psyches that when you actually see them, you say to yourself, so this is it? This is what all the fuss is about? But perspective is a funny thing. It isn't until you get close and gaze up at one of the pyramid's vast triangular faces, this oceanic mass of chiseled stone, that it begins to dawn on you just how big they really are.

Pyramid of Giza

I wasn't alone in my reaction. I don't mean the four to five thousand tourists that crowd the place each day. I mean some of the earlier, solitary visitors to Giza, guys like Dominique Vivant Denon, a sketch artist with the French expedition to Egypt in 1798, under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Denon: "In approaching these stupendous buildings, their sloping and angular forms disguise their real height, and lessen it to the eye. However, on attempting to measure any one of these gigantic works of art, it resumes its immensity to the mind."

Just walking around the 13-acre base of the Great Pyramid, the equivalent of more than 350 New York City blocks, gives you a pretty good sense of that immensity. Then there are the oft-repeated, but nonetheless impressive statistics: 2.3 million blocks of stone, each weighing two and half tons, stacked so precisely you can't slip a credit card, or in Cheops' day, a sheet of papyrus, between them. Soaring 450 feet above the plateau, the great pyramid was once about thirty feet higher. That was before the Romans stripped it of its polished, white limestone outer casing, which they ground into plaster.

Pyramid of Giza

But it sure must have been something to see gleaming there in the desert sun, decorated, as the fifth century Greek historian Herodotus informs us, with carved images and hieroglyphics.

Herodotus: "It is built of polished stone, and is covered with carvings of animals. What a vast sum must have been spent."

The priests who gave Herodotus the VIP tour of Cheops' pyramid in 450 B.C. had few kind words for its builder.

Herodotus: "No crime was too great for Cheops, they told me. When he was short of money, he sent his daughter to a bawdy house with instructions to charge a certain sum. She asked each of her customers to give her a block of stone."

Hawass: "When Herodotus came here, he was a tourist, he doesn't know anything about ancient Egypt."

Zahi Hawass, Undersecretary of State for the Giza monuments, says that in this case, the wool was being pulled firmly over Herodotus' eyes.

Hawass: "He was met by the tour guides that you meet today, that they will tell you anything to please you. They told him stories that never happened."

As Hawass points out, getting hustled at the pyramids is an old game, and a jealously guarded one at that. According to English travel writer, Amelia Edwards, who scaled the Great Pyramid in 1874, no longer an option, by the way, local Arab guides were more than happy to help her clamber to the top, as long as she minded her own business.

Pyramid of Giza

Edwards: "I asked them why they did not cut steps in the blocks, so as to make the ascent easier for ladies. The answer was ready and honest. 'No. No, mademoiselle! If Arab makes good steps, tourist goes up alone. No more want Arab man to help him up, and Arab man earn no more dollars!'"

Tour Guides: "American? Come over here... You want camel? Yes, ride camel? Yes, ride camel? Come here?"

The hucksters are still here, but in a recent controversial decision, Undersecretary Hawass segregated them all to a central area outside the pyramid complex. He says it'll even the playing field for them all. They say he's putting them out of business. As for the great pyramid, well, if six million tons of carved limestone could shrug I suppose it would. When you're one of the oldest man-made things on earth, nothing man does anymore comes as much of a surprise.

At the pyramids of Giza, I'm Tom Verde for The Savvy Traveler.

Thanks go to Marketplace Productions, Helen Palmer, Robert Da Pont and David Jaffee, Director of the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut for their help in this production.


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