Exploring Ancient Wonders: The Pyramids and the Nile

March 18, 2021 Updated: March 18, 2021

Headed west, we cross the broad expanse of the Nile, so storied in our collective knowledge and memory, from carrying the baby Moses in a basket to running red in the biblical plagues. But today, nothing feels so ancient, the surface below buzzing with small boats, busy with the flow and urgency of day-to-day life.

Leaving the cacophony of Cairo’s center behind, the traffic on the highway remains thick, maintaining its languid pace, the four lanes spreading to six, or even eight, as everyone looks for an angle, pushing to get ahead.

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The entrance to the Pyramid of Khufu on the Giza Plateau. (S. Vincent/Shutterstock)

And then, just like that, the dusty outer districts fall away, the endless march of half-finished high-rises ceasing at the edge of the sand. Sitting in the back of a minivan, the only guest for this day’s tour, I crane my neck to see out the window. Three unmistakable peaks rise from the desert floor, their image so familiar yet almost surreal in person, this iconic trio standing here in the same place for some 4,500 years.

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The Great Sphinx of Giza faces from west to east. (Repina Valeriya/Shutterstock)

An Open-Air Museum

I’m in Egypt, exploring Cairo and Giza. Now home to more than 20 million people—Africa’s largest city, and one of the largest metropolises in the world—few places match the modern energy of Egypt’s capital. But all that’s new is a mere patina over thousands of years of history, the city serves as a giant, open-air museum. I’m here to explore it all, taking a trip back in time as I travel all over town, from the color of chaotic markets to impromptu boat rides on the river to a climb deep inside the pyramids themselves.

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The Khan el-Khalili souk. (Eric Valenne geostory/Shutterstock)

While they date back to around 2500 B.C. and were built with eternity in mind, the Pyramids at Giza were erected in a relatively short window of time by three successive pharaohs—in less than a century. Pharaoh Khufu (also known as Cheops) built the first and largest, the Great Pyramid, whose base covers 13 acres of land and which once rose to a height of 481 feet. It stood as the tallest man-made structure in the world for about 4,000 years.

Once surrounded by a complex that included temples and chapels, the pyramids were built as burial tombs, containing everything the pharaohs would need in the afterlife as gods. There were even pits containing “solar boats,” which some scholars believe were designed to ferry the pharaohs, together with the sun god Ra, across the heavens. The Khufu ship found in the complex has been recognized as the world’s oldest intact ship, and it could still sail today despite being thousands of years old.

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The Egyptian Museum. (Harmony Video Production/Shutterstock)

Building the Pyramids

Today, we still don’t quite understand the engineering mastery that built them. The Great Pyramid includes blocks weighing as much as 15 tons—2.3 million of them. Archaeologists note that a paid workforce living in a nearby temporary city did most of the work. Communities across the Old Kingdom put forth both workers and other resources, such as food. But many of the details remain a mystery.

Both the quarrying of the stone and its actual assembly present questions. While copper tools used at the time would’ve made quick work of the limestone used for most of the construction, the pyramids also include thousands of tons of hard granite, which came from Aswan, some 500 miles away. Transporting and stacking the stones would have required herculean efforts, and a number of hypotheses for how this was done exactly have been posited. And the Great Pyramid is aligned to within 1/15th of one degree of the four cardinal directions (north-south-east-west), leading to a variety of theories about how the ancients achieved this remarkable achievement in astronomy.

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Camels were once known as “ships of the desert.” (Kanuman/Shutterstock)

Arriving there in the minivan, my guide has few answers but plenty to show me. First, I ride a camel. After driving around the pyramid complex to take photos from a variety of angles, we pass a vendor pulling a chain of dromedaries and pull over to negotiate a reasonable price. I approach the animal with some trepidation—I have a mixed history with camels, having once been bitten by one at a festival in Rajasthan. In that case, the animal’s flat, blunt teeth hadn’t even broken my skin, but, shocked, I had reeled back, tripping over my own feet and falling flat onto the sand.

Once, these beasts of burden were the “ships of the desert,” hauling humans and cargo for vast distances. Their documented presence in Egypt actually predates the pyramids, going all the way back to the Early Dynastic period, which began around 3100 B.C. Today, the ride is short. I climb on its back, with some trepidation, and hang on tight as the animal makes the lurching transition from sitting to standing. We make a little loop, in the shadow of the Great Pyramid.

Next, I go inside. Climbing up to the entrance, scrambling over big limestone blocks, I can’t quite believe I’m using this Wonder of the Ancient World as my jungle gym. Entering, the cheer of a sunny day quickly disappears and I proceed through an airless tunnel, feeling rather claustrophobic as I proceed through the tight confines of an ascending passageway to the Grand Gallery. Arriving, I appreciate that this is a once-in-a-lifetime moment. But, finding no treasure, I’m eager to get back to the warm breezes blowing fresh air outside.

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Cairo Tower, overlooking the Nile River. (Mohamed Elkhamisy/Shutterstock)

Adventures in Cairo

After a stop to see the Great Sphinx of Giza, my adventures in Cairo continue. The city reveals itself, bit by bit, always a new surprise around every corner. Cairo is what I like to call a “late city,” where denizens are never eager to get to bed. I like late cities, they suit me. Visiting the bazaar at Khan al-Kahlili well into the evening, I find a night market crammed with locals, the stalls piling their stock-in-trade high, layer upon layer, on each side of the passageways. People have bought and sold items in this place since the 1300s, and they continue to do so with fervor tonight.

I browse awhile before getting directions, getting a little lost several times before I reach my destination. Pushing open a small door reveals a whole new world that feels like a secret club. Settling into a table at the Naguib Mahfouz Café, so-named for the late Nobel laureate, I order up a mixed grill of lamb and chicken, paired with rice, brought to the table by a server in a fez. Musicians play traditional instruments. Men and women smoke shisha. The night stretches out and I’m in no hurry to get back to my hotel.

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A photo of Cairo, taken from Cairo Tower. (givaga/Shutterstock)

The city seems to have a million markets. Another day, I spend a hot afternoon at a textile bazaar, wading into an ocean of humanity under towering minarets. An unofficial guide offers an unofficial tour and leads me through the mayhem, eventually leading me up a back staircase to the top of a mosque, above the rooftops, the call to prayer sounding out in competition with the din of the crowd below.

And I finally find my way back to the Nile. After wandering among mummies at the Egyptian Museum, just off Tahrir Square, I make my way to the Corniche, bartering a little with one of the many small-tour operators there before boarding a covered boat for a spin on this famous river.

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Muizz Street. (Mahmoud Haikal/Shutterstock)

It’s a natural wonder, of course. One of the world’s longest rivers, the Nile stretches more than 4,000 miles, through 10 African countries, from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean Sea. But the history here is even more remarkable. Simply put: Without the Nile, there would’ve been no ancient Egypt.

The river was its lifeblood. Regular flooding provided nutrient-rich soils, which fed and clothed the populace and fueled economic development. People built irrigation channels and grew cotton, flax, wheat, and beans—as well as papyrus, which they used to make paper. The Nile was their source of drinking water and their bathtub. The pharaohs used its resources to build empires.

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The reconstructed solar barque of Khufu. (Olaf Tausch/CC BY 3.0)

And the river is still the heart and soul of this nation, with 95 percent of today’s Egyptians still living within a few miles of it. Cutting a swath through modern Cairo, we cruise the Nile, rolling under bridges and past high-rise hotels. Soon, the sun begins to set. Another busy night is about to begin. But for the moment, I relax on the boat’s weathered cushions and watch the orange meld with the oncoming gloaming, feeling very far from home in all the right ways.

Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling, in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.