The Pyramids & the Sphinx

Built from roughly 2550 to 2490 BC on a rocky plateau on the west bank of the Nile, the Sphinx and the Giza Pyramids are testament to the power, organisation and engineering genius of ancient Egypt. Such is the precision and skill with which they were built that people have puzzled over their origins for thousands of years, and have developed weird and wonderful theories in the process. Some medieval Europeans, for example, believed the pyramids were granaries described in the Old Testament; and Victorian author John Taylor published a book naming Noah as the true architect of the pyramids. Then, of course, there are the many madcap claims that the monuments have otherworldly origins, thanks either to aliens or angels.

From what we do know, Egypt's pharaohs believed they would become gods in the next world, so built vast pyramid tombs for themselves filled with all the things they would need in the afterlife. Excavations on the Giza Plateau have shown that the pyramids weren’t built by slaves, as was once believed, but by a paid workforce, living in a purpose built settlement with on site housing as well as food and medical resources. In 2017 archeologists uncovered the remains of a boat and a network of waterways, providing new evidence of how huge amounts of limestone were transported to the site.

As for the Sphinx, the story goes that this huge limestone statue with the head of a man and body of a lion was built around the time of the Old Kingdom (around 2649 to 2130 BC) probably during the reign of the Pharaoh Khafre. For thousands of years, the Sphinx was buried in sand up to its shoulders, and survived many attempts to dig it out before finally being released in the 1930s by Egyptian archaeologist Selim Hassan.


There are three Giza Pyramids, each named after the pharaoh who ordered its construction. They share the same rocky site as the Sphinx, known as the Giza Necropolis, which is also home to several cemeteries and a workers’ village. The site is easily visited as a day trip from Cairo, though it’s worth sticking around for the evening sound and light show, when the Sphinx and pyramids are illuminated by brightly coloured beams of light while a narrator details their history.

While these world famous monuments are the main draw for most people, many don’t realise that the surrounding desert plateau is home to dozens of other pyramids and tombs, some of which are also open to the public.

The Sphinx

Known in Arabic as Hbu Al Hol (the Awesome or Terrible One), this huge limestone sculpture with the body of a lion and the head of a man was dubbed the Sphinx around 2,000 years after it was built, in honour of the fearsome human-headed lion in ancient Greek mythology, though no one knows its original name. It’s widely believed to have been modelled on the pharaoh Khafre, and traces of red blue and yellow pigment suggest that it was once a much more colourful presence. As for its missing nose, no one knows, but rumours that a cannonball fired by Napoleon’s soldiers caused it to break off have been widely discredited.

The Great Pyramid of Khufu

The Great Pyramid of Pharaoh Khufu (also known as Cheops) is made of millions of stones weighing at least two tons each – a true feat of ancient engineering. It’s the oldest and largest of the three pyramids at Giza and once stood 146m high, though after centuries of weather damage it now stands at a slightly smaller 138m.

There isn’t much to see inside (by the time archeologists got here, its contents had already been plundered), but the experience of climbing through the dark, steep interior is a must – though best avoided if you’re at all claustrophobic.

Pyramid of Khafre

The Pyramid of Khafre is the tomb of the pharaoh Khafre, Khufu’s son. At 136m in height, it’s smaller and shorter than the Great Pyramid, but was built on higher ground, giving it the illusion of being taller. Fragments of its original polished limestone casing – once visible for miles and a constant reminder of the pharaoh’s wealth – are still visible at the top.

Pyramid of Menkaure

Built by Khafre’s son, the pharaoh Menkaure, this is the smallest of the three pyramids, at 62m tall – perhaps an indication of a shift in focus from building pyramid tombs to erecting vast temples to the gods. Menkaure died before the structure was completed and the building was finished by Shepseskaf, his son and heir. Inside, you descend through three distinct levels and can also peer into the main tomb.

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How to get to the pyramids

Many visitors are surprised by the proximity of the pyramids to Giza’s urban sprawl; they’re certainly not standing apart in the desert as some carefully angled pictures suggest. The site is in fact 11km west of Cairo and can be reached by local bus or taxi or as part of an organised tour.

Best time to visit the pyramids

Giza can be like an oven during the summer months, so the most pleasant time to visit is either March to April or October to November. By day, the tourist crowds can obscure the site’s mystical atmosphere, but visit at dawn or at dusk and the magic returns. Your tour leader or local guide will know the local routines, and will plan the best time to visit depending on the time of year and day of the week.

In the past, the Giza Necropolis has been extremely crowded during high season but recent political upheaval has deterred foreign visitors, more than halving the number of international tourist arrivals and delivering a devastating blow to local communities that depend on the tourist industry. Visit now and not only will you be able to enjoy the site in relative peace, you’ll also be bringing valuable business back into the country.

Where to stay

There are plenty of places to stay at the foot of the pyramids, from simple guest houses to luxury hotels, but it’s just as easy to stay in Cairo, coming out to the site as a day trip.
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: Mr Seb] [Intro: kallerna] [The Sphinx: Ziad bakry] [The Great Pyramid of Khufu: Jorge Lascar] [Pyramid of Khafre: Olaf Tausch] [Pyramid of Menkaure: kallerna] [How to get to the pyramids : Dario Morandotti] [Best time to visit the pyramids: Shah Ahmad]