On the west bank of the River Nile lies Egypt’s most iconic ancient sight: the Pyramids of Giza. The site is made up of three separate pyramid complexes, including the Great Pyramid of Giza (also known as the Pyramid of Khufu), the Pyramid of Khafre and the Pyramid of Menkaure. The Great Sphinx of Giza stands sentinel over them all. All three pyramids were constructed by Fourth Dynasty pharaohs, making them over 4,500 years old. Together, they form part of the ancient Memphis necropolis and stand as a testament to the astonishing wealth, power and architectural prowess of the Ancient Egyptians.
Find out how to visit the Pyramids with this guide.
Great Pyramid of Giza
The Great Pyramid of Giza is both the largest and the oldest of the Giza pyramids. It was constructed as a tomb and monument for the pharaoh Khufu, and completed around 2560 B.C. Like the other pyramids, it is built out of vast blocks of granite and limestone that would have been quarried, transported and assembled by hand. In total, around 2.3 million blocks of stone were used to create the pyramid, which was originally encased in smooth white limestone. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, this architectural feat required a workforce of 100,000 men and took 20 years to complete.
In its heyday, the pyramid would have stood 481 feet (146.5 meters) tall. It was the world’s tallest man-made structure for more than 3,800 years. The entrance is located on the north face and leads via a series of corridors to the Queen’s and King’s chambers. The pyramid was opened and looted by the pharaohs of the Middle and New Kingdoms, who may have used its contents to furnish their own tombs at the Valley of the Kings near Luxor. In Hellenistic times, the Great Pyramid was named as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Despite being the oldest of the ancient wonders, it is also the only one that still exists today.
Pyramid of Khafre
The second-tallest of the Giza pyramids, the Pyramid of Khafre was built as the burial place of Khufu’s son and successor. The exact dates of its completion are not certain, although Khafre ruled from around 2558 to 2532 BC. Some of this pyramid’s original limestone casing remains around the apex, although the rest was removed at various times throughout its history – including during the Nineteenth Dynasty when Ramesses II looted the limestone for one of his temples at Heliopolis. This pyramid has two entrances which lead to a single burial chamber and a subsidiary chamber that may have been used for storage purposes.
Pyramid of Menkaure
The Pyramid of Menkaure is the smallest and most recent of the three and was likely completed at the beginning of the 25th century B.C. Unlike the other two pyramids, only the upper portion was encased in limestone and parts of the granite exterior appear unfinished. It’s likely that construction was interrupted by Menkaure’s death and never completed. The pyramid has a single entrance leading to a subterranean burial chamber. At the end of the 12th century, it was the first victim of Sultan Al-Aziz Uthman’s attempt to demolish the pyramids.
Fortunately the task proved too difficult and was abandoned; however, damage to the pyramid’s north face remains as proof of the vandalism.
Great Sphinx of Giza
The Great Sphinx of Giza is a mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head of a man. Egyptologists generally agree that its face was carved in Khafre’s likeness; which makes sense given the fact that it dates back to his reign. It is the oldest-known monumental sculpture in Egypt and is especially impressive when one considers that it was carved out of a single chunk of the plateau’s limestone bedrock. Layers of different density in the rock account for the accelerated erosion in the middle part of the sphinx’s body while theories abound as to the reason for its missing nose.
It measures 240 feet (73 meters) in length and stands 66 feet (20 meters) high.
The Giza pyramids have been the subject of exploration and research for almost as long as they have existed. In the early 1800s, French archaeologist Auguste Mariette began clearance work on the Giza site. The first modern archaeologists to explore inside the pyramids included Giovanni Belzoni, John Perring and Richard Vyse, and Karl Richard Lepsius. In 1880, British archaeologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie traveled to Giza to make the first scientific survey of the pyramids. His drawings and measurements were so accurate that much of our understanding of how they were built is still based on his findings.
Excavations continued throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. In 2010, Egyptian archaeologists discovered a worker’s burial ground that proved the pyramids were built by paid artisans rather than slaves. Most recently, in May 2019, a new cemetery and sarcophagi were uncovered that are believed to be over 4,500 years old. In 1979, the Pyramids of Giza were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the rest of the Memphis necropolis.
Things to See & Do
Today, the three main pyramids and the sphinx are the main attractions; but there’s much more to see at Giza including a series of smaller, subsidiary pyramids, mastaba tombs, and temples. You can also view the ruins of the workers’ village, located to the southeast of the Khafre and Menkaure pyramids; and the Solar Boat Museum. The latter houses a boat that was found buried at the foot of the Great Pyramid and painstakingly reconstructed by experts over the course of 14 years. If you stay after dark, you can also watch as the pyramids are illuminated by the nightly Sound & Light Show.
General tickets include a tour inside one of the three satellite pyramids of the Queen of Cheops. If you want to view inside the three main pyramids, it’s possible to do so with the purchase of an additional ticket. There isn’t too much to see inside as the mummies and their treasures have been removed (either by looters, or to the safety of the Egyptian Museum). Old Kingdom pharaohs also didn’t decorate their burial chambers with hieroglyphs as later rulers did. However, the experience of venturing deep inside such ancient structures is worth it for many visitors—although claustrophobics should opt out.
Climbing the pyramids is illegal.
How to Visit
Some people choose to join an organized tour. Benefits include a hotel pick-up, transfers from Cairo, included entry fees and an English-speaking Egyptologist guide; however, you’ll be traveling in a large group at the time when the pyramids are most crowded. Alternatively, it’s easy to explore the pyramids independently. Taxi or Uber rides from central Cairo take approximately an hour (depending on traffic) and are amazingly affordable. Public buses also travel from outside the Egyptian Museum to the pyramids.
When you get there, you can choose to wander the complex on foot or hire a camel or horse. The latter is a popular option for those that want to venture into the desert to get a panoramic view of the pyramids; however, many of the animals are poorly treated or underfed. The best views are from the dunes behind the Pyramid of Menkaure, and include all three temples juxtaposed against the modern Cairo skyline in the distant background. Sturdy footwear, ample sun protection and plenty of water are all must-haves for your Giza adventure.
If you want to avoid the crowds, try visiting a little later in the day after the majority of the tour buses have been and gone (most arrive between 9:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.).
Hours & Admission Fees
According to the official Egyptian tourism website, the site opens at 9 a.m. every day and closes at 5 p.m. Ticket prices are listed as 60 Egyptian pounds for general admission, 100 Egyptian pounds for entry into the Great Pyramid, 30 Egyptian pounds for entry into the Pyramid of Khafre and 25 Egyptian pounds for entry into the Pyramid of Menkaure. The Sound & Light Show costs US$15 and should be booked in advance.