Beyond Giza: Egypt's other pyramids that are worth seeing

The tunnel into the burial chamber is so low that its rocky ceiling scrapes my spine.

Hunched over, we scramble like crabs down the 79-metre passage into the heart of the Bent Pyramid. Outside, it is 44 degrees. Inside, it's surprisingly cool and silent, save for the squeak of a bat and my fast-drumming heart.

Eventually, the tunnel pours us into a vast chamber: we're in the belly of the structure, which is almost completely hollow inside. Face upturned to the illuminated interior, I'm looking right up to the apex of the pyramid.

A new, wooden tower has stairs winding up to the peak but I am completely cowed by the crush of the tunnel, the thought of the weight of the stone above me and the oppressive sensation that the ancients really don't want us in here.

"I have to go," I tell Ahmed Aziz, a qualified Egyptologist who has been guiding visitors through Egypt's ruins with Abercrombie & Kent for the past 16 years.

"Go? Up the tower?" Aziz asks. "Okay!"

"No! I have to go. Outside. Now. I can't stay."

Taking deep, cool breaths of the ancient air, I quell the rising panic as the breath of a long-dead pharaoh seems to warm my neck.

But first, a photo. Because if there's no photo, did it ever really happen?

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My hands shake so badly that my first two snaps are blurred, so I pause, breathe again, and point my phone up to the pyramid's peak. Better make it good. It's an astounding place, but I don't think I'll be coming here again.

The pyramids of Giza are the best known and most visited, but there are about 80 pyramids in Egypt and to really understand Giza, you are well advised to visit the "other pyramids" at nearby Dahshour (home of the Bent Pyramid) and Saqqara, which together with Giza comprise the Memphis Necropolis.

New excavations are continuing, there are new openings and then, of course, there is the allegedly imminent opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza. Cairo's ancient icons might be some of the best known and most visited on Earth, but they are always worth a fresh look.

DAHSHOUR

Fifty kilometres south of Cairo, and a 45-minute drive from the Giza plateau, Dahshour is in the headlines because its most famous pyramid - the Bent Pyramid - was recently reopened to visitors for the first time since 1965.

The burial chamber is reached via a tunnel twice the length of the 40-metre Great Gallery that delves into the heart of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The Bent Pyramid was a practice run ordered by the pharaoh Sneferu, whose son Khufu (Cheops) ran with the idea, and went on to build the Great Pyramid. Why is the pyramid called Bent? Because the architect only realised halfway through its construction that the 54.4-degree angle was impossible and reverted to a 43.9-degree angle to top it out.

When it was built, roughly 4600 years ago, it was the tallest building in the known world at 104 metres, and much of its white limestone cladding is still intact. The same architect later got it right with the nearby, bat-filled Red Pyramid, the burial chamber of which is also open for visitors via a 63-metre tunnel. The crumbling Black Pyramid nearby was signed off as another architectural embarrassment.

Unlike its peers, Dahshour receives few travellers and, apart from a few gun-toting soldiers and the temple guard, we are the only people here this afternoon.

SAQQARA

The oldest stone structure in the world is at Saqqara, a 30-minute drive from the Giza Plateau. Walk through a hall of pillars to King Djoser's Step Pyramid, the first of its kind and a precursor to the smooth-faced "modern" pyramids of Dahshour and Giza. Built in the 27th century BC, the six-tiered pyramid is set amongst what was Memphis' royal cemetery.

Key sights here include the 4400-year-old, Old Kingdom mastaba (flat-topped tomb) of a wealthy noble named Ti. The walls are decorated with some of the most dazzling records of daily life, literally hundreds of workers are depicted building boats, fishing, tilling fields or herding cattle. Be sure also to walk through the Serapeum, the underground burial grounds of ancient Egypt's sacred black bulls, mummified and entombed in vast stone coffins.

For another break from the relentless sun, the little Imhotep Museum, named for the architect who built Djoser's pyramid, is informative and well designed.

MEMPHIS

Memphis (now called Mit Rahina) is about 20 kilometres from Giza and was the first capital of ancient Egypt. A 3200-year-old, 11-metre statue of Ramses II is the main attraction of its open air museum. The colossus lies on its back in a covered section and you can walk right around it for an up-close inspection. Its brother stands in the foyer of the Grand Egyptian Museum.

Outside, wander between the sculptures: a highlight is the 80-tonne alabaster sphinx carved between 1549-1292BC, bearing the face of an unknown king, and the second largest sphinx in Egypt.

GRAND EGYPTIAN MUSEUM (GIZA)

"Absolutely next October [2020] is the opening date for the GEM," the construction site manager tells me with conviction, as we stand on the unfinished floor of the new museum's foyer. At this point, it's running eight years behind schedule, so that statement's best taken with a pinch of salt.

In the meantime, a few tour companies, led by Abercrombie & Kent, have gained access to its restoration rooms for two-hour private tours.

In one of the clinical white labs I'm only a handspan from history, watching archaeologists gently cleaning a sarcophagus, opened to reveal the wrapped body inside. Expect to be turned back if you are coughing or sneezing: the environment is that fragile. These labs will reportedly be closed to public access when the GEM finally opens and these tours may end soon, as construction activity at the museum reaches fever pitch for the final push.

Further on our hard-hat tour, I spy a few hero pieces transferred from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, including the sunshade from Tutankhamun's chariot and his funerary bed, supported by two golden cow-goddesses. They're just a couple of the 5400-plus objects found in King Tut's tomb that will be displayed in the new museum.

The largest piece in the GEM is the 83-tonne red granite statue of Ramses II - brother of the one at Memphis - in the foyer; befitting for what is to become, when it opens, the largest archaeological museum in the world. A children's museum, shopping mall, restaurants and an underground walkway to the Giza Pyramids are all on the cards. See gem.gov.eg

 

FIVE ESSENTIALS FOR A DAY AT THE PYRAMIDS

Abercrombie & Kent guide and Egyptologist Ahmed Aziz shares his tips for Pyramids perusal.

1. CLOTHING

Summer or winter, the stones always reflect the heat, so wear light coloured clothes. And wear your least fashionable, most comfortable shoes, as there's plenty of dust and plenty of walking.

2. ID

Carry your passport, as ID is required at the entrances.

3. CAMERAS

Bring your camera, but make sure your phone is also well-charged, as some of the haras (temple guardians), won't permit official-looking cameras, but will give camera phones the nod. Expect to pay for a "permit" for professional-looking cameras, more again for video cameras and a token amount for tripods.

4. LIGHT

Pack a head torch or a small hand-held torch to illuminate the corners of the burial chambers or the art on the walls.

5. TIMING

Cairo's traffic is terrible. If you're staying in the city, get moving early, or book a tour on a Friday or Saturday, when the roads aren't so congested. It's always worth starting early to avoid the worst of both crowds and heat.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/cairo

egypt.travel

FLY

Emirates and Etihad fly from Australia to Cairo via Dubai and Abu Dhabi respectively. See emirates.com, etihad.com

TOUR

Abercrombie & Kent runs behind-the-scenes tours of the unfinished Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) as part of its three-night Cairo Stopover, which includes accommodation at the Four Seasons Cairo at Nile Plaza, two full days private sightseeing with an Egyptologist, as well as visits to Memphis and Saqqara and the Bent Pyramid at Dahshour. Prices start at $2985 a person. See abercrombiekent.com.au

Belinda Jackson was a guest of Abercrombie & Kent.

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