Giza was calling
Our third day in Cairo started with the big one, a trip to the Giza Plateau. I think when you mention Egypt this is what people immediately think of, the great pyramids, the sphinx, the camels and the sand.
What I think lots of people don't know is that the pyramids at Giza are not miles out in the desert like a hidden oasis but are right slap bang in the middle of a bustling metropolis.
This doesn't at all detract from their awe inspiring size or history but it is funny to me how they are so misrepresented in the media, especially those big Hollywood movies.
Anyway, a trip to Giza was a big bucket list moment for me, and as had happened in Athens when we first saw the Parthenon, I started to feel very emotional as we approached the site. My Dad (who died when I was 27) had told me more than once "make sure you get to see the pyramids one day" and here I was.
There are three main "Great" pyramids (tombs for Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure). The largest, and oldest belonging to Khufu, stands at about 450ft high and was probably built in the 26th century BCE. It's truly unbelievable to stand at the base looking up at this marvel of human engineering. I was really pleased we'd seen the Dashour and Saqqara buildings the day before as you can really see how those ancient Egyptians learned, through hard trial and error, to make these incredible monuments.
Again, I'd need thousands of words to explain everything we did at the site so here instead are some tourist tips to get the most out of your time here:
* If you use a guide make sure they know what the important bits of the site are to you, and ask that they include time for you to walk and explore at your own pace. We saw (and have heard from others) lots of people being herded/rushed through the complex which is a real shame when you are somewhere with so much to see.
* Exploring pyramids, even if you don't go inside is hot and dusty work. Wear good, comfortable shoes, clothes you don't mind getting dirty and take loads of water. If you are walking from one side of the plateau to the other it's about 3km, and that's without detouring to look at anything else on the way so those feet will get some steps in.
* Look for the "forced perspective" shots, the kids really enjoyed taking a break from the history every so often to get some photos of them "holding the top of the pyramid" or "kissing the sphinx".
* Decide beforehand if you want to buy trinkets/souvenirs from the site and be very firm and clear about how much you want to spend.
* If someone offers to take a photo, point out something interesting, give you a lift on their horse/camel or sand buggy, or tells you are going the wrong way and offers to help they'll be doing this expecting some tip money or"baksheesh". If you want to give it that's fine but it's nice to know that is what is expected.
* "La Shukran" is Arabic for no thank you, if the first one or two don't work a very firm "la" on its own should send a message that you don't need/want someones help or services.
* Make sure you go out to the Panoramic Viewpoint to be able to look down at all three of the great pyramids plus the "Queen's pyramids". There is some disagreement about whether these smaller tombs were built for Khufu's wives, mother or sisters and some say there were once a lot more than the three we can see today, but it's interesting to wonder about the stories and secrets that these monuments are hiding.
* Do take time to visit the great Sphinx as well. 240 feet long and 70 feet high, we've all seen photos of it standing proudly with the pyramids behind it, but did you know it was forgotten and buried in sand until the early 1800's and it wasn't until 1930 that the entire sculpture was unearthed and seen in it's entirety. It was carved from a single block of limestone and our guide pointed out some very faint red patches that suggest it was originally brightly coloured. I wish I could have seen it like that.
We spent a good few hours seeing everything the plateau had to offer and then were on our way.
We had asked our guide to organise a trip to a papyrus factory. During our travels we obviously can't buy much in the way of trinkets or memorabilia but a genuine papyrus painting was something I really wanted to find. There are lots of these papyrus shops in Cairo and obviously they are there to make some money so they'll all be super friendly but the sales woman we found was great with the kids, showing them how the paper is made and they gave us refreshments and plenty of time to look around.
After a spot of lunch our day continued with a visit to the Gayer Anderson Musuem. Mr Anderson was an officer in the British military and when stationed in Egypt fell in love with the history and religion of the area. He was an avid collector of antiques, furniture and jewellery and when he died he left his whole collection, including his houses, to the Egyptian people as a museum.
You can really feel his love for showcasing other cultures as you wander the corridors and courtyards of this building. There are rooms filled with crystal and glassware, lavish gold curtains and carpets, lace, marble and the finest pottery. I was terrified that my backpack, or an overexcited child would break some priceless artefact but luckily we (and the museum) escaped unharmed.
The boys were thrilled when a guide told them he would show them how to trick us. He ushered them off into a corridor in front of us and asked us to wait. He then called us to follow and when we arrived in the next room the children were no where to be seen! Obviously not panicking at all that our kids had seemingly disappeared Kris and I started looking in cupboards and behind doors with no success until, just before I started shouting for them, a hidden panel in a cupboard was exposed and both boys emerged grinning like Cheshire cats from a hidden room! Once I'd calmed down a little I was able to share in their glee of a successful prank well executed.
Our final stop of the day was the mosque of Sultan Hassan. Located in Salah al-Din Square, this religious building is one of the largest mosques in the world and is not without it's scandal. Our guide told us that during construction, one of the towering minarets collapsed, sadly killing 300 people and shortly afterwards the Sultan (An-Nasir Hassan) was assassinated, meaning he never got to see his building completed.
It was a beautifully peaceful place to visit, intricately carved doors leading into a huge courtyard with a central fountain. When we arrived prayer time was approaching and we thought that was why our guide was rushing us through but it turned out she had a very special surprise for us. We were led to the back of the mosque and introduced to a man who in turn lead us through two sets of locked doors to an inner prayer room with an ornate ceiling rising high above us. As we all marvelled at the room this man began to sing. He was calling the "Adhan", the Arabic call to prayer and his voice was so beautifully melodic.
We are not Muslim, not religious at all in any traditional sense but this moment, in this place, as the words echoed around the room, I could understand why so many people have faith. It was a beautiful moment, one that was unexpected but that I'll never forget.
Happy, tired and a little overwhelmed we ended the day sitting in Khan el-Khalili souk eating salads, pickles, breads and falafel while drinking date tea and watching the world go by. I think this was the moment I started to really love Egypt and there was so much more to come.