Since their logic-defying construction, the Pyramids at Giza have embodied antiquity, mystery—and far-fetched speculation. “From the summit of these monuments,” cried Napoleon, “forty centuries look upon you!”
The pyramids are the only wonder of the ancient world to have survived nearly intact. The funerary Great Pyramid of Cheops (or Khufu) is the oldest at Giza and the largest in the world, built circa 2500 b.c. with some 2.3 million limestone blocks, weighing an average 2.75 tons each, and moved by a force of around 20,000 men. Two smaller pyramids nearby belonged to Cheops’s son and grandson. The Sphinx (Abu ‘1-Hol, “Father of Terror”) sits nearby, a strange figure with a lion’s body, a human face, and a royal beard. The booming sound-and-light show that takes place every evening after sundown is a melodramatic display, yet a surprisingly entertaining crash course in pharaonic history. As Cairo’s population passes the 15 million mark, the pyramids’ former isolation in the desert has been infringed on by the suburbs that continue to grow around them.
Touts and persistent camel drivers offer their horses and knackered “ships of the desert” to see the pyramids as they were meant to be experienced. They are most magical at dawn and dusk, or when bathed in moonlight and silence.Giving new meaning to the real estate dictum “Location, location, location,” the elegant 19th-century Mena House is just a stone’s throw from the Great Pyramids. Set within 40 acres of lush parkland and gardens on the edge of the Sahara, this veritable oasis of escape from the amusement-park atmosphere that now often surrounds the pyramids was once the rest house and hunting lodge of the empire-building Khedive Ismail. The omnipresent pyramids loom in full, unobstructed view from your hotel room, the breakfast terrace (Evelyn Waugh thought it was “like having the Prince of Wales at the next table”), the hotel’s 18-hole golf course, and the garden-enveloped swimming pool.
Maintaining much of its colonial air, the Mena House’s original wing was home to the 1943 “Big Three” conference attended by Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek, and was the site where plans for D-Day were initiated, as well as the formal signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1978. The old, refurbished suites that command a view of the pyramids are far more interesting than rooms in the new annex. The Moghul Restaurant offers the finest Indian cuisine in Egypt, a culinary reminder of the hotel’s membership in the prestigious, Indian-based Oberoi hotel chain.