In the 2nd century BC, Hellenistic poets and historians came up with a list of marvelous sights to be recommended for ancient tourists in the Greek and Roman world. These seven sights of impressive construction and architectural genius became what we now refer to as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Of the seven iconic landmarks, only the Great Pyramid of Giza, the oldest of them all, remains standing today. Known as the Pyramid of Khufu, the Great Pyramid is the largest and oldest of the three pyramids in Giza. Together with the Great Sphinx and surrounding pyramids and tombs, the Great Pyramid and the Necropolis of Giza have been widely recognized as the cultural symbol of Egypt for thousands of years. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Great Pyramid had already been around for over 2,500 years. To them, the pyramid was as ancient as the Parthenon is to us. Not to mention that the Great Pyramid was the world’s tallest man made structure for over 3800 years. No wonder why so many have considered the Great Pyramid as a symbol of human civilization. To say we were overwhelming excited as our car was approaching the Giza Plateau was not an overstatement.
After Saqqara and Dahshur, our visit to the necropolises of ancient Memphis brought us to the Giza Plateau, the world famous site of the Great Pyramid, at the edge of the Western Desert. The site of the Great Pyramid complex is quite large, despite its close proximity to the city of Giza. Unlike promotional images depicting the Great Pyramid in the middle of desert, in reality the Giza pyramids stand awfully close to modern roadways and bounded three sides by low-rise building blocks. The site was crowded with tourists as expected, so as plenty of pushy camel handlers. Completed at around 2560 BC, the 146.5m Pyramid of Khufu, or commonly known as the Great Pyramid of Giza, is the largest Egyptian pyramid in the world. 2.3 million blocks of limestone and granite were used, some of which weighing up to 80 tonnes. The pharaoh’s tomb lies in the heart of the enormous structure. Not far from the Great Pyramid stands the iconic Sphinx. The limestone statue depicts a reclining lion body with a human head, which many believe was the representation of Pharaoh Khafre. As the son of Pharaoh Khufu, Khafre was also a prominent pyramid builder. His pyramid in Giza is the world’s second largest.
Standing furthest at the southwest of the complex is the smallest of the three pyramids in Giza: Pyramid of Menkaure. In the 12th century, the second Ayyubid Kurdish Sultan of Egypt attempted to demolish the pyramids of Giza. His recruited workers started with the Pyramid of Menkaure. The task proved to be too difficult and expensive that the attempt was stopped after eight months of hard labour. Due to the sheer size of the stone and the surrounding sandy environment, the workers only managed to remove one to two stone blocks a day. After eight months, they only managed to create a vertical cut on one side of the small pyramid in Giza. This might explain why the Great Pyramid remains as the sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. After 4,600 years, only the outer layer of stone cladding was gone. The structural integrity of the Great Pyramid appears to remain invincible at our times.
While Pharaoh Khufu stole the limelight for 4,500 years as the king who built the Great Pyramid of Giza, much few people may acknowledge that Khufu’s success was built upon the earlier experiments of his father, Pharaoh Sneferu. At 40km south of Cairo, Dahshur was the experimental ground for Sneferu, who famously built the three predecessors that ultimately led to the success of his son’s Great Pyramid. The three Sneferu’s pyramids in Dahshur reveal the evolution of pyramid construction, from Meidum Pyramid: Egypt’s first smooth-sided pyramid that had partially collapsed since the ancient times, to Bent Pyramid: another smooth-sided pyramid whose change of inclining angle midway had led to a bent effect, and finally to Red Pyramid: Egypt’s first successfully constructed smooth-sided pyramid.
After Saqqara, we intended to go to Abusir, another necropolis of Memphis just like Saqqara. However, we were told that Abusir was not open for some reason, so we turned to Dahshur instead. Dahshur was another well-known necropolis that served the royal members of Memphis in the Old Kingdom. Famous for its three unique pyramids, Dahshur is a must-see site if one is interested in Egyptian pyramids. Our taxi drove us to pass by the Bent and Black Pyramid, and then stopped at the biggest of them all, the Red Pyramid. There were not many tourists around, so we decided to pay the admission to enter the Red Pyramid. Named after the slightly reddish limestone, the Red Pyramid is Egypt’s third largest and also the oldest smooth sided pyramid.
The sloped passage down to the burial chamber at the pyramid’s heart was narrow and dimly lit. With an slope of 27 degrees down, a 1.2m width and 0.91m height, the journey down the 61m passage was no small feat. For the entire way we were forced to hunch down with our backs touching the passage ceiling, and move down carefully one step at a time. We heaved a sigh of relief after reaching the end of the tunnel, but was a little disappointed to find the empty chamber at the end. As expected no artifacts were in display in the chamber. The 15m corbel vaulted ceiling was quite impressive, given the fact that we were almost 100m below the top of the pyramid, under millions of tons of limestone.
Our next stop was Mit Rahina Museum or what commonly known as the Memphis Open Air Museum. Memphis, the ancient Egyptian capital in the Old Kingdom, was once a prosperous trading, manufacturing and religious centre in the region of Nile Delta. For many centuries, the ruins of the abandoned Egyptian capital had been pillaged for constructing other structures in the nearby Arab cities. Not much of the great city survived to the present day, except the artifacts in the open air museum and what might still lie underground. The biggest draw of the museum is an enormous limestone statue of Ramses II lying in the establishment’s feature gallery.
From the pyramids on Giza Plateau to the royal tombs in Valley of the Kings, their belief in afterlife, rebirth, and life of immortality have shaped the cultural identity of the ancient Egyptians for thousands of years. From the Classical time to the modern age, tourists travel to Egypt from around the world to see their majestic monuments dedicated to their afterlife beliefs. Ever since seeing real mummies as a boy in the British Museum, checking out the Egyptian pyramids and tombs has been included on my wish list for a long time. As a boy, I could never imagine how touristy and commercialized the actual visit of the archaeological sites have became, nor would I acknowledge that the Great Pyramids and Sphinx are actually situated just a stone throw away from the urban area of Giza, the third largest city in Egypt. Often, the experience of traveling would involve fulfilling a dream while at the same time accepting the reality.
While visiting Sinai felt like a continuation of our experience of the Arabian Desert (Petra and Wadi Rum), arriving in Cairo gave us a sense of entering another chapter, the final one this time, of our Middle East trip. At Luna Hotel, we hired a taxi for our first day in Cairo. Our intention was to do a day excursion at the outskirts of Cairo, probably the most popular day trip for all tourists coming to Egypt. Our first stop was Saqqara at 30km south of Cairo. Saqqara was the royal necropolis of Memphis, the capital of Lower Egypt. Many kings and nobles of the early dynasties and the Old Kingdom were buried at Saqqara. At Saqqara, the most famous monument is the Pyramid of Djoser, which is also the oldest surviving stone building in the world. Before we headed to the world famous step pyramid, a staff led us into one of the many tombs in the archaeological site. Inside the tomb, detailed wall inscriptions and paintings were well preserved. Apart from depictions of kings and divinities, I was particularly interested in the figures that illustrate religious possessions and ceremonial feasts.
Outside the tomb, we reached the main funeral complex of the Pyramid of Djoser. The complex was crowded with tourist groups, each was led by a tour guide holding an umbrella and speaking with a microphone. We walked past the tourist groups and through the funeral complex to reach the famous stepped pyramid. Out of all mastabas and tombs in Saqqara, Djoser’s stepped pyramid is certainly the most unique and iconic. The massive monument of terracing stone masonry, dated back to 27th century BC, is known as the earliest pyramid in Egypt, and the predecessor for the Great Pyramids of Giza.
Deep in the Syria Desert stood one of the most splendid cities in the ancient world. Due to its strategic location on the Silk Road with Persia, India and China on one side, and the Roman and Greek world on the other, Palmyra was a significant cultural and economic hub in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. In 273 AD, Palmyra was razed to the ground by the Romans, and had never fully recovered since then. The archaeological wealth from the ancient city was Syria’s most prominent tourist attraction and UNESCO’s World Heritage site. Palmyra faced its biggest nightmare in May 2015, when the ISIS launched a huge offensive attack to capture the desert oasis. Between mid 2015 to March 2016, Palmyra was controlled under the notorious terrorists when precious treasures and artefacts were looted or destroyed. The Temple of Bel, Temple of Baalshamin, seven Tomb Towers including the Tower of Elahbel, and the Monumental Arch were blown up to pieces. Uncounted artefacts were looted and smuggled into the black market. Archaeologists were beheaded. Before they were forced out by the government army, ISIS planted thousands of landmines and bombs in the ruined city. On 15th April, 2020, two children were killed by a landmine in Palmyra, four years after the ISIS was driven out. Despite the de-mining effort since 2016, Palmyra remains a dangerous place to visit and an endangered World Heritage site seven years in a row. Memories of our 2006 visit seems so far far away:
At around 14:30 we finally arrived at Palmyra, the ancient desert metropolis since the times of Alexander the Great. We checked in at Citadel Hotel. The hotel staff arranged a car for our visit to the funeral towers. The staff asked if we wanted to hire a car to visit the tomb towers. At the village museum we bought the admission tickets for the tomb towers, and sardined ourselves (6 of us) in the little red car for the journey.
Our hired guide from the museum waited for us at the entrance of the Tower of Elahbel. He told us some history of the towers, unlocked the door of Tower of Elahbel and led us in. Many tomb towers in the valley were badly damaged by earthquakes throughout the centuries. The Tower of Elahbel was an exception. Inside we could see the slots on the walls where coffins were once placed. We walked up to the third level, saw a number of sculpted busts of the deceased, and the beautiful fresco of stars and constellations on the ceiling. After, we visited an underground tomb with well preserved frescoes. I was able to recognize scenes of the Trojan War with Achilles and Odysseus from one of the wall paintings.
After the necropolis, we moved on to visit the Temple of Bel. It was the largest building in Palmyra, and one of the largest temples in the Classical world. Bel was the main god of Babylon. The temple was erected in the first century, with influences from Classical Greece and Rome, Ptolemaic Egypt, and ancient Syria. We walked through the main gate into a huge courtyard that was once surrounded by Corinthian colonnades. At the centre stands the ruined Sanctuary of Bel, where we could admire the exquisite relief carving of the ruined building.
Tomb towers at Palmyra are unique examples of Classical necropolis. Some tower tombs dated back to the Hellenistic period. Most were found in the Valley of the Tombs below Umm al-Bilqis Hill.
Inside the towers, dead bodies were placed on landings and stacked stone shelves, marked with a sculptural bust.
Before its brutal destruction in August 2015 by the ISIS, the Tower of Elahbel was a great place to learn about funeral architecture of Palmyra. Inside the tower there was a narrow staircase reaching the upper floors.
Some of the larger towers could hold up to 400 corpses. Chinese silk yarns dated to 1st century AD were discovered in the tomb towers, revealing the evidence of Silk Road trading two thousand years ago.
The Temple of Bel was the largest ancient temple complex in the Middle East. Built upon pre Roman temples, the Temple of Bel was founded in 32 AD. The temple was later converted into a church and then a mosque.
Most of the Temple of Bel has been blown up by the ISIS. Now it has become a large pile of rubble.
Magnificent carving of the temple are probably gone even if archaeologists can restore the general structure of the building.
Walking around the enormous temple complex was a great pleasure.
Ceiling details were particularly well preserved at the Temple of Bel.
Beautiful relief and rows of Corinthian columns once stood in the temple courtyard.
Some of the relief carving of the central sanctuary were on display in the temple courtyard.
Handsome Classical columns stood proudly in the courtyard before the destruction.
Our guide gave us a little talk on the temple’s history at the courtyard.
Outside the temple walls, we could see the palm trees east of the ruined city.
Along with sone other destroyed buildings, the government is planning to restore the Temple of Bel using original materials from the existing debris.
At last, our little red car drove us up to the citadel behind the ruins of Palmyra, where we could watch the sunset. The citadel also suffered major destruction by the ISIS.
Up at the citadel we could fully appreciate the scale of the barren landscape in all directions.
Seven Tomb Towers are lost forever.
The Temple of Bel, the enormous walled complex east of the Great Colonnade of Palmyra, was almost completely destroyed by the ISIS. As satellite images showed, there was hardly anything standing at the Temple of Bel.
In the morning, we headed to the main railway station of Xian. At the station’s east plaza, there were a number of municipal buses designated for major tourist attractions near the city. We hopped onto one of the several buses heading to the Terracotta Army (兵馬俑). The bus ride took roughly an hour to arrive at the parking lot, which was about 15 minutes of walk from the gate of the archaeological site. On our way to the gate, we passed by an alleyway full of vendors. An elderly woman selling baby woolen shoes beautifully handcrafted in traditional styles caught our attention. From the ticket hall it was another 15-minute meandering through a park until reaching the main site, where four exhibition halls housed the most important archaeological discovery in China in the 20th century. We started from Pit 1, the biggest and most impressive exhibition hall where about 2000 terracotta warriors were on display in rows of excavated ditches. There were over 6000 warriors in this pit alone. It was unbelievable that no two warriors have the same face. At Pit 3 a number of high ranked terracotta generals were unearthed, prompting archaeologists to believe that it was the vault for the commanders. However the pit had been partially damaged. We then moved on to Pit 2 that offer close-up encounter with different types of warriors: archers, infantry, chariots, troopers, etc. The extraordinary details of the warrior’s hairstyles and armour were captivating, leaving us plenty of clues to piece together an impression of what being one of the thousands of warriors protecting the mighty First Qin Emperor (秦始皇)might be like 2200 years ago. Before leaving, we dared not to miss the “Qin Shi Huang Emperor Tomb Artefact Exhibition Hall”, in which two bronze chariots and horses unearthed near the mausoleum were on display.
We have learnt about the Terracotta Army since early childhood in Hong Kong from books and school. We had seen an amazing traveling exhibition of the warriors at London’s British Museum back in 2008, but none could compare with seeing the real excavation site of the army. Discovered in 1974 by a well-digging farmer, the Terracotta Army belongs to the outer part of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor. Famous as a cruel tyrant, the First Qin Emperor was also widely recognized for his contributions on unifying China, not only militarily, but also the language, culture, economy and measurement units. Built between BC 208 to 256, the mausoleum construction began in the first year of his throne when the First Qin Emperor was 13 years old. The 8000+ terracotta warriors unearthed revealed the high level of sculpting skills and artistic craftsmanship of the Qin Dynasty, as well as the selfish personality of the First Qin Emperor. Legend had it that the First Qin Emperor had huge fear of mortality. Not only he sent out travelers to look for the medicine of immortality, he also commissioned a build a terracotta army to safeguard his tomb from his uncounted enemies in the Afterlife. Ancient texts also described the exquisite construction of the mausoleum, including river streams filled with mercury so they would never dried up. Before the actual digging of the mausoleum may take place one day in the future, our generation could only imagine the exquisite of the emperor’s underground mausoleum from ancient depictions and archaeological studies of the excavated terracotta army.
Like many railway stations in the country, Xian Railway Station is a huge building.
The old woman making traditional woolen shoes near the parking lot of the Terracotta Army.
Aisles of the Terracotta Army in Pit One.
No visitors were allowed to go down to the aisles, except archaeologists and occasional VIP.
Looking at the warriors, it was hard to imagine all of them were once fully coloured.
Built in 1976, the huge building covering Pit One felt like a railway station.
The terracotta warriors seemed like they were queuing for a train, but in fact, the warriors were facing eastwards and battle-ready to guard the Emperor’s tomb from enemies of the east, namely the six nations that Qin had conquered before unifying China into a single nation.
A number of the terracotta warriors were in different stages of conservation.
Terracotta warriors and horses at Pit 2.
Overview of Pit 2.
Scattered pieces of warriors and artefacts at Pit 2.
Photographs of the coloured warriors during excavation.
Several terracotta warriors were displayed in glass boxes at Pit 3.
All of them had different hairstyles, dresses, postures, and faces.
Terracotta statue of an high ranked official.
Belly of the high ranked official.
Archer without the bow. Some of the weaponry were also on display.
Cavalry and his beautifully carved horse.
The details of the horse’s headpiece was magnificent.
Closeup of a warrior’s head showing unique hairstyle of that time.
Two bronze chariots were discovered near the mausoleum. They are roughly half the size of the real objects. The chariots were unearthed in 1980 and took archaeologists years to put back together the broken pieces. These chariots are one of the fifty or so designated artefacts that can never leave the country.
Our posts on 2016 Xian and Jiuzhaigou:
DAY 1 – NIGHT ARRIVAL, Xian, China
DAY 2 – QIN EMPEROR’S TERRACOTTA ARMY, near Xian, China
DAY 2 – BIG WILD GOOSE PAGODA (大雁塔), Xian, China
DAY 3 – HAN YANG LING MAUSOLEUM, Xian, China
DAY 3 – SHAANXI HISTORY MUSEUM, Xian, China
DAY 3 – GREAT MOSQUE (西安大清真寺) AND MUSLIM QUARTER, Xian, China
DAY 3 – MING CITY WALL, Xian, China
DAY 4 -FIRST GLIMPSE OF JIUZHAIGOU (九寨溝), Sichuan (四川), China
DAY 5 – ARROW BAMBOO LAKE (箭竹海), PANDA LAKE (熊貓海) & FIVE FLOWER LAKE (五花海), Jiuzhaigou (九寨溝), China
DAY 5 – PEARL SHOAL FALLS (珍珠灘瀑布), MIRROR LAKE (鏡海) & NUORILANG FALLS (諾日朗瀑布), Jiuzhaigou (九寨溝), China
DAY 5 – LONG LAKE (長海) & FIVE COLOURS LAKE (五彩池), Jiuzhaigou (九寨溝), China
DAY 5 – RHINOCEROS LAKE (犀牛海), TIGER LAKE (老虎海) & SHUZHENG VILLAGE (樹正寨), Jiuzhaigou (九寨溝), China
DAY 6 – ASCEND TO FIVE COLOUR POND (五彩池), Huanglong (黃龍), Sichuan (四川), China
DAY 7 – FAREWELL JIUZHAIGOU & XIAN, China