The Pyramids Of Giza

Unrestricted development and urban sprawl from nearby Cairo threaten the ancient pyramids and the Great Sphinx. Air pollution eats away at the magnificent structures, and sewage from adjacent slums weakens the plateau upon which they stand. Ongoing efforts to complete a multilane beltway around Cairo pose additional risks to these irreplaceable wonders.

Of all the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only one is still standing: the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Granted, its pinnacle was lopped off, and the polished white limestone that once faced its sloping sides was scavenged ages ago. But there it is in the Egyptian desert, the largest in a trio of stupendous royal tombs, with a quirky monument called the Sphinx alongside. It's quite a sight to see-if only you could see it.

Today, aggressive throngs of souvenir vendors, tour touts, and taxi drivers crowd the entrance to the pyramids. Though camel rides and horseback tours are now banned from the monument area, visitors still clamber unchecked over the ancient landmarks. The haphazard sprawl and pollution of Cairo comes right to the edge of the archaeological zone, yet Egyptian officials seem unconcerned about protecting the site.

It's difficult now to get that iconic long-distance view of the three pyramids looming in the desert; you can't really see them until you're so close, you're staggered by their size-an estimated 2,300,000 stones compose the Great Pyramid alone, weighing on average 2.5 tons apiece (some are even 9 tons). Oriented precisely to the points of the compass, they were built for three Pharaohs of the 4th Dynasty (about 27th c. B.C.) -- the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the slightly smaller Second Pyramid of Chephren, and the much smaller red-granite Third Pyramid of Mycerinus -- and designed to imitate the rays of the sun shining down from its zenith, so that the buried king might ascend to heaven using his pyramid as a ramp. The great mystery is how they were erected at all, given the primitive technology available. Obviously it took a lot of manpower, or rather slave power: The construction of the Great Pyramid was like a gigantic 20-year public works project, giving the workers extra income during the annual flooding of the Nile.

The Great Sphinx wasn't part of the original plan, but was improvised to get rid of a limestone knoll that blocked King Chephren's view of his pyramid-a brilliant bit of serendipity, as it turned out. It's a gargantuan likeness of Chephren himself, dressed up as Harmachis, god of the rising sun. Fragments of orange-red paint still cling to the battered face, which was vandalized by medieval Muslims. Its soft limestone, however, has required continual restoration; in the late 1980s, the paws (and the left shoulder, which fell off in 1989) got a makeover, though there was no way to repair the broken-off royal "artificial beard."

Most tourists expect a visit to the famed pyramids to be a once-in-a-lifetime thrill, not a tawdry letdown. It's the only Ancient Wonder we have left-what a pity it's come to this.

Where to Stay: Semiramis InterContinental, Corniche El-Nil, Cairo (tel. 888/424-6835 or 20/2/2795-7171; The Ramses Hilton, 1115 Corniche El-Nil (tel. 800/HILTONS or 20/2/2577-7444;