Perhaps the second most startling thing about the Pyramids, after their size, is their location.
As you head south-west out of Cairo city centre, you travel along bustling, noisy and at times drab streets in the suburb of Giza, where nondescript mid-rise buildings line either side of the route. Instead of architectural splendour, it's the people at ground level that attract the eye as they go about their lives: carrying groceries from market, puffing away in shisha cafés. Then, suddenly, the buildings stop and – bam! – you're in front of the last surviving Wonder of the World.
Two main structures dominate the plateau. While the Great Pyramid of Cheops is the older and larger of the two, it appears at first view to be smaller than the Pyramid of Chephren, 200 yards beyond. Perhaps this is because of Chephren's situation further up the hill, or because at its pinnacle it retains the only part of the smooth stone casing that originally covered the entirety of both. But just as the Pyramids are larger than you think, so the Sphinx is considerably smaller than it appears in photos.
A few hundred yards to one side (beyond the Pizza Hut, which provides from its first-floor window a great view of the whole ancient ensemble), I came to a road dotted with stables. Each one has followed the tradition of taking the initials of its owners, and I was heading to the MG Stables, opened by Mohammed Ghoneim, in 1922.
I was greeted by Mohammed's grandson, Osama, who invited me to take a seat on a green plastic patio chair, while they prepared the horse – the first I'd been on in 15 years.
"What kind of saddle would you like?" Osama asked. Gosh, I thought, what do I say? A brown one? Leather? Osama sensed my uncertainty: "English? Western?" he asked.
Still a blank. "Oh, English," I blurted confidently, despite having no knowledge that the English saddle is designed to give a horse freedom of movement, while the Western saddles are the ones with the stubby horn sticking up at the front and are more for endurance. "Definitely, English," I confirmed.
Meanwhile, stable boys milled around, staring at me from time to time. One of them, Allaa, was to be my guide. When he first appeared, Allaa looked at me as if I'd just knocked over the jigsaw he had spent the weekend trying to finish. Wait until he sees my riding, I thought to myself. That will bring a smile to his face.
Next, Osama asked me if I wanted to ride within the fenced-off pyramids enclosure itself or go out in the desert. I guessed that real riders would choose the desert option over the touristy camel-infested enclosure. So the desert it was.
Suddenly, the crowd of stable hands parted as Beauty, a striking chestnut mare, was brought to me. Arabian horses are not the tallest in the world but what they lack in height, they more than make up for in class and elegance. Osama handed me the reins as I tried to remind myself how to get on a horse. Once comfortable in the saddle, I clip-clopped off with Allaa, who was by now giving me encouraging "you'll be safe" smiles.
I'd imagined that we would just trot straight out in to the desert from behind the stables. But there was a 10-minute ride through the side streets of Giza first.
The only roads I'd ever previously ridden on were country lanes, free of traffic, passers-by and noise. Today was altogether different. The streets were the width of a saloon car and a horse. I know this because my stirrup narrowly missed the wing mirror on a couple of cars that whizzed passed us, while they made little or no effort to slow down or even appreciate we were there. Thankfully, Beauty was unfazed.
Soon, we reached the open expanse of the desert and, with the clear blue sky overhead and the sun warming my face, Allaa gently encouraged me into a slow rising trot. This was why I'd come: the Pyramids on one side; the rest of Africa on the other.
From a distance, the terrain looked smooth, but up close it was a mixture of sand, stones and small rocks. We climbed up over a hill and then, after a few (mostly unplanned) canters, we were on a plateau. When I looked behind me, I noticed we had travelled much further away from civilisation than I'd thought – even the Pyramids were beginning to look small.
We rode some more through mostly flat terrain. Once or twice, we came to an area where there were a few too many stones and rocks for Beauty. Like Mariah Carey – who once said she "doesn't do stairs" – Beauty, ever the diva, refused to go any further. Allaa told me not to stand for it, and after allowing Beauty a few moments to survey her route, we were on our way again.
What was striking out in the desert was the peace. Not too far away was the largest city in Africa but if you closed your eyes, you would never have known.
Then that peace was broken. From behind some rocks, four or five wild dogs darted out like bullets and sped towards us, barking fiercely and shattering the calm. "Pull in the reins, but not too tight," said Allaa. Beauty, unperturbed, kept trotting, despite the mutts at her hooves. After what seemed like an eternity, the dogs went back to their dens, barking all the while.
With dusk fast approaching, it was time to head for home. So, as the colour of the sand in the sunset began to change from dirty brown to warm russet, we rode towards a cluster of activity at the top of the highest point in the surrounding area, where Allaa told me riders from all around gather each evening to look at the Pyramids as the sun goes down.
In truth, there wasn't much to it – a man underneath a corrugated iron roof with a small gas stove, heating up some tea, while 10 or so riders chatted and laughed. And horseback was not the only way of joining the party: a motorbike lay on its side in the dust, alongside a quad bike. I could see more riders racing each other up the hill towards us and within a few minutes, there were about 20 people – all locals – standing around the cooker, sipping tea.
As I sat on the rock wall, taking it all in, it dawned on me that I was the only person wearing a riding hat. And it was staying put – there was no way I was going to brave my return to the stables through the "Wacky Races" streets of Giza without one. But any self-consciousness was quickly forgotten with one look at the stunning vista of the Pyramids glowing warmly as day gently handed over to night.
Travel Essentials: Cairo
*The writer flew with BMI (0844 848 4888; flybmi.com) from Heathrow to Cairo.
*Mena House Oberoi, Pyramids Road, Giza, Cairo (00 20 233 773 222; oberoihotels.com). Doubles start at €224, room only.
*Osama Ghoneim can be contacted at MG Stables in Giza (00 20 123 112 582; 00 20 164 444 452; email: firstname.lastname@example.org). Prices start at around £10 per hour with a guide.
Red tape & information
*British passport-holders require a visa to enter Egypt, which can be obtained on arrival at Cairo airport for £15 (020-7235 9777; egyptianconsulate.co.uk).
*Egypt Tourist Authority: egypt.travelReuse content