Saturday January 10th 2004
We were met at Cairo Giza Station by Mr. George, the travel company representative at that end. He bundled us into a minibus and we headed into the crowded streets of Cairo in the direction of the Cairo Museum, our first stop.
There, we were introduced to Sami, our Egyptian guide for the day. He handed us our tickets and we joined the huge crowd waiting to enter the building.
He took us on what can only be described as a 'whistle-stop' tour of the exhibits, Sami showing us what he considered to be the highlights. My own favourites being:
The Narmer Palette
The beautiful, diorite statue of Khafre
The bizarre Akhenaten collection &
The lovely statue of Queen Hatshepsut, fashioned in the male style, with red skin and beard!
The museum is enormous and our tour did not do justice to the marvels interred there. The tour only lasted about thirty to forty minutes and we found ourselves outside the ultimate Tutankhamen exhibit.
Sami told us that guides were not allowed inside and that we had twenty minutes to look around and then meet him back outside the museum.
The museum is so huge and labyrinthine that we barely made it back in time after a few quick snaps of Tutankhamen's treasures.
Our next stop was the Giza necropolis. The three gigantic pyramids there have stood for 4500 years and tower above the desert, guardians of ancient secrets and lost wisdom.
We were handed our tickets to enter the site and the minibus made its way up to the car park in the very shadow of Khufu's Horizon.
We alighted and followed our guide as he explained some of the history of this greatest of monuments. The Great Pyramid was built in the 4th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt by the pharaoh, Khufu. It stands over 146 metres in height and has a volume of 2,583,283 cubic metres. Before the construction of the Eiffel Tower, the Great Pyramid was the tallest building in the world. To stand, dwarfed, by this magnificent structure is something to experience, I can tell you. When you first see it, you think that it is not that big. Its pyramidal form disguises its sheer scale, but once you are up close, the magnitude of the construction effort becomes apparent.
I snapped photographs ceaselessly, hardly listening to Sami's stilted monologue.
When he had finished, he told us to meet him back at the bus in fifteen minutes. I don't know about you, but a quarter of an hour to look around the largest, single ancient monument in the history of the world is absolutely deplorable. One could not even walk around the circumference of the pyramid in that time, it is so massive. Never mind the other two main pyramids at Giza, Khafre's and Menkaure's.
We had to make do with a quick look at the Boat Pits. These were where large, wooden boats were buried, probably as a symbol of travel to the Afterlife. It was dismaying to see so much garbage in the bottom of the pits. The modern-day Egyptians seem to care little for their relics as rubbish was strewn everywhere you turned. Admittedly, much of the trash was from inconsiderate tourists, but surely, gangs of cleaners could be set on to keep the site tidy. Or maybe we just arrived on a bad day.
After the boat pits, we saw a deep shaft, surrounded by a safety barrier. Dark shadows precluded us from seeing the bottom of this pit, but it seemed quite deep. The pit may have been dug to ascertain the depth of the bedrock upon which the Great Pyramid sits.
A little further on from this were the remains of the Mortuary Temple and the Causeway that would have led to the Valley Temple of the pyramid complex. The Valley Temple, where Khufu's body would have been prepared for interment within his tomb, is now completely gone, swallowed up by the encroaching suburbs of Cairo. The same fate has befallen most of the Causeway. All that remains of the Mortuary Temple, beside the pyramid, are some limestone foundations and a section of basalt floor.
To the left we saw three satellite pyramids, crumbling and ruined. Beneath these were probably buried members of Khufu's family. Currently, it is thought that Khufu's mother, Hetepheres, a queen, Meritetes, who lived during the reigns of Sneferu, Khufu and Khafre, and Queen Henutsen, half-sister of Khufu.
To the right of these smaller pyramids, between them and the Great Pyramid, were the remains of another pyramid. This was only discovered in the last decade and is very exciting because some of the casing stones remain. These give an idea of what the pyramids must have looked like in their heyday. These casing stones were fascinating also because you could clearly see the toolmarks left by the simple, copper tools of the master craftsmen of Ancient Egypt.
Beside this is the Pyramidion. This either capped the Great Pyramid or acted as a scale model to guide the builders as to the slope of the sides of the structure as it rose above the desert. From this corner of Akhet Khufu (the Ancient Egyptian name for the Great Pyramid), we could also see the tomb of Khafre, Khufu's grandson, rising seemingly higher than his ancestor's colossus. This is a bit of an optical illusion, though, as Khafre's pyramid is a little smaller than Khufu's, but it is built on slightly higher ground. Atop the second pyramid (called Great is Khafre in its time) we could see some of the original casing stones, weather-beaten and dull, but clinging desperately to their massive parent.
Behind the second pyramid is the much smaller tomb of Menkaure, Khafre's son. While this structure is considerably less massive than its predecessors, it is said to be the most soundly-built of the three, displaying the improving skills of the 4th Dynasty builders. Unlike the two, larger pyramids, Menkaure's resting place was clad in red granite casing stones, some of which remain on the lower courses.
We hurried back to the bus and set off for a nearby high point, overlooking the Giza Necropolis. Our guide said that this was a great place to take photographs of the three pyramids. He did not warn of what was about to happen to Eddie and I!
We were happily snapping away, when a gang of Arabs appeared, wrapped their clothes around us, hoisted us onto camels and set off into the desert! They took photos, with our own cameras, of us on the camels, with the pyramids in the background and then systematically emptied our wallets of money. Once we managed to dismount and return to our guide, we had little money left for the rest of the day. Both of us were unhappy about the amount of money demanded by the men, but at least we had some nice photos.
After this shambles, we were taken to the Great Sphinx. This leonine leviathan was probably built by Khafre at the same time as he constructed his pyramid, although some have suggested that he merely restored it and that it had stood there in its enclosure for thousands of years before the pyramids were built. The fact that the causeway of Khafre's mortuary complex marks the edge of the Sphinx enclosure, though, indicates a contemporary construction for both.
It has also been suggested that Khufu built the Sphinx because Khafre's causeway appears to intersect the quarries used by Khufu to build his pyramid. Did Khafre usurp a structure built by his grandfather for his own pyramid? This is the fascination of Egyptology to many - the desert sands still hold so many secrets. The likelihood, however, is that Khafre did build the Sphinx, its temple and his own pyramid complex.
Sami took us into the Valley Temple of Khafre and we marvelled at the granite-faced columns that made this eerie place. We were also shown a pit, where a diorite statue of Khafre had been discovered. We had seen this lovely piece of art in the Cairo Museum earlier. There was money in the bottom of the pit and Sami explained that if we dropped some cash into the hole, we would definitely return to Egypt. Yeah right! We kept our hands in our pockets.
Then we were faced with the majesty of the Great Sphinx itself. Sitting where it was hewn from the limestone bedrock, the Sphinx stares serenely to the East, watching the sunrise at each equinox.
Again, we had a limited time to explore - ten minutes this time. We took some snaps of the Sphinx and of the Sphinx Temple, which we were not allowed to enter. From a distance, the Sphinx Temple looked more rough and aged than the valley Temple, even though they were likely built at around the same time.
Then it was lunchtime.
An hour was wasted at a nice open-air restaurant, eating chicken and vegetables, but this was time I would rather have spent at Giza! Sami asked us if we wanted to go and buy some Egyptian perfumes. We all let out a resounding: "NO!"
We were then speeding our way across Cairo to the Citadel. Cairo's roads are petrifying. There seems to be no road discipline (not that I could see anyway) and any gaps in traffic are soon filled. Often narrow roads are five cars deep, with each vehicle almost scraping its neighbour. Pedestrians step out in front of oncoming vehicles, apparently oblivious to any danger they might be in. I shudder to think what the death toll is like each year.
Our trip through the dusty, crowded streets of Cairo made for a rude awakening for us comfortably-off Westerners.
Eighteen million people are squeezed into this dilapidated metropolis, Africa's largest city. Half-built buildings and apartment blocks had people living in them, washing was drying over balconies, and beggars rubbed shoulders with smartly-dressed businessmen.
One area we passed through reminded me of photographs of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb, a hideous and distasteful comparison, I know, but true nevertheless. Buildings that seemed like bare shells whizzed by, their dark, empty windows staring back at us. Surprisingly, there were signs of habitation even here, with towels and blankets hanging out in the blistering sun from several windows.
The apparent depravity and decay of much of Cairo is in stark contrast to the impressive and luxurious hotels in the centre of the city, such as the new, Cairo Meridien. Egypt is a land of immense contrasts indeed.
We made it to the Citadel, which lies on a hill overlooking the city. This hill is part of the Mokattam range of mountains and has stood sentinel over Cairo for centuries. I imagined what the view must have been like in the time of the Pyramid Builders, with the temples of Heliopolis shining magnificently under the watchful eye of Ra.
From the top, Cairo was laid out below us, stretching north and east to the horizon, the desert visible in the west, attenuated by the unmistakable shapes of the pyramids of Giza, Abusir, Saqqara and Dashur.
Upon this hill lies the huge mosque built by Mohamed Ali (no, not that one!) in the nineteenth century. Although impressive, none of our group were particularly interested in the history of the Citadel and its mosque (I noted that Sami glossed over some of the unsavoury aspects of Mohamed Ali's reign) and we all felt that more time should have been spent at Giza. After all, the vast majority of tourists to Cairo want to see the Pyramids and Sphinx, and, while important to the history of the city, the Citadel is just a sidebar, really. That's just my personal view, folks!
Then we were whisked to a huge bazaar in Cairo. After warning us about robbers, Sami told us that he would meet us back at the same place in one hour.
We get fifteen minutes at the greatest monuments in history and an hour at a bazaar that none of us wanted to be at in the first place!!
We all decided that we would sit at one of the multitude of outdoor cafes and have a drink. Tourists, vendors and locals all vied for space in the crowded square. Coaches pulled up at regular intervals, depositing more dazed foreigners, while buses removed others, with relieved looks on their faces. We chose a cafe and ordered our drinks. Roasted pigeons stared at us from a food heater inside the premises.
After an hour had crawled by, we made our way back to the place Sami had chosen to meet us. I haggled a boy selling cigarettes from LE50 down to LE20 for a pack of Marlboros (I discovered later that I could by the same fags for LE10 elsewhere!!).
We trundle through teeming traffic to the Cairo Meridien Hotel, where we were to meet up with Mr. George. We bunged Sami a tip and said our farewells to him.
The Meridien is a brand-new, 5-star hotel and is very impressive. We enjoyed drinks and then George took us next door to the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner.
Then it was time for the long train ride home.
George translated out tickets and we discovered that, again, we were seated in two groups of three and had to make arrangements so that we could all sit together.
Shortly after we said goodbye to George and the train set off, the guard approached me and I had to pay him LE110 plus two US dollars for the 'favour' he had done for us!
I had a good night's sleep this time and we arrived back in Luxor at about 7:30am on Sunday morning.
Our excursion to Cairo made me think about the lives of modern-day Egyptians.
Much of Egypt's population is very, very poor. Having no welfare state to speak of, if you do not work, you do not eat. This probably explains why street vendors are so eager to sell their wares to you. Walking only a short distance in Cairo or Luxor, you are constantly bombarded with requests to buy anything from papyrus bookmarks to leather wallets to cigarettes. Taxi and caleche drivers are equally keen. If they spot you walking down the street (and they will spot you!), you can have up to half a dozen different drivers offering their services for ever-decreasing prices.
From the tourists' point of view, this can become tiresome and even annoying, especially if this is your first time in Egypt, but we have to remember the culture that these folk live in. I repeat, if they do not work, they do not eat and their families go hungry.
Travellers must be stern with vendors and drivers. If you do not want to buy anything, be firm and respectfully refuse. The best thing to do is simply to keep walking, smiling and respectfully declining their offerings. The Egyptian people are proud and possess a certain nobility, but it would be nice if they understood that, although most Westerners are more well-off than they, our wallets are not bottomless. I can't blame them, though. I would act the same way if I had a family to feed and no other way to earn a living. So be generous, but know when to say no...
We repaired to our room at the hotel, slapped the 'DO NOT DISTURB' sign on the door and zonked out until early afternoon!
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All text and images copyright 2004 Steven Johnson
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