Sunday, July 16, 2006

A Day at the Pyramids

It was a day I had anticipated for a long time, and it lived up to expectation in almost every way. A friend of mine that I met through Kalimat told me that she was planning to make her first trip to the pyramids with another girl she’d met at her hotel. The two of them had hired a taxi to drive them around for the whole day. They asked if I wanted to join them and split the price, which, of course, I did because it meant I was paying about twelve dollars for an entire day of chauffeuring, albeit in a small taxi.
And so we left at 7:30am, determined to beat the traffic. Throughout the preceding week and a half I’d spent in Cairo, I had caught a couple fleeting and distant glimpses of the pyramids. I’d see vague silhouettes imprinted against the ski. This only heightened the anticipation with which I waited to walk among the ancients.
But to make it to the great pyramids, I’d have to wait just a little longer. We decided to go to two additional sets of ruins in addition to the pyramids at Giza. First we drove twenty miles South of Cairo to the ruins of Saqqara, a vast burial ground for Egypt’s early Pharaohs. Saqqara is spread over a fairly large expanse of desert, miles and miles in fact, so it’s best to go to one of the two concentrations of ruins, called North and South Saqqara. We went to North Saqqara because we didn’t want to go any further south than we had already gone since it was going to be a long day.
When we arrived at Saqqara, we were the ONLY people there. Now, imagine coming to a center of the ancient world, surrounded by pyramids and tombs and temples, and you are the only tourists there, literally. It was quite shocking. As there are everywhere, however, there were a few salesmen determined to take advantage of their first targets of the day. One man, for example latched onto us from the beginning and started giving us a tour. The two girls repeatedly told him we weren’t giving him any money, which didn’t seem to be a problem until he was done with his “tour” and got really upset when we didn’t pay him. That’s a major theme here in Egypt, by the way: receiving services you don’t want and then being harassed for money. But after all the rare-coin salesmen, tour guides, and camel riders had all had their shots and realized that we weren’t interested, we were able to stroll the grounds uninterrupted. And, it should be noted, that unlike in the States or in Europe, there were no robes or glass or anything keeping us from getting to close to any of the antiquities. So for an hour and a half we walked around the step pyramid and poked into a handful of tombs adorned with hieroglyphics and ancient drawings.
But before too long we decided to move onto the next spot in order to beat the tourists. So from Saqqara we drove three miles down to road to Memphis. Memphis was the first capital of the combined kingdoms of North and South Egypt. It remained the capital until Alexander the Great moved it to Alexandria. And time had left little for the passing sight-seer to enjoy. Memphis is a standard rural town now in the Nile Valley. When you drive through the dirty streets lined with poor cafes and stray dogs, there is no hint that this used to be the capital of the ancient world. Unfortunately, almost every treasure that once belonged to Memphis has worn away with time. What is left has all been assembled in an outdoor museum just outside the town. Let me put it to you this way: taking our time, it took us fifteen minutes to see all the relics. There are only two artifacts of note: one is a thirty foot tall statue of one of the Egyptian Gods (I forget now which one) and the other is an alabaster sphinx that is probably eight feet tall and fifteen feet long. This is a stop worth making only if you know in advance what you’re getting into. For us, with visions of the ancient metropolis dancing in our minds, the remains were few and disappointing.
After getting back in the taxi, we made the twenty minute trip over to Giza for the main attraction. Anticipation had slowly been building throughout the day, and we were going at last. And, I must say, I was not disappointed. The town of Giza, while nominally distinct from Cairo, runs right into the main city. On the side opposite Cairo, Giza comes right up to the edge of the desert and the pyramids. You need to arm yourself with two words to enjoy the sights here: la and shukran. These mean “no” and “thank you.” From the moment you enter the grounds, you just have to start saying these to keep the endless stream of salesmen at bay. The first thing you come upon is the sphinx. When you first arrive at the pyramids, the sphinx actually looks like something of a disappointment. It’s absolutely tiny in the presence of the pyramids. But when you get closer, it begins to look more imposing and the craftsmanship of it really takes charge. You can’t help but get goose bumps when you get close to it and you begin to absorb the magnitude of the history staring you in the face. In this photo I’ve posted, you can see the sphinx on the far left. On the right side of the photo is the Great Pyramid of Cheops. It is the largest of the pyramids and it’s the one we walked all the way around. When you get to the backside of these pyramids, there are fewer tourists and no salesmen, so you can really enjoy the sights. The pyramid in the middle of the photo is Chephren’s pyramid. It’s less tall than Cheops’ but it’s on higher ground so it looks taller, and more of the top is in tact, so it actually is the more impressive of the two. Also while we were there, we climbed down into one of the tombs abutting the Great Pyramid. Climbing down was less about what you saw when you were down there (an empty room) but more just to feel the claustrophobia, smell the humidity, and wonder if the policeman at the top would slam the door shut on you. He did not and therefore asked us for tips, which, having made it out safely, we refused him.
It’s hard to talk about these sights we saw because we didn’t do very much while were there. It’s so much more about the fact that you are at these places and there is a sort of pull that won’t let you leave, and you invent new heaps of sand you suggest might be ancient remnants to give yourself an excuse to stay and stare at these wonders. They’re truly magnificent and force you to reevaluate your concept of time and longevity.

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