Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Day 5--Entering Middle Egypt

Day 5 Middle Egypt
Today we begin our journey into Middle Egypt, an area of the country where tourists rarely go because it simply hasn’t been safe in the past. I’m not exactly sure it’s safe now, but this is the reason I’m on this trip. The things I want to see the very most are located in Middle Egypt—Amarna in particular.

But first we head to Al-Fayyum and the Pyramid of Maydum. The images flicking by my window are endlessly fascinating. I’ve discovered that I prefer to sit on the starboard side of the bus. Not exactly sure why, but I instinctively favor that side and when I’ve been forced, like today, to take a port seat, I kept scouring the bus for an empty seat on the right (literally) side. As we leave Cairo, the fields unfold like black and green leaves of a living book. When the field is freshly cultivated and the rich black soil mounds, herons fill the rows like strings of white fairy lights. Every now and then the head heron must give a signal because they all fly to a tree and perch there like Christmas tree ornaments until it is time to redecorate the fields.

As the bus stops for a non-existent traffic light, a family dashes across the street—the father in one of the long grey robes whose name escapes me, but I’ll eventually look it up, the mother in a burka and the little boy in a full-on military uniform with shoulder epaulets and chest medals. I wonder who is the ruler in that household? The little family disappears in the village streets and then the village itself is left behind as we make a sharp turn onto another road.

We are on the Desert Road which runs parallel to the Nile in the, yes, desert. This part of Egypt is filled with a good deal of rubble. Half-build, or half-destroyed—it’s hard to tell the difference houses and multi-story buildings are everything. As are piles of dirt that look like miniature pyramids, made of rocks, dirt, yellow sand, red sand, chunks of old concrete, limestone bricks, red bricks and even just plain garbage. This is truly a land of pyramids, some intentional, some accidental. What puzzles me is where the garbage comes from in the middle of the desert, for with that shocking abruptness that is so characteristic of Egypt, we have crossed from the Black Land to the Red Land in a literal heartbeat. Perhaps it blows in across the miles of undisturbed sand. Where the sand is not criss-crossed with wheel marks (and at least 90% of it is), the land does look like waves on a red, dry ocean. Every now and then, we see a camel or a donkey, the ships that sail this desolate landscape. Next to the road, lies a dead water buffalo. He looks as if he had simply dropped of exhaustion and dehydration, his legs giving way to breathe his last on the scorching desert. I have expected to see vultures circling, but maybe it’s too hot even for scavengers.

Everywhere in the midst of this nothingness are short, as in one or two brick high walls or small triangles, like corners of imaginary houses. Fadel explains that these are the way people mark their land. Even if you should purchase the land officially, it would hard to prove it is yours without these boundary markers. Akhenaton did the same thing when he moved his capital from Thebes to Amarna—established his domain with boundary stellae in the desert.

All of a sudden, and I do mean, all of a sudden, we are surrounded by lush green, palm trees and flowers—the Al-Fayyum oasis. In Pharoanic times, it was a favorite hunting area of the Kings. While the area has been modified since Amenemhet I of the 12th Dynasty drained the swamp and formed a reservoir, the Aswan Dam has blocked the flow of fresh water and the once vibrant area used for water health cures has become small, polluted and salty. However, the area is still a literal oasis.
I never really understood what an oasis was like until now. Imagine nothing as far as you can see but sand. Imagine being as hot as you have ever been…and then upping that by about 10%. Your mouth is cotton, your head is aching and you are on the verge of heat stroke when you see green. A mirage? A hallucination just before you drop to become bleached bones? No, it’s real. Trees, grass and blessed, life-giving water. Your relief, your joy, your gratitude would be almost indescribable. You who were near death have been given life again. We who live in areas of mountain rives cannot fully appreciate the importance of potable water.

Soon we are at the Pyramid of Maydum, another not on the tourist trail site. Maydum is of interest because it is the transitional form between the Step Pyramid and the true pyramids of Giza. It’s sort of hard to describe, so I’ll put up a picture as soon as I can. What’s very cool is that we get to go inside—and not with hoards of other tourists clamoring about the site, vendors hawking the same identical wares for “one day alone” bargains. Just us and the Ministry of Tourism guards—and their guns. I don’t know guns, but they carry heavy-duty firepower. I definitely don’t want to be in a situation where they decide to open fire.

To get into the Pyramid of Maydum, you climb up the pile of rubble that extends maybe 1/3 of the way up the side and then mount a rather precarious wooden stairway with those unpleasant open steps that look way way down. Once you get to about the middle of the pyramid (have I mentioned we have been doing a great deal of climbing? If no, we have.) you descend a steep ramp/stair of a type favored by the inside of pyramid conservators all the way to bedrock. At that point, you (or we) are once again at the very bottom of the structure. Then begins the fun part—an Indiana Jones type ladder ascending to the burial chamber which is about 2/3 of the way back up the Pyramid. I don’t like ladders. I don’t like ladders that go straight up a Pyramid in the dark. But this is one of those things that you either commit to or don’t but there’s no changing your mind part way through. So up and up we go. The burial chamber which, like all the others, is empty, is also extremely hot and crowded with sweaty American tourists pretending to be Egyptologists. The main feature of this pyramid, besides being a transitional form between the Step and the “real” is the corbelled ceiling which will eventually reach its zenith in the Grand Gallery of the Great Pyramid. However, being hot, tired and facing the descent down the Temple of Doom ladder, architectural features are not exactly captivating my attention at the moment.

Back on the bus (obviously I survived getting out), we leave the desert to return to the banks of the Nile where small villages with dirt roads, smiling children and omnipresent, overloaded donkeys reemerge. Everywhere laundry hangs from upper story windows, the whites blinding in the unrelenting sun. How they get their whites so white is a mystery since the women pound their laundry on the roads along the side of dirty irrigation canals. I can’t see how they can get anything clean in such filthy water. I can’t even get my socks clean using Woolite in a hotel sink! The women use large flat metal basin to cart their laundry to and from the river. In one home, a woman with a heaping basin hangs her clothes to dry while three children play in the dirt courtyard. As we leave the village, a young boy on a donkey try to race the bus. As we pull ahead, he smiles and waves. I suspect the donkey merely pants.

Old fashioned hand pumps pop up every few “block” so it is clear that the houses do not have running water. With my American sensibilities, I find it a bit disconcerti8ng to see goats, donkeys, dogs and children all going in and out of the streetside entrance to the house.

One of the most striking features of this part of Egypt is that almost everything under current construction is built of white brick with mud mortar. The fresh limestone gleams in piles but once used in contraction, the wall takes on a grey hue as the black mud stains the stone.

Once again images race by: A man trotting on a donkey, talking on his cell phone. A woman kneeling on a dirt street, rinsing clothes in a huge basin. Children smiling and waving. Men smoking water pipe, their beautiful silver and ornate designs a jarring contract to the dirt floor homes. Little shops with bottles of coca cola. Bread makers, their grills smoking. Fruit stands with lush looking, not to be eaten by delicate travelers, fruits and vegetables. Bundles of reeds stacked by the side of homes. Those same reeds—and corn stalks—creating fences around courtyards and homes.

And in the distance, the high hills of Middle Egypt.

I won't have internet connection for several days, maybe inshallah, so I probably won't be posting. I appreciate the comments. It's a blessing to share this trip with you who are reading.


  1. Amazing adventures! I hope you enjoy the next leg and continue to soak up the experience with as much zeal as you have thus far.

  2. I hope your cruise down the Nile is a bit more restful than climbing ladders! Can't wait until you get home so we can see your photos.