I'm not a morning person as all my friends and family will atest, but 6 am here is a gorgeous hour of the day. The Aten, to use Akenaten's term, pouring in the window fills the room with a radiant yellow glow. I step onto the balcony and the clear air, the slight breeze, the hint of warmth to come...I can see why Aktenaten decided to worship the Aten and why Re was the supreme God here for so many years.
Along the side of the walk are various kinds of flowers, red geraniums, little blue cornflower like flowers, pink ones with leaves like mint...I stop for a moment to admire the pink ones and I notice that hidden amidst the blossoms are dozens of orange butterflies. I move and they flutter around my ankles like dancing girls clad in their festive finery doing a wild dance in honor of the sun god. Then, at some silent signal, they rise to the sky like a offering of live flowers and swirl off in the the distant blue.
We are going to Saqqarah today to see the famous Step Pyramid, so we are driving beyond Giza into the country. As we stop at a little village market to pick up bottled water, I notice a plastic bag floating like a deflated balloon along a street covered with empty cigarette cartons, tin cans of what looks like cat food and skips and scraps of paper. In a land of such incredible beauty, there is also incredible debris. You skip from one to the other without so much as a pause for breath.
Everywhere I see half-built buildings; I can't tell if they never were completed or if they are abandoned. And in the midst of what I assume must be ruins, I see a line of clothes handing from a balcony like a string of multi-national flags and a satellite dish---someone is living there afterall.
The farther we get into the country, the more donkeys we see. I think there must be more donkeys than cars, all of them heavily laden with goods or riders, trotting along the side of the road, weaving in and out of traffic. I spot a donkey and a motorcycle going nearly the same pace, but with the condition of the road and the traffic, my bet would be on the donkey.
We are traveling the Royal road from Mena House to the Royal lake where Egyptian kings (and perhaps queens) would take their guests to hunt. Fadel says that when he was a boy, it was a narrow dirt road. I don't think it's changed much, although I suppose if you looked close enough you could tell it was asphalt. It nestles its shoulder against a drainage canal that leads all the way to the Mediterranean.
However, because of construction, it's not working properly and the land on either side is reverting to the marshy conditions that existed when the Nile flooded and brought the soil-enriching silt to the farms. Pools of standing water can be seen between houses, in yards and seeping into the fields. As I peer into some of the larger homes, I can see lush gardens, filled with date palms and flowering bushes. Walking in the garden of the Pharoah or a Nobleman must have been a sublime experience, especially with the desert so very nearby.
As the bus rushes through the countryside, so do the images:
A little girl, maybe 8 or 9, sweeping the dirt outside the front step of her house with a broom of twigs shaped like a half-smile
Date palms with their fronds cut and small birds nesting near the bound stalks darting back and forth.
A man and a young boy fishing on the banks of the canal, their lines a delicate arc to the water below.
A teenage boy picking his way down a slope of garbage, stepping carefully, but searching for something, his head bent low, looking intently at the debris.
Two goats poking their heads out of a doorway, alongside a child who peeks over their heads at our bus rushing by.
A girl, about 8, waving and smiling as we pass.
Mechanics in tiny shops, welding metal amid stacks of old tires.
Women bearing baskets on thier heads looking as if they had stepped off the walls of an ancient painting as they walk along the side of the road.
Suddenly the fields and village change to a veritable forest of palm trees. It is as dense as any pine forest I’ve ever been in, although these trees are clearly cultivated. Fadel tells us that the palm is used for its fruit, its fronds are made into a type of fiber fabric, the stalks into furniture and then, when the tree is old, its trunk is used for lumber. Perhaps the Giving Tree shouldn’t have been an apple, but a palm tree instead.
We come around a corner and all of sudden I understand, not intellectually, but viserally why the ancient Egyptians called this the Red and Black land. You can literally draw a line with your finger and separate the lush from the barren, the green from the yellow, the growing from the desolate. We get off the bus and I take a picture—my left side is a tangle of trees, brush, grass. My right side is sand and rock. Life and death, separated by a line in eternity. Little wonder the ancients ones saw now and then as a continuum, marked only by the cessation of the heart beat, but the soul, the life force merely crossed the thread that divides this world from the next.
I'm ending this part of Day three because we have a very early wake-up. We have to be on the bus by 7:30 so I must pack my bags, shower and get ready to leave tonight. If I don't collapse, I'll try to finish tonight...otherwise it will be the next time I have internet access. We are going to an area with spotty access for the next several days so I don't know when I'll next be able to post.