Friday, November 6, 2009

Day Three--Part Two

The days are very long and very full and very tiring, so by the time we get to the hotel, clean up, eat dinner and return to the room, I'm one tired girl. So here's part two of Day three, even though the tour is now on day five. I am keeping notes, however. Just not able to write everything that happens during the day before I fall asleep. As always, I don't know from hotel to hotel if I'll have internet access, but I'll post as often as we do. And whenever I can, I'll have pictures to fill in as well.

With that: Driving to Dashure, Part Two.

We are at a small, modern museum in honor of Imhotep, the great architect. Fadel tells us that Zawi (he uses the familiar so shall I) has been establishing museums at the sites, rather than bringing all the artifacts to the main museum in downtown Cairo. The centerpiece of the museum as two life-sized statues with portrait features who appear as if they could almost speak. The details are incredible, even if they are a bit idolized. Not that I doubt all ancient Egyptians sported six-packs to die for, mind you. The personalities of the owners are clear. One, with a thin black moustache, must have been a bit of a dandy. I can imagine him making sure his robes were just so in the morning before he left the house and I can see him thoughtfully stroking his moustache whenever he had to make an important decision.

In one of the galleries, I see my first alabaster cups. I didn’t realize just how translucent alabaster really is until I see these. They almost glow from the inside and to think they are made of stone! The stone carving processes is shown in a relief and I notice that one of the workers has two “buffers” that he uses to smooth the surface. It’s hard to imagine how much work it would take to carve even the most simple of stone vessels, much less produce them in sufficient quantity for regular use. If it were up to me, I might get one made in the course of a lifetime and if anyone tried to use it, well, that just wouldn’t happen. The most beautiful piece, in my mind, is a cosmetic palette in the shape of chubby fish. I wouldn’t mind having my mascara in one like it, but I’m not sure it would be the same made out of plastic anyway.

On the way out, we stop to watch a film (in English) about the Step Pyramid, how it was built and excavations in the area. I have to admit I was more excited about the theater style chairs and a/c than I was the film, although I’m sure it was a fine film. I don’t know what it is about museums that are so exhausting and so hard on the legs and feet. By the time I’ve spent an hour in a museum, I feel like I need a good massage or a stiff drink. Or both.

Our next stop is the mastaba tomb of Tiy, another out of the way, not your usual tourist place, although as soon as we arrive, camels almost magically appear with their owners ready to take us down from the parking area to the tomb for a nice fee.
I’m really torn. It’s a fair walk and I’m getting very stiff and very achy, not so much from the exercise, as the fibro (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!) so a camel is very appealing. But I also want to know what it’s like to walk in the Sahara so I decide on the trek instead of the ride. Walking in the Sahara is just about what you’d expect it to be like. Hard slogging. The sand is relatively fine, even though it is hard packed in most places and so you have to work hard to move at any pace.

The tomb of Tiy is a gem in the middle of windblown sand, best known for its intriguing depictions of everyday Egyptian life. The reliefs in the courtyard have been worn down and only the slightest traces of color remain, mostly red with a little yellow. Inside, however, the colors are brighter. The scenes themselves are incredibly life-like and detailed. I was particularly taken with an image of three cattle being herded across a stream. The herdsman has a calf on his back and you can tell which is Mama Cow by the wild-eyed look and open mouth. In fact, you can almost hear the mooing!

As in most places, the attendant is all too excited to have you take a picture, followed by rubbing thumb and forefinger together, the sign for hand over the money. A one dollar American bill, which is about 5 Egyptian pounds, is universally welcomed. American money might not be valued much in the states, but the dollar bills remain a virtually universal currency. I do have a couple of Euros in my bag, just in case there was a massive crash of the dollar. (Not really. They were left over from the last trip abroad and just happened to be in my money belt.)

Outside the tomb, the ever resourceful camel drivers have come down and now offer ride back up the hill. This time, I take them up on the offer. Camels are broad and tall and my foot managed to get stuck on the back knob of the saddle. I felt…and looked…like a fool with one foot in a stirrup and the other stuck half-way across the camel’s back, but the driver simply lifted my shoe up and over and voila! I was abroad.

I just want to say that riding a camel, despite the rocking motion, the extreme height, the butt-bone numbing saddle is much better than walking in the desert. If you are given the option of walking or riding a camel, take the camel. I had heard Fadel say the going rate was about 20 Egyptian pounds or $5 so I offered the guy $3, expecting to go up to $5, but one of the other women in the group had paid $20 American and so I was expected to as well. I didn’t. Despite a pounding heart that I could hear in my ears, I only gave $5 American. I think the head of the drivers’ was not a bit happy, but I figured I was paying the going rate and they had already gotten much more than they expected from the other woman.

The Step Pyramid itself is located way off the main tourist track, or at least it feels that way to me. Perhaps when I get back, I’ll add some of the history to the account, but for now, just remembering what we saw is taxing enough! But stepping back to the Step. The entrance to the Pyramid Complex (pyramids all seem to be placed in complexes. Or perhaps they get a complex if they don’t have a complex?) is through a small, but very lovely corridor of columns, the first true columns in the world, Fadel tells us. The tops are representations of bundled reeds and the whole entrance is designed to create the sense of entering into the abyss of eternity, just as a sailor would send his craft into the marshes and, to prevent the return path from being obliterated, would tie the actual reeds together to mark the road, so, too, this path symbolically does the same thing.

The Step Pyramid is aptly named. It really does look like steps, and the creator is said to have told his Pharaoh that he was building a stairway to heaven. Fadel explains that while it now looks like the levels are rough, in the original, they would have been faced with smooth limestone and it probably would have resembled a giant white staircase. Off to one side is what looks like a tollbooth containing some of the most ancient graffiti in the world, carefully protected behind glass.
One of the more interesting parts of the site is the ruins of the markers for the Heb-sed festival, an event held every 30 years during a King’s reign. As part of the ceremony, he ran between two markers which symbolized Upper and Lower Egypt, thus proving his health and ability to rule for another 30 years. I noticed that the markers were close enough together that even I could probably run between them. A bit of a security measure to be sure that even an old King could make the run without too much difficulty, I would guess. The courtyard is partially restored, enough so that with a little squinting and a little imagination, you can almost hear the crowd, see the flags of the Provinces waving in the breeze, smell the food vendors (you know there were food vendors) and thrust yourself back in the stream of time to welcome the Pharaoh himself.

From the Step we travel to the Red and Bent pyramids. They are located on a military base, or what once was a military base. It must have connections to the Dept. of Tourism because we must purchase tickets to enter. Incidentally, the admission tickets to the archeological sites are quite lovely. They look a bit like money with holographic images and fine illustrations of the site one is visiting. People on the tour are keeping them for souvenirs. I’m trying, but I keep sticking them in odd places and then not being able to remember where I put them.

The Red Pyramid really is red. Not carmillion or blood red and not even quite as red as the rocks around Sedona, but it definitely has a pink/red hue, especially when it catches the light just right. We drive past it to visit the Bent Pyramid, which gets its name because the angle changes mid-way up. Fadel explains that various theories have been offered as to why the angle was altered, but the one I favor is that the original grade was too steep and they course-corrected part way up.
This is definitely not your usual tourist site. The only people besides our group are some military guards on white camels. Clearly this is a boring duty station since the debris of a campfire. Tin cans with twisted wire handles have obviously been used to make coffee or tea.

In the weathered crevices of the Bent Pyramid, hawks circle and come to rest. Horus is alive and well in this part of Egypt. In the distance is a tower of sorts, the remains of another pyramid called the Black Pyramid. It was called that because the core, which is all that remains, was made of black mud. Some people want to walk to it, but Fadel says it is much further than it appears, but takes the group on a walk in that general direction, around the Bent Pyramid.

The fibro is getting to me and I know that tomorrow we will be visiting the Cairo Museum with its incomparable treasures, so I reluctantly decide I need to pace myself. So I perch on a rock, watched over by the guards and camels.
What an amazing experience. To sit (virtually) alone in the Sahara Desert, in the shadow of the one of the earliest pyramids ever built. The temperature is dropping and even I, who am always hot, catch a bit of a frisson down my back. Overhead Horus languidly circles and then disappears into the distance. It is so quiet I can hear my own breathing. Then, without warning, I sense a presence and look up into the belly of one of the guard camels. I had always heard their padded feet allowed them to silently walk on the sand and I can now attest to that fact. I jumped a bit and the rider laughed. In sign language, he indicated that I could have my picture taken next to the camel for a dollar. Apparently the camel was downgraded to tourist camel when the possibility of money entered into the picture. “La la (no, no),” I said with a smile and the guard, with a bemused shrug, headed off to find the rest of the group which has disappeared behind the pyramid. Eventually they return, we get on the bus and start to leave when more military types appear. The bus driver is clearly uncomfortable and we drive more rapidly than I think we should on the dirt road, stopping only long enough for people to take a quick picture or two.

As we drive back to Cairo, we go through Dashure, the village Fadel grew up in. Fragments of scenes, like pages flipping in a book, go by the window. A man fishing in the irrigation canal, crouching on the bank, his robes covering his feet. A boy leading two cows and water buffalo. Another boy spurring on a donkey to cross the RR track that crosses the canal. A make-shift bridge of logs and board spanning the canal. White herons dotting the unplanted black fields like so many paper cranes on a black velvet cloth. Goats scampering in and out of doorways. A group of sheep passing an “On line cafĂ©.” A donkey cart piled high with pears, grapes and pomegranates.

Night comes quickly in the desert. There is a slight twilight, but it’s more like a gentle darkening that lasts just a few minutes. Then blackness descends, the temperature drops and night literally falls. It is almost dark by the time we reach the hotel—the Sofitel E Gezira. It’s a circular building, many stories high, directly on the Nile. My room is on the 12th floor. I creep out on the balcony, a bit apprehensive about looking down so far, but the view of the Nile is worth it. As I watch, darkness descends and a fairyland of lights begins to twinkle as far as I can see.


  1. The Holy Family probably hung out in the delta during their Egypt sojourn, but there's always the outside chance that you have walked where Jesus walked. Or toddled.

  2. Utterly amazing my friend. I am humbled.

  3. You know that Egypt is not even on my bucket list, let alone near the top, but you make me want to go there. I rejoice in your amazing observation skills and blogging.