Today is a retrospective, not a moment by reality moment account because there simply wasn’t time to write. It was an exhausting, exhilarating day spent at the Pyramids of Giza. But that doesn’t mean I won’t switch tenses since, in my own mind, I go from remembering to actually being back in the moment.
We enter the bus and drive a very short distance up a fairly steep incline to join dozens of other tour buses at the base of the Pyramid complex. I was particularly struck by the rubble that surrounds the site—rocky scrabble with a fine layer of dust, not really the sand one thinks of in the Egyptian desert. The complex itself is fenced off to bar unauthorized access and military guards in their white uniforms, are everything. As are about a million tourists. Just as aside, I wonder why some women go to archaeological sites wearing ankle turning high heels? I saw one woman in a pair of platform heels that would have been right at home on the catwalk trying to negotiate the rocks.
The surface of the pyramid plateau is an uneven mélange of what must have been paving stones broken and worn by excavations and time. Like a gaggle of baby geese just venturing into the world, we straggle behind Fadel, listing to his lecture on the building of the pyramids, the theories that have been rejected and the precision with which it was all built.
Everywhere children hawk items—gifty souvenirs—I avoid the word tacky, but it would fit here—cheap statues of Bastet, plastic pyramids, and envelopes full of postcards. They start out asking $5. American for 10 cards, but the real going rate seems to be about a dollar.
It is almost impossible to find words to describe the Great Pyramid. Which is why I’ve been skirting around starting. The Pyramid of Khufu is 137 meters high—which is, if my faulty metric to feet conversion is about 450 feet. As you stand under it, it is impossible to see the top because of the angle. But that’s not what makes it so incredible. Standing there, I realize that I am at the foot of the last remaining wonder of the ancient world. One of the great wonders of civilization. The only one that sill looks the way it did (or close to it) when it was built. Others have completely disappeared, like the Colossus of Rhodes or are mere shadows of their original selves. But the Pyramid, with its precise angles and looming presence on the skyline is still as impressive as it must have been to those who visited it two thousand years ago. Its sheer size is difficult to comprehend and pictures do not do it justice. It is particularly awe-inspiring when you realize that it was built without any of the things we require for modern construction, like lasers, computers and, oh yes, the wheel. The ancient Egyptians apparently didn’t use the wheel to move the blocks in place, but relied on a system of rollers instead. As we gaped at the immense stone blocks, Fadel talked about the various theories of how the Pyramid was built, but I was so awe-struck by its precision and beauty, the latest, involving some sort of lever device has escaped my journal and my memory.
The thousands of tourists snapping pictures, many of which seem to consist of being positioned so that it appears you are holding the pyramid by your fingertip, and I include myself in the category of tourist, but not in the finger holding the pyramid division, stand in a line nearly 4000 years old. It boggles the mind to realize that during Cleopatra’s time, these ancient giants were nearly 2000 years old. They were as old to Cleopatra and Marc Antony as they partied on the Nile as Cleo and Tony are to us today.
We walk, stroll almost, about the complex listening to Fadel lecture on the history, One of the novel and very practical aspects of this tour is that we all have radios and Fadel broadcasts his talks on channel 108. We can wander quite a distance and look at whatever we want, while still hearing him. And he can summon his goslings back with just a few words. It’s a very efficient, very practical way of keeping a group together while still allowing maximum wandering freedom. Walking into history via modern technology.
Periodically Fadel leaves us, shutting off his broadcast, to take a cell call or a text because we are supposed to meet with Dr. Zawi Hawass who was Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities until this last week when he was made a Deputy Minister of Culture. As Secretary General, he had to retire this year, but as Deputy Minister he can work as long as the President of Egypt wants him to. And since Dr. Hawass is arguably the most famous Egyptologist of the day and perhaps one of the best known archaeologists in the world because of his many television programs and specials, it’s a pretty good bet that he will continue working with Egyptian antiquities for a good many more years.
We are getting to have a private meeting with him because he and Fadel went to school together and are both colleagues and personal friends. At one point, Fadel informs us that Dr. Hawass was at the dedication of the new Howard Carter museum and we are at the mercy of his “murky schedule.” Dr. Hawass’s assistant, a cheerful young American named April keeps updating Fadel on Dr. Hawass’s current location. At least that’s what I think she is doing.
After walking along one side of the Great Pyramid, which was sufficient long enough to satisfy any latent urge to circumnavigate it, Fadel leads his little gaggle away from the hoards to a small tomb of the overseer of pyramid construction and a head scribe…whose name I have forgotten and who isn’t listed in my guidebook. His tomb is in a group of tombs, mastabas actually, that cluster in the shadow of the pyramids, so as to allow their owners to share in the glory of the Pharaoh.
This tomb is hewn from solid rock.
Down a short flight of fairly steep steps, it remains a silent sentry to the fascination the ancient Egyptians had, not with death, but with eternal life. The tomb, or more correctly, the chapel, consists of an outer room, an inner chamber with five statues of the tomb’s owner and one of him as a child, representing different aspects of his life, a small center chamber and a room with a false door and offering table. Fadel points out the chiseled inscription which look as if they were museum replicas and not the real things, they are so clear and fresh appearing. It is the blessing of the desert that preserves these artifacts of the ancient culture. The dry air, lack of rain and general desert conditions are ideal for preserving everything from pottery to human flesh.
Next stop is the solar Boat Museum, so we need to go around to another side of the Great Pyramid. The second largest pyramid on the site, the Pyramid of Khafre peeks around the corner. It is unusual in that its tip is still covered with the polished white limestone blocks that originally covered all the pyramids. It must have been quite a sight to see these enormous white building rising like massive sailing ships on the sea of the desert. Even today, with city buildings virtually at their feet, they are still awe-inspiring.
It’s essential to pay close attention to where you step and not just because the ground is so uneven. The stony platform is littered with camel dung (smallish pellets) and what must be horse or donkey feces, although I am not sure since I am not now nor do I ever want to become a dung specialist. It is also important to watch for puddles as well, where the camels (and perhaps the donkeys…I’m not a urine specialist either) have relieved themselves. The camels are here for the tourists—take a camel ride and get your picture taken by the Great Pyramid. Some of the camels look in fair condition, but others have open wounds and they all are covered with flies.
Suddenly a fight breaks out between two trinket vendors. One puts the other in a choke hold and much cursing in Arabic ensues. The fight breaks up with the arrival of the Tourism Police, but after the officer departs, the injured party throws a few stones at his opponent…just for show.
The Museum of the Solar Boat is blissfully air conditioned and since I am dripping swelteringly hot, I could stay inside for a very long time. The a/c isn’t for people, however, but for the boat which was found intact in a pit at the side of the Pyramid. It was used, not in this world, but to transport the King to other mystical realms in the afterlife. We are obliged to put on thick canvas shoe covers, shove our bags thought an X-ray machine, pass through the gift shop and enter the exhibit hall.
Suddenly, we get word through our radios that we must leave immediately. Dr. Hawass has arrived. Fadel urges us to hurry and “get a move on” as we begin a very brisk march down the steep causeway leading from the Pyramid of Khafre to the Sphinx. It’s steep enough that my thighs feel the pressure, but we continue at a near jog until we reach a guarded barrier. The guard opens it for our group and we walk down a wooden staircase until we reach the very base of the Sphinx.
Above us, the throngs look over a railing down into the excavation, but we are standing at the very paws of the Great Beast.
We are here only because this is where we are to meet Dr. Hawass, at the Dream Stele at the base of the Sphinx. We wait for a few minutes and then suddenly, he appears in his uniform of blue jeans, blue shirt and infamous hat looking exactly like he does on every National Geographic special.
This has to be one of the most surreal moments of my life. Standing at the paws of the Sphinx with hundreds of tourists looking down at us, as we listen to the leading Egyptologist in Egypt today talk about his work, his explorations and his newest discoveries. Among the most intriguing, is the revelation that sometime in the next few weeks, as a result of DNA testing in new labs that specialize in DNA from mummies, he and his ream will reveal the parents of King Tut. Later I asked his assistant, April, if the world would be surprised at the names and she smiled nearly as enigmatically as the Sphinx itself before saying that it was Zawi’s to report, adding that the details had been checked and rechecked three times so that when the announcement comes, it will be definite. To think that within a month one of the great mysteries of the 18th Dynasty will be solved!
At the end of his talk about the preservation, and a Q and A session, Dr. Hawass allowed each of us to have our picture taken with him and while I never really want my picture taken with a celebrity, I made an exception of the man who will go down in history with the greats like Howard Carter and Flanders Petri. It seemed like a good thing.
As Dr. Hawass and his guards left, our group moved to the shady side of the Great Beast. Since no one is allowed to be this close, the fine sand was footprint free. I stepped into the powder and then took a picture of my sole print, feeling a bit like I was photographing a print on the surface of the moon.
We were free to look about, so I decided to circumnavigate the Sphinx. As I stopped to stare up at the gigantic face, I caught sight of a small dark scorpion, which I assiduously avoided, crawling over the casing as well as several very intent long-legged black ants. As I came around the far side, viewing the profile was a heart-stopping moment.
Against the blue sky, dotted with angelically photoshopped clouds was that profile. The most famous stone profile in the world. It took my breath away.
Coming back to the front, I was alone, so I rested my palms on the sacrificial altar directly between the paws and stared through time at the Dream Stele. The antiquity of the place suddenly overwhelmed me and the thought that I was standing where virtually no one gets to go hit me. I began to cry. This was my pilgrimage, my Mecca, my Rome. And it was every bit as astonishing as I had ever hoped.
Leaving the Sphinx, the modern world intruded in the reality of a one-way road. We couldn’t be driven back up the hill. We had to climb the causeway in an aerobic exercise and diagnostic knee strength testing. At the top, we started again on our aborted tour of the Solar Boat museum.
Long ago I read that the Queen Mother told Prince Charles that he should always sit instead of stand, ride instead of walk and never pass up a chance to go to the bathroom. I passed up the bathroom but when I saw a wooden chair standing lonely sentinel at the edge of the boat pit, I immediately snagged it. Right under the air conditioning, with a view down into the pit, I sat and blissfully allowed the possibility of heat stroke to be blown away.
Eventually the group reassembled. Bathroom breaks take awhile. And we climbed up three stories to see the reconstructed Solar Boat. It is astonishing to think that the Cedar of Lebanon still gave off a sweet aroma when the pit was first opened in the 1950s. The boat itself is much much larger than I expected, although why I expected it to be small, I don’t know. It is beautifully preserved from the originally matting that lay over the top of the cabin to the huge oars in the shape of spearheads to defend against an evil god who causes sand bars to move. The only thing that is modern is the rope used to lash it together. The original rope still exists, but for safety purposes, modern rope was used.
Leaving the Solar Boat, Fadel informs us that it is now time to enter the Pyramid of Khufu, to climb to the King’s Chamber if we are so inclined. In order to preserve the interior, only 300 tickets are issued each day and it is necessary to be in line at 6 am. Unless, of course, you are Fadel and a personal friend of the Deputy Minister of Antiquities. (Just as an aside, April said to me that no one in all of Egypt has better connections than Fadel. I believe her. He is amazing.)
I am a little scared of the climb. I’ve seen pictures of the low ceiling where you must crouch to climb and then the Grand Gallery with its very steep ramp staircase. I also know you climb about 2/3 of the height of the Pyramid and I know that I’m not in great shape and I already ache from the fibro, but fear be damned and fibro be banished. I decide I’m going to do this no matter what. It is my only chance and I’m not giving it up.
The climb is as arduous as I dreaded. It’s very steep, very narrow and very hot. Definitely not for the claustrophobic or the faint of heart for once you are committed to the climb, there is no turning back. It’s up and up and up in the heat, the dark and unknown. And then there is the descent. It is so steep one could probably slide down and if one lost one’s footing, you would probably take out at least 20 other climbers in your fall.
After a breath-robbing, heart pounding, knee aching climb we arrive at the King’s Chamber. It was everything I expected and nothing at all what I expected. It was totally black, as much from the color of the walls as from the complete and utter darkness pierced only by a few rather dim lights. But what gave the experience an eerie hue as that a woman, arms open to the ceiling, was chanting over the sarcophagus. The resonance vibrated deep into my chest and I could feel the notes echoing in the very cells of my being. After she quit singing, I moved in the sweltering oppressive heat to her place and laying my hands on the cool stone, I said a silent prayer for all who had stood here before me, inside the Great Pyramid of Khufu.
The climb down was as bad as I had anticipated. Hard on the knees, hard on the shoulders as I braced on the rails, hard on the back as I crouched in a near crawl though the winding corridors. Besides the fact I was extremely proud of myself for having actually accomplished this feat, I learned I’m not especially claustrophobic since the dark and closeness didn’t’ really bother me. Of course, the pounding of my heart, the gasping for breath, the aching in my calves and thighs might have mitigated any minor claustrophobia. When you think you might have a heart attack, a little darkness is immaterial.
I knew I was hot…sweltering actually…in the interior, but I didn’t realize just how hot until I got out and the afternoon breeze, which had been quite warm, was down-right chilly. How interesting it is that your perception can change so rapidly.
We geese returned to the bus behind our leader and we headed for a late lunch. After winding through narrow streets shared equally by pedestrians, cars, donkeys, goats, carts and the occasional cat, we parked and…walked some more, passing a stable with bony horses and bored camels for hire. Turning a corner, we came to the restaurant and as we waited for the door to be opened, we shared the street with various Arabian horse, a foal and one donkey who was hot-footing it as fast as he could clip-clop around the corner. Oh the delightful incongruity of a Mercedes bus, a Peugeot cab, a Japanese car, a grey donkey, a sandy camel, black and white goats, a dun mare and foal and a calico cat---all just outside the restaurant where we were having lunch. If the sights weren’t enough to convince me I was in Kansas anymore (although I’ve only been in Kansas once and really don’t want to return), the noises would be a sure sigh. The guttural grown of the camels, the braying of the donkeys, the yelling of the men all punctuated with the rap of hooves from a quick-stepping horse.
Following lunch which was a fabulous assortment of vegetables, of which we tender stomached Americans were told to eat only those that were cooked, we got up close and personal with the camels on the stoop by taking a camel ride through backs streets with tiny shops, children playing the games children play everywhere, camel dung, donkey piles, dirty puddles and a crush of horse-drawn carriage, camels, goats and people. Eventually we came to a gate with Tourism Police who let us go out into the desert for a photo op of riding a camel with the Pyramids in the background. It was a completely kitschy, completely romantic and absolutely wonderful moment.
One word of warning, when the drivers tell you to “lean back and hold on,” that’s just what they mean: “lean back as far as you can and hold on for dear life” because the camel rocks up and in case you haven’t been next to a camel recently, they are very very tall. If you don’t lean back and hold on, you will most definitely fall off. Even though I had been on a camel before, the one I rode was very tall and it was a very long way to the ground.
On the way back to the hotel, we had a shopping opportunity at a jewelry store which specializes in gold cartouches with your name. I wasn’t even going to go in, but I was talked into leaving the bus to just “look around.” I didn’t think I would find anything since I have more than enough jewelry I don’t wear, but lo and behold, in the back I found small statues of Egyptian gods. I added Hathor and Sekmet to my collection.
Several of our group were going to an Indian restaurant and others were following the one we call Maid Marion to a grill. But I was way too tired for another excursion and besides, I had promised myself that I would keep my journal and notes up, so I opted out. Good thing because I ate at the coffee shop at Mena House and fell asleep twice over my fried egg, turkey and veal sandwich.
Tomorrow we go to Saqquarah and Dahshur.