I took a little tour of some old stone buildings today. The way things work in Cairo: upon check-in to a hotel the staff present you with a tour-arranger, a cul-de-sac of information who helps set up tours to places throughout the country. Tourism is extremely regulated throughout Egypt: they’ve had some troubles over the past decade with bombs and other angry devices, and in response the government has stepped-up regulatory efforts and policing. In my case the tour arranger’s name was Sam, and while he was pleasant enough and displayed no obvious flaws of character beyond being oriented towards taking my monies, I wasn’t terribly interested in most of the offerings. I’ve never been one who gets overly excited about organized tours, but I realized if I wanted to see anything it was the easiest means, and I agreed to give a day trip to Sakkara and Giza a shot.
I left the hotel around 9am with a driver (Mohammed) and guide (Shimma), both of whom spoke halting but passable English. Mohammed chain-smoked and wended through the clustered, bleating streets while Shimma worked her way, not frequently without great effort, through scripted statements about the day’s itinerary, Egyptian history, facts about the pyramids, etc. I believe I was one of her first clients, and she was clearly nervous. If I interrupted her explanations with a question she would become frazzled and lose orientation, and while that was entertaining I learned to withhold my questions until she was clearly finished with her speech. Her nervousness and lack of language skills quite often came across as rigidity (“you take picture now!”), but despite that she was giving it her best and I wasn’t interested in applying fault.
Memphis, the ancient Egyptian capitol, is located about 30-minutes to the southwest of modern day Cairo. It’s less a “city” and more a huge stretch of area that runs north-south along the edge where the lush greens of the Nile fade into the bleak brown-whites of the desert. I won’t pretend to great knowledge of the area, nor for that matter excessive interest in the topic, and should you find yourself hungry for greater detail about the unification of Upper and Lower Kingdoms, the various Egyptian dynasties, King so-and-so or Pharaoh such-and-such, I’d recommend an encyclopedia.
My experiences at each of these sites were colored with the same stark, biting whiteness the desert sun provided: there were simply too many damned people everywhere. Of course such a statement implies a separation, as if I somehow had a right to be there and that busload of 48 Danish tourists did not. This is nonsense but I thought it anyway, proving that I’m always capable of nearly any stupidity. In truth though, crowds were a major issue, here and everywhere in Egypt. People were mostly respectful, but still, a little solitude would have been nice, and its presence probably would have left me feeling less like I was in a circus-trap than I often did.
The pyramids at Sakkara were a bit ramshackle and seemed even more so once we arrived at Giza, where the Great Pyramid of Cheops dominated the sky, guarded over by the nearby sentry of the Sphinx. Cheops is the largest of all remaining pyramids in Egypt, and the one most frequently seen in photos. Like most of the pyramids it was originally covered with a smooth casing; that was subsequently removed by the Romans and leaves the pyramids to have the feel of being constructed with giant brown Lego blocks.
I can only imagine that Cheopsâ€”or any of these sitesâ€”made a more significant and lasting impact on travelers prior to the age of photography. At this point, regardless of one’s traveling experience, we’ve all seen plenty of photos of these things, and their in-person grandeur is diminished by a certain pre-knowledge, or at least pre-image. Despite the swelling crowds and scorching heat, Cheops really was quite amazing in its hugeness, and my mind struggled to imagine the ingenuity and narcissism that would inspire its creation, to say nothing of the decades of work involved in its completion. Trying to imagine the pyramids’ power on the un-anticipated (i.e. pre-photography) mind made me think of the first time I really saw the Rocky mountains: traveling westward across the plains from Calgary the empty horizon was suddenly interrupted by a giant knife-edged wall of gray stone, and I quite literally gulped as I tried to fathom their imposing grandness.
To a mind that had not already been dulled by excessive imagery and Jr. High history classes, the pyramids must have been terrifying, unsettling, awe-striking and humbling. To most of us who were there today I think they were simply something to see in Egypt, old brown stones to photograph ourselves in front of so we could proudly show grandma once we returned home (and because I’m that base and do have a grandma who has inquired, I’ll not except myself from this group and duly post some photos below). Any sense of the grandeur, to say nothing of the religious or spiritual aspects involved, was lost in the crowds, the heat, the dust, and of course the hawkers selling plastic neon pyramids and made-in-China replica sphinxes, the latter assuredly what the kings of Egypt had truly desired when designing their eternal resting places.