Egypt 2: Cairo, next day

One effect of Cairo’s vast size (described in the previous entry) is that the Pyramids are much nearer to the city than I expected. In a somewhat Baudrillardian way, I’d come to Egypt with an already-developed experience of the Pyramids as lying in a wind-swept desert, watched over by a dramatically silent Sphinx. The reality is much different: we drove out of center Cairo toward the Pyramids on Friday morning, and within 15 minutes, we were there. It’s as though the Pyramids were in the middle of Arlington. I shouldn’t overstate my complaint: the Pyramids are more than 4000 years old and, city or not at your back, they are an amazing sight. Still, with the hawkers, the souvenier shops, parking lots, and a new planned city being built just over the sand dunes, there’s something anti-climactic about it.

The “classic” view of the Pyramids.

Cheops’ pyramid is 445 feet high.

Abby against the blocks; she’s about 1-1/2 layers high.

A camel rider.

The Sphinx as I’d always imagined it.

Another view of the Sphinx, as it actually is.

I try to out-serious the Sphinx.

Another camel rider. These guys are here to pose for tourists and to overcharge them for camel rides, but they look great.

While there, we entered Cheops’ pyramid, the oldest and largest of the three, to see its burial chamber. The chamber is reached by crawling along a low path and then up a high-ceilinged, narrow, upward-sloping walkway. Although the exterior of the Pyramid is weathered and crumbling, the stones of the inside walls are still flat and smooth, joined along perfectly straight lines. It is truly remarkable to see how fresh, exact and polished the interior walls are; the burial chamber itself looked like it could have been built twenty years ago.

Throughout all of this, we received very detailed explanations of the Pyramid complex. This is because we had the same guide as yesterday, but he’d received my feedback from the tour company and was now on his best behavior. I’ll admit that we weren’t thrilled to see him again, but at least he knew that we weren’t the average customers.

After taking our photos, and also after being hit up for bakshish by a tourist police officer in exchange for his taking additional pictures of us (we said no), we left the Pyramid complex and drove to Memphis. Memphis was once the capital of Egypt, but now it is just a dusty village with a small antiquities museum. The most impressive piece was the status of Ramses II, shown below.

We then went to Sakkara, where the oldest still-standing pyramids are. We began the tour by going down into the tomb of one of the nobles, where our guide gave us a very detailed explanation of what was on the walls and how the tomb was organized, and then he brought up my complaints of the previous day. It was a little uncomfortable, especially since we weren’t going to get into a heated discussion in the middle of a tomb, but we managed to resolved the issue if not amicably, then politely. We then went down under one of the smaller pyramids to see the burial chamber, and then to the main pyramid of the complex. This pyramid was built around 2400 BC, and so is more “primitive” than the main pyramids in Giza, but it is the best-preserved one of its type; many others have dissolved back into the desert over the centuries.

The pyramid at Sakkara

Detail of the brick construction

Horses at the site, with another ancient pyramid in the background (there are about seven in all)

You can see the pyramids at Giza from Sakkara; this is the view I’d expected to see

We then drove back past a horrific traffic accident, which reminded us of how dangerous it is to drive in countries where there isn’t a long tradition of road safety*, and ate at a tourist restaurant that the guide took us to – overpriced but with excellent fresh pita.

Finally, we caught the flight to Luxor. The taxi ride took us onto some elevated highways that crossed over a series of other elevated highways; at one point, I think we were about six stories in the air. When I wasn’t marveling at the sheer unnaturalness of that situation, I was being a voyeur, since from that height, and with the buildings pressing up against the highway, I could look into peoples’ windows. I saw some very Hopper-esque sights: a woman seated at her dressing table in a high-ceilinged room, fastening the clasp of her necklace; the family at dinner with the TV on; simple apartments decorated only Arabic prayers (I assume) written on tablets hung on the walls. It was like the back alleys in the Khan al-Khalili market, a peek into people’s private lives. While we were at Sakkara, we heard some American guy say to a local in a truly artistic, sensitive, and extraordinarily pompous manner, “I don’t travel for the sights, I travel to meet people like you, the real people.” Abby and I couldn’t get away from him fast enough to start mocking him savagely, but there actually is something to traveling just to see what day-to-day life in the rest of the world looks like.

*Abby has made the excellent observation with regard to Tirana that, since this was a country that didn’t have widespread private automobile ownership until after 1991, people didn’t grow up watching their parents drive safely, so they drive like they walk, with no sense for the rules of the road. Having seen Egypt, Uganda and China, I think the situation is not dissimilar: safe driving involves a whole mechano-politico-cultural infrastructure of education, enforcement, road and car maintenance, and the recognition of what two tons of hurtling metal can do to a body.