Thursday, November 22, 2012

Pyramid dust on my shoes

On the 19th of August I spent the day at the Pyramids. They are just on the edge of Cairo. The city has sprawled its way right up to the base of the Giza plateau and now the crowds of the living city are just a few hundred yards from the great necropolis.

I had the taxi driver drop me off at the north gate, near the ticket office. Clusters of boys, young and middle aged men were hovering around, hollering to get attention, trying to sell trinkets or offering to take me on tours. I've learned the art of ignoring and pushed my way through to the ticket office. Ticket safely in hand I braved the next bunch of clusters, paying special attention to ignore the young men who were trying to pass themselves off as some kind of "officials", wanting to get their hands on me, my ticket and I don't know what else.

I don't want to dwell on the negative. I'll just mention one more detail, the huge, noisy crowd between the gate and the first, largest pyramid, Khufu's tomb. There must have been over 1,000 boys and men, many racing their emaciated horses and camels, each of them pushing in front of the next to get my attention and try to convince me I wanted a camel ride.

A word of advice. Do not make eye contact or acknowledge them at all, unless you really do want to ride one of those poor beasts. If they get your attention they will NOT let you go. I anticipated the situation and slipped only once, letting one middle aged fellow engage me in conversation. He was all obsequious smiles until I repeatedly refused to buy whatever it was he was selling and expressed rather firmly that I wanted to get on with my visit of the pyramids. He then proceeded to swear at me in the filthiest way. But I was already out of his reach at that point.

One more word of advice. Women, expect to be sexually harassed. It is imperative to go with a man. But still expect the harassment. Among the few tourists I encountered (ratio of local to tourist appears to be about 20:1), was an Englishman with his 2 children, a girl of about 13 and a boy of about 8. The girl couldn't have been more than a year into puberty. The father told me that boys and men had been harassing her even in his very presence.

Okay, enough of the negative. As awful as it was it paled into infinitesimal insignificance in presence of the vast creation of those amazing people who flourished 5,000 years ago and whose presence still dominates the landscape. (What will there be to see of our civilization 5,000 years from now?)

The first pyramid is the tomb of Khufu, the oldest and largest of them all. I'm a firm believer that the best way to travel is on foot. That's the way to see things, slowly, from eye level. So off I set, on foot, across the sandy paths. I headed north, away from the crowd, and found myself in the "Western Cemetery".
It had the feeling of being a town, with roads, walls, doorways into interior courtyards... Although this area is called a cemetery I think it's possible people may have lived here as well, alongside the tombs, caretakers perhaps, and their families.

Archeologists now believe that about 10,000 people lived in the immediate vicinity of the pyramids. They would have been construction workers and the necessary support, such as bakers, and other trades. The idea that the pyramids were built by slaves has been discredited (though I've had a few Egyptians repeat the slave myth to me). Apparently, and not surprisingly, working at the pyramids was actually a very prestigious job because it put people in direct service to their God-King and earned them a lot of brownie points in the afterlife. After all, the afterlife was what it was all about for these people.

Beyond Khufu's tomb is the pyramid of Khafre, which still retains some of its facing stones at its peak. I scrambled around the mounds, made my way through the cemetery and found the road again.

This pyramid is at the highest point of the plateau. Like the other pyramids, it has a temple at its base. 
From here a road or causeway descends to the edge of the plateau and connects the pyramid complex to the village of Giza below. Beyond the village lies the river. In the next photo I am looking up towards the pyramid, with rock cut tombs on the left. 

In the photo below I am standing in the same spot but looking down towards the village and river. The Sphinx is at the left.

Here is a view of the surrounding rock cut tombs.

I believe they originally had some low relief decorations as well as other architectural ornaments, especially around the doorways. But these have mostly disappeared over the millenia.
The Sphinx sits at the end of the causeway, at the edge of the village, looking across the river towards the rising sun. By the way, the story that Napoleon's troops shot the nose off for target practice is totally false. It wasn't the evil European invader who did this. Apparently it was a fellow by the name of Muhammad Sa'im al-Dahr, in 1378, who was offended when he saw peasants making offerings to it in the hopes of increasing their harvest. He attempted to destroy it (shades of Bamiyan?), starting with the face. For his efforts, he was lynched by the peasants.

The circus of the entry gate repeats itself around the Sphinx, even though the precinct around it has been enclosed by a chain link fence. Children and teenagers scramble over this fence, which is a good 15 feet high, and into the protected zone. The handful of security personnel don't even try to put a stop to it... Enough said.

At the base of Khafre's pyramid...
The furthest pyramid from the main gate is the tomb of Menkaure, accompanied by its 3 smaller pyramids for Queens. These 3 were never completed.

Despite being incomplete, these pyramids, along with Menkaure's, are the only pyramids in Giza that retain some of their original pink granite facing stones.
Yours truly, in front of one of the Queen's pyramids. This photo was taken by the English gentleman I mentioned at the start of this blog post.

Like the Sphinx, Menkaure's tomb was also victim to an act of vandalism. This was at the end of the 1100s. The ruler of Egypt at that time was al-Malek, al-Aziz Othman ben Yusuf. The large gash in the side was an attempt by him to demolish the pyramid. This gash was the result of 8 months of effort, at which point he and his crew gave up. He died shortly after, at the age of 27.
Boats, naturally, were central to the lives of the ancient Egyptians, given that their lives revolved around the river, its patterns and cycles. So it is no surprise that boats played a large part in their mythology and cosmology, and that boats have been found buried around the pyramids.

One boat was found extraordinarily well preserved, though it still took 14 years of work to restore it. The boat can now be seen in a special museum at the base of the Great Pyramid.
Imagine the river with these boats gliding along, following the course of the flow as they went downstream, or with their rows of oars splashing as they went back upstream again.
After about 5 hours of continuous walking through the sand and dust, scrambling over mounds of rocks, dodging horses, camels and vendors, I decided it was time for a break. Just outside the entrance to the whole complex is a 19th century palace that was turned into a hotel in the 1880s, catering to the British tourists who were flocking to Egypt at that time.

I took refuge in the peaceful comfort of this place, and enjoyed an exquisite light lunch. My table overlooked the garden.
Next time I visit the pyramids I'm going to plan my break a little later in the afternoon and enjoy their afternoon tea. They do a traditional British tea.
Once I had recovered my strength I went back up to Khufu's pyramid and went inside. I can't begin to describe the experience of climbing into it, all the way up to the main chamber. All I can say is that it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and must be done. It is physically challenging though. It is hot and in places it is necessary to proceed on hands and knees. So be prepared.

Speaking of preparations, wear a long sleeved shirt and a hat and bring your own water. There are people selling water but the quality is not to be trusted. Also, the only real officials on the site are in uniform. Anyone else who claims to be there in an official capacity is lying. They will show you ID and tell you all kinds of nonsense about rules that you're breaking. It's just a ruse to try to separate you from your money.
Finally, after it was all done, after I'd circumambulated all 3 pyramids, paid my respects to the Sphinx and climbed into the main chamber of Khufu's tomb, I taxied and limped my way back to my hotel on the other side of the city. I plopped down on the edge of the bed and stared down at my feet, trying to find the strength to bend down and take my shoes off. As I slipped off my tennis shoes, I noticed how their color had changed from an indigo blue of denim to a dusty rose, the color of pyramid dust.


  1. Sounds like a great adventure! I didn't realize that anyone was allowed inside Khufu's pyramid. I will definitely go sometime I'm the next couple years. Maybe it would be worth staying in that nice hotel right outside the grounds. Did you catch the name?

    1. Joao, the hotel is called Mena House Oberoi. I'd certainly stay there a couple of nights if I had the chance. Then I'd do a 2 day boat ride up the Nile to Luxor and Aswan.