Cairo, Egypt Wednesday, February 8, l995
The band continues to play deep into the night. It finally stops at 3 AM. Ain't Ramadan grand?
We have breakfast in the room then head downstairs and board the bus for Memphis. Memphis sits right on the border between Upper and Lower Egypt and thus was chosen as the first capital of the unified land by Narmer.
Life in the nearby countryside is on view along the road and the canal that runs parallel to it. Lots of people sitting, children cutting a low green crop of some kind, donkey pulled carts of vegetables and clothes washing in the canal.
We swing across the railroad tracks in Memphis where a live chicken market is taking place. A bit further on we pull into the parking lot of the Memphis Museum which features a garden with a sphinx and statues of Ramses plus the Ramses Collosus-a truly breathtaking stone giant 14 meters long. He lies in an enclosed viewing room in spectacular majesty even without his lower legs. Susan wonders where in the timeline of history do the Xi'an warriors fit with this extraordinary work which dates from around 1300 B.C. during the XIXth Dynasty (they turn out to be about 1000 years later).
Out in the garden we briefly look at two other Ramses statues, much smaller and reconstructed from pieces and the alabaster sphinx (actually limestone) that appears to be that of Queen Hatshepsut.
We leave Memphis, city of the living, for the necropolis of Sakkara. On the way I spot a large dead white animal (ox or donkey) floating in the canal. We also pass several carpet schools on the way to the tombs.
The green ends and the desert begins. Sakka is the name for the God of the Dead-hence Sakkara. We pass a sign that says, "Guards Are Strickly Forbidden To Give Any Information." We also encountered the first of many charges for cameras. LE 5 for cameras, LE 25 for video.
We begin at the mastaba (the word means bench but it is in fact a rectangular shaped structure built above a burial chamber) of Mere-Ruka which dates from the VIth Dynasty, 2340 B.C. Mere-Ruka was a minister and high priest. His mastaba consists of several rooms covered with lovely scenes of daily life. He bestrides a large boat while his wife is seen as a smaller figure. The upper portions of the frieze are gone but we can see fish in the river and Mere-Ruka has caught two large Nile perch. The rooms are alive with scenes of laborers including a dwarf working gold, taxes being paid and not paid. We now see touches of color-ochre skin and blue backgrounds. It's quite wonderful.
We pass a shaft down to the burial chamber itself on our way to the offering room-a large space with six columns, a niche with a figure of Mere-Roka himself, an offering alter where the ritual cow was slaughtered and blood ran along the tiles on the floor. This is a terrific space with many more friezes, including some with Mrs. Mere-Roka shown of equal size.
Back outside and a few steps away is a roughly triangular mound of dirts which turns out to be the pyramid of Teti, first king of the VIth Dynasty, also 2340 B.C. A low passageway leads us down to the burial chamber and a wall covered with cartouches and hieroglyphics. Our guide draws Teti's cartouche in my note pad which earns him bakshish in the amount of LE 1.
This area is part of a large necropolis that spreads from Giza to Memphis. There are thought to be 96 pyramids in the area although few of them are left. Our view is all desert, wonderful and brown with the bent pyramid at Dahshur and another regular pyramid off to the south on the horizon.
The bus takes us up to the step pyramid of Zoser dating back to the IIIrd Dynasty, 2700 B.C. The architect, Imhotep, was a great genius. The structure, which is essentially a series of stacked mastabas of increasingly smaller size, is the forerunner of the pyramid form and the greatest structure known to man until that time. We enter the complex through a restored section of the forecourt temple and walk down a colonnade of fluted columns designed to look like bundled reeds. The columns are connected to walls which form niches where statues of the gods were placed. The sounds of stone being chiseled greet us as we walk down the colonnade. Local workers are restoring the temple using ancient tools to work the stone.
At the end of the colonnade is large forecourt and looming to the right is Zoser's pyramid. It's wonderful against the blue sky. Down at the bottom are a few finished courses of outer limestone so you can get an idea of what the finished structure must have looked like. We're so used to the rubble look that somehow the finished appearance isn't nearly as satisfying. The burial chamber is down a shaft 27 meters deep (we don't visit it). Around to the right is the House of the South (the House of the North has collapsed) which is another part of the complex. It isn't much to look at although it does have some design elements that incorporate the lotus flower (representing Upper Egypt) and a fringe design signifying eternity.
We head back to the bus, a grove of trees on our left, the desert on our right. A short way up the road is the obligatory stop at the carpet factory. Children are working on the looms on rugs of silk, wool and camel hair dyed with vegetable and fruit dyes. The factory employs 450 children in three shifts of three hours each for which they're paid LE 25 per day. Some of the rugs are quite lovely, others typically ghastly. We're served tea, pressured a tiny little bit to buy and then depart for Mena House and lunch.
I nod off occasionally but awaken to views of the pyramids through the houses on the left. We turn up a rising brown road with Cheops' pyramid looming to our left and the lush green oasis that is Mena House on our right. It's very impressive, expensive looking with an oriental motif throughout. We proceed through the lobby, up a flight of stairs to the Khan el Kalili restaurant. Outside is a lovely green garden bordered by a hedge. Beyond all the color has been drained leaving only brown and Cheops.
We lunch with Bruce and Alan. Alan, who mysteriously works at night, turns out to be a station porter at the Bensonhurst subway station. It seems every conversation Susan has turns to transit in some way. Last night Bruce's girlfriend's Kiddie Kab company was the topic.
After lunch it's up to the pyramids which sit above Giza on a high plateau. The view back toward Cairo through the pyramids ain't half bad.
Cheops' pyramid dates from the IVth Dynasty, about 2700 B.C. Its top nine feet are missing and Mona wants to know why but I can't find the answer in any of our guide books. Although originally covered with limestone, it achieved its current configuration in the 15th and 16th centuries when the stones were stripped away for use in other building.
We walk along the base of the pyramid to the Solar Boat Museum and don canvas overshoes to wear inside. The solar boat was discovered in l954 and is awesome. It was hidden in a long trench and covered by huge limestone blocks. It measures 46 meters and is nearly 5000 years old. Discovered disassembled, it has been put back together and is displayed upstairs. It's held together by ropes (not the original ropes, some of which can be seen in a glass case near the entrance). We go upstairs and walk around it marveling at the condition of the cedar, sycamore and jujube wood, the papyrus- shaped end poles, the six sets of oars and the on-board cabin. This is one of the best things so far-a truly remarkable experience. Outside the vendors swarm all over us with the latest tricks of the trade, like putting whatever they're selling into your hands for free, then hitting on you to pay. Mona gets one of the Antiquities and Tourist Police to shoo them away but that only works for a moment. Camel rides are also available-pay to get on, pay to ride, pay to get off. Bruce gets seriously hassled by some camel guys. Susan doesn't seem to mind, but I find that it's seriously undermining my ability to commune with the three pyramids.
As we walk over to Cheophren (the third and smallest belongs to Menkaru and the three are father son and grandson) we can see the step pyramid at Sakkara in the distance. Cheophren is set on higher ground than Cheops so it appears to be of comparable size though it is actually somewhat smaller. It still retains some of its limestone covering at the very top but its overall coloration is similar to the exposed interior blocks of the other pyramids although the limestone top is a little lighter. Susan stays outside while I take the long bent over trip down and then up into the center of the pyramid and its nondescript burial chamber. Had to be done.
We reboard the bus for the parking area around behind the pyramids for a photo-op and camel ride. We ask Bruce and Chin to take Susan's picture. Then I decide to go, too. LE 10 each and we're off over the desert toward the pyramids. It's pretty tame stuff but wonderful nonetheless. The view of the pyramids is pure-nothing but desert, sky and the three P's. The light cooperates by shining discretely on Cheops and Cheophren from a dark, overcast sky. Magic time! Susan puts the finishing touch on this perfect moment by stepping in camel shit on the way back to the bus.
Down below to the Valley Temple of Cehophren through another phalanx of vendors. This is where the mummification took place. An inclined path leads up from the temple to The Sphinx (yes, that The Sphinx). It sits below the pyramids and is somewhat disappointing (as foretold). Still, it grows on you. After all, any view that has The Sphinx in the foreground with the pyramids above and behind can't be all bad.
Soon, however, we're on our way back to the hotel with a stop at Ani Papyrus for a demonstration of papyrus making and the obligatory sales opportunity. Nothing for us since this morning Khaled delivered two papyrus paintings to us, a gift from Mike Mascali. Several of the group make purchases of their own personalized cartouches. Then we plunge into rush hour traffic, get back to the hotel and hit the good old Night and Day for our usual soup snack.
Since we're getting up at (gasp!) 3:30 AM tomorrow, we decided on an early dinner at Arabesque. We agreed upon LE 10 for our cab ride. We sat our same table only this time more people showed up including twenty from another American tour group. Susan went for the grilled pigeon and I had fish and rice in a tomato, onion and green pepper sauce which was quite good. Of course we finished with Om-Aly.
We walked up to Tarlat Harb Square to Madbuli Bookstore and bought a copy of the Atlas of Ancient Egypt, then got a cab back to the hotel for another LE 10. I traded $300 in traveler's checks for $300 in cash so I can close out the books with Bruce Truex. I then checked out for about $100 in incidental charges which isn't too bad. Now if we can get some sleep.