06 August 2007

Aug 3 – Pyramids, Sphinx, Citadel

Sherif called my room at around 8:00 and I met him down in the lobby.

We got in his car and headed toward Giza, stopping first at a gas station to get gas (1.3 Egyptian pounds per liter, or $.94 per gallon) and drinks as he said it would be hot at the pyramids and would be lunch time before we’d get something else. I had my water bottle with me but that’s only half a liter and I’d likely need more than that. I tried to buy the drinks but Sherif wouldn’t let me.

We continued to Giza through mostly empty streets. Sherif commented that the traffic in Cairo is much different than the traffic in Des Moines and that, normally, the streets would be packed with crazy driving and horns honking like I saw on my way to the hotel yesterday. But since it’s Friday (the equivalent of Sunday back home), there was very little traffic.

In fact, as we drove down what looked to be a fairly major street, there were a number of donkey carts and horse-drawn vehicles mixed in with the traffic. Sherif said that they were limited to side streets by law but since it was Friday there wasn’t much, if any, enforcement of it.

We crossed the Nile River (twice…it branches a number of times through town creating several islands) and then pulled over to wait for our tour guide. Sherif’s brother’s friend (Sahid) got in and we continued our way toward the pyramids. Sahid is a tour guide by trade and knows a lot about Cairo and its contents. He started with the history of the area as we continued our approach to the Giza plateau.

When we got to the gate there were some buses and cars and a lot of horse-drawn carriages. The car had to have a security inspection before it could enter the grounds so Sherif stayed with the car for that while Sahid and I walked through the people-security area. Sherif parked the car while Sahid told me more about the pyramids…both the “official story” that he’s required to tell the tourists and the “real story” that he knows plus some “scholars say” stories thrown in just for balance.

Sherif joins us and we head to the base of the largest pyramid at Giza, Cheops. There is a shaft that you can enter and actually go inside. Sherif and I went inside while Sahid stayed outside with our bags and cameras since cameras are forbidden inside.

The entrance to the shaft is fairly narrow and level, however it soon becomes a steep upward climb. The passage floor has been covered with planks that have metal bars mounted crosswise on them…I’m guessing the angle is greater than 45 degrees. There are handrails and it’s narrow…when meeting people going the other direction, you kind of have to sidle past each other. There isn’t much room height-wise, either. You have to climb the first section of it bent over. It wasn’t so bad for me but Sherif is well over 6 feet tall…the top of my head comes about to the top of his shoulder…so he really had to bend over.

There’s brief level stretch and then another steep upward climb, but at least this one has plenty of head room as the ceiling is probably 20-30 feet up. At the top of this longer climb is the actual passage to the burial chamber. This passage is maybe 3 and a half feet high so you really have to crouch. Luckily, it’s not overlong. Once you get into the chamber, it’s a large open space…maybe 18 to 20 feet wide and high and probably twice that long. At the far end is the stone tomb that contained the sarcophagus. The tomb and walls are granite. The granite slabs over the top of the chamber span the width of it without seams. That’s a huge chunk of rock!

There are no carvings, paintings or decorations in this chamber…just smooth granite surfaces. There are a couple of dehumidifiers installed in the corners behind the tomb and a security camera higher up at one end. There are lights in the shaft and tomb room, enough so that you can see, but none of it is brightly lit. It lends an appropriate air of mystery to the space.

It was kind of a strange feeling to touch the stone tomb and think of the people long, long ago who made it as well as the person who occupied it after death. Or to touch the joints in the stone walls and wonder at the craftsmanship that let them make such smooth surfaces and tight, mortarless joints with the tools available millennia ago. And how the heck did they get those huge granite slabs in place on top of the chamber?? Or even up there in the first place?

On the way up, I’d noticed a moaning hum or buzz inside the passageway. Sherif and I discussed it and decided that it had to be air ventilating through the passages. Inside the chamber, there were some openings in the walls that were covered with metal grates (obviously not vintage Cheops…) that were drawing air, which tended to support our theory.

The chamber we visited was not that of Cheops. His chamber was down toward the bottom of the pyramid, but there isn’t tourist access to that part. The chamber we saw was that of his mother.

Going back down the shaft was easier on the long slope. If you were daring enough and no one was trying to come up, you could let gravity do a lot of the work and sort of “pole” your way down the handrails, since they were close enough to each other to make that work. That didn’t work at the lower section of the shaft, though. That’s where there wasn’t head room. I just kind of crouched down and crept. Sherif alternated going forwards and backwards but for someone of his height, there just wasn’t a good way to do it.

Back out in the heat and sun of the desert, we met up with Sahid and headed over to the other tombs. These were not pyramids, just tombs. And because Sahid is an official guide, he got us into some tomb rooms that are not generally open to the public. This was one of those cases where some baksheesh was involved. I saw Sahid slipping a guy some money as we walked back to where the tomb areas were.

One of the tombs had a small cavity in the floor just inside the entrance. Sahid moved the stone slabs aside to reveal a human skull. It was found in the tomb but no one knows who it might be. It wasn’t part of the tomb occupant (that would have been mummified in the sarcophagus)…it might have been a tomb raider or worker. No one knows.

These tombs, in contrast with the one inside Cheops, had carvings and inscriptions on the walls and in some places you could see remnants of the paint that had once been there. Sahid explained the meaning of the images and hieroglyphs. We saw a lot of the same images in many of the tombs…the sacrifices, the weighing of the soul, Anubis guarding the entrance, etc.

We also saw where the solar boat was found and the museum that now houses it. The solar boat looks like it was entombed, much as the kings had been. The entire boat was build without nails or caulking. The planks were lashed together with ropes in such a way that it didn’t leak. Or that’s the theory. Sahid thinks it was never actually meant to float…that it was a symbolic provision for the king in his afterlife. Either way, it was a full-sized boat with 12 oars and a 2-room cabin mid-ship.

In one of the temp and humidity controlled display cases, there were a couple samples of the actual rope knotting found with the boat. I think they were the oarlocks… Sahid marveled at how the knots were tied, and it was a wonder. But I was amazed at the rope itself. It was made from grass, yet thick and smooth and strong enough to hold the boat together.

After that, we got in the car and drove to a spot where you could get a picture of all 3 of the big pyramids together. It was packed with people and tour buses and vendors hawking cheap souvenirs. Also people selling camel/horse or horse-drawn carriage rides. When we first arrived, Sahid asked if I wanted to ride a camel and I wasn’t all that keen on the idea so didn’t. But Sahid said that the ride vendors tended to pester the tourists unmercifully and whatever the price for the ride, it usually required some baksheesh to get you down off the camel afterward or back to the starting point for the horse or carriage rides. Which dovetailed nicely with what I’d been reading about it…

Then we drove down to the Sphinx area. It’s all cordoned off so you can’t actually get near it but your Giza Plateau ticket gives you access to all the pyramid and tomb areas as well as a place from which to view the Sphinx. The Sphinx area was also packed with people and tour buses. Being a little later in the day on a weekend, I think had a lot to do with that. There were a lot more people than when we first got there. There was one bottleneck to the viewing area that was just insane. Everyone has to go through this one small doorway to get to/from the viewing area and there were probably many, many hundreds of people trying to do just that. Sahid navigates crowds like Egyptians drive so he kind of plowed a path through the people and I followed along in his wake. Sherif wasn’t so willing to plow through. Sahid said he’d been out of the country too much and had forgotten how to be Egyptian.

After the Sphinx, Sahid took us to a perfumery where they showed us how they make the essential and pure oils. Also exquisite glass and crystal work. They plied us with complimentary beverages and then demoed some of their unique scent blends for perfume or medicinal uses. I kind of felt trapped into buying something so I got a small bottle of perfume and when I picked out a blown bottle to go with it, he tossed it in for “free.” For pure perfume oil, I’m confident it was a good price (216 pounds for 100 ml plus the blown glass bottle…about $38) and the bottle is a work of art. But it’s probably more than I’ll use in a lifetime. Ah, well. Perfume oil was on my list of things to get…I just hadn’t planned on spending that much for it.

Then we went to a papyrus institute where a woman demonstrated how real papyrus is made. That was fascinating! And, of course, they had many examples of papyrus artwork for sale (also on my list of things to get) so I got a small scarab beetle piece for 40 pounds (a little over $7).

By then it was around 2:00 and since I’d never had breakfast, I was getting hungry. They asked what I wanted to eat and I said, “Egyptian food!” They took me to this place called the Country Side. It was a cool place to be, even leaving aside the wonderful food…very old, made of stone and beams with a wonderful old-world, yet comfortable atmosphere. We decided to sit inside and I asked Sherif to order whatever for me.

The waiter brought a half-dozen small dishes with a basket of bread and Sahid said this was the appetizer. It looked like a whole meal to me! The bread was kind of naan like and we’d seen women baking it in ovens where we entered the grounds. They take patties of dough and coat it in bran then put them into a wood-fired oven. The dishes were fairly Greek-like, I thought…one was rice and seasonings and suchlike wrapped in grape leaves, there was dish that had meatballs and French fries on it, one with small pickle spears and 3 dishes of dipping sauces…one made with eggplant and spices, one from sesame and garlic, and one that was a yogurt gyro sauce. Then Sahid talked with the waiter and he brought a couple more dishes; one with a sort of pickled beet and one he called kimchee but it wasn’t at all like the kimchee I know…it was basically cabbage and grated carrot with a vinegar sauce…not the least bit hot and fiery.

Sahid said that Greek and Egyptian culture blended a long time ago, which helped explain why I thought most of the traditional Egyptian food on the table was Greek instead.

Then the main course came…half a roasted chicken for each of us. We’d seen the chickens rotisserie-ing by where the women were baking bread and they smelled wonderful. The taste lived up to the smell! Sahid said that they raise the chickens themselves, out back.

All that food for the 3 of us plus water/pop/fake beer to drink came to 177 pounds (about $32). What a feast!

After lunch, we went to the Citadel. It was getting close to closing time so we didn’t spend a lot of time there. We did go into several of the mosques and heard a lot about the history of the place.

As we were walking back to the car, Sherif said that was the end of the planned touring for the day but if I wasn’t tired, we could go walk around downtown and take a sail on the Nile. A sail on the Nile sounded wonderful but I was about dead on my feet after having not slept well the night before and spent the whole day out in the sun and heat. I thanked him but said I’d just go back to the hotel.

My plan was to stay awake until 10 or so. Maybe that way I could sleep through the night. However, once I got back and had a shower and some water to drink, I just couldn’t keep my eyes open so I set the alarm to let me sleep 30 minutes then got up and puttered and ‘putered.

I’d purchased an hour of internet time last night but only used about 10 minutes of it to post a blog and check mail, thinking that I’d use the rest of it over the next couple days until I get to the office. However, I discovered that the hour you buy is only good for an hour from the time you purchase it. So all those minutes I ‘saved’ yesterday to use later, are *poof* gone. Argh!
Tomorrow sounds like a long day coming: a visit to the pharaonic village (kind of like the Living History Farms in Des Moines, only Egyptian), something else I’ve forgotten, and the ‘sound and light’ show at the Giza plateau in the evening. Shaimaa is picking me up at 9:00.