After what seemed like ages, but was actually less than an hour, we were given the go-ahead to start the approach for landing, and there was a collective sigh of relief from the entire flight — passengers and crew — as we fastened our seat belts, stowed our tray tables and returned our seats to the upright position to prepare for landing.
It seems strange to be starting a roadtrip with a flight, but this is not a typical roadtrip, and it starts with a midnight arrival in Cairo.
A thin layer of fine sand covered everything, including parked cars along the streets -- as if the desert was attempting to reclaim terrain from the urban civilization that had grown up into a sprawling metropolis.
The dust had cleared somewhat by morning and I got my introduction to Cairo traffic, which really IS worse than New York city’s chaos. There is a level of aggression in the driving here mixed in with a sort of lawlessness that means anything can come at you from any direction (and at any time) and roads don’t really have defined “lanes” even if there are lines painted on the tarmac. Still, the local drivers know how to navigate it and hesitant foreigners are the bigger road hazard.
A quick stop for tourism
I couldn't pass though Cairo without visiting a few touristic sites that connect modern Egypt with its ancient past. Attempting the Herculean task of understanding 5,000 years of civilization in two days time started with an overview.
From the highest point at the Citadel up on the Mokattam hill it's possible to look out over a sprawling metropolis that seems poised to swallow up the ancient pyramids on its outskirts. The Citadel itself is a protected UNESCO monument — a medieval Islamic fortification founded by Saladin with an Ottoman-era mosque constructed by Muhammad Ali Pasha based on the design of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque.
The security procedure for entering all these touristic sites is thorough, beginning with a checkpoint outside the perimeter for vehicles entering the parking area where a K-9 unit examines each vehicle for explosives. Individual visitors are then run through an airport-like security screening with the familiar x-ray for belongings and metal detector for people, prior to entering the sites themselves.
From Cairo it was a short drive to Memphis the first ancient capital of egypt.
We followed the line of an irrigation canal that in some places was dammed up by garbage while in other spots people in small boats were engaged in something I hoped was not fishing. A few dead animals could also be seen half submerged in the murky water. We were clearly not in Cairo anymore, but it was hard to tell when we actually “left” the limits of the city.
The towns we were passing through seemed poorer and more agrarian, and I was surprised when we arrived to the site of Memphis on the outskirts of Mit Rahina. The idea that the great ancient capital was beside a backwater town seemed incongruous. Some shadow of the greatness should have remained, but it didn’t. Only the artifacts survived.
A massive and beautifully carved statue of Rameses II lay at the center of a room built expressly to house it with a viewing platform one story above. The smoothly polished stone face looked regal and peaceful, like a sleeping giant, unaware of what had become of his kingdom outside. Several other artifacts from the archeological site were on display around the garden which was ringed by the stands of souvenir sellers. Most prominent was a Sphinx in the center of the promenade. Unlike “the” Sphinx of Giza, this one still had his face on.
As we approached the step pyramid was visible on the horizon, framed by a scaffolding that gave the odd impression that it was just being built now. It made me think about the irony of the fact that the technology they were using to restore these monuments was less developed then the technology used to originally build them.
The necropolis is still very much an active archeological excavation site, though a number of areas are open to the public including one of the many smaller pyramids that seems to be crumbling back into the desert. I took the opportunity to go down into the burial chamber to see what it was like, though I hadn’t yet understood the “system” of “guides” who lead you down the steep planks into the darkness repeating “watch your head, watch your head” as you walk bent over, invariably hitting your head at some point anyway.
Alternating between feeling the mystery of the pyramids and feeling like a silly Indiana-Jones-Tomb-Raider wanna-be, I followed the guide with his flashlight into the chamber where the sarcophagus goes. The flashlight was enough to illuminate the walls covered in hieroglyphics, with a star patterned ceiling above. It was eerie and magical and a little weird to be “touring” someone’s grave. Yet I was fascinated by the entire elaborate complex of rituals and the little we know about this culture that was so obsessed with the “afterlife” that they spent the majority of their lives and wealth preparing for it.
The Great Pyramids at Giza
I had seriously considered trying to avoid an actual visit here, with the thought that I could maybe just gaze briefly at the pyramids from a distance, but in the end I gave in to the pull of history and the magical attraction of these ancient monuments.
The pyramids themselves sit on the outskirts of Giza with the chaos of the city and the tourist industry kept somewhat at bay by a few gates and some legal restrictions designed to protect the area which is part of the larger UNESCO World Heritage site listed as “Memphis and its Necropolis – the Pyramid Fields from Giza to Dahshur“.
But a level of chaos still manages to surround the sites, with guides and souvenir sellers, guys with camels who want you to ride them, and other guys with camels who just want you to pose with them, and guys driving horse chariots who want to give you a ride from one part of the spread out necropolis to the next—all for a price that is never really clear.
I did my best to try to avoid them but it was almost impossible to get a nicely composed photo of the largest “Great” pyramid without one of the camel guys stepping into the frame then demanding money because you took a picture of his camel. The concept of “unauthorized photo” had taken on a whole new meaning and I sort of imagined a camel model release and even wondered if any of the animals had “supermodel” status.
In comparison, the souvenir vendors were quite mellow, displaying their offerings but not pestering anyone who didn’t express an interest. And there were plenty of interested customers. Even the camel guys were doing a brisk business with so many tourists happily posing or playing Lawrence of Arabia in selfies.
More dangerous were the horse chariots ferrying people around the sites on no specific route with any open bit of sand considered part of the road, whether you were standing on it or not. We almost got run over by horse chariots more than once as we wandered around the base of the first and largest monument.
Despite all that, it really was awe inspiring, as we approached the massive construction which seemed to change with each step closer. What looked from a distance like a smooth faced building, morphed into a rugged pile of huge bricks stacked precisely and perfectly, then the size of the “bricks” became apparent as we saw the ant-like people climbing up to the entry way, completely dwarfed by the massive stone blocks.
The gradual reveal was suddenly interrupted by the sound of sirens wailing louder and louder and I assumed someone had maybe fainted from the heat or gotten run over by a horse chariot or bitten by a camel and the ambulances were rushing to take them to hospital. But no. It was the sound of the security escort for some diplomatic visit to the pyramids. An armored bomb squad truck, motorcycle cops, armed bodyguards, and various military and police units accompanied the dignitaries, attempting to carve out a security perimeter as the crowd of tourists ignored them and the horse chariot drivers weaved in between their vehicles as if they were just a minor inconvenience.
The machine-gun toting bodyguards formed a sort of outward facing circle around their charges and could do nothing about the tourists taking snapshots of them or the pyramids behind. It seemed like one of the most futile exercises in attempting to maintain a security protocol I have ever seen. Though I guess “closing” the pyramids for a private visit would have been out of the question.