Entrance to the temple/ Pyramid grounds at Saqqara.
Okay gang arrived quite late in Cairo lastnight without a Scooby Doo what I was supposed to do. 10 minutes and US$15 later I have my first ever Visa sticker in my passport! "Yey!" First of many I hope "Oooo, it has shiny foily thingy on it an' everythin'!" Even though an hour late on the flight Ahmed from the hostel was still patiently holding my name on a board. Yep even though relatively cheap an' cheerful King Tut's Hostel (as I'm staying 4 nights) have provided a 'free' driver for me. So it's out into the crazy lane-swapping demolition derby that it driving in Cairo (or Egypt generally). Honking and hooting and lane switching and sweeping; cars practically playing 100kmph hop-scotch over each other and almost all with dents to prove this creative style of sutomotive freestyle dance don't always work out.
The 'Step' pyramid designed by Imothep, one of the first known.
I am dazzled by the lights and noise of the city whilst I mentally crunch way too many of my own gears trying to figure how to go about my first baksheesh transaction. Ahmed is rewarded with E£10 (about £1) for his troubles. Probably way over the odds I reckon as it happens but at time of writing 3 days later I really haven't figured the system.
At the hostel I am greeted by the kindly staff. I have a whole room with FOUR beds all to myself. Hmmm, my own hareem!.. just minus all the fine foods and beautiful women... damn! Knew I shoulda upped that baksheesh! ;) I am invited into a nice (shoes off please) carpeted and cushion 'lounge' area to sit and enjoy an unusual pleasant pink drink of unknown content. The Boss Man Atef joins me to welcome me and before I know it, a few questions about my desires, intentions etc and a mild expression of dismay on my part that I've realised already how paltry an amount of time I have set aside for Egypt and it's all "No problem, no problem you can do all of those things.
..I'll show you." And show me he does. Obviously well trained in the art of itinerising for clueless tourists like deftly manouvering portrait artist he skecthes the vision of how I will do all I want and with the 13 days or so I have. Very impressive. It comes at a cost of course. Nothing bank-breaking but no doubt some way over the odds were you to tough it out and go it alone... buuut after some consideration I agree to his layout. F**k it, emotionally right now I feel very far from home and I still have a few unfortunate tendencies towards "anything for an easy life" attitude. Hopefully that will change. And hopefully the Atef plan will not prove to be too regrettable for me.
Protetcive asp figureheads infront of the 'Step' pyramid
(Stepped) Muju [www.mujuworld.co.uk]
Time and this blog will tell.
Fast forward to the following morning. A modest breaky of black tea, breadm butter and jam (yep, that old hostel staple food again!) and I am instroduced to and getting into a car with Yassah ('my driver') and Tariq ('my guide'). As I continue to marvel at the mechanised dexterity (or is it suicide-genius?) of Egyptian drivers Tariq explains to me "The number one rule is, there are NO rules". He's referring to the driving but I wonder if the statement isn't intended to have a hint of a wider application to Egyptian life.
First stop Saqqara and the Funerary Complex of King Zoser. The 'Step Pyramid' is the largest here and also represents the very start of the Pyramid age. Zoser's chief architect and designer of the pyramid Imhotep was later effectively to become deified in Egyptian life himself for his various achievements.
The 'step' pyramid at Saqqara
There is no access to the internal workings of this pyramid although many many long corridors are known to exist underneath it. Tariq claims that most incursions ceased some while ago after a small group of Egyptologists were lost within the labyrinth, never returning to the surface. I sense this is probably an apocrophyl tale but I dunno? You'll have to google it yourselves. There are some interesting(ish) ruins of ancient columns here and a couple more minor, more poorly looking pyramids.
Next stop Memphis!... or what very, very little remains of it within a small village now, Mit Rahina. There are various artefacts in situ from the no longer existent Egyptian capital city. Mostly relating to Ramses II one of Egypt's most powerful and longest ruling Pharoahs.
Inside the temple/ or Hypostyle Hall of Saqqara
He apparently lived long enough to sire (I think?) 111 sons and 67 daughters from his 57 wives. Quite a renowned polygamist he earned himself the nickname 'the busy Pharoah' from his subjects... mostly referring to his nocturnal chores I imagine. The highlight here is the truly massive Colossus of Ramses II statue that lies on its back now with a viewing platform all around. Also an Alabaster Sphinx thought to be of the female Egyptian ruler Hatshepsut (although debated) sits here amidst other impressive Pharoanic statuary.
Back in the car and next I am being "taken to see how traditional Egyptian carpets are made". Oh boy. I know what this means! So it's 20 minutes or so in the State-subsidised Zosa Carpet-Making school where I am taken around by a very well presented, pleasant man who shows me the kids at work on various forms of silk and woolen thread loom carpets.
The head of the giant Colossus of Ramses II at the site of ancient Memphis.
And it is interesting, but of couse I am taken upstairs then to view the infinite fruits of their labours... and presumably buy something. Cringe-inducing and slightly embarrassing though this all is I manage to remain polite and smiley and jokey whilst trying to explain that price ("yeah, yeah, yeah I hear ya Mr Good Price, Good-Price!"
) is not the issue but the fact that as a longterm backpacker I just CAN'T buy a single trinket or souvenir. Eventually the message is received and I'm free! The lads next cart me to the Sakkara Restaurant where I am presented with a very generous mezze-style platter of dips and foods with a basket of the nice, sun-leavened pitta breads they use here. A mixed grill follows and all goes down well. I have been brave and chowed my first Egyptian meal down heartily - ignoring the little gastronomic devil on my shoulder sayin' "Oooo, I bet it's that one that's gonna give ya the squits.
.. OOOOO no it's THAT one... or well, yeah it could be that one too, ya never know... uuugh, I wouldn't touch that if I were you!"
The Colossus of Ramses II
Back in 'my' chauffeur-driven dust-cutter with Yassah and Tariq and we're now heading to the real deal. The Pyramids of Giza! I have seen them at a far distance once or twice already during our travels today but almost everything in Cairo seen from a distance, even objects as monumental as these get fairly swallowed up (certainly in morning and evening) by a combination of city pollution, heat-haze and dust. It's great to see them emerge from all this and stand before you in the flesh... well in 22 million-squillion tons of rock anyway! It's E£55 (£5.50) to enter the site (that also includes the Great Sphinx) and an extra E£100 (£10) if you wish to actually enter the largest, the Great Cheops Pyramid.
The 'alabaster sphinx' debatedly of the female Pharaoh, Hatshepsut.
Both Athep and Tariq have advised me that for the money it really ain't worth the bother but the concept of coming this close to something that looms so large in the minds of men and NOT to have a look inside frankly strikes me as unconscionable...
...but I dunno with the benefit of hindsight. Not all that great really. The Great Gallery that you ascend on a steep slope is pretty spectacular with its vast limestone walls and ceiling far above you. Very erie! At the top of the 47m slope you duck through an opening and enter The King's Chamber. This is fairly unremarkable and bears no markings or poits of interest within it or upon its walls (in keeping with the rest of the discovered interior of Cheops actually). There's just a large lidless granite sarcophagus.
"Don't worry sir, everybody is a dwarf next to the great Ramses II!" Um, yeah Tariq, from where I'm standing (no matter how close to the ground that might leave this particular individual) that ain't great humour! :D
.. and that's the end of the show folks. There's a peculiar, fetid atmosphere inside the pyramid. It certainly seems to hum with a certain enrgy you think. Mostly humidty. You notice all of a sudden that even without moving sweat is coursing from every pore of your body. Peculiar. Pyramids are generally accepted to have served a number of purposes and not all of them funerary. In principle they were built as homes both in this life and the next for the Pharaoh's ka, a spiritual double or life force bestowed upon the Pharoah by the sungod.
Before I drown in my own sweat I head back down with the intention of entering either the Queen's Chamber or to go down the Descending Corridor to the Unfinished Chamber but BOTH of these are shut off today with metal gates.
The 'alabaster sphinx'.
..the latter one even though on my way in I saw a good number of people descending freely into it. When I enquire with the entrance staff why this is sudenly closed he says "No, is closed".
"But people were going down it 10 minutes ago". "NO, is closed. Is always closed."
"No, no I'm sorry but not 10 minutes ago a large number of people wer queuing and entering the Descending Corridor!". "No they did NOT! Is ALWAYS closed. You did not see these things".
Alright, alright. F**k me, I realise I'm in a "2 + 2 = 5 because I say it does" situation and back down grabbing my camera (yep, no cameras inside the Pyramids) in a disgruntled manner.
The Great Pyramid, or Cheops Pyramid of Pharaoh Khufu.
Time to have a saunter around at least the second of the 3 great Giza pyramids. Tariq & Yassah don't seem too excited at this plan "But is 450 metres away!" What the f**k! "Guys I used to walk 4 miles each way to get to work and back what are you talking about". I can see it. It's ok. It's the big triangular shaped thing not too far ahead behind this other triangular shaped thing. Blimey. I'm regretting this 'guided gig' already. My response to the Pyramids is mixed. They are truly incredible works of ancient architecture and resonate with a certain power of ancient mysteries. Things we will never fully understand. But also up close and personal they are just ruddy great big piles of stone, and it is only when you try to conceive of the seemingly impossible physical act of their creation that they're magnificence really is imprinted upon you.
Their surrounds are littered with both literal refuse people on horses or camels trying again and again and again to draw you into conversation with the aim of either getting you to a) have a ride b) take a photo of them (bad idea: baksheesh) or worse c) give them your camera for them to take a photo of you after which you will have to pay, I imagine quite steeply, to reaquire your own camera. I do none of these but their constant appeas for your attentions and the often quite obtrusive souvenir hawkers are really quite distracting from your date with ancient history.
Some one to my right clearly had enough with the whole game. Or with something anyway. An American is shouting most vociferously at someone. "But you DIDN'T TELL ME THAT!".
.. "WELL THAT'S WHAT I WAS ASKING YOU!!!".
Alright alright, calm down son. Another American I realise he's been bawling at barks exasperatedly into a walkie-talkie "I know, I KNOW they're supposed to be by the cars like half an hour ago!... I know, I KNOW Shia is supposed to be by the cars but he isn't. He's here for god's sake!"
Tsk! Trust Americans to make a scene... and feel the need for walkie-talkie tours. And what a curious name. Shia? Shy-ah? Oh wait a sec I get it. On closer scrutiny I realise that mouthing off right by me is Shia LaBouef, the young American actor most recently of Indie Jones IV and Transformers fame. I presume he's out her shooting some new flick.
The Pyramid of Chepren or 'second' of the 3 great Giza Pyramids.
He's NOT happy whatevr he's doing, an inexplicably large bag slungover his shoulder and one of his hands done up in a very, very large wad of bandage and splints... I presume a make-up prop? Hmmm... maybe he's just narked about the closed corridors in Cheops too? :)
Oh well, I reluctantly return to the boys whilst I'd rather another hour her at least. They ferry me around to the Sphinx. "25 minutes ok?" F**k me. Yeah, whatever. The Sphinx is a very captivating monument. Very elegant considering its size and on closer inspection even more disfigured than you expect facially. Poor lass. She could do with treating herself to a trip to the beauticians. "Manicure and pedicure Miss? Cor blimey! check out the feline nails on you Missy!" It's a crowded area and little kids and other souvenir hawkers swarm around you trying to sell you crap butactually it's all very harnless and fun.
(Chepren) Muju [www.mujuworld.co.uk]
I really enjoy just being around all this bustle of humanity.
After my brief meeting with the Sphinx I am taken to "see how Egyptian perfumes are made". F**k, such an obvious indication that pleasant though they are I'm in with a bunch of commission scammers. Damn it. What a schoolboy error I've made in signin' up to all this. Oh well. Roll with the punches Wes and have a laugh. I have quite an enjoyable 20 mins or so at this perfumery where beautiful hand-blown, delicate pyrex 'essential essence' bottles and the essences are made...and sold of course. I sit and have a plesant cool rose-coloured drink whils Ahmed explains processes and scents to me. I just go along with it. Various aromas are rubbed into my skin two apparently of potent aphrodisical qualities.
'Arabian Nights' for men and 'Secrets of the Desert' for women. I am enlightened as to how to apply these essential essences to oneself and the "mystic pyramid"
of points upon which a woman is supposed to annoint herself. I'll let you draw your own mental schematic diagrams of that one. rest assured, Ahmed assures me that with both these scents in collision between the sheets (my words not his) "you will be going like crazy Arabian horses"
(his words NOT mine). Hmm? Anyhow, another session of convincing them I really can't buy souvenirs and I'm out and it's time to head home. Tariq enquires "Would you like to see how papyrus is made?"
No I would not like to BUY some f**king papyrus! Take me home james.
Thank god. Don't get me wrong, it's been a fun day and I have seen much.. no matter how briefly on occasions. But I am glad to be back in my own space on my own time. So I freshen up and head out towards the evening concourse of the Nile. The Great River. The life bringer. Egypts life force through most of its 'known' history. Cairo really starts to come to life as the evening cools the oppressively hot & dusty airs and shops light up to sell their wares. I stroll along the corniche along the side of the nile. I have to cross many roads to get there and I can tell ya straight, Rome was merely light practice for survival on the streets of Egyptian cities, but more of that another time maybe. For now I cross the Western section of the part of the Nile split by Zamalek island.
Stevie at Chepren... my guide couldn't be arsed to walk around the pyramids so yet more stretch-point-&-click self-portraits! Not easy when trying to fit so much stone into the composition.
Vast bridges such as this one spane the Nile at many points through the central Cairo region. Brightly lit up wedding party barges take off from the river bank blaring unbelievably loud arabic music that the soeakers have no capacity to handle so just growl and crackle sonourously, breakingly into the evening air. The Cairo Tower on Zamelek is tall and elegant now lit up against the evening skyline as I walk along Zamalek river bank corniche past the vast restaurant complexes such as Nile City that float on its waters. I buy a roasted corn-cob from a street vendor. Crummy plastic chairs ar scattered along long stretches of the corniche promenade and, as with so many others here, I pull one up to consider the view as I chew. "You want drink?".
A gisgruntled Shia LaBoeuf struts off in a dusty huff (he's the one in the middle with a large bag slung over his shoulder).
"No thank you I'm fine." "No, you WANT drink?"
. "no really, it's ok thanks." "No, you want sevenupfantawaterpepsifruitjuice? What drink? You want seat, you want drink!"
. "Oh I see, well that's ok." I stand up to leave. "You want seat. You drink. Welcome to Cairo sir."
"Thank you. Goodbye". "Welcome to Cairo." he utters again as I stroll away.
Welcome to Cairo people. Welcome to Cairo.