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Egypt - Cairo Days 1-2

EGYPT | Monday, 19 December 2016 | Views [348]

Day 1 First Impressions and the Egyptian Museum

Arrived on a KLM flight in the middle of the night and hoped that the agent with whom I’d been in online contact was actually going to be at the airport to meet me. The prospect of arriving at 3am in a strange megalopolis where I don’t know my way around and don’t know the language as a single woman without a prearranged contact was somewhat disconcerting to say the least.  Luckily, a large strong man holding a sign with my name met me before I even went through passport control.  As I had planned on getting the visa at the airport, he collected the $25 the visa costs and left me in the passport line while he went to obtain my visa from that office.  This was an amazing service and set the tone for what I have so far experienced with Maestro Online Travel.

On the way from the airport to the Le Meridien Piramide Hotel, not far from the recent car bombing which is causing some concern on the part of my family, Amir explained the different sections of the city we were driving through. He stopped by a memorial tomb constructed by the Belgian architect who developed modern Heliopolis, Edouard Empain, to look like a South Indian temple. As we drove by the largest cemetery in the world, he explained the history of how some of the mausoleums are now used by over 10,000 homeless people and how electricity and water have been brought in to aid them. His introduction was filled with facts and interesting stories, so much so that even though I was exhausted from being up for well over 48 hours, I was riveted to his explanations.

The next morning I met my amazing tour guide for the Cairo and vicinity portion of the trip, Ahmad, who has his university degree in Ancient Egyptian History.  As I had let the agency know that I wanted to spend the first day entirely at the Egyptian Museum and that I study ancient goddesses and am especially interested in how the imagery for the goddess Isis changes over time and region, Ahmad spent two days on his own ahead of time in the museum so that he could make sure I saw the main images that would be important for my research in addition to the normal highlights, including but not limited to the majority of the upper floor devoted to artifacts from King Tut’s tomb, such as two of the sarcophogi and the golden face mask.  One of the most impressive pieces was a golden and black lacquered chair that has King Tut and his wife in a loving touching pose under Aten’s rays. Somehow this piece of furniture escaped Horemheb’s obliteration of Akenaton’s reign even though Horemheb must have known about it given his role in the military and government upon Tutankameh’s death. Amir reads hieroglyphs, which comes in very handy as some of the Isis images merge with Hathor and many of the Pharaohs are depicted in the same manner. The only way to know who is supposed to be who is by reading the inscriptions in the cartouches.  While the Egyptian Museum is home to a fabulous collection, it is not well organized nor well documented for the public. The occasional paragraph descriptions don’t go into any more detail than simply saying what era a piece belongs to, and usually doesn’t even say what century or what region it came from.  The new museum, which is still in the process of being built, is supposed to correct this oversight and I sincerely hope it does for the generations of interested tourists and professionals who come to Egypt specifically to understand the history of this very ancient artistic civilization.

Towards the end of the day after a full day’s instruction in cartouche translation, Ahmad left me in the room devoted to smaller sculptures and votive figures of the various gods and goddesses to go find our driver.  While looking though tiny figurines, I was approached by a couple of young men wanting to know where I was from, a standard way of beginning a conversation in this part of the world. Through the discussion I learned they are well poised to meet the future. One of them is studying Russian and his sister is a tour guide for Chinese tourists as she speaks fluent Mandarin, the other young man spoke English fluently. Between them, they have the main languages of the 21st. C at their disposal.

After leaving the Egyptian Museum we drove to a Papyrus Museum, which it turns out is a government run tourist shop rather than a museum.  They show those who are interested how papyrus is made and then ‘expect’ you to purchase one of the newly painted scrolls that line the walls of the ‘museum/shop.’ As no one I know absolutely needs a papyrus scroll at this point in their lives, I didn’t indulge, saving my head earned Egyptian pounds for museum and archeological site entry fees.

Sometimes it is difficult to figure out when people, like the young men in the museum, are really just curious about the people visiting their country and when they are trying to sell something. Touts and salesmen are everywhere, and it is easy to become jaded and expect everyone who wants to start a conversation to be after something from the foreigner.  On the other hand, by speaking with them I learn far more than I would have otherwise about the country and the traditions.


Tomorrow we leave early for the Giza pyramids, Memphis, Saqqara and Dashur.  I may also get a chance to meet Ahmad’s family in Dashur.  Should be an interesting day.


Day 2 A Full Day of Pyramids

The day started by driving down the street from the hotel to the Giza Pyramids, a truly fantastic site and one of the seven wonders of the Ancient Greek world. The three main pyramids, the Great One for Khufu (Cheops), the second for Khafre and the smallest of the three for Menkaure jot up from the sandy floor still glistening against the deep blue sky.  As impressive as they are now, it is easy to imagine what they must have looked like in their heyday, 4500 years ago, covered with white polished limestone and topped with a metallic mix of silver and gold to radiate towards the heavens. While these three are the most famous, there are others built nearby to house the bodily remains of the king’s wife and daughters.  Menkaure’s Queen’s Tomb has a passageway down to the central chamber that is open to visitors, whereas the passageway in the Great Pyramid is a narrow shaft for which a two hundred Egyptian pound (ca. $11) fee is charged. The Grand Gallery at the top of the shaft is a large room with red granite walls in large blocks that are perfectly aligned. As impressive as this chamber is, it doesn’t match some of the others in Saqqara. 

After wandering around the base of the Great Pyramid we went to the Solar Boat museum, which houses a very large 46 m boat that was intended to take the pharaoh’s soul from the living eastern side of the Nile to the western internment side. A number of such boats have been excavated, but only one has been extricated from the sands and placed on exhibition.  The others which where found, have been recovered for posterity. The boat is made from Lebanese Red Cedar with the slats held together by pitch and rope. The closed lotus, one of the main symbols in Egyptian iconography, forms the bow of the boat.  The boat amid the sands is a perfect analogy for Egypt, a land of dualistic contrasts.

As we continued our way throughout the site, Ahmad hooked me up with the obligatory camel ride to the backside of the complex where all seven pyramids can be seen. The touts were pushing ‘funny’ photos where the person hold their hands in a manner that looks like they have the pyramid in their hands or on their fingers, or that they are holding immense stones. The stark background of yellow sand, slightly darker pyramids and a cloudless deep blue sky have graced innumerable tourist photos across the globe.

From the camel it was off to the Sphinx, which seems smaller than I had imagined her to be. As she really is quite large and long, it is the setting below Khufu’s Pyramid that makes her appear smaller.  She is in a direct line in front of Khafre’s home, protecting it as she looks out over Giza and to Cairo, which didn’t exist when she was constructed, beyond. The Giza Pyramids are from the 4th Dynasty (ca. 2620 – 2500 BCE).  The entire complex is amazing, but Saqqara, our next stop, was even more so, perhaps because it houses elements from all the different dynasties. Had I planned better, I would have devoted an entire day just to this site, which is a warning to those reading this.  The site is 8 kilometers packed with ruins and reconstructed sites. The most visible is the stepped pyramid from King Djoser of the 3rd Dynasty. Djoser’s architect, Imhotep, experimented with the first pyramid construction, by placing increasingly smaller mastaba platforms on top of one another to create the stepped structure. The next attempt was the bent pyramid at Dashur.

Before going over to the stepped pyramid we stopped at the complex that has Mereruka’s Tomb, Titi’s Pyramid and Kagemni’s Tomb. For a fee one can go into both Titi’s Pyramid and Kagemni’s Tomb, the latter has much more impressive reliefs and paintings and even a still pigmented statue.  Mereruka’s Tomb is presently closed for renovations, but as everything in Egypt, with a little will and more tips, one can get in – and it was well worth it! Not only is the chamber on the upper level filled with images a long tightly wound circular staircase leads to the tomb chamber with a granite sarcophagus and walls filled with black painted hieroglyphics on the white limestone. The wall opposite the sarcophagus still has the yellow and green tints of the original paint. Both Mereruka and Kagemni were officials in Titi’s 6th Dynasty (2350 BCE) court; Kagemni was a high priest and supervisor of Titi’s pyramid while Mereruka was his vizier. Fascinatingly, a frieze showing what happens to those who don’t pay their taxes was in the priest’s mastaba, not the vizier’s.

The capital city for the 2nd to the 7th Dynasties (2850-2180 BCE) was Memphis. It is a stark reminder of the fickleness of time that nothing remains of a site that was the leading cultural center of world for over seven hundred years and a major metropolis for millennia.  Today the site houses a large broken statue of Ramses II which stood outside the temple of Ptah, the creator god, and a few other pieces including a medium sized sphinx, and a New Kingdom sculpture of the Memphis holy family, Ptah, Sekmet and Nefertum (creation, war and perfume/lotus flower). This triad is distinctly appropriate for the New Kingdom as highlighted by the warrior lord, Ramses II who intended to create a new world and bring the pleasures of the land to the chosen few. This is the pharaoh who rivals Genghis Khan in the number of wives and offspring he produced, well over 200 official children. His egotism knew no bounds and he name inscribed his name on all sorts of places and not just the ones he constructed, but he also erased the original name with his own, thereby adding to his legacy.

One site he doesn’t seem to have changed much is Abusir, the 5th Dynasty necropolis. This large complex is currently closed for renovations, but is scheduled to open in March. Luckily, I was allowed to walk around the site, to visit the Temple of Atum and see the sacrificial stone with the funnel for the sacrificial blood to flow into a large vat outside the temple walls. As the soon to be opened chamber doesn’t yet have stairs or a ramp and I would have had to jump over two meters down to the chamber with no way up or out, I chose to skip this one. Abusir is filled with small pyramids in various stages of ruin and excavation. It offers a vastly different perspective than the Giza pyramids; Abusir feels more pristine and walking through the sands, maneuvering through the fallen stones, and winding through temple walls to discover perfectly constructed gateways is a real treat.

From the Fifth Dynasty site it was back to the 3rd with a short visit to Dashur and the Bent and Black pyramids. The site was just about to close when we arrived so we didn’t have much time, but I was able to climb to the top of the small pyramid behind the large Bent one. The almost full moon was rising in the midst of a deep blue sky to create a picture perfect scene that unfortunately was not able to be adequately captured by my camera, again, a reminder of the constancy yet fleetingness of time.

Ahmad lives in Dashur and he had arranged for us to visit his house, where his sister-in-law created a feast for dinner.  It was a delightful and delicious way to end a day amid those past with those very much alive.

Tags: city visit


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