Apparently, when Evelyn Waugh visited the Mena House hotel in 1929, he had this to say. “The Pyramids were a quarter of a mile away; it felt odd to be living at such close quarters with anything quite so famous – it was like having the Prince of Wales at the next table in a restaurant; one kept pretending not to notice, while all the time glancing furtively to see if they were still there.” That pretty much sums up my feeling over breakfast upon my arrival in Cairo yesterday morning.
I decided that there was nothing for it but to jump right into the cultural experience and so I fed on a feast of good, if unusual, things compared to my standard matutinal menu of crumpets and Vegemite. Hello hibiscus juice, eggplant mush thingy (really yum!) and pita pockets with hummus.
After goggling at the Great Pyramid of Cheops for a while I was so sated, stunned and jet lagged, that I had to go have a little lie down, first in a most salubrious bed chamber, and then by an even more salubrious palm-lined swimming pool. Oh yes, indeed I was surely on holidays and certainly no longer in Narooma!
I think I need to be quite clear here. My business in Egypt is not to wallow in decadent and pampered luxury, although I’m afraid that will be somewhat of a necessary concomitant of my planned itinerary. My mission is to explore and revel in antiquities and ancient wonders and today I launched the assault with the first stop being – of course – the pyramids.
About a million writers have tried to describe the immense and brain-shrivelling awe of these structures, so I’m not even going to try. I will instead share with you a few interesting factoids: there are more than 2.7 million two-tonne blocks of limestone in the Great Pyramid; it was built for the Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu, and was completed around 2560 BCE (yep, that means it’s coming up for its 5000th birthday pretty soon!); the ratio of its circumference to its original height is equal to the value of pi: 3.14 – a mathematical calculation that was not rediscovered for more than another millennium (it’s facts like this last one that have spawned theories that the pyramids were built by technologically advanced aliens…). And, of course, the pyramids are the last of the seven great wonders of the world still extant.
They are certainly wonderful. And popular. And right on the edge of the throbbing outer suburbs of Cairo. So despite the miraculous absence of hordes of people in the pic above, there were in fact plenty of other keen Egyptophiles swarming all over the site, and queuing up to experience the thrill of penetrating the structure and navigating the ascending passages to one of the tomb chambers. How could I resist such a lure?
I did not. Armed with my special ticket I approached the entrance to the tunnel with reverence. Finally I would be able to feel something of the frisson of a Carter or a Mariette, boldly going where no one had been for millennia in search of lost secrets buried with the remains of long-dead pharaohs. I could pause reverently in the sacred chamber and imagine the scent of incense and the beating of funereal drums …
What I found was an Occupational Health and Safety hazard situation of epic proportions, with literally hundreds of beetroot faced tourists trying to edge past each other in both directions of an oven hot, near-vertical, crawl-space sized tunnel with no ventilation. After a few minutes attempting to breathe calmly and slowly while waiting for the crush to abate sufficiently to take another step upwards, something switched in my head. Dear readers, I fled. Without reaching the burial chamber. Thus perish some of our fondest dreams …
But, as previously advertised, I’m the most incorrigible of optimists – you can’t keep a good Boomer down. And if the interior of Cheops didn’t match my clearly delusional fantasies, the exteriors and context of all of the pyramids could not fail to satisfy in every possible way. I’ve stated that the pyramids nestle snugly alongside the homes and shops of Giza, but if you narrow your field of focus and squint a bit it is possible to imagine a time when these great landmarks were a beacon for camel caravans arriving from the Western Desert.
Which brings me to camels. Back in the 70s my mother and father visited Egypt, and I have a prized photo of my dad (fetchingly outfitted in a baby blue safari suit) mounted upon a camel with a pyramid in the background. What, I thought, could be more romantic than sitting aloft in a Berber saddle as your ship of the desert sways among the dunes? Then again, what could be less romantic than feeling like you would be committing and perpetuating serious animal cruelty in contracting any arrangement with the hawkers of transportation flesh in locations like this? No, I decided, despite their sartorial attractions, there would be no camel ride for me.
Given half a chance though I would have jumped at the opportunity to go for a run up the Nile in a solar boat. These were funereal barges which were used to transport the massive sarcophagi of pharaohs to their final resting places, and back in 1954 a fully-intact solar boat was unearthed from its own tomb in the shadow of the Chephren Pryamid. This fully-functional, 44 metre-long, 5000 year old-boat is now housed in its own special museum. Awesome!
And finally, for today, a visit to Giza would not be complete without paying one’s respects to its most famous monument. Yes, the sphinx is indeed a lot smaller than you’d think from pictures, but it is every bit as potent, mysterious and compelling as the most fervent of my imaginings.
Tomorrow we head for Luxor and the Valley of the Kings …