(I’m really sorry about the cover photo; a bad local made me do it, and then he wanted money from me)
Apologies to all the Daily Chrenk readers for the recent dearth of political posts you all come here for. The truth is that Iâ€™m just enjoying the travel and sight-seeing too damn much at the moment. Political blogging of the An(n)us Horribilis 2016 will resume soon enough, especially when Iâ€™m back home at the end of the month. But in the meantimeâ€¦
Today was a Pyramid Appreciation Day, at least for me and for my local guide John. The weekend throughout the Islamic world spans Friday and Saturday, with Friday being the equivalent of our Sunday. With the muezzinsâ€™ calls to prayer and to a holy day mosque service echoing through largely deserted streets, today was the day to drive around and outside of the capital.
Even in this, uncanny for Cairo, lack of traffic, it takes our Coptic driver an hour to get to Dahshur, driving first through the city, then through phantom suburbs (the whole suburbs of multistorey residential buildings have been raised illegally, without the government permits. This allows the authorities to maintain the fiction â€“ including on the official maps â€“ that these are still agricultural fields and so there is no need to provide roads, electricity, water, sewerage, schools or hospitals) and finally through the stereotypically Egyptian countryside of canals, date palms (John: â€œThese are the only dates you seem to be getting lately.â€ Thanks, John), cane fields and donkey carts.
Then the greenery finishes without any warning. The transition between the life-giver Nileâ€™s domain and the desert that accounts for the overwhelming majority of the countryâ€™s area is a sudden, short and sharp one. In another two minutes we have arrived at the home of the Bent and the Red Pyramids (sounds like the NSW Labor Party, doesnâ€™t it?), the two of the least visited of major pyramids. In fact, when we arrive there after a ubiquitous security checkpoint where our driver shakes the commanderâ€™s hand with a small denomination note in the palm of his and after we buy the tickets from a sleepy tourist window, there is no one there. This is a pity, because both pyramids are as impressive as their better known cousins in Giza, but itâ€™s good for us – all this for ourselves.
Both pyramids have been built by Sneferu (I call him Snafu), the father of Khufu/Cheops. The Bent Pyramid starts with a steep 54-degree angle and finishes with a milder 43, after the builders had realised the structure was too unstable (and would have been too damn high and difficult to build). The Red Pyramid is the lesson learned, and the first true pyramid with all equal triangular sides at 43 degrees. Both, however, share the same height, making them joint the third highest in Egypt.
OK guys, I think we’ve made a pyramidal mistake…
The Red Pyramid is the only one in Egypt you can actually explore inside, Indiana Jones-style, without any restrictions. You need to climb some 120 very steep steps on the face of the pyramid before you can descend down a 60-metre passage, bent in half, in claustrophobic darkness, because the old guy sitting at the entrance canâ€™t be bothered to turn on the lights just for you. Then you are inside the belly of the pyramid, in two corbelled chambers, 12 and 15-metres high, with hundreds of thousands of tons of stone weighing down on you. The light from your phone can barely dispel the pitch-black darkness a metre away from you. You feel buried, lost and forgotten. Itâ€™s an exhilarating experience. I only hope that you are much fitter than me (which is not that difficult) because after climbing up and then down, and then up and down and out again, half of it in a pretty contorted position, my legs wobbled for the rest of the day.
The climb up…
…and then inside, looking up towards the ceiling.
Onto Saqqara, the home of the oldest pyramid, about half an hour from Dahshur. The Step Pyramid represents a quantum leap in imagination and design, away from underground burial chambers or the raised mastabas, to a structure that, like the Mesopotamian ziggurat/the Tower of Babel, reaches towards heaven. In fact, it is six mastabas of decreasing sizes stacked one on top of the other like a wedding cake of stone to make a fine precursor of the future, true pyramid.
Under construction. We apologise for any inconvenience.
The Step Pyramid is currently being renovated, or spoiled, depending on how you look at it. It has suffered significantly from weather and earthquakes over the years. But what the government contractor is doing is not merely strengthening the structure, but overlaying it with stone, to restore the original look ca. 2650 BC. This is not a renovation, this is a Disneyfication of a historical treasure. The Saqqara Step Pyramid is not supposed to look like it was built yesterday.
One sad looking Titi
Next to the construction site is the Pyramid of Titi, or whatâ€™s left of it (still a nice Titi though – and countless other similar puerile jokes) since over the millennia the locals have taken away all the stones, leaving behind only a mound of sand that does look a bit like a breast (Titi, or Teti, was the first pharaoh of the 6th dynasty in the 24th century BC). To the extent you can still call it a pyramid (The Saqqara Complex: The Home of the Step Pyramid and the Ex-Pyramid, just like your own complicated family) you can descend down a (much shorter) passage to intact burial chambers. Inside, an old local dressed in a traditional flowing robe insists on showing tourists around (for a donation, of course). Most of the walls are covered in hieroglyphics, including rows of the repeated royal cartouche (the pharaohâ€™s name enclosed in an oval), which prompts our guide to trace the carved pattern with his finger, repeating â€œTiti, Titi, Titi, Titi, Titiâ€¦â€. It makes him sound like a sex-starved teenager. Supposedly you canâ€™t take photos inside, but the old man not only permits it but encourages it (again, in anticipation of baksheesh). He also allows John and I to climb inside (separately; weâ€™re good friends but not that good) the almost intact granite sarcophagus of Teti, a historical treasure if there was one. Itâ€™s an act of antiquarian sacrilege but how can we resist? How often can you say that youâ€™ve lain inside somebodyâ€™s grave, particularly one thatâ€™s almost 4400 years old? After being admonished for the twentieth time not to tell anyone â€œback on the surfaceâ€ that weâ€™ve been allowed to take numerous photos, we are finally allowed out.
*They’re (plus Titis everywhere; the Pharoah’s name inside an oval is scattered all through the inscriptions, like “I” in every Obama speech.)
Very well preserved mummy of Pharaoh Chrenkmose (also known as Arthurothep), early 33rd Dynasty.
Attached to the Saqqara complex (which is quite large, having been the necropolis of the ancient Memphis â€“ no, the only King around here was Zoser (and Titi)) is a small museum, largely dedicated to Imhotep, Pharaoh Zoserâ€™s architect and builder, later deified, who created the Step Pyramid for his master. His mummified body (sans two toes) is on display behind glass. It is eerie â€“ and humbling â€“ to stand before the well-preserved body of a giant of human imagination who walked and worked around here so unimaginably long ago. If he wasnâ€™t already a god, he should be made the patron saint of the construction industry. You canâ€™t take photos inside this museum, but I snap Imhotep anyway. Iâ€™m sure he wonâ€™t mind; Iâ€™m a big fan, after all.
My name is Imhotep, but you can call me god.
The Giza complex is the best known group of pyramids in Egypt and in the world. The three big pyramids of Khufu, his son Khafre, and Menkaure (Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus, as they are better known in Greek) are the oldest, and ironically the only one still surviving, of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. They are also amongst the most famous and most easily recognisable of world landmarks; together with the Sphinx, the subject of millions of photos, artworks and cartoons, as well as the staple of history, fable and pseudo-history, from Von Danikenâ€™s ancient spacemen to countless other authorsâ€™ theories of occult and lost civilisations. As such, and being the closest to Cairo (in fact, while situated in the desert on top of the Giza Plateau, they are literally only hundreds of metres form busy suburbs of Cairo, and with time will no doubt become wholly surrounded by the megalopolitan sprawl) they are also the busiest with tourists. This is a mixed blessing â€“ good for the local tourist industry, not so good for the tourists â€“ as you can be expected to be constantly accosted by literally hundreds of people trying to sell you souvenirs, or get you to ride a camel or a horse or a carriage, or simply to scam you. This gets so tedious that towards the end I am sorely tempted to reply to yet another offer of â€œDo you want to ride my camel? Very cheapâ€ with â€œNo, but do you have a cute sister?â€
The whole scheme
Touts aside, the pyramids are truly spectacular. No books, photos or movies can fully prepare you for the sheer majesty of these mountains of stone. They are a miracle of human imagination and of superhuman effort. If you think of Cairo â€“ dilapidated, crumbling, chaotic, monstrously ugly in most parts â€“ you can easily picture the ancient Egyptians sitting down after the end of it and saying: â€œF*** it, thatâ€™s enough; weâ€™re not going to build anything decent for at least five thousand years now.â€
I, for one, am very grateful they made the effort those four and a half thousand years ago.
(All photos by Arthur Chrenkoff)