Temples, Toilets, and Tombs, Oh My — Part 4

I was finally going to see the pyramids along the Nile – except there are no pyramids right alongside the Nile. Why would you put any structure of value in a place where you KNOW there’s going to be water seeping in every year? (Except that people today do that all the time. Think: Passaic River, NJ) The pyramids that people want to see are in Giza, a suburb of Cairo, safely away from the river in question. We got off the bus (it was now Tues. morning, if you’re keeping score), and this is what we saw. At least, you should be prepared if you ever go there.

The great pyramid scheme

Remember the dogs? There were lots of them hanging around, waiting for someone to drop something edible for them to snarf on. But for every dog, there were five or ten vendors coming towards our bus, like an army of ants attacking a cinnamon bun. Outright begging is frowned up, but hungry people trying to make a more-or-less honest living by hawking their wares, that’s allowed. Men, women, school children offering trinkets of all sorts, guidebooks, scarves, shirts, probably other items I can’t recall at the moment, all at bargain rates.

Migo explained how things worked in this part of the world. If you stopped for a fleeting second, if you made eye contact, you were fair game. And once you were in the clutches of one vendor, that was a signal for five others to come over, because each one was more desperate than the next to make a sale. The best thing to do would be to keep walking. There were a few members of our group who were more or less bullied into buying something they probably didn’t want, and there were a few others who must have been seasoned hagglers on top of their game, knocking down the already low prices to next to nothing. I should mention that the Egyptian pound has been taking a pounding of late, and no one can be sure what or how much it would purchase a few hours later. And so, here, there, all along the Nile, the U.S. dollar rules supreme, which actually makes sense, as most of the foreign tourists come equipped with that currency in their well-stuffed wallets. And if there are five or ten vendors for every stray canine, there are twenty tourists for every vendor. And if the average tourist will leave the neighborhood having taken ten selfies, you can add up the number of images will be stored on people’s phones to be shared with one and all back home.

Let’s ignore the dogs and the vendors and make our way through the crowds. After all, we’re here to see the pyramids in this complex, especially Big Daddy, the enormous pyramid built for the pharaoh we call Cheops, but who was known back then to the locals as Khufu. Our group made its way up a ramp, and we walked along the base of the pyramid, up and down a few steps, all the while listening to Migo’s explanations about how and when this mass of stone blocks came to be assembled. I looked down at the milling throng down below, and this is what I saw.

And then? Despite the enormity of the project (at 480 feet, it was the tallest building anywhere until the fourteenth century C.E., and nothing much larger was built until 1885 with the Eiffel Tower) once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it. You can gaze at it for a minute, ten minutes, an hour, but you’re no wiser at the end than you were when you started, except that Migo would have had more time to elaborate on the building process. (In fact, the pyramids seem more impressive when seen at a distance, where they’re part of the landscape, than they do up close – in my humble opinion. It also helps if you use your mind’s eye and imagine how their original white limestone exterior must have dazzled in the sunlight.

At some point, the group had had enough of milling about; we got back on the bus and went around the corner to get a better view of some other pyramids, most notably those of Khafre and Menkaure. At least there were fewer tourists, dogs, or vendors on this side, and some of our group got to experience a camel ride and take pictures of each other holding up a pyramid (well, not really).

Back on the bus, which gave us the opportunity to get a brief glimpse of the Sphinx – as sort of an afterthought. I’m not sure where we drove to next, but we got to see more pyramids, earlier versions, not as large, some ‘step’ pyramids, where the Lego-like construction was more in evidence, and one called the Red Pyramid, which isn’t really red but is the first real pyramid.

Migo and R. Berman made sure that we understood the chronology of Ancient Egypt. All of the pyramids were built in about the middle of the Old Kingdom, which lasted from about 3000 to 2000 B.C.E. Question: Why did they stop? Answer: You have these imposing structures, gleaming in the light, visible up and down the Nile, and they are all filled with everything the king would need for his journey to the next world. What does that say? LOOT ME, LOOT ME! And that’s what happened. Grave robbers descended, often within days of burial, and took everything of value and everything without value. Nothing was left behind. At some point, it seemed the prudent thing to do – if one were a king – to have oneself buried in a cave, away from prying eyes and lustful hands. And, by the way, R. Berman reminded us, Yosef’s descendants were not in Egypt until a millennium later – give or take – during the time of the New Kingdom (1500 to 1000 B.C.E.), so they had nothing to do with the enormous mounds of stone we were looking at.

Enough already. Back on the bus, back to the Ramses Hilton for dinner, and then…….

Who planned this, anyway? After dinner, at 7:30PM, we got back on the bus with our luggage and drove back to the Cairo Airport, where we would board a flight down to Aswan, a distance of 425 miles or 684 kilometers. (If you’re only leaving for the airport at 7:30, I can’t imagine when you’d be getting to Aswan.) The thing is, I knew the answer, which didn’t make me happy. By the time we got off the plane, reclaimed our luggage, got back on another bus, drove through the entire town of Aswan, and checked into the Aswan Tolip, made it up to our room, and only then hit the pillow, it was close to 1AM – which would have been OK, except we again would be up and on the bus at 8AM to head down to the Abu Simbel Complex. No rest for the weary, and we certainly were that. I’m getting tired just thinking about it.

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