A Day to Remember in Egypt 1.2 - The Pyramids

Our second day in Egypt started early as the crisp morning air turned our sleepy breath to a white mist.  We took breakfast at the hotel restaurant as it was included in our tour package.  Served buffet style, it included a wide spread of both European and Egyptian breakfast offerings.  We unfortunately didn't leave ourselves much time to enjoy it as we had to meet with our very punctual tour guide.  With the sweet memory of breakfast still warm on my tongue, we departed the Mena House for Saqqara, the burial grounds of the ancient Egyptian capitol, Memphis. 

The range of landscapes that unfolded before us on our journey was pretty remarkable.  We went from urban Cairo to it's rural outskirts which abruptly fell away to starkly desolate desert.  There, the even horizon was only interrupted by the commanding silhouettes of the Dahsur Pyramids.  Our first stop was the Red Pyramid (above), which according to our Lonely Planet guidebook, derives its name "either from the red tones of its weathered limestone... or perhaps from the red graffiti and construction marks scribbled on its masonry in ancient times."  

To our delight, we found that we were allowed to enter into the inner sanctums of the pyramid.  Buoyed by visions of living our own Indiana Jones experience, we excitedly climbed a long, steep staircase of stone to the entrance.  Once there, we were greeted by a pair of attendants and a young Egyptian man who spoke impeccable Chinese.  It was shocking both in how unexpected it was and in how naturally he spoke.  We had hardly recovered from marveling over his skills when he welcomed us to descend into the pyramid.  Practically crawling on all fours, it was both unnerving and exhilarating to make our way through the dim, dank, and very narrow tunnel that led us to the first of two antechambers.  I couldn't help but be thankful that there were practically no other tourists around as I couldn't imagine having to pass anyone within the tunnel.  

Just as much as the tunnel was cramped and narrow, the first antechamber was open and spacious, capped off with what the guidebook describes to be "corbelled ceilings."  Across the room, we found a wooden staircase adjoining with the next tunnel leading to the burial chamber.  Apart from the vaulted ceilings and unfortunate graffiti on the walls, both rooms were completely bare... making the pyramid all the more mysterious.  I bemoan the fact that at the time of our visit, cameras were not allowed into the pyramid.  However, I suspect that this wasn't always the case as this world traveler was able to get plenty of stunning photos of the pyramid's interior.   

When we finally emerged back out of the pyramid, legs throbbing from the climb, we circumnavigated the colossal structure, taking in its sheer size and scale.  As we rounded the corner, we could make out the silhouette of the neighboring Bent Pyramid (above) in the distance.  Named for its unique shape, the Bent Pyramid was something of a failed engineering experiment.  Among the earliest of its kind to be built, this pyramid was first constructed with slopes of 54 degrees.  Midway through, its builders realized that such an angle would result in an impossibly large structure that was already showing signs of stress and instability.  They therefore built the rest of the pyramid at an angle of 43 degrees, resulting in its unusual shape.  Unfortunately, this is the closest we got to the Bent Pyramid.  As its surrounding area is still a militarized zone, it was not accessible to the public.

Both the Red and Bent Pyramids were built by Pharaoh Sneferu (2613-2589 BC), founder of the 4th dynasty of the Old Kingdom.  While they are certainly old and among the earliest examples of the pyramid shape and structure recognized around the world, neither are by any means the first pyramid.  That distinction lies with our next stop on the tour, the stepped Pyramid of Zoser (Djoser), named after the pharaoh for whom it was built.  Upon arrival, we could quickly see that the pyramid was built within an expansive complex including courtyards, temples, and chapels.  Remnants of an enclosure wall could also be seen encircling the grounds.

The construction and design of these grounds are credited to Imhotep, the pharaoh's chief architect.   Regarded as a kind of pioneer, Imhotep was the first to use carved stone over the less durable mud-brick.  Throughout our tour, our guide pointed out several examples of Imhotep's clever designs in which stone was carved to resemble softer, more commonplace building materials such as hinged doors and columns of bundled reeds (above).

All of the structures included on the complex were of course built as an overly glorified tomb for Pharaoh Zoser (2667-2648 BC).  Remnants of statues made in his likeness, as well as that of his family, could be found along some of the courtyards surrounding the pyramid.  This being the closest I've ever been to royalty, we of course had to stop for a snapshot.

What started as a traditional, flat-roofed mastaba (tomb) rose to this six-stepped pyramid during Zoser's reign, reaching the height of 60 meters.  Currently undergoing renovation, we found parts of the pyramid encased in wooden scaffolding that didn't look all that different what I imagine it's original builders must have used.

We left Zoser's pyramid following a long causeway on its southwestern side.  Stretching for 750 meters, we were told by our guide that the entire path was originally roofed and elaborately painted, though today only small sections remain.  The walls still bore reliefs of various scenes, including dancers and animals presented as offerings to the gods.

Following this, we stopped for an outdoor Egyptian style lunch complete with freshly baked flat bread that I happily ate dipped in all the tahini and baba ganoush my heart desired.  Before heading back towards Cairo, we stopped by a "carpet school" where we learned about the differences between silk vs wool and knotted  vs woven carpets.  Watching the weavers painstakingly knot every strand of their rugs, I could finally understand and appreciate why oriental rugs are so highly valued.  While overwhelmed by every possible size and pattern imaginable, T and I managed to find one woven rug to call our own before heading towards Giza.

The Great Pyramids of Giza are mainly comprised of three Pyramids, namely the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), the Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren), and the Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus).  Khufu was the son of Sneferu who built the Red and Bent Pyramids.  Meanwhile, Khafre was the son of Khufu and Menkaure was the son of Khafre... at this point, I could see that keeping track of the pharaonic family tree wasn't going to be easy.  Bottom line, we had basically seen four generations of pyramids in a day, three of which could be taken in in one shot. 

Unlike the Red Pyramid, we found the Pyramids of Giza to be bustling with hawkers offering everything from souvenirs to horse- or camel-back tours.  Still thirsty for more Indiana Jones-esque experiences, we opted to pay for an extra ticket that would allow us to enter into the Great Pyramid.  Once again, we climbed and crawled our way up steep staircases and through cramped corridors.  While the interior (and exterior) structures of the Great Pyramid were certainly larger than that of the Red Pyramid, I must say that I much preferred our experience from the morning.  With much fewer tourists, our "discovery" of the Red Pyramid felt much more relaxed and intimate. 

While we generally try to avoid doing "touristy" types of activities, we did relent in taking a camel-back tour around the pyramids.  This turned out to be one of my favorite experiences of the trip as I envisioned myself traveling through the desert like Lawrence of Arabia... nevermind that I looked more like a modern day text-aholic than a heroic WWI soldier.  T and I are hoping that someday we can come back and take an extended desert camping trip on camel-back. 

After our camel ride, we raced the setting sun to Khafre's Valley Temple. Constructed with pink granite columns and alabaster floors, we found the temple to have an almost modern, minimalist appeal.  Our guide explained that the temple originally held 23 statues of Khafre which were illuminated through slits cut between the wall and the ceiling.  While the roof and the statues are long gone, the soft light of dusk, certainly  made the temple more surreal.   

Just outside the temple we found one of ancient Egypt's biggest "celebrities", the Sphinx. We were told that when it was first discovered, it had been covered with sand up to its shoulders... a fact we could later ascertain from photos at the Mena House.  Its original purpose, long forgotten, is still unknown.  With its back to the pyramids and its tail curled around its back paws, it sits at resolute attention, still guarding its secrets in silence against the modern cityscape it faces. 

As moonlight gradually overtook the dying sun, we stopped by a papyrus "museum" ... and by museum I mean store.  To be even more accurate, it was the basement floor of a building that sold reproductions of ancient Egyptian art painted on papyrus scrolls.  There, we were given a live demonstration of how real papyrus is made (below).  Earlier in the day, our tour guide had warned us that most of the papyrus paintings sold by souvenir hawkers at the Great Pyramids are actually fakes done on corn husks or banana leaves.  Here, we learned that a quick way to check the authenticity of a papyrus piece is to hold it up to the light.  If it is real, a criss-crossed grid pattern should be visible as papyrus is made from stem stalks over lapped at right angles.  After the demonstration, our guide explained some of the more famous pieces of ancient Egyptian art, such as the Tree of Life, Akhenaten with Aten, the marriage card of King Tut, as well as my favorite, the judgement scene from the Book of the Dead. 

With sore feet and legs, we finally returned to the hotel where we barely had enough energy left for dinner.  With an even earlier morning ahead of us, we were happy to crawl into bed as soon as possible, dreaming of what adventures lie ahead. 


Post a Comment




Follow by Email

Be sure to get the latest and greatest of oinge by signing up for email updates!