February 04, 2003
Breakfast in the Garden Room at Mena house -- an international selection of both foods and people. Not knowing where we'd end up today, Mark bought a few bottles of water (every tourist you see is toting a bottle of water -- the warning about "don't drink the water" is taken quite seriously by visitors here; even if the water is safe in Cairo, it is "different" and can cause problems.). Our guide, Fateh, and George are waiting for us in the lobby, drinking tea and with little fanfare we are in the van and on our way to Saqqara.
Fateh is a very interesting guide, and he is just brimming with information about life and culture in Ancient Egypt and today. He has worked for many years at the Cairo Museum, he allows, and is currently writing a book on the Pharaoh of the Exodus. He is also, we discover, a bit of a "new-agey" believer with an interest in crystals and homeopathic medicine -- but his teaching style is engaging and he was the perfect introduction to Egypt. it took him a few minutes to stop "lecturing" and answer questions instead, but I think that it because he is used to larger groups, not just a couple.
By the time we part ways with Fateh at the end of our trip, we will be chock full of knowledge about plants, birds, agriculture, aromatherapy, building methods, pharaonic culture, and food. We should get university credit for this!
Once we are out of the city proper, the red-brick and concrete buildings transform into mud brick houses with thatched roofs and even less sophisticated lean-tos of palm-fronds and what looks like bamboo. Only a few miles from the bustling downtown of cosmopolitan Cairo, Egypt gives way to green fields, irrigation canals, and herds of animals.
Many of the shanties near the fields are not homes, according to Fateh. They are worker camps for
the field hands. In the summer, workers can rest there
in the heat of the day and have meals there. They are not
lived in all year (although later observation proved
that they are not that much lower on the "housing
scale" than some of the rural houses). Then again,
they aren't any more or less well kept than the other
housing we've seen on the way. The area around Giza
is remarkably poor, and as it transforms into agricultural land, it is like going back in time.
We garnered an escort at some point on the drive-- four tourist police in
a little black and white Peugeot. A sergeant and three
clean-cut young men with guns. Our driver, Mr. Mohammed, informs them each time we
set off and they follow us closely. I'm not sure they're following
everyone else. Mark says he hasn't seen a specific
car following any of the tour busses, but there are
a ton of these little Peugeots around.
it's not just us -- either because we are alone, or because we are Americans --although we're the only Americans
that we saw. Asian and German tourists are everywhere, though. No one seemed to be keeping tabs on them.
Mereruka's Tomb -- the first tomb we see in Egypt
-- is pretty cool. This is a mastaba tomb, a flat, bench-like structure (mastaba means "bench", that was the precursor of the pyramid.
The original colors are still in
place in some rooms. Mostly the red and blues survive
better, because of the pigments used. The original
colors could have been white, black, light blue, dark
blue, red, yellow, and green. They are all mineral-based
colors, not vegetable, which would fade in time. Some of the colors colors are slightly metallic.
My first lesson in Egyptian beliefs proved just how wrong I had been about the Egyptian concepts of "life after death". Basically this life is for you to be "weighed" - which is often shown in inscriptions by scales and little figures of the god Thoth, to determine if you have been a good person. If you have been good (your heart is weighted against a feather) then you enter the next, eternal life. It is not reincarnation, nor is the person considered to be truly dead. It is a continuation of this life that must be earned. Only Kings can be "brought across", which must have been seriously non-motivating to everyone else.
Every tomb has at least three statues- - since
the spirit of the dead needed to find one in order
to make it to the eternal life, if it cannot find a mummy. They are 1) outside for
the family to see 2) one in the main chamber and 3)
in in the burial Each tomb has a false door to allow the ka and the
ba to escape .Three parts of the soul exists, the ___,
the ka, and the ba. The false door is decorated with
spells and special words to help the spirit. In the
room is a huge procession of servants and family bringing
food and animals to the door so that Mereruka has
these in his next life. Beer, bread, onions, fowl,
cows, etc. These are amazingly detailed, even if the
people are very stylized and plain.
There are vignettes on slaughtering a cow and carefully
butchering it. In others, raising a hyena (they are
domesticated and she has two puppies). The hyena skin
is very important, since it is a warrior's ceremonial
garment. Since the cobra is much feared and it only
fears the hyena (or lion), the skin is worn to keep
cobras away. You can tell it is a hyena by the tail
that hangs down on the kilt.
Other scenes are fishing, showing about twelve kinds
of fish being speared or netted or seine-netted from
long papyrus boats, some with sails, others are just
low prowed boats. Most people fished with spears,
which meant they were bent over, staring into the
water. However, if Mereruka was shown bending over,
he would be like for eternity; he is shown standing
with the fish jumping into the boat!
Some of the carvings are relief, others are incised.
The reason is simple - inside, where they are protected,
shallow bas-relief can survive. Outside, the sand
and wind would scour any delicate carvings away. So,
outside carvings are incised (often deeply), and then
painted. This protects the paint from the winds an
sand. In some other cases, inside carvings were done
on plaster toweled over an uneven stone wall.
The wall first was prepared and smoothed. If it is
judged to be ok, then a grid is drawn on (on square
is the size of a human nose) and then the drawing
was added in red by an apprentice. The master then
"corrected" it in black and the sculptor
followed those lines. If the wall is cracked or discolored,
it was plastered over and painted as fresco using
the same method.
There were a number of other tombs on the same hill,
but they were closed for repair and maintenance. There
was a current dig just next to Mereruka's tomb. They have
found about 8500 tombs in the area of Saqqara (20
miles long) and they find new ones nearly every day.
The digging is hard work--the sand is soft and fine
and must be hauled by hand from the dig site in soft-sided buckets.
We went into the Pyramid of Teti (we were supposed
to go into the Pyramid of Unas, but it is closed,
and Teti is very similar. Mr. Fateh did not
come down into the pyramid. Anyway, Teti and Unas'
pyramids are the first (only?) pyramids with writing
inside - "The Book of the Dead" - on the
walls of the burial chamber. The way in is a steep
ramp only about 4' tall. There are some benefits to
being short! Mark had to really stoop over to make
it while I just had to duck a bit. At the bottom is
another passageway (also very steep) to the "false
chamber" meant to fool grave robbers. Further
on, it opens to an arched burial chamber which has
an azure colored sky with starts - representing the
previous Kings in the afterlife. The sarcophagus is
black basalt and HUGE - the mummy inside is long gone.
A smaller room opposite was for offerings and food
for the afterlife. Outside, the pyramid is just a roughly
rounded hill of sand and stone from the outside -
we honestly didn't recognize it as a pyramid from
The Serapeum is closed for repairs (the water table
is too high here, or a spring floods them). It's pretty
unassuming from the outside - just a hut and a staircase.
It was discovered by Marriette's donkey (you know,
donkeys find quite a lot of things in Egypt!) There
is only one sarcophagus of the giant Serapis bulls that is
The complex of Djoser is stunning - the main entrance
is smooth, polished stone. There are small recesses
in the façade that contained squares of lapis
lazuli, and the façade would have been plastered
Inside the colonnaded hall only three columns have been
restored, but the arcade is stunning. The stone is
so smooth it looks polished (although I imagine it
is, in a way - hundreds of tourists rubbing along
the passageways every day would work). The roof is
made of stone that is carved to look like cedar beams,
and the columns look like bamboo - most of this stone
structure is designed to look like "natural"
building materials. The columns (30' high) look almost
like 'negative' Doric columns. As a matter o fact,
many Greek and Roman architecture is based on Egyptian
styles, including the attached columns, arches, and
most column headers.
Inside the huge outer wall is the Step Pyramid and other tombs and temples. It's the first thing that looks
like a pyramid that we've seen and it's pretty impressive.
We climbed over a fence at the beckoning of a "guide"
to see another mastaba and were pressed for money -
although he was very nice and was going to return
it when he discovered that we had another guide. We
saw the tomb of Inofret and some of the
other mastabas, and a quick picture of the pyramid of Sekhemkhet before ditching him to return to Mr.
Fateh. He spoke very little English, but he was certainly
enthusiastic and easy to follow.
The causeway--every pyramid complex has one--that is in place is interesting. Only
a small section is still complete, but the whole thing
is roofed and painted. It runs from the Valley Temple
to the Pyramid of Unas. The roof has a natural skylight
built in by the way the slabs sit. However, the stones
have been cannibalized for other tombs.
Back in the car with our police guards and a quick
stop at a carpet factory (basically a stop to give
the guide a chance to sell us stuff, where we are
urged to "help the children" who make the
carpets). Kids as young as nine are hand-knotting silk
rugs at amazing speed. It was explained to us that
they go to school half a day and this is like a "technical
education" to get them jobs later on. I must
admit that the explanation doesn't sit well with me
- we never see any adults making rugs - but they are
paid fairly well, and make good tips from the tourist
busses that stop in. It's
pretty amazing to watch them - silk has 1000 knots
per square inch, done by hand. Wool is 36-49. Child labor, of course, but ostensibly
necessary. Carpets are very common souvenirs here,
and some of them are gorgeous work and priced very
reasonably, even after shipping.
We'll have to talk to Fateh
about the stops - frankly, I don't like them, but
it's pretty much "expected" from a tour.
So, we say no after a nice cup of tea and looking
at some of the very nice rugs, and move on.
While it was once the center of government and the most powerful city in Egypt, modern-day Memphis is a sad sight - a small enclosure with two
large statues and a bunch of fragments sitting in
the middle of a busy urban block. The Alabaster sphinx
and some standing statues complete the area. The huge
statue of Ramesses II inside the museum was one of
six statues fronting a truly enormous temple that is now destroyed.
The statue itself is huge - although laying down really minimized
the effect). The detailing even at this scale is amazing.
They've built a little museum around it with fragments of other statuary inside.
The gardens have the Alabaster Sphinx and the remains of a colonnaded
hall from a massive Temple of Ptah that was once here, and some very sparse gardens ringed by a dirt
road and bazaar tents. A line of stalls on the wall
sold souvenirs, but the shopkeepers were surprisingly non-pushy. The Tourist police officers back near the ruined statuary were a bit more pushy, and were very interested in getting their picture taken with us, with a tip. For a while, we were the only tourists wandering around the place.
Lunch at the Saqqara Restaurant (where our guide is
well known, it seems, judging form the trail of people
that kept walking by to greet him) for a mixed kabob
grill. It's very good - lots of fresh pita bread and
pickles, and beef, lamb, chicken and rice. Fresh oranges for dessert. It's a huge
open air restaurant, with a three-person band playing.
A very nice young woman was the attendant in the bathroom, but I realized that I no change to give her -- it is usually expected that you tip the bathroom attendants who dole out a few squares of toilet paper and get you soap, and keep the bathroom clean) a few piastres. They were always young women, very polite. Usually there is a bowl or plate on the counter or windowsill to leave a tip in. I need to remember to have a pocketful of small bills.
Afterwards, we made a stop at Mena Papyrus - another
tourist sales stop, but this time it was actually rather interesting. The work
was very nice - tomb scenes recreated on handmade
papyrus (although I've heard that most of the "papyrus"
sold in Cairo is really banana leaves and not papyrus
at all). A nice young man explained the process to
us, and walked us around the shop in a very low-key
manner. - We figure that Mark's mom might like a print
of the Maidum Geese, but I hesitated when I know it's
a huge percentage of the price to the guide and not
the people making the pictures. That doesn't seem
right - so we may visit one of the nearby stores when
we're done, by ourselves to cut out one of the three or for middle men.
Back to the hotel for a quick nap, an then picked
up at 6pm for the Sound and Light Show on the Giza
Sound and Light
OK. Super Cheesy - 1970's wakka-wakka music and hammy
it was fun. It was our first
close view of the pyramids and sphinx, and it's somehow
really exciting to see them lit up at night. The voice
of the Sphinx, the narrator of the show, is John Hurt,
I think (or, if not him, someone who does a good impression!).
The lighting alternates from stunning to outright
bad, but the laser show is interesting. I liked it,
although I giggled most of the time.
The show is a quick history of the place, an dramatizes
the role of the Sphinx during the building of the pyramids. But, the best part was not part of the show at all, but people watching...In front of us was an Italian gentleman who kept trying
to use his camera, which had an automatic flash. Two
problems with this: 1) flash is totally unnecessary
and useless at a hundred yards and 2) he kept trying
and trying and trying. The focusing./range-finder
flash for red eye reduction went of every time - but
it was too dark for his camera to work. Flash flash
flash. Nothing. Then he turned the camera to stare
at it. Repeat ad nauseam. It was hysterical
the one time (and you knew this was coming) when it
went off in his face.
George met us afterwards and we went back to the hotel.
We could have walked back to the hotel from the gate, but George is already waiting. They seem leery of letting us wander about on our own -- used to people who stick with the tour, perhaps. Dinner at the Greenery (the casual restaurant at the
hotel). I had minestrone and Mark had an egg and chicken
club sandwich. Then, crashed. Pretty long day for our
first day out. Mark is waking up at about 1:30, but
I seem to have missed jet lag this time.