February 6, 2003
An odd day today - we spent a lot of time in the car,
waiting for police escort, waiting for directions,
etc. We never did get to Hawara or the temples there,
since we wandered all over looking for Seila. But it was an adventure!
The countryside on the way to Maidum is unbelievably green, with fields and palm trees lining the road. It is harvest season, so we share the narrow road to the Fayoum with donkey carts, heavily-laden camels, and a few flocks of goats. I had believed Egypt to be almost entirely desert; I didn't realize that the land within a few miles of the Nile is probably some of the most fertile on earth. It is almost rain-forest humid near the river, smelling richly of black dirt and vegetation. The desert is never far away, though. One moment you are surrounded by fields and trees and the next, sand. There is a distinct demarcation between the greenery and the desert -- often towns will built a small wall to prevent the flowing sand from taking over.
The Maidum pyramid is visible through the fields as we approach the site. This is an earlier pyramid than those at Dashur or Giza, and shows one of the steps in the evolution of the "true" pyramid building that reached its zenith in Giza. Instead of a step-pyramid like its predecessor, Djoser's pyramid, Maidum is a solid core of limestone faced with smooth stones that has been built out in layers "around" the core. The new layers didn't stick well to the smooth inner column of stone and the pyramid began to collapse soon after it was built. It looks like a blunt tower jutting from a sand dune.
Mark climbed in the pyramid (I'm still avoiding the tiny rooms
in pyramids) and I spent the time talking to Fateh about the artifacts found nearby. One of the most notable finds is the frieze of colorful, extremely realistic geese, "The Maidum Geese", found in a nearby mastaba.
Fateh was involved in saving a similar frieze - the detailed paintings on plaster are often damaged by salt leeching through
from the stone. If the plaster is solid, the salt
seeping from the wall builds up behind it and forces
the frieze off the wall. If there are cracks or voids in the plaster
layer, the salts break the mural apart and it falls
from the wall in pieces. The delicate pieces can be saved by carefully laminating the front of the painting with natural starch
and linen, in several layers, and carefully
peeling the whole thing off the wall. Then the wall
is cleaned and the plaster-linen sandwich is glued
back on and cleaned. This process can take months
and is often a last-ditch effort to save an important
piece. Fateh said he insisted they note that what
he was doing was a "lost cause" in case
he damaged the piece, because the process fails so
To the east is a giant mud-brick mound that hides a number of mastaba tombs. Only one is open, but we gamely decide to go inside to see the difference in the structures between mastabas and pyramids and tombs. The entrance is a small, round
hole leading to a 3' high tunnel. About ten feet in Mr. Fateh decides that he probably won't fit (which
he won't, if he only knew!) and we all back out so he can escape. I have to slither through on my stomach to the ladder and
then across boards and through a tiny hole to the burial chamber (and may
I point out that I'm not skinny, either, and it was
a struggle to push me through!). The room at the end
is small, although maybe 10' tall with a huge empty
sarcophagus of granite that was set in place as the mastaba was built. Mark carried the camera with nary a scratch, but I
got pretty banged up and I was covered in sand and dirt. After we scrambled out, we all sat for a
moment to catch our breath, which garnered a laugh from the several men stationed at the site. The men who watch these
sites go in and out of the tombs and mastabas, and
up and down the pyramid tunnels dozens of times a
day. I can't imagine climbing through the hot, airless, and awfully,
awfully small passages more than once!
Mud brick is still used in building - the mud is
mixed with straw and flax and mixed until creamy,
then left to sit until slightly sticky. It's pushed
into molds and weighted, and left to dry for a week
in the shade - not the sun, they want them to dry
slowly so they don't break. Then, they are baked in
the sun until they are hard. The bricks on the mastaba
are three thousand years old and still solid. If it
ever rained , of course, many of Egypt's monuments would dissolve into piles of mud, but in the desert, mud-brick can last
On the east side of the pyramid is a tiny offering chapel that
contains two early-style obelisks. They are massive granite
slabs with rounded tops, but not the needle-like towers
that we are used to. There isn't any writing on them
anymore, since they are outside and the sand has scoured
off any hint of writing or carving. The little temple is open to
the sky - only a little space between the side of
the pyramid and the temple is covered. It almost
looks "added on" like a small lean-to to protect the false door that marked the "spiritual" entrance to the pyramid.
You want to see what?
Off again (with our police escort - this time
they searched our bags when we went on the site) to
find the Seila Step Pyramid. No one knows where it
is. We set off to the Fayoum Oasis, where everyone seems to
think someone will know.
We reach the end of the nome and have to wait for
over an hour for an escort from the another city to
pick us up. We think that the governor/commander of
each "county" is responsible for the tourists
in that area, so they want their own people watching
them. We're not sure if the tourist police are local
or federal - if local, that would explain why we have
to get handed off at every different jurisdiction.
Once they show up (and it wasn't that long, considering
the distance they had to go!) we are off on a wild
ride through the outskirts of Fayoum looking for
the pyramid. In retrospect, we should have passed
on it when no one was sure where it was, but we drove through
some really interesting little towns and side streets
(mostly on sand tracks and drainage roads) for three
hours to find the place. From the response of some
of the locals, they don't see tourists very often
where we were - they seemed very surprised when our van trundled through
a town with four or five little houses and goats running
in and our of the doors. We didn't stop - the tourist
police never slowed down enough for us to pause, and
we weren't quite sure what would happen if we just
stopped and got out
they'd probably freak out
The people here are desperately poor and the houses
are often roofless and have no electricity or water
or any other amenities. Kids play in the dirt with
the sheep and goats. People are cooking over open
fires between the mud-brick houses, or in the field.
The fields are lush and green and I can only imagine how many people it takes to harvest
the carrots and grains and cabbages (some nearly
2 feet across!). There are no tractors or machinery
in the fields: they are plowed and harvested by hand, or
with the help of the many water buffalo and oxen.
If you took away the occasional power line, this
area looks just like it would have five thousand years
ago or more - the people do not live that much differently
than ancient Egyptians.
The sheer number of unfinished buildings in Cairo
and around it is amazing - as if they were abandoned
half-finished. The city looks perpetually under construction
- or destruction, actually.
We had to stop and ask directions a few times, each query involved a lot pointing, staring into the car to see the crazy Americans who wanted to see what? We finally got specific directions from a guy on a bicycle!
We really should have had a 4x4 to go some of the
places we went today - even the notes in the books
say "for four wheel drive only", but thanks
to Mr. Mohammad, we made it - literally by the edge
of the wheels at one point. We were driving along
a rutted dirt road on the side of the irrigation ditch
after having been routed through the "downtown"
of this teensy little town with three houses and lots
of goats. We made it over the ruts and rocks
pretty well, bottomed out once or twice on the dirt,
Mark and I are hanging out the windows watching the
scenery and we come to a very narrow crossing - the
runoff had dug a huge cavernous ditch across the road,
and had worn away most of the road itself. It was wide enough
for a donkey cart, perhaps, but we ended up getting
out of the van and standing around it staring at the
narrow bit of dirt and the width of the van axles.
Then, ever so slowly, Mohammed maneuvered the van
across, turning the wheels one way and another to
wiggle the van across, nearly straddling the bit of
road that was left and pushing rocks and sand off
into the irrigation ditch with each movement. One
of the back wheels was hanging off into space for
a bit. When he got it past, we all piled back into
the van, laughing and deciding that we needed to get
a Jeep. Soon.
Seila Step Pyramid
After several towns and long stretches of sand,
we arrive at a depression in the sand with a tiny
pillbox on the cliff in the distance. It was another 40 minute walk
to get to it. We stared for a few minutes
at the teeny squareness of it, and opted for a few
long distance pictures instead. The guards and workers
at the site got a good laugh about it. Most of them
ride motorcycles out to the site and they were quite
impressed that Mohammad got a van out here.
They had enough problems with the 4WD pickup truck for
There is a current dig just over the hill, but we weren't allowed to see it. We were forbidden by the
police and by the American archeologist. We offered
to leave the camera in the van, just to see a
working dig, but no go. They were pretty surprised
to see us, so I imagine that they were worried about
someone "jumping" their dig. Ah, well.
Back along the sand track, the canal road, through
a town - the same one, twice
we got a bit lost!
- and another hour before we hit pavement again. At
least this time we got to drive on the other side
of the canal and didn't have to perform the "wiggle
sideways and lean away from the edge" maneuvers
we'd had to employ to get out to the site.
It's odd driving through these tiny towns. Everyone
seems very friendly, kids wave, but I can' only imagine
the thoughts and impressions of the people that we
saw. They kept staring (not a lot of tourists come
this way, I imagine) and the police escort can't
have helped. Who are these super-rich tourists coming
through to stare at us through the car windows? Why
are they here?
Egyptians don't travel much, according to Fateh.
Tourists are at once
admired and reviled. Especially when there are only
two of us, accompanied by our guide, driver, personal
van, and guards, we must be VERY rich. Children seem
fascinated and want money -- and for some reason which is entirely unknown to anyone, click-pens -- although they are never pushy.
It wasn't that we NEEDED four ARMED GUARDS. Geez.
We passed tons of kids returning from school and lots
of these half-truck busses packed so full of people
they seemed ready to topple. Many of the children
waved - choruses of 'allo!' followed us. Still, it
was vaguely unconfortable..the illusion of "Every
man is equal" that America fosters is even more
of a fantasy here. There are poor and there are rich
and no thought given to fairness. If you "have",
you use. If you "have not", you don't. It's
We sped along a quite modern freeway to Fayoum, the
largest lake in Egypt. The roads are the first I've
seen with 4 lanes (2 lanes each way, with a big median)
where you have to enter the road and immediately TURN
AROUND to get places. The entrance and exit ramps
go only one way - basically, you enter on one side
of the road going one direction and you exit only going the other direction. No clover leafs
or overpasses and such. There are signs
all over instructing drivers on the use of the left (inner) lane - the left lane is for U-turns and the right
lane is for through traffic and traffic entering.
Not the best plan, if you ask me.
People line the
road selling ducks and geese (by swinging a black
bag or basket in a huge circle into traffic) advertising their wares. They
used to actually swing a duck, goose, or chicken on
the end of the string, but that was deemed cruel and
they've replaced it with the black bag. It's really
visible, so it's an effective advertising method.
Hand signals indicate what is for sale to the passing
motorists and people just sort of stop in the road to buy dinner. Waving two hands across each
other, palms down, hands flat, indicates "flat
fish for sale", for example. There is a whole language of signals that the locals use.
We had lunch (roasted chicken and rice and fries and
more bread) at a hotel along the shore of Lake Fayoum.
This is a populate weekend spot, with long arching
beaches and many old, slightly faded and tattered
hotels along the shore. It was a bit too early for
the crowds, and the water was too chilly for bathers,
so the whole place had the air of a deserted boardwalk
just waiting for the crowds to return and tucking
the dust and paper wrappers of last year's crowds
behind a new coat of paint.
There are rows of new resorts popping up all along
the coast. I think they are hoping to make Fayoum
a hotspot like the Red Sea coast. The city of Fayoum is much like Cairo - poor shantytowns
in the midst of beautiful apartments. There are quite
a few mostly-empty resorts, and a bustling downtown
At the restaurant,
they helpfully changed the music from interesting
popular Arabic music to English (Bee Gees!) for our
benefit. We laughed about it, but as we were
the only guests, and we saw at least one of the four
waiters dancing behind the door, we figured
it was a nice gesture! Mark had more Turkish coffee.
He's settled on mazbut, which is "medium sugar".
Still looks like slightly filtered mud to me. Plus, he starts to talk really fast and twitch after more than one cup.
After our several-hour trek this morning, we were
running a a bit late and rushed to Karanis (this
time with a policeman in the van with us!) to see
the museum. Most of the sites are only open from about
9-4 or so, sometimes earlier. We arrived very late, and
they actually opened the museum for us personally.
We felt a bit rushed - the tourist police officers
followed us from one room to another, and the museum
curator hovered a bit. The artifacts are very interesting,
and cover ancient egyptian relics to greek-roman pottery
and textiles. Upstairs, there are a number of articles
of decorated clothing, handing tapestries, and books.
Some of the calligraphy work is startlingly beautiful.