Sunday, June 14, 2009
Cairo, The Sphinx & the Pyramids, and Taking a Rest in Khufu’s Sarcophagus
The Valley of the Kings, Luxor, the Nile, the Red Sea. All worthwhile things to see on a trip to Egypt. However, there is one sight that tops all the other Egyptian sights, quite possible any other sight in the world: The Pyramids.
So when we went to Egypt, we knew we must to to see the Pyramids, even though we were in Hurghada (on the Red Sea) and the Pyramids (which are practically in Cairo) are not exactly around the corner. We had the choice of driving to Cairo by bus, which would have been a 2-day trip and not exactly a lot of fun I imagine, or take the more expensive option and fly from Hurghada to Cairo and back the same day. We took option number 2, and in hindsight, that was the much better choice. It still made for a very long day as we left our hotel before 4am in the morning. The flight itself was quick and uneventful. We actually had expected a very small plane (like a 6-seater), which I looked forward to, but it turned out to be a regular small passenger plane.
Of course, Cairo itself is quite an interesting place to visit as well. It is one of the world’s largest cities (#10 or #11 or so, with a population of about 17,000,000), and the largest city in Africa. It’s a sprawling part Arab and (small) part Christian metropolitan area in the dessert, with the Nile flowing down the middle, creating a little bit of a green stripe. The rest if all sand-colored (including most of the buildings). Even the sky as a red-ish tint, as there is tons of sandy dust in the air. (And I would guess a good part of that is probably just pollution). Mix in some very high temperatures (even for my taste) and you have quite the experience. Every breath you take feels like you are getting your lungs sandblasted. Not very pleasant at all to be honest. I can’t believe people live there year round. I guess one must get used to it, but I am sure the health-implications remain.
Cairo as seen from the Alabaster Mosque. Everything is red-ish brown, including the air…
But we were only there for a day, so our mind was on other things. Our tour of Cairo started out with a trip to Muhammad Ali’s Alabaster Mosque (no, not the boxer). This actually turned out to be quite interesting and educational. I found it interesting that even though we aren’t Muslims, we were still welcome there, and overall, the experience put the Muslim faith into a different light for me. Personally, I am always very open minded about such things anyway, but I think it would be particularly interesting for people who hold a prejudice against it. We really just had to take our shoes off (people kneel in there, so they don’t want the carpets to get dirty) and in we went. Quite interesting.
Anyway: Our main goal in coming to Cairo wasn’t to learn about the Muslim faith, but to see some ancient Egyptian stuff. Our next stop gave us a really good dose of that: The Egyptian Museum. This place has the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities anywhere in the world. I knew that before. What I didn’t realize beforehand was that they do so in a relatively small amount of space. And of course, there are a gazillion people visiting. The experience in fact was not entirely unlike riding the London Subway during rush hour. Smelly sweaty people are pressed up against each other, trying to catch a glimpse of various ancient artifacts. The temperature inside the museum probably being a good 20 degrees warmer than outside. It almost made me dizzy. I am sure it must have been above 50 degrees centigrade in there (more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit). So it is safe to say that this isn’t the kind of museum you spend a lot of time in, enjoying all the sights and taking it all in at your pace. Still, it was an interesting experience.
There are 2 things that really stand out in the museum (and are well worth the extra price of admission): King Tut’s treasure, and their collection of actual real mummies. King Tut’s treasure includes his gold treasure with the actual burial mask he wore (the famous solid gold mask you always think of when anyone mentions King Tut) as well as tons of other items that are either enormously valuable (generally solid gold) or interesting for other reasons (such as a 5,000 year old fold-up camping bed with even the metal hinges still working… amazing!). This was one of the highlights of the trip for me (and that is when I started regretting that I didn’t see his tomb).
The collection of mummies is quite grotesque in a way. You would through it and you see the actual bodies of 5,000 year old people (Kings, mainly). All the important ones are right there. We visited their tombs a few days before in the Valley of the Kings and now we saw the actual bodies right in front of us. Very unusual. (Come to think of it, they may be the only dead human bodies I have ever personally seen up close). On a side-note: This part of the museum is also less crowded and well air conditioned. Probably worth the price of admission right there.
So that was the museum, but now we were ready to move on to the main attraction: The Pyramids and the Sphinx!
The Pyramids. Look closely, and you will see the city of Cairo right in the background.
When looking at pictures of the Pyramids and the Sphinx, one really gets quite a wrong expression of it all. The Pyramids are not out in the middle of the dessert somewhere. They are really in a suburb of Cairo on the edge of town. Pictures are usually taken so one only sees the dessert, but when taken from the other side, one can clearly see that they are right in town (on “One Pyramid Street”, if memory serves me correctly). Also, the Sphinx is not right next to the Pyramids, and it is significantly smaller than I expected. Once again, it is mainly due to the pictures taken from an angle that makes the Sphinx look large and right next to the Pyramids rather than it being quite a bit smaller and a few miles off.
In any event: The whole thing did not disappoint. We came up the the Pyramids with our tour bus, and the guide gave us a few different options: 1) go inside the Big Pyramid (Khufu’s Pyramid, a.k.a. “Cheops Pyramid”), which was a hot, and – according to the guide – strenuous affair, or 2) go inside the medium size Pyramid which was a leisurely stroll in and out (and also less expensive). As you can imagine, I didn’t want any part of option number 2. I hadn’t come all the way to Egypt to see some average Pyramid nobody really cares about (quick: Name the King who built the second largest Pyramid of all time… see! Nobody knows). So we went into the large Pyramid, while the entire bus load of our co-travelers went for the smaller one. It really amazed me. Not a single other person went for the main attraction.
So we made our way up a few steps the outside and then went through the entrance tunnel into the Grand Gallery, a huge “hall” leading up the the burial chamber of King Khufu/Cheops. It is a fairly steep flight of stairs leading up a little ways, but it really wasn’t all that exhausting. I am not sure why the guide recommended we shouldn’t do it. After all, just this one chamber is well known enough to make it all worth it. (Note: You are not supposed to be taking pictures inside the Pyramid – I think they want you do pay for it if you do – and yes, I do admit that I tried to snap a picture with my iPhone, but it didn’t turn out at all…).
Once you pass the Grand Gallery, you enter the burial chamber, a big and somewhat featureless rectangular chamber with hieroglyphics on the wall. What really makes this impressive of course is not just the overall size of it all, but also the history behind it. When you stand inside this place and you think back 5,000 years, and imagine the laborers building it all, or the funeral procession carrying in the sarcophagus of the dead King Khufu. You look around yourself and you see the same chamber they saw back then, and you see the sarcophagus they used then, and you experience a sensation quite unlike any other.
When we were in the Great Pyramid, only a handful of other people were in there at the same time. There were 2 British girls from another tour group, and there was an Egyptian guide/guard in the chamber at the same time. He tried to show us a few things in the chamber in his broken English, and managed to communicate enough to make it all more interesting. He even dared me to get inside the sarcophagus and lay down in it, which I did. So I ended up laying down inside the outer sarcophagus, King Khufu’s final resting place. And as if that wasn’t enough, the guide took the other three people by the hand and rounded them up around the sarcophagus and started to chant his best imitation of what is presumably an ancient Egyptian death chant. It all added up to an experience unlike any other that I am sure to never forget.
After a little while, I got back up and out of the sarcophagus. I considered laying in there waiting for the next tourists to walk into the chamber and then jump up and give them a good scare, but the whole scene was so eerie, I considered it possible that people might have an actual heart attack. Inside a grave no less. How ironic would that be? Well, ironic maybe, but not funny, so I didn’t do it.
We left the Big Pyramid and re-joined the rest of our group, who had an uneventful and not nearly as memorable time in the other pyramid. Not too surprising, when we told them about our adventures, they all regretted that they didn’t also go in the big one. I don’t blame them. They are now returning to their homes knowing they got oh-so-close to one of the most impressing achievements of mankind yet they chose to go into the smaller and much less impressive pyramid, just to save a few bucks and to avoid what turned out to be a not very hard exercise.
Here I am, with my very own camel in front of the Pyramids.
Of course we still all got to see the Pyramids from the outside, and that by itself is an incredibly impressive experience. They are so large, it is hard to even comprehend it all while you are there. You really have to make yourself look at people and other things in front of the Pyramids to get a good sense of the scale. And make sure you take a picture while you are there. Even with a camel in tow, as there are lots of Egyptians there with their camels, looking to earn a bit of bakshish (tip) in return. It will cost you a few bucks, but it is a cool experience to sit on a camel in front of the pyramids.
Once we had done all our picture taking from all kinds of angles and distances (they actually drove us to a scenic overlook a few miles off) we went on to see the Sphinx. Like I mention above, it is smaller than I expected, but nevertheless, it is very impressive. Expect a ton of people there, so take your pictures while you can and before the mass of people pushes you on. I recommend to take some pictures from a little way off with the Pyramids in the background. Yes, you end up with the same deceptive pictures as anyone else that make it look like the Sphinx is right next to the Pyramids, but who cares? They will be some cool pictures nevertheless.
Yes, I know. My head is bigger than the Spinx’es. Thanks for pointing that out :-)
So that was that. We then went on to a few more sights with our tour group. We went to the obligatory “Papyrus Museum” where we actually learned how papyrus was made (which was somewhat interesting, and we all appreciated the air-conditioning). We also went on the the Khan El-Khalili Bazaar, which is one of the largest Bazaars in Africa, we were told. It was quite impressive and I am happy to report that the merchants there were outspoken and made jokes and tried to get you to buy, but they were not nearly as pushy as I expected them to be. I enjoyed the experience. Sadly, this is also the place where a few months after our visit (February 2009), a bomb killed a French girl.
The Bazaar in Cairo
And that was it. After the visit to the bazaar, we hurried back to the airport and ultimately back to our hotel which we reached more than 24 hours after we had left. A long day for sure. It was hot, and the quality of the air in Cairo was so bad, Ellen actually contracted bronchitis (or a similar temporary breathing problem). I would say it was all worth it though. There aren’t that many days in one’s life where one goes to bad knowing that the events of the day will be fondly remembered for the rest of one’s life.
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