Woke at 6:45am. Not the best night’s sleep on the hard single bed, but not the worst either. A day around the pyramids awaited. My driver for today was Sayeed – from Port Said – a straight-talking big, fat Egyptian who’d previously served in the army for 26 years. He spoke limited English, and was suffering from a bad cold because he said he’d smoked 3 cigarettes last night after not having smoked for 3 years. Every wheezy breath he took seemed a struggle, and I wasn’t sure if he could manoeuvre his arms properly around his huge belly to grab the wheel with his small t-rex arms. I hopped in the front next to him anyway, and wound down the window to get the morning air in, and hopefully to waft his germs away from me, and we were off.
First stop was Saqqara, where the Step Pyramid is found. Most of it is surrounded by scaffolding and under restoration, and looks like it could send an avalanche of bricks tumbling down at any moment. Mind you, it is the world’s oldest pyramid and indeed stone monument, built in 2650BC, and served as Pharaoh Zoser’s Funerary Complex. It gets it’s name from the giant ‘steps’ that run up each side. It used to be encased in white limestone. I wandered the sandy plains, and avoided the sneaky touts trying to secure passengers for a camel ride or trying to jump into your photographs, or give directions, or point you towards good photo vantage points for money. I wandered through a ruined hypostyle hall, then went on to some tombs, which were interesting because of the hieroglyphics painted on the wall, colours sill intact. They were the first I’d ever seen, and I took a few cheeky photos, before leaving to jump in the van again to go to Danshur, about 10km south.
Dahshur is home of the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid. First stop was the Bent Pyramid, which had to be changed halfway through building as it began showing signs of stress and instability. The architects reduced the angle from 54 to 43 degrees and began to lay stones in horizontal layers, explaining the bent shape. ‘Be careful of the police. They get your money,’ warned Sayeed. I was the only tourist around – not many know how cool this place really is, and how impressive the pyramids actually are – at least as impressive as the ones at Giza. I wandered a little of the way around, this one untouched by scaffolding, though really looking like it would fall apart. Within a couple of minutes, police on camels, rifles slung over their shoulders, trotted towards me and tried to speak to me. I walked away without saying anything, and they left me alone eventually, and trotted off on their camels around the other side of the pyramid. I continued my walk around this incredible structure, and, as I’d expected, bumped into the camel police again. This time they tried cutting me off, their camels blocking my path. They asked me my name, offered to shake my hand. I strode away quickly, and they ignored my eventually as a group of 3 girls had caught their eye, so off they went to harass. Camel cops. Unregulated, bad cops, money and lust-crazed in the sun….with only their camels for company. I dread to think what happens in the shadows of the pyramid between man and beast.
From here I went to the Red Pyramid, a huge, perfectly symmetrical one, rivaling the Great Pyramid at Giza in terms of perfection, standard of preservation, and grandeur. It’s the world’s oldest ‘true’ pyramid, deriving the name from the red tones of it’s weathered limestone. Like the ‘better’ part of the Bent Pyramid, it was constructed at a 43 degree angle, resulting in a gentler incline. I climbed up the 125 steep stone steps to the entrance – and was becoming increasingly thankful for the sturdy hiking boots I’d purchased in Singapore. It was the first time I’d ever had proper walking shoes – I usually make do with ill-fitting canvas trainers, none less comfortable than the time I scaled Gunung Rinjani in Lombok in the rain, scrambling over loose scree. ‘Fucking idiot’, I told myself back then, and vowed to get decent footwear for my next trip. And now I had it. At the entrance, a guard tried to give me his torch, but the passage was lit – if dimly – so I refused the ‘kind’ offer, and descended the 63m long near vertical descending passage into the cone-shaped belly of the pyramid. The passage was narrow, the air dead, and a feeling of claustrophobia was trying to grip my consciousness, but I thought of Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark and got through the fear. Inside was a 15m high burial chamber, and that was it. Stayed about 5 minutes, then made my way back up the tiny passage. Great experience. No tourists. Better than going inside the Great Pyramid at Giza, full of fat sweaty tourists pushing past each other to get inside. I wouldn’t need to do that now.
Back in the car, Sayeed gave me some delicious dates and some shortbread biscuits with the command ‘Eat!’ Delicious and essential, as I was feeling pretty weak. We went to Pharoah’s restaurant back in Saqqara for lunch. I ate alone, a set lunch was on offer – BBQ meat mix for 60LE. More leavened chiapatti bread, hummus. Truly delicious. Got back in the van and we drove to Giza, stopping first in the obligatory Papyrus Museum, where I bought some cool papyrus paintings as souvenirs. Then, to the Pyramids. The 3 most complete ones, apparently. 60LE to get in. An absolute circus. Tourist trap right in the middle of a residential district, as the Giza suburbs have begun crawling ever closer to the pyramids. Not what you see on the postcards or in the brochures. Camel boys and horsemen hung around, trying to get money for everything; rides, photos….beggars, rip-off merchants with every trick in the book up their sleeve abound. This is what poverty gets you, Egypt. Unregulated nuisance touts and scam artists should perhaps not be allowed within a certain perimeter of the pyramids, but whoever is in charge of the mess that is apparent here (and no doubt gets a cut of each scam made and each beggars and tricksters takings) should take a look at other monuments like the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat, where undesirables are kept largely at bay. Instead of a peaceful walk around admiring the architecture in Egypt, however, you spend most of the time swatting away various pests selling postcards of what you’re looking at, avoiding pesky camel touts and holy men in galabeya who pretend to be ‘guardians’ of the structure, and generally getting plagued to the point of wanting to scream out loud ‘Fuck off!’ As a result of this, perhaps, the site didn’t have the magic of the Taj Mahal, one of it’s ‘8 New Wonders of the World’ bedfellows, nor the grandeur and magnificence of Angkor Wat. A shithole basically, full of rubbish. But wait, the pyramids themselves were bloody impressive. The main one, the Great Pyramid of Khufu, is the oldest in Giza, and the largest in Egypt, and once stood at 146m, though about 9m has been lopped off since it’s incarnation in 2570BC. I walked around it, and was in awe of it’s size and state of preservation. Hopped back in the van, where Sayeed drove me to an excellent lookout point where I posed for the classic Giza money shot with the 3 main pyramids in the background. The other 2 are the Pyramid of Khafre, 136m high and with it’s peak still capped with limestone casing, and the Pyramid of Menkaure, 62m high. Impressive indeed. Far away a camel train was trailing off in the distance. Another thing unchanged for thousands of years. Happy with the snaps, I got back in the van, pleased with seeing such an impressive sight, and having ticked another ‘Wonder’ off the list so early into my trip. We drove past a boulder, that turned out to be the back of the Spinx’ head. The poor Spinx. Pretty unimpressive in the flesh. Mysterious though, so it makes up in mystery what it lacks in many other departments. Good to see anyway.
After this, I got Sayeed to drop me off at the Citadel, and had a lovely walk around the ancient walled city, where the big mosque commands amazing views of Islamic Cairo, views that were particularly impressive in the amber light of sunset. Loads of school kids were here on trips, and they were just as excitable and curious about foreigners as any kids anywhere. From here I got a taxi, for a heavily negotiated 30LE to downtown, where I stopped at a cafe for a sheesha (‘As’ flavoured – not apple) and a tea. Sayeeed had earlier told me to: ‘smoke tobacco As – apple is a woman’s smoke, and also bad for the throat.’ He’d also told me the reasons why Arabic woman have such huge breasts. ‘Camel meat. They eat camel – 2 kilo each breast’ he laughed. And so I smoked ‘As’ and found it a stronger yet smoother smoke, without any of the irritation that apple provided. I was a convert. I never got to weigh a breast to see if his camel meat theory about Egyptian women was true. Never mind.
I headed to the hotel afterwards and had a shower, then decided to have a power-nap for an hour until 8pm. I woke at 7:30am. Over 12 hours sleep. I must have been exhausted. What a day!