Taxi for the day
Saqarra – Tombs and Step pyramid
Memphis by mistake
Dashur – Red and Bent pyramid
Giza – Three big ones and a sphinx
A big day today. Having organised a car and driver the other day, we were up early. The driver was up earlier. He arrived a good 45min before our due start time. Considering what we have read online about Egyptian starting times, and what we know about Arabic time, we were stunned. He had no problem in waiting for us to finish our coffees though. We had planned on hitting the bakery next door for lunch, and needed an ATM as we knew today was going to be expensive, so he brought the car around while we got some bread, and took us to an ATM before heading out of the city.
His plan was to start at Saqarra first and head back towards Cairo. This would take us through the sites in chronological order, and we had no problems with this. He was the expert. Sort of. The trip out of the city took a long time, as Cairo is a big sprawling city with small traffic clogged streets. There are few road rules other than don’t hit anything, and looking at the cars around, this rule is not followed that well either. The amount of traffic is amazing. With all the cars, bikes, donkeys and carts mixed in together. It is hard to change directions and a lot of the time even to change lane. Still, we made it out to the suburbs. Greenery started appearing, and as we were driving along a canal, some fields even appeared. It was a pleasant drive, and our chauffeur was easy to talk to. From history to revolutions and everything in between. In this way we made it out to the complex around the Step Pyramid.
Saqarra: This is the huge cemetery of ancient Memphis and still an active archaeological site. Apparently the biggest in Egypt although at the moment it does not look as if they are doing much excavations. A bit of fact first, although we will spare you the boring details, as it is easy enough to look up… The Step Pyramid was built for Zoser in around 2650BC according to most archaeologists. It is Egypt’s first massive stone monument, as before this the royal tombs were under mud built mastabas. This first pyramid was intentionally built stepped (as mastabas) and rose to 60m high. It was then faced with limestone. Most of the funerary complex is gone, except for a few walls and some cobra statues on a frieze.
From here you walk into a large soccer pitch leading up to the base of the Pyramid. The view is stunning, and the amount of scaffolding they are using to repair sections of it are staggering. It gives some indication of what it would have look like under construction.
Skipping the pyramid for now, we walked around the back where they are escavating some of the holes in the area. Still using traditional A-Frames and pulleys connecting ropes and buckets to remove the rubble and detritus of the ages. Here we had to have our photos taken with the camels. They wanted us to get on one for the photo, but we declined. Knowing that if we did get on one, they would make it stand and we would have to pay to get back down. Still it was a bit of fun, and we got out of there without problems. Around the back of the site there are several tombs.
The tombs of Inefrt, Unasankh, Idut and Ka-gmni. These were open, and we were able to go in and have a look. Our “Guide” was not that informative, and could only point out what was visible to a blind man (The hieroglyphs are in relief, so if you run your hands over it, you would be able to see the pictures). Here there are bringing offerings, here they are butchering cattle. Here they are fishing etc. They were good to look at and very detailed. The amount of work that has gone into them are stunning. However these are built much later than the pyramid itself. Back out and up, we walk around the step pyramid to find much more scaffolding on the other side, and people going up and down with wheelbarrows. They are miniature in scale beside the pyramid.
After this our driver takes us to the pyramid of Teti. This is famous as it is the only pyramid with any decoration inside it at all. The famous pyramid text. We are allowed inside, and descend the steep small shaft down to the bedrock. This is not that easy as you have to crouch down, and the steps are 1/4inch square pipe screwed onto plywood. Not the nicest or most comfortable way down. There are hieroglyphs all over the walls, and stars filling the ceiling. The rock blocks of the ceiling seem to have slipped as they are no longer lined up and present a jagged line of massive sandstone blocks. No photo’s allowed unfortunately, and there was someone else in there with us, so we couldn’t sneak any on the sly. This pyramid was built by Teti (2345-2323) and was the first Pharaoh of the 6th dynasty.
Driving back out of the complex, it is stunning watching the change from desert sand and dust to a row of palm trees and lush green fields. Then the canals from the Nile and finally the houses.
Our next stop was the ancient city of Memphis. This is now in the centre of a town. Probably the same town that has been here for thousands of years, but no older than the 60’s. We had thought it was a large complex. At the museum site, we again pay to get in. This turned out to be very disappointing. There is one very large statue of Ramses II that is in its own building. Then there are a few other statues scattered around. Most are worn and not that interesting. All in all, not worth the money of the visit. Apart from the trinket salesman that is proud of the fact that his sons work on the excavation sites and can pilfer the occasional trinket that he would be happy to sell for the right price. We are not interested in this and shocked that he is so open about this to tourists. It is probably fake, but either way, not a good impression. Time to move on.
Back in the car, our driver says that we are now going to Giza. There has been a misunderstanding somewhere, as we also organised to go to Dashur. A quick phone call and it is all cleared up. No worries.
Dahur is only about 10 km south of Saqarra. It used to be 11 pyramids, but only two of the Old kingdom still survived, the Red and Bent pyramids. Also you can see in the distance the remains of the Black pyramid, but this is still in an army zone. The base surrounds the complex, and for years you have not been allowed to even visit these two pyramids.
Stopping at the Red pyramid first, it is the world’s oldest true pyramid. Called the red pyramid because of the colour of the limestone after the cover casing was removed. As we drive up to it, you get a sense of scale. It looms above you, blotting out the sky. There are steep steps leading up to the entrance, which is about a quarter of the way up. We are panting by the time we reach it. The limestone blocks are filled with fossils and show a life well before the age of the pyramids. At the entrance there are a few people hanging around.
They check our tickets, and see if we want a guide. Well, they assume you want one, and you have to stop them from going inside before you. We don’t want the hassle of saying afterwards we didn’t want one… Again really steep steps down the tunnel to two antechambers with stunning 12m high corbelled ceilings and a corbelled burial chamber. There are no decorations in here, but the roof. At the far end of the chamber, you have to go up more wooden scaffolds, and into the next chamber. Again the roof. Built slightly overlapping until you can just have the capping rock rest on both sides. As there was no one here, we could snap a few pictures of what it looked like. Back outside, another car had pulled up, and people were slowly climbing the stairs. At the start they were smaller than ants, and the cars were little micro-machines. (Old toys that you could fit ten of in a matchbox!)
It is a good thing we have the car. The bent pyramid is next door, but still over a kilometre away. Even if it doesn’t look that far. This pyramid was built by Snefru with a steep angle, however about half way through they changed the angle. Possibly because they became insecure that the pyramid would not be able to stand or intentionally. No one really knows for sure. A lot of the outer casing is still intact and inside are two burial chambers, but we could not go inside. At the car park, we picked up an armed escort, who pointed out that at the right time of the right day, the sun can fall through a hole on the side of the pyramid and the beams will go through to one of the chambers.
However that was about the extent of his knowledge. It was interesting though, walking around with a guy carrying a loaded AK47! Even it the magazine was held in place with sticky tape. Looking at the pyramid from up close, you can see what it would have looked like if it still had its limestone facing, as this one has most of it intact. The corners were badly damaged, and you can see the massive facing blocks overhanging the internal masonry. It is a daunting sight. We were able to walk a little way from the base to snap a quick pic of the black pyramid, but could not go any closer. Around the side there is the remains of a small temple. Basically 2 walls and some mud bricks. These were standing up to time quite well, and it would be interesting to see what sort of complex is covered by the shifting sands here. On the next side is a rather small and badly built pyramid, but it gives you a good view of the stone working skills of the ancient Egyptians. The corner blocks and some of the facings are still there as well.
Back at the car, we wave our friendly security guard goodbye, get a final look at the weird angle of the pyramid, and head to the main attraction. The last of the 7 Wonders of the world. Giza.
Our last stop for the day was the Giza plateau. Dropped at the main entrance area we buy our massively overpriced tickets and head in.
Expecting chaos, touts, stalls and people. We were not disappointed. People wanting to take us on horses, camels and donkeys, trying to be our guides and sell us cheep Chinese pyramids. Each one saying we couldn’t trust anyone else. Making our way past the stalls to the complex around the sphinx. Here is the remains of an old temple. Fantastically done in stone. So intricate that the corner blocks are carved around and interlocking. Then up through a passage to pop up beside the sphinx. It is unfortunate that the sphinx is deteriorating so quickly with the acidic air of Cairo’s pollution, as the brick renovations almost ruin it (The other theory here is that the renovations are there to cover up the water erosion that would prove the sphinx is much older than most archaeologists decided it was).
Still it is a massive impressive structure. Especially with the pyramids rising up behind it. From the side, you can see it looking out over modern Cairo. What more can we say about it? Not much. You just have to see it yourself. It does seem to be a favoured picnic place for Cairoinians though. There are hardly any tourists here other than day trippers from the city (This is probably a gross mistake, as they could be anywhere from Egypt or the Arab world!) For every “European” tourist, there is at least 10 stalls, 15 guides, 20 people trying to get you to ride their horse and 50 people with camels. This is not including the miscellaneous people walking around to sell you some jewellery or begging for money. It was very annoying, and walking up the paved road to the pyramid from the sphinx, you could be mistaken in thinking it was a river of animal piss. If you overlook this side of it, it is much better.
Sorry, I did overlook the garbage blowing around in the air, and collecting in quiet spots of rubble. Up at the pyramids there are more signs of social breakdown. People are climbing all over the smaller ones, and even trying to climb the bigger ones. It is not a quiet peaceful place at all. In places we had to tell the “caretakers” that we were not interested in climbing the pyramids three or more times before we just moved on. That said we will move on ourselves. Trying to find the small out of the way places within the ruins of the surrounding complexes was fun, even if there was nothing of interest to see here. Going down into one or two of the smaller pyramids, just to say we have, even though after the first they are all the same. If you get the chance, go down Teti’s at Saqqara instead or the Red pyramid at Dashur.
Walking around to see them from all angles, and the massive holes of the boats they have dug up. We did not go into the ugly eyesore of a building that now houses them, as this was another L.E.100! The blocks of black granite laid out like a big jigsaw puzzle on the side of one pyramid. Then the scale.
You always see pictures of the pyramids, and I think this overexposure does numb your mind to the grandeur and awe of the place, but it cannot show you how big they are. Especially when you go up to the stone blocks and see that they are almost as tall as you are. Then you look up…
Wandering around the complex and seeing them from different angles and light was amazing. Especially when the sun came out of the clouds and capped the pyramid at that moment. Giving it an aura circling the top, and making a great silhouette. Don’t look to me for a treaties explaining the origin or purpose of these monumental buildings, but even though it is now an overpriced amusement park only missing the roller-coaster and ferris wheel, you still have to go. Even just to cross it off your bucket list.
Day done, we went back to the car after finding out the outrageous entry price does not even include the toilets. One other thing we have specifically not mentioned all day is Baksheesh. This is the money you are expected to pay for everything. The guard that has the job of escorting you around the pyramid? You have to pay for the privilege. The photo that Security wants you to take with him? Cough it up! That photo with a camel? We want your right leg. The people wandering into your photo of the sphinx? Just your first born child… On and on. We managed to get away without paying much, but we can see how people can be pushed into hundreds of pounds over a day similar to ours. On our drive back we did talk to the driver about this. We found that the guards are not paid that much. Considering how much entry fees are for everything, there is no excuse for this, and they need to form a union, or go on strike. Not expect to top it up from tourists. The guards were the worst in this respect. It was not the camel people with the photos, or other people trying to make a living that pushed the hardest, but the people that are actively employed at the sites!