Thursday, March 15, 2007

A Journey Through Egypt - Memphis, Sakkara & Giza

Saturday 24th February

Just woke up from a 5 hr afternoon nap!! This stupid jet-lag is throwing everything out of gear! Spouse and sonny boy are still dead to the world. We have to catch an early morning flight to Luxor at 4am – may be I should try going back to sleep!

Today was hectic! Manal and Saeed (our chauffer) picked us up from the hotel at 9am and we went through the busy streets of Cairo towards the outskirts. Once we crossed the bridge over Nile, we came across rows and rows of unfinished houses…and people seemed to living in them! Manal said that all these are illegal constructions on agricultural land. They keep the outside unfinished in order to avoid paying taxes!! How very ingenious! Seemed like something builders would do in India! The similarity between the two countries is fascinating!

This morning we had our first sighting of the Pyramids from our hotel room. It looked like two floating shapes in the distant horizon. While we were passing through the city of unfinished houses, we could see it clearly. But our destination was in the other direction! Leaving the Pyramids of Giza behind us, we headed towards Memphis, the ancient capital or what is left of it near the village called Mitrahina. Sadly very little is left of the ancient capital of Misr except for three giant statues of Ramses II. The other notable antiquities are the alabaster sphinx and the giant column bases engraved with the cartouche of Ramses II. After a quick stop at Memphis, we headed towards Sakkara.

The palm lined road to Sakkara ended suddenly and literally ejected us into a vast desert. The change was so sudden, that it took us by surprise! This is the site of the famous step pyramid of Zoser, the 3rd dynasty Pharaoh who ruled Misr around 2700BC. Legend says he commissioned building his tomb at Sakkara, a site very close to royal quarters at Memphis, so that he could see it from his palace and admire it! The level of preoccupation with after-life is rather disturbing! We walk through the funerary complex of Zoser admiring the tall sandstone columns and the walls with their frieze of cobras. We reach the only tomb currently open to public – the rest are under heavy restoration work. It’s a mastaba of Akhti-hotep a vizier at the court of Zoser. His tomb is decorated with finely craved baas relief and rich painting in black and red.

From Sakkara we head back towards Giza. On the way we stop at a papyrus institute…I knew it was a tourist trap, but couldn’t suppress the curiosity to see how papyrus reed is made into paper! An Arab guy with a very thick and almost unintelligible accent took us through the process of making paper and then invited us to look at the gallery of full of gaudily painted scenes from the Book of Judgment or King Tut’s wedding! Now, I promised myself before coming to Egypt, that papyrus painting is one souvenir I’m not taking back home – but the sales tactic was too strong against my resolve! I finally succumbed and bought a blank sheet – to be given as a gift to someone I know who’s extremely artistic!

Off to Giza now. As we approach the great Pyramids, my anticipation builds! Let me tell you something, dear readers. The Pyramids of Giza are like Taj Mahal – no matter how many times you’ve seen it in pictures or in the movies, the real thing will take your breath away! Built in 2600BC, the Pyramid of Cheops (also known as Pharaoh Khufu of 4th Dynasty) once had smooth sides of polished limestones. 4600 years later, the casing of Cheops’ Pyramid is entirely gone – but that hasn’t diminished its magnificence one bit! One gets to see the underlying tiered courses of 2.5 million limestone blocks! Manal informed us that contrary to popular belief, the great pyramids were not built by slaves, but by volunteers who believed their Pharaoh to be God. I like the slave story better – gives it that exploitation angle where rivers of blood, sweat and tears have flown to carry out the whim of a selfish king! Makes it more poignant!

We climbed the few steps leading to the entrance of Khufu’s tomb. Its supposed to be a narrow, dark and low corridor (requiring some bending and crawling) which first descends and then ascends to reach the king’s chamber. I begged off the experience – knowing my serious claustrophobia, I didn’t want to venture into a dark, narrow tunnel, deep inside the belly of a gigantic tower of stones and then cause a medical emergency by passing out on my hands and knees somewhere in the middle!! The books I’ve read so far say that the king’s chamber is quite plain compared to the tombs in The Valley of the Kings in Luxor. I’ll save my energy for those, thank you!

I was attempting to climb the giant limestone blocks for a better photo-op, but a rather rude Tourist Police started wagging his finger at me, motioning me to come down at once!! No one has wagged a finger at me in like three decades!! Anyway, it’s really hard to get a decent picture of the monument among zillions of geeky tourists jostling each other for a better photo opportunity!

Next stop was the pyramid of Chephren or Khafre, son of Mr. Khufu. Its actually smaller than Khufu’s pyramid, but looks larger as it stands on higher ground. The impression of greater height is also due to the casing stones which are intact towards the top giving it a look of snow-capped mountain. Little away from Khafre’s pyramid stands the smallest pyramid of the trio – it belongs to Mycerinus or Menkaure – Khufu’s grandson. The interesting feature about this structure is that the base is made of granite blocks while the rest of the pyramid is limestone.

Next to Cheops’ Pyramid is the Museum of Solar boat. In 1954 a pit was found which contained a dismantled but perfectly preserved boat made of Syrian cedar. Archeologists painstakingly re-assembled this 4600 year old boat and put it on display at the specially built museum right over the pit in which it was found!

We head out into the desert for a panoramic view of the great pyramids – they look so majestic, so formidable – like three sentinels standing tall against the vast desert backdrop! I try to get rid of “Suraj Hua Maddham” playing in my head ever since we entered the complex. The desert wind whips my hair on my face making my eyes sting and flaps my jacket around while I pose for a picture against the ancient wonder of the world. “I should have worn a saree today”, I muse – “the anchaal would have fluttered in the wind like Kajol’s!” Spouse does a slow-motion run that would have put any Bollywood hero to shame!! Okay, enough cheesiness! Lets get on with the sight-seeing!!

Here, I must add that people in Cairo seem to be quite aware of Bollywood. Every now and then someone would stop us and say “Indiah! Namaste! Shukriya! Amitabh Bachchan!” Seriously, I think Mr Bachchan is the most well known Indian in the world after Mahatma Gandhi!!!

We take a short break from ancient history and try out something I’ve never done before – camel riding! Now this was a total Sonar Kella/Lalmohan Babu moment!! No matter how many times you’ve seen a camel stand up or sit down, it won’t prepare you for the experience or should I say jolt, when you’re actually sitting astride the beast!! We divided up – me and sonny boy on one camel and spouse on the other – off we went on our 5 minute desert safari! After a bit it turned out to be less scary and much easier than horse-riding! But I kept glancing at the ground – it looked really far away! When I disgraced myself by falling off the most docile horse in the riding club, it hurt really bad – camel is a taller animal – wonder how much it’d hurt to fall from that height! Mercifully we stopped before my fears actualized and after tipping the Galabiyya-clad handsome camel-herd, we boarded our van for our next stop – the great Sphinx.

My first impression of the Sphinx is that its not as large as I thought it’d be. Much of its bulk crouches within a large pit. Legend says that a limestone outcrop was left standing in the quarry from which many blocks of Khufu’s pyramid were cut. His son Khafre had the idea of shaping it into a figure with a lion’s body and a human face. Some say that the face is Khafre’s own. The mystery of the Sphinx’s missing nose could be simple erosion over time or may be the Turks used it for target practice in 16th century and shot it off – who knows! What we do know is that the British has its beard in their museum. The Sphinx is in a very sad condition mainly because of the poor quality of the stone that has contributed to its erosion over the last 4600 years!
To the left of the Sphinx stand the remains of the Valley Temple. A part of the causeway leading to the Mortuary Temple still stands, while the Mortuary Temple itself has crumbled to the ground long ago.

We bid farewell to the Pyramids of Giza and head out to the historic Mena House hotel for lunch. Now managed by the Oberoi’s, this fantastic palace was built in 1869 by the Egyptian government for accommodating royal guests who came from all over the world for the inauguration of the Suez Canal. A lovely specimen of Moorish architecture, the Mena House is like an oasis in the shadow of the great pyramids. The lunch was fabulous and leisurely, during which manal regaled us with her stories of guiding various people around the world including celebrities like Mrs & Mr Collin Powell.

We came back to Cairo through nasty traffic. The plan was to take a short nap and then go for dinner. Its midnight now and my boys aren’t showing any signs of waking up. Perhaps I should try to get some more sleep before we have to leave for the airport to catch a flight to Luxor!

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